Get The Most From Your Pointer
September 24, 2010
Is your pointer the best hunting dog he can be?
Author Jim Casada pauses with a pointer after a successful hunt. Good dogs are vital on upland hunts.
Photo courtesy of Jim Casada
There's something about sporting dogs that stirs the hunter's soul in an incomparable fashion. Lest you have doubts on that score, let's turn briefly to the thoughts of some of America's great sporting scribes on the subject.
The incomparable Robert Ruark, describing a bird-hunting experience from his boyhood with big, rangy English pointers, wrote in The Old Man and the Boy: "That walk up to where the dogs were painted against the side of a hill was the longest, happiest journey I ever took in my life."
Similarly, Nash Buckingham, a Tennessee scribe who served as a judge at the Grand National a number of times along with devoting a lifetime to the pursuit of Mr. Bob, repeatedly waxed eloquent on the boundless joys a pointer could bring to his human hunting companion.
When it comes to evoking the deep, mystical meaning of the interaction between a man and a pointer, however, no one has ever quite matched the words of bird-hunting's poet laureate, Havilah Babcock. He reckoned that "the best legacy a man could leave his grandson is a good gun and a good bird dog."
About all I would add is that a canine companion in the form of a capable, well-trained and fit pointer brings an element to a day afield that endures in the mind long after the last covey rise and far beyond a staunch point at sunset. A pointer locked on birds is the heart, the very essence, of hunting at its finest. With that in mind, what follows is insight from some of today's finest pointing dog men, true experts as trainers and as hunters, on how to get the peak in terms of performance from your pointer.
High-dollar lawyers often begin their presentations to juries through a process known as "qualifying the witness," and perhaps that's a logical place for us to begin as well. The three "witnesses" to be presented here are George Hickox, Nolan Huffman and Rick Snipes. Hickox and Huffman are two of the best-known names in the dog-training world, while Snipes, a long-time personal friend, has to rank as the finest, most dedicated bird hunter I have ever encountered.
Hickox owns Grouse Wing Kennels
(www.grousewing.com), while Huffman owns Beeline Brittanys
(www.beelinebrittanys.com). In their respective fields, they have long garnered national reputations and laurels. Hickox has campaigned numerous field and National High Point champions. In his career, he has over 100 field trial placements adorning his résumé. He serves as the Hunting Dog Editor for Shooting Sportsman magazine, writes dog-training columns for both Pointing Dog Journal and Retriever Journal, and has produced a number of instructional videos on various aspects of dog training.
Huffman, who like Hickox earns his livelihood as a trainer, is virtually a legend in the highly competitive ranks of the National Shoot to Retrieve Association (NSTRA). Over the years, he has won scores of NSTRA events, and his dog, Buddy, alone has been triumphant in 32 such events. Another of his Brittany spaniels, Brave, was the 2003 NSTRA dog of the year. In the 2004 Quail Unlimited National Championship, Buddy took first place, while another of his dogs (sired by Buddy), Bear, was the runner-up.
Snipes, while not a dog trainer, has owned pointers all his life and has hunted birds across the world. He has to be the finest wing-shot at anything in feathers it has been my privilege to witness, and he always has a number of big, rangy and highly capable English pointers calling his kennels home.
Finally, I should note that I have enjoyed hunting with all three of these individuals. I've watched Hickox-trained dogs work their canine wizardry on grouse in Canada's Maritime Provinces and quail in Georgia. I met Huffman, a native of North Carolina (as I am), in the distant setting of Montana. We enjoyed a great day of hunting Hungarian partridge together, and it was a delight to see Buddy perform.
As for Snipes, we've followed pointers across the landscape from Lowcountry, South Carolina, to Texas, and there have been some glorious moments, such as a perfect point on a graveyard covey and a limit on wild quail (something I never thought to experience again) to spice our acquaintance.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BIRDS
All these experts agree that when it comes to getting the most out of any pointing dog, there is no substitute for the real thing: exposure to birds. Hickox puts it in simple, straightforward fashion: "No birds, no bird dog."
Huffman echoes his thoughts and notes that he tries to get plenty of bird exposure while the dogs he trains are young. "You need to build that fire and then temper it as training progresses."
Snipes, for his part, shakes his head in disbelief at the shortsightedness of many folks who try to take economic shortcuts when it comes to the first footsteps in training a pointer.
"You find folks spend lots of money in getting a dog with good blood lines, invest in all the latest and greatest in electronic gear, and then decide to save some money on birds. Go figure!"
Both Huffman and Hickox introduce pups to birds well in advance of any gun work. Hickox says he likes to use a gun only after a dog "is after birds hard. I want the dog to be like a drunken sailor on shore leave when it comes to birds."
Only then does he shoot.
Huffman, for his part, also puts emphasis on building up excitement connected with birds, but he takes a bit of a different approach to gun noise and avoidance of the dreaded term, "gun-shy."
He wants dogs to hear loud sounds from birth, so he claps his hands in the whelping area and fires blanks from a pistol when dogs first get that heady aroma of birds. A young dog who is introduced to loud noises in a familiar setting, then associates those noises with a reward, is on its way to becoming comfortable around guns. From that early introduction to hand claps, Huffman builds up to the louder noise of a shotgun.
Snipes often turns over rudimentary training of pups to professionals, but he also makes absolutely certain that all his dogs get plenty of contact with birds. When he lived near my home, Rick would periodically call me and say something to the effect of "I've bought a few birds and have a young puppy that needs some work. Do you want to spend the afternoon with us?" On such instances, there would invariably b
e one of those moments that occasioned Havilah Babcock's memorable words: "No man can follow a rollicking, bungling and over-joyous bird dog puppy all day without laughing a lot and crying a little."
The message the trio conveys is quite clear. An essential ingredient in the "making" of a fine pointer, one that cannot be overlooked and that cannot be overemphasized, is the opportunity from a very tender age to experience contact with birds.
Obedience training comes early, with the single word "whoa" looming especially large. Hickox stresses doing obedience work in the yard first, then moving to the field.
"If the dog is not compliant in the yard," he said, "you don't want to be saying whoa with birds." He is adamant on the matter of not initially teaching a dog to stop while working with birds. "You certainly don't want a dog to think he shouldn't be interested in birds."
Huffman waits on teaching the whoa command until what he calls "formal training" at the age of roughly a year. Meanwhile, though, he has taught other commands, such as "come" or "here," much earlier. "But," he adds, "whoa is the most important command you teach. It lets you keep your dog safe around roads, keeps him from chasing 'off' game, or stop anything that is wrong or dangerous."
Those formative first months are of vital importance in the evolution of a fine, highly functional pointer, and that's precisely why individuals like Hickox and Huffman are able to earn a living as dog trainers. Anyone can, if they have sufficient time, knowledge and a biddable dog, make a "broke" dog, but the key is to do it right.
That's one reason folks like Snipes often leave the early basics, the foundation of a good pointer, to trainers.
"Being overweight is a dog killer. And more hunting careers are cut short by that factor than any other."
THE ESSENCE OF ELECTRONICS
Whether you do it yourself or rely on a professional, the basic factors such as obedience and getting a dog that is steady to wing and shot come early and in many dogs need to be reinforced on a regular basis. That's where the modern marvels of electronic collars come into play.
In Huffman's view, shock collars "are the best tool today's dog trainer can have," but he immediately added some qualifying words: "You have to take the time to understand electronics and learn to use them properly."
To Hickox, part of proper use means adjusting the collar to the temperament of individual dogs.
Hickox also notes that canine behavior studies by the U.S. Army have found that you have only 1.3 seconds to reward or correct a dog. After that, association-wise, the praise or punishment will mean nothing to the dog.
"That's a compelling argument for using an electronic collar wisely," he said.
Huffman agrees, saying "timing is essential" and commenting that you can't punish a dog that is 100 yards away if you don't have electronics.
Obviously, shock collars are a great training tool, but one that must be used with considerable care. Rick Snipes uses them on a regular basis, although he suggests two things to keep in mind.
"You need to try and keep your own emotions and frustrations under control," he said, although he recognizes is not always easy to do. "And you should keep in mind the fact that dogs vary a lot. A hard-headed English pointer might need pretty regular reminders, while a biddable, easy-going dog may be one that needs little if any electronic correction."
FITNESS, FOOD AND CONDITIONING
Follow Rick Snipes, a lean, long-legged fellow who played basketball in college and remains someone who defines the term "hard hunter," for a full day of bird hunting and you will understand what human fitness is all about.
When it comes to canine companions, no matter what the conditioning level of the humans who hunt with them, it is, in Huffman's view, "too often overlooked."
Huffman cautions about overfeeding and stresses the importance of making sure dogs have plenty of water when hunting or being trained. He stresses that physical fitness training should begin at least two months before the hunting season opens. If anything, Hickox is even more adamant about canine fitness.
"Being overweight is a dog killer," he said, "and more hunting careers are cut short by that factor than any other. An out-of-shape dog will soon be breathing heavily, and when he's gasping for air he can't find birds."
Snipes, in his pithy, pointed fashion, cuts to the heart of things: "I won't have a fat dog in my kennel, and overfeeding is a human problem that is easily corrected."
Interestingly, both Huffman and Hickox stress the importance of high-quality dog food.
"Don't save money here," Hickox suggested. "Look at your dog as if it is an athlete, and feed it accordingly. Also, feed the same food throughout the year. You may need to vary the amount according to the weather and the amount of work the dog is doing, but keep him on the same food. I feed Purina Pro Plan. The folks at Purina have done a great deal of research over an extended period of time, and it works well for my dogs." Incidentally, Huffman uses the same dog food.
As anyone who has spent much time around pointers realizes, getting the most out of one's dog is both an enduring joy and a never-ending challenge. But these thoughts from three folks who have spent their adult lives dealing with hunting dogs on a constant basis make a few key points quite clear. As the great writer Archibald Rutledge suggested in one of his enduring bird dog stories, "Start 'em early."
Beyond that, start them with ample exposure to birds, place plenty of emphasis on obedience, use electronics, but do so judiciously, and keep food and fitness firmly in mind.
Then, too, it doesn't hurt to remember two thoughts from "The Old Man's Boy," Robert Ruark. "If a man is really intelligent, there's practically nothing a good dog can't teach him." And, along the same lines, "I reckon there ain't nothing anybody can tell a good dog that the dog don't know better than the man."
(Editor's note: Jim Casada is a life-long bird hunter. Among his many books are The Lost Classics of Robert Ruark and Bird Dog Days, Wingshooting Ways (each is $35 plus $3 postage and handling). Inscribed copies are available from him c/o 1250 Yorkdale Drive, Rock Hill, SC 29730 or through his Web site at