How to Train Your Older Dog to Point
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For hundreds of years, certain dog breeds have been preferred by hunters and sportsmen. Most of these breeds originate from Europe, particularly France and Great Britain, where fox and bird hunting were all the rage in the 19th century. Today, some of these dog breeds rarely see the sport of hunting or searching fields for birds and other game, but we can still see the work of their ancestors hidden in their builds and personalities. In Dachshunds, we see their long bodies, which were once ideal for burrowing into the homes of foxes and badgers, and in poodles, we see the intelligence and agility that made them the first choice for many hunters as obedient retrievers.
While hunting with dogs is still popular today, many of these breeds have become house pets. Fortunately, all breeds hold one thing in common: They’re eager to please and trainable at any age. No matter the breed’s disposition to be a hunting companion or their age, chances are you may already own a perfectly able pointing dog.
In the heat of a hunt, dogs are excellent counterparts to their two-legged owners. This is mainly due to their speed and their infamous sensitive nose. Even if your dog isn’t young or trained as a hunting dog, chances are their nose works just as well as any other younger pup.
Pointing is the action of a dog silently alerting its owner to the presence of game. This may not always look at elegant or picturesque as depicted in classical paintings – you know the ones, where the men atop their horses are surrounded by red-hued dogs, their noses in the air, their tail straight as an edge and somewhere in the near distance, a fox huddles underbrush, momentarily in safety. Pointing may look as simple as the dog becoming very still, pointed nose or tail not necessary.
Since dogs inherently love running and chasing other animals, pointing requires a great deal of discipline and obedience from your pet. Therefore, training an older dog with little to no background in hunting expertise may require a lot of time and diligence on your behalf.
It’s easy to become discouraged during the training process, especially when most hunting literature states that training dogs while young always makes for the best hunting counterpart. This is not empirically true, however, and you may find a considerable amount of patience in an older dog that typically isn’t present in an excitable puppy.
Before you and your four-legged companion begin your journey together, there are a few items you may need, if not already owned. Basic, necessary items include:
- Treats: Ideal training treats are small and easily chewable, allowing for quick eating, less distraction, and more time spent listening to commands.
- Dummies: Dummy “birds” or other hunted game are ideal for the early potion of the training process. Once a dog shows restraint when training with dummies, you’ll know it’s time to move onto live game.
- Check cord: Check cords are raved about in the hunting community and cost anywhere around $15 to $25. This training item assists you in teaching your dog to keep a preferred distance with you while sniffing out critters.
- Launcher: If you’re an avid bird hunter or have a deep interest in it, chances are you already own a launcher or have at least considered purchasing one. These devices can be loaded with dummies for your dog to practice retrieving with. Regarding training a dog to point, however, they aren’t completely necessary.
Because an inherent quality needed for pointing is restraint, a lot of what you’ll be teaching your older dog is to wait and listen to your commands. A dog that doesn’t point to game is likely to simply scare it and other nearby prey away. When teaching pointing, it’s important to keep the concept of control in mind. With these ideas in mind, the next step before beginning training is to familiarize yourself with the different methods involved.
The Un-Training Method
Because your dog is older, it may be likely they learned bad habits or weren’t attended to by their previous owners. The first responsibility for you when training an older dog is to un-train them. While it sounds like a step backwards, it’s really a first step to training a capable and obedient hunting companion.
Test the waters with your pet. Commands that may mean one thing to you, could mean something entirely different to your dog. A popular command when teaching pointing is “whoa”, which most dogs learn to associate with “hold” or “stop right there”. This is exactly what pointing is, after all.
Try the basics
Since with older dogs you don’t know their history from birth, some commands you may attempt to teach could have been used on them to mean something else. A common example of this is the command, “Come here,” which we would think to mean, exactly what it states. If an adopted dog experienced a less-than-friendly owner during his or her past, this could be a command they associate with punishment, something said to them before a beating. Thus, your dog may show fright or apprehensiveness when hearing this command. In these cases, un-training is key.
Pay attention to body language
Try different phrases with your pet while being observant of their reaction. Bowed heads, lack of eye contact, and the licking of their noses typically indicates a feeling of guilt or being frightened. Avoid these reactions. Hunting for game should be fun for your dog, not something that stresses them.
Develop new meaning
An important structure to build between you and your dog is trust and authority. When creating these qualities in your relationship, you should attempt to create new meaning with you. This is very specific to training older dogs, as it illuminates the fact that they were previously commanded, rewarded, and disciplined by another owner. In a former household, it may have been accepted for them to sit on furniture, but is no longer so with you. Formulating these new meanings in the comfort of the home will help them to understand that you’re in charge and therefore help you better control them when on hunting trips outside of the home.
This is a step that will exist in every method of training. Due to the lack of communication with our furry friends, we must find ways to express our liking and disliking of certain behavior. Rewards usually come in the form of treats, petting, and encouraging words, cooing “Good boy” or “Well done, girl” all work. For pointing, rewards will come when your dog exhibits restraint when spotting a bird or rabbit by refraining from barking and chasing it.
When un-training the bad habits of an older canine, discipline is just as important as reward, regardless of how fun it may be for owners to do. Discipline, depending on your comfort and your dog’s response, can come in the form of a light tap on the nose or hind, refraining from treats, or time spent in a crate. These actions show the dog that while this may have been acceptable or gone without notice or care in a previous home, this is not the case with you.
The Training with Tools Method
Tools, while not always necessary, are great additions to you and your pet’s journey to becoming a capable hunting duo. While there are a number of gadgets out there to help you train your pet, these are some of the most preferred by hunters.
If you’re serious about training your dog as a hunting partner, purchasing a check cord may be essential in making progress. Check cords are great training tools that you can adjust and personalize to meet you and your pet’s needs. They attach like any regular leash, but are made with a more durable, heavy material. Hunters training their dogs to learn to be in the field with them prefer check cords because they teach the concept of distance.
Keep the right distance
Distance is important when hunting with a dog, as untrained dogs may get carried away with the excitement of the chase and leave their owner wondering which direction to follow. Likewise, some hunters may have an issue with getting their dog to leave their side and take initiative to go some distance ahead. Check cords can be knotted to lessen distance, while you walk around with them. The gentle tug it creates between you and them helps them understand that running too far ahead is frowned upon.
Choke or shock collar
Some may opt for a shock or choke collar as well. Despite the somewhat negative reputation of these items, they can be used safely and efficiently during the pointing-training process. A shock collar is preferred by some hunters because it allows for the dog to lead, off-leash, but still be reprimanded if becoming distracted or disobedient. These training tools work in much the same way as the check cord, if not a little more aggressively. Some dogs may be right for a choke or shock collar, especially if you’ve had no luck when properly utilizing a check cord.
Dummies help your dog get used to the events that will take place when you take them on their first hunt. These bird-like stuffed animals can be thrown or placed in a launcher to show your dog how birds will fall when shot or fly when flushed out and scared from brush or a field. The benefit in using dummies is that it slowly introduced the principles of hunting to your dog, leaving room for mistakes and time to learn from those mistakes.
If you’re a seasoned bird hunter then chances are you probably already own a launcher. These are helpful for more than just aiming practice, they help your dog witness the trajectory of a bird and also helps train them in retrieving anything you may hit. It’s not completely necessary to novice hunters or hunters who prefer tracking vermin rather than fowl.
Reward and discipline
If you’ve ever owned and trained a dog before, you know it requires a lot of positive reinforcement in the form of yummy doggie treats. This is no different for potential pointing dogs. In order to get them to point, you’ll have to positively reinforce the behavior you want to see, such as, freezing when they sense nearby game, while simultaneously discouraging behavior you don’t want, such as, running and barking madly when they spot a wild animal.
The Let Him Lead Method
Your dog’s history as a hunter, its lineage to the wolf, is already built into them. They already know how to smell and track animals, but they need you to teach them to rein in their excitable nature and patiently wait.
Exposing them to different environments, scents, noise levels and weather will help your dog become a better pointer. Particularly in regard to hunting, it’s important that your dog is used to the sound of a gun going off. Don’t fire near or over your dog’s head as this could give them a complex and make them skittish. Instead, regard the gun as exactly what it is, a tool. If you trust and aren’t gun-shy, your pet won’t be either.
Your dog is a natural hunter. Gauge their abilities and natural talents simply by watching. What you notice that they need help on, focus more attention during the training process.
Find a happy balance between letting them lead and you remaining the “alpha”. When using this method, you rely on the tools to express ideas to your dog. The check cord expressing preferred distance of the owner, the launched dummies express birds while on the hunt. A lot of this is learned on the part of your furry companion, thus giving them a lot of room to lead and you follow. This is especially true when utilizing a check cord.
Stay in charge
However, there’s a balance to be found here. You want to be sure your dog is not only learning but learning critically, so that when they are off the check cord and are working with live game rather than dummies, they remain collected. Give them space to see how they’ll react to certain situations, but don’t let a misgiving go unacknowledged.
Trust his instincts
With the right mind set, any breed of dog is trainable, meaning any breed of dog can be a pointing, hunting, retrieving companion. But dogs in the hunting breed class, such as retrievers, setters, and pointers, may be naturally predisposed to pointing. In fact, as puppies and young dogs, it’s likely they began pointing when seeing butterflies or squirrels in their back yards without truly knowing the full reasoning.
Know your dog
These dogs, no matter their age, are likely to have a lot of skill and talent wired into them. This doesn’t necessarily make them easier or more difficult to train, as every dog is different. In fact, you may find their passion for the hunt might make them more excitable and harder to rein in, but due to their intelligence, they’ll always be able to learn and follow instruction with the right training and the right trainer.
Reward and discipline
The final step is especially important when following this slightly lax method. Practice rewarding and disciplining consistently and confidently. Inconsistency and lack of confidence will only result in confusing the canine, or even give them reasons to not respect you and therefore disobey.
By Amy Caldwell
Published: 11/30/2017, edited: 01/08/2021
Training Questions and Answers
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Rudy has never hunted but has pointed dove in the backyard since he was a pup. He retrieves with treats as a reward but ALWAYS wants to play "Keep away" without. I can't imagine a worse habit since I want to take him chukar partridge hunting now that I am retired. How can I discourage this keep away behavior?
Jan. 7, 2019
Caitlin Crittenden - Dog Trainer
1133 Dog owners recommended
Hello Daniel, Practice retrieves on a forty-to fifty foot leash so that you can reel him in all the way if he disobeys. Use a drag leash for this (which is a lead that slides easily through the grass and doesn't have a handle). You can let him go a bit further than the end of the lead when he is doing well, but keep the lead on him so that you can step on it, pick it up, and reel him all the way in if he disobeys. Practice this with bumpers first, then use real dead chukard or pidgeons to practice. Practice this until he no longer tries the keep away game. Once he is at that point, you can transition to a shorter drag leash to give you something to step on if he tries to dart away but make him feel like he is off leash, before transitioning to no leash at all. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden
Jan. 7, 2019