A while back a new puppy owner asked me what he should do to start his pup. I suggested he take his pup to the field and go for a walk. Walking your pup is one of the best ways to develop the bird dog instincts your pup inherits from his parents. These instincts include the instinct to hunt, to point and to be part of a team. The best time to develop these instincts is between the ages of three and six months. By six months of age, many pups are becoming independent and some may stop going with you.
There is an art to walking pups and to do it well you need to understand the difference between developing a pup and training him. Training involves teaching your pup to do something. Developing him involves creating situations where he can learn on his own. For example, when I was five years old my father who had been a competitive swimmer took me to the pool and threw me in the water. At first I flailed around, but then I discovered I already knew how to swim. My father didn’t have to teach me. I was born with the instinct to swim and all my father did was put me in a situation where I could learn on my own. While my father’s method was a bit extreme, you do the same thing with your pup every time you take him to the field and expose him to situations where he can learn on his own what he was bred to do.
When you walk your pup, let him run free and investigate the world on his terms, and as he runs around, you want to basically ignore him. You may need to give an occasional, “Hey” to get his attention, but don’t offer words of encouragement or correction. Instead, try to stay out of the way as much as possible. Your job is to create specific situations where your pup can discover on his own that he is a bird dog. There are many situations you can create. Here are two of my favorites.
- When I start walking a pup in the field, I set a slow and steady pace. Anytime the pup putters or gets behind, I ignore him and continue walking so he has to run to catch up. I never say a word. As he runs to catch up, his instinct to be forward is awakened, and it isn’t long before he is paying attention to where I am and trying to stay in front of me.
- After a couple of weeks of walking a pup in the field and he is confident on the ground, I am ready to plant quail to develop his instinct to hunt and to point. I continue to walk at a slow and steady pace and try to approach the planted birds from downwind so he can smell them and begin using his nose to find them. Anytime he starts to make game, I stay back. By not being in the picture, I keep it between him and the bird. Each pup is different and some take more time to develop than others. As he learns to use his nose, he becomes skilled at finding birds and when he finds them he begins to stalk them. Eventually, the stalk turns into a point.
There are many different situations you can create for your pup, but the key to being successful is to understand the difference between developing and training. The way to develop your pup doesn’t involve controlling him or putting pressure on him. Instead, you let him learn to be a bird dog the same way I learned to swim—by awakening the instincts he was born with. You don’t have to teach him what to do; you simply set the stage, take him for a walk, ignore him and let him teach himself.