Steadiness: current can help

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Electronic training collars have many uses, but until recently I avoided using one around birds like a dog avoids baths. But once you figure out that steadiness on birds is a two-part process, your outlook might change. Mine did. First, a dog instinctively slams into a tail-stiffening point. That part, we all get. A whiff of bird scent or sight of a bird should take care of that unless your dog’s pedigree included a cardboard box and hand-lettered “you pick” sign.
 
The second part of the sequence (“steadiness”) is where I’ve become enlightened, thanks to Bob Farris, trainer, quail hunter and NAVHDA judge. In the hunt test judging process, the point is the first stage of judging – i.e., does the dog have the genetic programming to point when prey is upwind of him. But the judging criteria change the moment the dog sees you in the picture, literally or figuratively. That is where the canine rubber meets the obedience road.
 
Manny (and I’d bet, all “finished” dogs) needs training to stay on point until I want him to 1) see the bird drop, getting ready for the retrieve or 2) continue to hunt after my release, because I missed again. When he enters a scent cone, Manny assumes an elegant point, leg up and forward a bit. But a few moments of staring at the source of enticing smell, a walking, flapping bird or – worse – a flushing bird, will test any dog’s resolve. It’s just natural to chase, so the key is making it clear he’s been ordered to stand still.
 
Some use the usual verbal or hand signal. Some transition to a secret code: heel shuffle, grunt, other noise or gesture. I’m figuring that for us the key is treating that part of the point-steady drill for what it is: an obedience situation. Until this revelation, I was loath to use any “enforcer” stronger than a checkcord, gut hitch or tap on Manny’s flank. I feared an e-collar might sour a dog to birds – especially if I had to use it.
 
But if he’s been thoroughly drilled in “whoa” with many and different distractions, birds simply become another distraction from the command he knows so well. Tempting, sure, but just a sidebar to an obedience test. Now that I’ve gotten over that, we’ve made some quantum leaps.
 
So far, Manny’s only been lit up (gently) a couple times. These days, merely seeing me holding the transmitter is enough to keep him steady during birds flapping in his face, “covey flushes” at his feet, and even birds perching on his back. Today, twice, we had flawless training sessions. Tomorrow, who knows? But I feel like we’re on the right track.
 
From the email in-box:
 
Q: I notice in the magazines, big trials and even hunt tests that many dogs have long names. And sometimes they have unusual spellings of common names! What goes?
 
A: You can thank the American Kennel Club and other breed registries. Every registered dog requires a distinct name for record keeping, so many owners have to get pretty creative. Add to that limits on the number of characters on the registration form, plus many breeders who require you to preface your dog’s name with their kennel name and it can get pretty complicated.
 
Q: I have an English setter. I got him at 1-1/2 years old. How would you start training him? He was pretty shy when I got him but he is coming out of that. And he does come when called. I have taken him in the woods where I know there are plenty of grouse and he does seem interested. I did keep him on a long lead at this time. Did I do right?
 
A: Sounds like you’re already training, if he comes when called. He also seems to be bonding to you and trusting you. Continue your obedience training and start the gun dog work now, in your yard. A long lead he can drag along until he’s solid on his “come” command is always a good idea. You could have started the hunting training sooner, but with the foundation you’ve laid, I’ll bet you two do just fine.
 
Send your questions to Scott here. Scott’s new book, “What the Dogs Taught Me” covers topics that haven’t been addressed in other books and videos. To order, go here.