Nick Larson could hardly wait to get his three-month-old setter puppy, Hartley (Northwoods Grits x Houston’s Belle’s Choice, 2014), into the woods.
Developing a puppy into an experienced grouse dog begins with the all-important first season. The dog is at an impressionable age and lessons learned will set the foundation for future success.
To begin, this fall is all about fun. There should be no pressure on dog or hunter. Instead, it’s a time for exposure and gaining experience. Too, let this season be for the puppy. You’ll have many years and shots at plenty of birds over the course of your dog’s life.
Here are some tips to get most out of this autumn.
Hunt as much as possible. The goal for this first year is simply to let your puppy hunt for and find grouse—and as many as possible. Don’t worry if it doesn’t point many; that will come with repeated exposure, maturity and training.
Most of what a dog needs to know about is learned from the birds themselves. Your puppy will learn where grouse live and what they smell like. It will learn how close it can get before the bird flushes, that it can’t catch the bird and how to follow running birds.
The only caveat? Shoot birds that are pointed but let the rest fly away.
At five months of age, Izzie (CH Westfall’s Black Ice x Northwoods Prancer, 2011) was finding and pointing plenty of birds for owner Jeff Hintz. Photo by Chris Mathan.
Allow your puppy to learn by experience. Let your puppy figure things out at its own rate, by itself and to learn by consequences. As long as a situation isn’t dangerous to the puppy, leave it alone. This is the best way for it to develop good thinking skills. By over-protecting and over-controlling, we’re basically training the puppy not to use its brain.
In other words, keep your mouth shut in the woods. Over-handling—too much calling and whistling or constant encouragement—can distract and confuse the dog.
Be patient. Developing an experienced grouse dog will take several seasons and your puppy has a lot to learn. Expect it to make mistakes — flush birds, chase rabbits and other indiscretions—this first year. Also, consider its mental limitations and relatively short attention span and remember that, at this age, your young dog has far more energy than knowledge.
Be realistic about your young dog’s physical limitations. Don’t overwork it. Several shorter hunts are better than one long outing.
Be careful when hunting over another dog and your puppy. While there can be advantages to bracing your puppy with an older, experienced dog, don’t overdo it. Your puppy needs time alone, too. Don’t let it get intimated by a larger or dominant dog.
Some parts of this post are taken from a piece Betsy and I wrote for the September 15, 2013, issue of Minneapolis-based StarTribune. http://www.startribune.com/a-hunting-dog-s-first-grouse-season-is-vital/223773411/
Callie, on left, and Blitzen share point on a bobwhite that landed in the willows.
Starting puppies on birds is right at the top of our list as a fun part of our work. And it’s something Betsy and I believe in beginning when they are quite young. Puppies at three to four months of age are much easier to start than eight-month-old pups.
When we work puppies on birds, we head out into the pasture to one of our four recall houses. The pups watch as I flush a good number of quail from the house and, then excitedly, they are off. They chase the quail wherever they fly—into the woods, alders or willows.
These bobwhite quail act much as wild birds do and hit the ground running. Puppies learn to use their nose to follow the scent until they come upon the bird. When they find it they might point briefly or just jump in and flush it. Either way they then chase the bird with our high praise echoing in their ears.
Murphy displays remarkable poise, intensity and style on one of his first puppy points.
Betsy and I never flush the birds. Instead we let the puppies point until they move in. From this, puppies learn when they have the bird, and importantly, when they don’t.
A key part of this whole exercise is that we don’t interfere or make any effort to restrain the pups. We do loudly praise the puppies when they flush a bird and will call or sing to direct them a bit. We think it’s crucial, at this time anyway, for puppies to learn—to find the bird, point it and then flush it—all on their own.
All puppies pictured above and below are 12 – 14 weeks old and all are pointers out of Northwoods Vixen by Elhew G Force.
Pearl pointed her first wild birds today. One grouse and two woodcock. I was walking along and looked down at my gps to see where my older dog was and when I looked up, Pearl was on point about 30 feet in front of me with a 12- o’clock tail and a high head. I walked in and flushed a woodcock about 10 feet in front of her. She then proceeded to point a grouse and another woodcock before I decided it was enough for one day and carried her out.
~ Caleb, Minnesota, August 14
Our puppy is doing very well and healthy. We named him Bandit. He is very birdy and outgoing. I’ve started his puppy program and he is already learning the fetch command. He loves getting around the quail pen and tries to break in every chance he gets. LOL
~ Tim, Florida, August 17
Coop is coming along great. He’s had some clipped wing pigeons and I’ve started him with the cap gun—no problems there at all. His prey drive is off the chart. I have him standing still on the bench. Also been working on recall with check cord.
~ Tim, Massachusetts, August 16
This caution is repetitive but it is not redundant.
Jerry and I know of bad things that have happened to puppies over the Fourth of July holiday. They have become so scared that they panic, run away and are lost. Some have been hit by a vehicle. Others have chewed out of crates, breaking teeth and scratching until their paws are bloody.
Even if your young dog has been exposed to gunfire, you still need to be careful. Here are two easy precautions.
• Put a crate in a protected, quiet place and put the puppy in it.
• Provide background noise such as TV or radio.
If your young dog will be exposed to fireworks, consider these actions.
• Go about things normally during the fireworks. Act as though nothing special is going on.
• Don’t comfort the dog or give it any attention. Don’t look at the dog; don’t talk to it; don’t touch it.
• If your dog wants to be close to you, let it; but again, don’t comfort it. Comfort will most likely reinforce the behavior and make things worse.
In fact, consider older dogs, too. Even though they’ve been shot over countless times, those have usually been in hunting situations. The circumstances of loud noises and fireworks are utterly different.
Perhaps a hunter can relate to this. If you’re at a gun range, blasts, shots and noises of all kinds are expected. But if you’re sitting on your deck reading a book when a gun is fired 20 behind you, the experience is totally different.
That’s how the dog feels.
Let me amend the caution:
Fireworks and dogs don’t mix.
Photo at top by fortbragg.com.
Jerry and I wrote this piece for the September 15, 2013, issue of Minneapolis-based StarTribune. (http://www.startribune.com/sports/outdoors/223773411.html ) Even though two years old, the information is still valid and worth re-visiting.
The golden leaves of autumn lie crisp on the forest floor. The dog’s bell rings merrily as the hunt moves from one likely piece of grouse cover to another. Suddenly, the bell stops. With high anticipation, the hunter searches and, near an alder edge, sees the dog — body rigid and eyes intensely focused. As the hunter approaches, a ruffed grouse noisily flushes and the report of a shotgun swiftly follows.
To achieve that classic ruffed grouse hunting experience with your dog will require hours in the woods and years of effort, for there is no game bird more difficult for a pointing dog to properly handle than a ruffed grouse. It is wily, wary and often called “King of the Woods.”
The process of developing a puppy into an experienced grouse dog begins with the all-important first season. The dog is at an impressionable age and lessons learned will set the foundation for future success.
Here are important considerations to make the most of this time.
Before taking your young dog into the grouse woods for its first hunt, make sure you’re prepared.
The foremost consideration is proper introduction to birds and gunfire. A basic obedience command, HERE or COME, and an attention-getting command, such as calling its name, need to be understood. In addition, the means to enforce those commands, such as a check cord or e-collar, is necessary.
Your young dog also should be accustomed to the sound of a bell or a beeper and to riding in a vehicle. It should be at a suitable weight and in good health, too.
Exposure to grouse.
Most of what a dog needs to know about finding and pointing grouse is learned from the birds themselves. Exposure to grouse — and plenty of them — is crucial.
Your puppy will learn key details about grouse.
• Where they are most likely to be found.
• How to differentiate where the grouse is as opposed to where it was.
• How close to get before the bird flushes.
• That it can’t catch the grouse.
• How to follow running birds.
The goal is to have your puppy hunt for and find grouse. Don’t worry if it doesn’t point many; that will come with repeated exposure, maturity and training.
Handling in the woods.
Expecting your puppy to be in sight always or range at a certain distance is unrealistic and, in fact, can inhibit its bird finding. As long as it is checking in and hunting in the direction you’re headed, you don’t need to say anything. Over-handling, in terms of too much calling and whistling or constant encouragement, can distract and confuse the dog. In addition, it could alert any grouse to your whereabouts.
At times, you’ll need to communicate with your puppy. Use the basic recall or attention-getting commands and be sure to have the capability to enforce them.
If your puppy gets overexcited, take a break. Give it time to settle down and regain its composure.
Owner attitude, expectations.
Be patient. Developing an experienced grouse dog will take several seasons. Your puppy has a lot to learn. Expect it to make mistakes — flush birds, chase rabbits, not pay attention and, at times, become uncontrollable.
Be realistic about your young dog’s capability. It might look mature, but it is still just a puppy. Be cognizant of its physical and mental limitations; i.e., plan several short hunts instead of one long outing. To encourage your young dog to point grouse and not flush them, shoot only birds that have been pointed.
Finally, do remember to have fun with your puppy. Take time to savor this first season — hopefully the first of many — in the grouse woods.
Both photos above by Chris Mathan, The Sportsman’s Cabinet.
Northwoods Roquefort, on left, and Northwoods Parmigiano (Northwoods Blue Ox x Houston’s Belle’s Choice, 2010). Photo by Chris Mathan.
The overall goal of any dog breeder should be to produce healthy, happy, well-adjusted puppies.
The further objective for a breeder of bird dogs that will be in the field as hunters or field trial competitors should be to produce dogs that travel well, handle stress and pressure, take training well and perform with confidence and style.
At Northwoods Bird Dogs, a final, crucial goal is to breed pointers and setters that are as good in the home as in the field. Jerry and I strive for puppies that have it all—including intelligence and temperament.
But more than good genes are needed; early development of puppies is essential.
We’ve found that there are five factors vital to early development of puppies. Some of these practices help foster a good attitude that will make them a better dog in general. Others actually begin the very earliest stages of training—even before the puppy is aware it’s being trained.
And it all starts when the puppies are at their very tiniest.
Health of the dam.
This is so important! Jerry and I believe the dam is key. Not only is her stamina and demeanor integral for whelping, but puppies are completely dependent on her from birth to at least three weeks.
Special attention should start as soon as she’s bred. Nutrition is essential and only premium quality food should be fed. We gradually increase her daily ration with a watchful eye on her weight. Her caloric intake will peak when she is nursing and will need about twice her normal amount.
The dam should be in excellent physical condition prior to whelping. She should have daily exercise with obvious care as she gains weight.
More subtle, perhaps, but equally influential is the dam’s temperament. Even before birth, puppies are influenced by her and they continue to interact with her until completely weaned at about six weeks. For example, puppies will key off her attitude toward people.
Buddy (Elhew G Force x Northwoods Vixen, 2013).
Several years ago Jerry discovered a program that was developed by the U.S. military to improve performance of their canine units. They named it Bio Senser which later became known as Super Dog. We call it Super Puppy.
According to Dr. Carmen L. Battaglia, author and researcher, the military’s study showed that “early neurological stimulation exercises could have important and lasting effects” on the dog’s brain in terms of ability to cope, adjust and adapt to situations. The study discovered that Day 3 until Day 16 “is a period of rapid neurological growth and development.”
The benefits are numerous:
• improved heart rate
• stronger heart beats
• stronger adrenal glands
• more calm and less disturbed when stressed
• greater resistance to disease
• mature faster
• better problem solving
• more active
• more exploratory
Super Puppy is a series of five exercises. For every litter, Jerry or Dan pick up each puppy individually and perform the exercises.
Bella (Peace Dale Duke x Blue Silk, 2007).
We whelp and raise litters in runs adjacent to our own and other dogs. From the moment our puppies are born, they are subjected to various noises of differing intensities—whether melodious voices on National Public Radio or near-deafening cacophony of 20 hungry dogs at feeding time.
Ours is a working kennel with lots of daily training activity and barking. Daily chores also result in commotion and noise.
A radio is always playing softly in the kennel. We vary the stations from NPR and rock stations to country music and, during baseball season, the Minnesota Twins station.
This is surely one of the easiest and yet most fulfilling parts of our job. Jerry, Dan and I spend time each day with our litters. Whether it’s Super Puppy exercises or just cuddling, we pick them up, touch them and hold them. We also inspect them, look in their mouths and clip their tiny toenails.
When they’re about five weeks old, I introduce soft chew toys and sit in their run with them. They climb all over me and play with each other and the toys.
Walks in the field.
When puppies are about eight weeks old, we begin taking them for walks with an older dog. May, our Labrador retriever, is the perfect, gentle leader. The walks are short at first but gradually lengthen as the puppies mature. May isn’t a big-running dog but always stays in front—and so do the puppies. May responds to voice and whistle commands—and so do the puppies. May loves to stop at ponds to drink and swim—and the puppies learn those valuable lessons.
These walks aren’t in a manicured city park but rather are in real bird habitat of fields and woods. Puppies learn different smells and become skilled at scrambling over fallen logs and through shallow swamps and tall, grassy pastures.
Of perhaps even more value, Jerry and I let the puppies learn on their own—without help from us—on these walks. They learn the consequences of their choices and actions.
If we come upon a fence, we don’t help them but instead let them figure how to get through on their own. Sometimes one will get on the opposite side of a little creek and must gather courage to cross it. If one does get behind, we keep walking forward.
This post is adapted from a piece I wrote for Chris Mathan on the Strideaway website (http://strideaway.com/early-development-of-bird-dogs/).
Blue Shaquille x Snyder’s Liz puppies point the wing at eight weeks of age.
I’ve closely watched and kept records on the progress of hundreds of pups. Those records clearly and conclusively show that it is absolutely impossible at 8, 10, 12 weeks of age to pick out the best pup or pups, no matter who you are or what you know.
~ John Wick, The Tree Dog Encyclopedia
Betsy and I are often asked our advice on how to pick the best puppy. After 17 years of breeding, raising and training puppies, we have an answer. While it’s simply not possible to know precisely what an eight-week-old puppy will become, we think that if you follow these three steps, you’ll be happy.
Choose the right breeder. Choose the right litter. Just pick the puppy.
#1. Choose the right breeder.
Within breeds, there can be tremendous differences between any two litters produced by any two breeders. And while a great dog can come from anywhere, consistently top-notch dogs come from breeders with vision. Betsy and I are now producing our sixth generation of English setters and fourth generation of pointers. This depth of knowledge enables us to make comprehensive breeding decisions which result in puppies with predictable traits.
We continuously evaluate our own dogs, especially on ruffed grouse and other wild birds. When we go outside our kennel, we’re never impressed by pedigrees and titles; rather it is imperative to see and appraise the dogs personally.
Our commitment is to breed setters and pointers with outstanding instinct, talent, conformation and temperament.
#2. Choose the right litter.
A breeder should listen carefully to your preferences and requirements. Some distinctions for us are setter/pointer, male/female, retrieving instinct and hunting style.
At our kennel, Betsy and I like to show puppy buyers the dam and sire, grandparents (if possible) and any other relatives, including puppies with similar breeding. After some discussions, the choice becomes clear.
#3. Just pick the puppy.
This is the easiest part. Since at eight weeks of age it’s impossible to definitively know what the puppy will become, any puppy should be ideal—no matter the picking order, no matter whether it’s the first pick or last. Choose based on color, markings, relative size or just pick the puppy that most appeals to you.
Finally, remember this key part. What the puppy eventually becomes will depend to a significant part on how it is raised, developed, handled and trained.
Dogs, like us, are more than their genome. No animal develops in a vacuum: genes interact with the environment to produce the dog you come to know.
~ Alexandra Horowitz, Inside of a Dog
Seeing little puppies on point is definitely exciting but that cute stance is just the beginning. Developing puppies into a top-notch hunting dogs or finished field trial performers will take years. The paramount time for that development is during the first few months of life.
Our goal is to raise happy, healthy, well-balanced puppies. Over the years, Jerry and I have developed a program that works. At a minimum, we feel puppies need:
• mental and physical stimulation
• exercises and introductory training to develop their natural instincts
• exposure to different situations, people and dogs
We also provide structure, stability and consistent rules. Equally important, though, we want them to enjoy life and have fun.
Detailed below are some of our puppy development and training ideas.
Time in the exercise pens
Ample time in our exercise pens allows the puppies to play and to rest at their choosing. We believe this freedom develops a physically sound dog with a calm, well-adjusted mental disposition. They also learn the invaluable lesson of how to interact with other dogs.
We put our puppies on a barrel where they learn to stand still with confidence. They love this exercise because they have our full attention and receive lots of praise through touching.
We encourage puppies to retrieve because they’re at a stage when they really want to please. Starting with a retrieving dummy we progress to freshly killed birds. A few retrieves two or three times a week is plenty and we always praise them lavishly when they bring the dummy or bird back.
Time on a stakeout chain
Especially when puppies are young and getting used to wearing a collar, we clip them to stakeout chain. They learn to give in and to be comfortable with restraint. They all struggle at first—some more than others—but all eventually do relent and relax.
We gang run puppies from foot at eight weeks and later introduce them to group runs from four-wheeler as the next level in physical exercise. During these runs we also teach them to turn on a whistle, run to the front and handle to our voice.
Swimming and finding water
On our gang runs we swing by ponds. Not only do the puppies learn to swim (they follow May, our Labrador retriever) but they learn to cool off and drink. This method teaches them independence to find water on their own.
Some Simple Commands
We introduce preliminary commands such as HERE, KENNEL, and call their NAME using pieces of wieners as rewards. This encourages puppies to obey simple commands and create a positive association with people.
Not choosing the right breeder.
Do your research and get references. How long have they been breeding? Are they personally familiar with the dogs they’re breeding? For how many generations? Then make an appointment to visit the breeder. Are the kennels clean and the dogs healthy and well cared for? Do the dogs seem happy?
Not picking from the right litter.
Picking the right puppy is easy if you’re picking from the right litter from the right breeder. Like tends to produce like—if the sire and dam aren’t proven on the birds you hunt and in the manner you hunt, odds are that the offspring won’t either. All puppies are cute and it’s difficult to distinguish much among eight-week-old littermates.
Being in a hurry.
Hopefully your dog will live a long life of 10 or more years. It’s far more important to find the puppy that meets your needs rather than one that’s currently available. In fact, the best breeders usually have a waiting list.
Not knowing what you want.
Before you even begin your search, think about what you want. What qualities—such as looks, temperament, hunting ability—are important to you? What birds do you hunt? Do you like a close-working dog or a wide-ranger? Will your puppy live in the house or the kennel?
Choosing a puppy based on price.
Like most things in life, you get what you pay for. Good breeders who produce high quality dogs have invested time, effort and finances in doing so. In addition, the initial outlay is virtually inconsequential when compared to the cost of a dog over its lifetime.
The best way to train a pup or dog is to let another pup or dog do it.
~ Bill Tarrant, Best Way To Train Your Gundog – The Delmar Smith Method
One of the tools we use in the education of our puppies is a stakeout chain. Sometimes called a chain gang, the stakeout chain is a long chain with huge eye bolts at each end through which stakes are pounded into the ground. Shorter chains are attached along its length to fasten individual dogs.
The stakeout chain is also a great tool when traveling. It’s an easy way to care for multiple dogs…plus it keeps the dogs secure and out of trouble. We put them on the chain to relieve themselves, feed and water them and to allow them to simply relax and be outside.
Stakeout chains can be made various ways. For many years I have made my own and now know exactly what works best. My stakeout chains hold six dogs and are 32’ long. Six drop chains are evenly spaced about 65” apart along the chain and are 18” long. (You don’t want them too long or the dogs can get into trouble with their neighbors along the chain.)
We begin putting puppies on the stakeout chain when they’re about eight weeks old. They get accustomed to physical restraint in general and learn, specifically, to give to pressure on their neck. We attach each puppy to their own drop chain and then leave them alone.
The chain gives enough so that when one puppy tugs, those next to it get a tug, also. Most puppies are uncomfortable at first and bark, pull or sometimes, just freeze. In time, though, they give in to the tugs without thinking and that’s the response we want. The transition to the leash or checkcord is now fairly easy.
By leaving the puppies to figure it out on their own, we’re not perceived as causing the restraint. In fact, after they settle down and we bring fresh water, they think we’re the good guys!