It sounds like a contradiction, but the best way to develop a young dog’s point is to let him chase birds. Every time a young dog chases birds, he is learning to point. He is learning that his movements cause the birds to fly, which means he is unable to catch them. Once he realizes he cannot be successful, he begins to chase less. He becomes more cautious and learns to creep. This creeping is like a cat stalking a mouse, and eventually, he learns to freeze into a point.
Last month, a bird hunter came by with his dog. The dog was young, maybe eight months old, and the hunter was concerned because she didn’t point. I loaded a releaser with a homing pigeon and planted it in the training field. I suggested that he bring the dog cross-wind to the releaser; as soon as she smelled the bird, I would open the releaser. I explained that when she dove for the bird, he should restrain her just enough so she did not catch it, and then, once the bird was in the air, he should drop the check-cord and let her chase. He said he understood and brought her into the field.
As they approached the releaser, she caught scent and turned toward it. As she began to road in, I pressed the button on the transmitter and the releaser opened. Right then, the hunter tightened up on the check-cord and held the dog tight as the pigeon flew away. I asked him why he’d stopped her, and he explained that he was trying to help her point.
Now here’s an important truth: Birds teach dogs to point. If you try to help your dog, he will never point birds with intensity, much less learn how to handle them. Dogs that have been helped to point by their owners look as if they are indicating the presence of birds instead of freezing in a stance that sends quivers down your spine.
With the Bill West method, training is between the dog and the bird. By letting the dog run at birds until he decides to stop chasing on his own, the bird is teaching the dog to point. With a young pup, dropping the check-cord once the bird is in the air and letting him chase as far as he wants to run is fine. You may need to restrain him with the check-cord just enough so that he does not catch the bird on the ground before it flies, but once the bird is in the air, you can drop the check-cord.
As the pup gets older, or when the grounds are not suitable to let the dog run free, keep hold of the check-cord and let him chase to the end. Once he is stopped, let him watch the bird fly off. Pointing dogs love to watch birds fly; doing so is a reward. A small number of dogs live for the chase, and if, after a reasonable amount of bird exposure, your dog continues to chase without becoming stauncher on point, you may want to keep hold of the check-cord to limit his run.
Dogs are predators. They have better noses than humans, and they are superior hunters. Good trainers respect these natural abilities and allow dogs to make their own decisions. It’s foolish to think you know better when it comes to stopping a dog around birds. Instead, let your dog run at birds as long as he’s not catching them; eventually, he will teach himself to stop because he’ll realize it’s smarter to stand there, especially when you occasionally shoot a bird for him.
Anytime a dog learns something on his own, he learns it better than when you teach it. By respecting your dog’s abilities and setting up training situations where he can learn from the bird, you are developing him the natural way, which is the best way possible.