Steadying to Wing and Shot
by Bob & Jody Iler
Steadying your dog to wing and shot is truly an art in bird dog training. It takes a lot of time and patience, even though the training methods used today are generally much better and kinder than some of the techniques used in the past. There are many ways to steady your dog to wing and shot – some better than others. This column describes one method that we often use – it’s easy for an amateur trainer to follow and has few training pitfalls. You can follow it exactly or vary it as you like, but the key element to remember is this: Always read your dog’s reactions and adjust your training accordingly as you go along.
First off, make sure that your dog has a good understanding of the whoa exercise before beginning this training. He should respond well to your command to “Whoa.” He should be pointing staunchly in the field and have at least one season of hunting in, with lots of bird work. He should also be enthusiastic, have plenty of drive, and be developed to the gun.
Begin by reviewing your previous whoa work in the yard or driveway. Using a long checkcord, heel your dog along, then stop and give the whoa command with the hand signal as you turn and face him. Gradually back away to about 20 feet in front of the dog, facing him. Return back to him and quietly praise him. Repeat this process and as you face your dog the second time, kick the ground around your feet, as though you are trying to flush a bird, or drop a handkerchief, etc. from your pocket to the ground. Don’t take your eyes off the dog. If he moves at all, return to him immediately and put him back in the whoa position as you repeat the command “Whoa” with quiet authority and give the hand signal simultaneously.
For the next session, put a couple of pigeons in your vest and first repeat the heel and whoa exercise. This time, as you face your dog, reach slowly behind you, grab a pigeon from your vest and release it quietly, letting it go as your arm is hanging by your side. Don’t make a big show of throwing the bird skyward – do this as unobtrusively as possible, and don’t take your eyes off your dog as you watch him for any sign of movement. As the bird flies off, you will caution your dog with the hand signal, using the verbal whoacommand only as a backup if needed. Be quiet and firm at all times. If your dog moves at all, quickly return to him and put him back in position, repeating your command and hand signal. Heel him along, whoa him and step out in front of him again. Then quietly release the second bird, repeating the process. Two birds are enough for one exercise. If he’s done well on the first bird and did not move, don’t even release the second bird in this session. It’s more important to have the lesson end positively. Too many unsuccessful attempts can frustrate both the dog and the trainer.
Having a helper for these yard sessions will make the training much easier. Your helper should take the checkcord from you after you’ve heeled the dog along and put him on a whoa. As you release the bird, give the hand signal and your helper should gently and silently snub the dog with the checkcord if necessary. The checkcord can also be fashioned into a half-hitch for added emphasis when restraining the dog. The half-hitch keeps the dog standing and gives him mild discomfort that can be more effective than just the checkcord around his neck. Familiarize your dog with the half-hitch first, though, in your whoa training. Otherwise he may become distracted and fight it and you won’t accomplish your goals with the gentle finesse that you want. As your dog consistently gets more reliable, you can use a six-foot training lead, testing him. If he does well with this, you can try the exercise with no lead.
Though all this may sound simple and easy, it’s not! These short sessions will need to be repeated over the course of many days, usually weeks – before the dog will stand the bird (stay steady to its flight). Once your dog is doing this, you’re well on your way!
Now it’s time to take the lessons to the field. Here again, a helper will simplify things. Plant a bird in the field and take your dog into it on a checkcord. When he points, hand the checkcord to your helper, who will keep gentle pressure on the dog as you circle around and face him. Use the whoa hand signal and watch your dog as you flush the bird, using the verbal “Whoa” only if necessary. If you’ve done your homework well back in the yard, the pup should stand the bird. Keep him steady on the checkcord as the bird flies and then return to him. Heel him away and out of the field. This gives him a chance to think about this whole new business. The next time out, you can try planting two birds and repeat the lesson with your helper. Always return to your dog and heel him away from that area after the flush. Then go on to the second bird and repeat the entire process. Make sure that you use good-flying birds – birds that fly a short distance and go down will prove too much of a temptation for a young dog.
Now that you’ve started this training, you’re not going to let your dog chase birds in the field anymore. You’ve begun a process of teaching gentle but firm control. He needs to be trained with consistency and not allowed to break and chase. This is why it’s so important that your pup has had plenty of time to enjoy, hunt and chase birds before you begin this training. If not, this type of training can take the sparkle out of some young dogs, inhibiting their drive and enthusiasm before it ever fully develops.
Once your dog is reliably steady to the flight of the bird in the field, you can start to add the gun. The scenario remains the same: Plant your birds, enlist your helper and bring your dog in to point. As your helper takes the checkcord and you circle around to flush, this time you will also shoot your starter pistol while simultaneously giving your hand signal to whoa– just after you release the bird and it flies up and away. Again, watch your dog intently as you flush and shoot. Make sure your helper is ready to restrain your dog if necessary. Only use your voice command if needed. Once you’ve shot, return to the dog and heel him away as before. You’ll sometimes find that the gunshot will provoke your (now) well-mannered dog into action. Don’t get discouraged – this entire process of steadying your dog to wing and shot generally takes several months of patient repetition.
You might wonder why we heel a dog away after each exercise, instead of finally letting him retrieve or just run around as a “reward” for his hard work. If you allow your dog to do this while steadying him to wing and shot, he will find it too difficult to restrain himself and will soon begin to break. Once he has truly learned to be steady to wing and shot, he must always be kept this way. He must be hunted with other dogs of this same caliber and training level in order to keep his manners and not regress. We’ve seen field champions break on crippled birds, unable to withstand the temptation. As we’ve said, this is “college-level” work and not meant for young dogs. It puts a lot of pressure on them, and they need to be mentally ready for this sort of training. So do you!
A “well-broke” dog that is steady to wing and shot is a joy to compete and hunt with, but never at the expense of damaging his spirit or drive in the field. That’s why this training takes so much time and patience, but the rewards are worth it. Feel free to check with us if you have any questions. We’ll see you next month when we begin the trained retrieve!