One year ago I purchased a German Wirehaired Pointer (GWP) puppy with the goal to train him to hunt birds. My family had a Dalmatian when I was kid, but I never trained it (nor did my family for that matter). Essentially, this was to my first dog.
In one year, I have learned a tremendous amount about dog training and a little bit about myself. My pup is now performing heel, whoa, down, and recall with the best of one-year-olds. He has just been introduced to live birds and an e-collar. He is well on his way to being a great hunting companion. I hope the following will help those who have a dog or might be thinking about getting one.
If you have never owned a dog, be prepared for it to take over your life. A dog is an eight to twelve year project. Training never stops. You will be stressed, challenged, and feel like a fool. In return you will feel immense pride and experience unconditional love and loyalty. Also, let’s be honest, using one animal to hunt another animal oozes pure masculinity.
Choosing a dog
The first step in training a hunting dog is choosing a breed. I prefer upland hunting to duck hunting so that required a dog who points as well as retrieves. I chose a GWP primarily due to cost and availability, as there was a breeder within driving distance. I wanted to actually meet the breeder and know what I was getting.
The GWP is a “’versatile hunting dog” as defined by the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association. A versatile dog is a “dog that is bred and trained to dependably hunt and point game, to retrieve on both land and water, and to track wounded game on both land and water.”
You can’t discuss choosing a dog without addressing the nature-nurture debate. Is a $3,000 Italian Spinone Italiano from a line of test champions going to hunt better than an $800 dog with no lineage? Having observed other dogs in basic obedience courses and my current group hunting OB class, most of whom have the lineage and price tag, I’d argue it doesn’t. A high end dog may have a genetic advantage that may show after the dog is at a high level of training, but basic obedience up to most basic hunting skills, e.g. whoa, heel and fetch, is all about the trainer.
A dog is a major commitment
A puppy requires a lot of time. The standard rule is that a puppy has to go potty every number of hours as his age in month. So an eight-week puppy (the standard age for taking a pup home) has to be let out every two hours, even at night. Thankfully, I had a job where I could keep him in my truck and let him out every few hours. Still, the first two weeks with my dog I was so stressed and tired that I had lost my appetite.
Four to twelve (some say sixteen) weeks are very important in a puppy’s development. This is their “socialization period.” Up to eight weeks should be spent with the litter, where they learn play biting and other pack socialization skills. After that, the more time you spend with the dog in this time and introduce him to other dogs the better.
Around the time I got my pup, I got a new job offer and was able to take six weeks of “fun-employment.” Thus, in those critical weeks, I was there almost 24/7 playing and working on obedience. I feel that having built that a foundation of trust and obedience has served me well now that I am teaching him more complex commands.
Misbehaved dogs are the result of unpreparedness, laziness, and insecurity. Unpreparedness and laziness is the easiest to solve. Read and watch everything you can. I study training books and DVDs daily. I joined local hunting dog chapters, built a training table and training aids, and started following internet forums.
I have even watched every Cesar Millan episode available on Netflix. All dogs are different and there is no right way to train. It’s your duty and responsibility as an owner to analyze your dog and adjust your methods accordingly. Do not expect a dog to magically behave. Any well-trained dog you see is the result of hours upon hours of working with it.
Good trainers raise good dogs, bad trainers raise bad dogs
One of the things I have witnessed since I started training my pup is how bad people are with dogs. I basically gained a judgmental sixth sense of dog handling. My spider sense tingles when I see two leads on a dog or muzzle. I recommend doing an OB class of any sort with any new dog, if only to see how other people handle their dogs. The results will shock you. Seeing people with large breeds like Rottweilers who have absolutely no control over their dog is sadly the norm.
Insecurity of the trainer is the other training mistake. Cesar is correct when he says that properly training a dog requires boundaries, rules, and limitations. Sound familiar? Most people lack these in their own lives, so it is no wonder that their dog does not have any.
Because I took training seriously, I have noticed that I am much more disciplined than before. I go to bed earlier so I am awake before work and can get the pup at least 45 minutes of off-leash exercise before work. He gets 20 minutes of training at least once a day, if not both morning and night sessions. I have sit-downs with my girlfriend to explain the latest training step and to ensure we are both using proper commands.
Training a dog quickly teaches you patience and how to hold frame. They will test you physically and mentally. They will push boundaries and try to dominate you. My pup knows that “bed” means go lay on the big circular dog bed in the corner and he will. Then his front paws start creeping further and further off until just his butt is on the bed. It’s undeniably cute and impressively smart, but it’s also directly disobeying my command and cannot be tolerated.
You must have dedication and persistence. You will make mistakes. You will miss corrections. You will correct them at the wrong time. You will let a dog get you upset. You cannot let these mistakes phase you and must continue on. One mistake won’t tank your training for the day or irreparably harm the dog.
Owning and training a hunting dog is the most rewarding task I have ever taken on. It beats graduating law school, my job, and even my mentoring. It has given me a new appreciation for what is really important. When given the choice, I will choose to spend time working with my pup. If you are looking for a rewarding challenge, I cannot recommend dog training enough.
Read More: Reflections On My Freshman Year Of College