The fundamental, bedrock command taught during pointing hunting dog training is Whoa. Hunting dog training involves teaching a lot of skills that usually only apply to the field. Not so with whoa. It has application to all areas of life and obedience for the dog.
Whoa is a command that means stop moving your feet. It means stand. It is a highly utilitarian command. It can keep a dog from darting into traffic. It helps a dog understand that he isn't supposed to flush birds. It can be used to teach a dog to not crowd the front door when a visitor comes by. It is an essential command that is used as a basis for teaching many more complex commands.
My last dog was a Brittany from rescue named Sonny. Sonny was a bit of a challenge to train, because he loved to kill animals. Cats, raccoons, opossums, and, unfortunately, skunks. Left unchecked, he would try to kill them all. Once I had learned to harness this desire in his hunting dog training, he leaned many skills, including whoa.
I had this dog out for some training in a small field near my house. He had worked the birds correctly, and so I was rewarding him with a happy run through the field. Without warning, his speed picked up, he plunged into a bush, and happily produced a small skunk. He promptly shook and killed the animal, and then put it down to rub the spray out of his eyes. He then picked up his prize and headed my way.
"Whoa!" I commanded, sounding much more like a 13 year-old girl than I would have liked. He stopped dead in his tracks. "Out!" was the next command, sounding a bit more masculine. The obedient dog dropped the skunk at his feet. "OK," I thought, "this is going pretty well." "Come!" I bellowed, testosterone flowing freely due to a well trained and obedient dog. Sonny promptly bent down, picked up the skunk, and trotted toward me.
There was shrieking and running.
The above was repeated twice more before I gave up and let the dog find a mud puddle to bury his prize.
Why Not Sit?
Obedience trainers spend a lot of time working on sit. Sit and Whoa are essentially the same command: get your body into a particular position, and keep it there. Almost dog yoga. Good energy, man! We who train pointing bird dogs have our dogs stand rather than sit out of convention. It is the way it always has been done. When a pointing bird dog finds prey in the field, his job is to stop moving immediately. The extra movement of dropping into a sit could spook the prey. So, everything is built around standing game. So, we teach our dogs to whoa...to stand.
How Do You Teach It?
There are several ways to teach this command. I've seen suggestions to leap towards the pup as a youngster and shout "whoa" while sticking your hand out. The pup, terrified of the big ugly ape, freezes in his tracks. I've seen setups where the dog is strung between a couple of posts with a couple of ropes, one around the neck and one around the flank. Perhaps the most common way is with a choke collar. The dog is walking along and then the handler commands "whoa" while quickly taking the slack out of the leash, causing the choke collar to constrict briefly on the dog. All of these, in my opinion, are unnecessarily harsh on the dog during the initial, early learning, stages.
My way, which is not too different from pro trainer George Hickox, is to teach the behavior first, using positive reinforcement, in a safe and friendly environment. I take the dog, while inside, and stand him up with a hand under the belly and command whoa. Then I give him a treat while he stands there. I like the clicker to signal a job well done. This frees up a hand, but it doesn't have to be that way. I just need to signal to the dog a job well done while he is doing it. Pretty soon, you can ask the dog to hold it longer. And soon you don't put the dog into position, you expect him to do it himself. All the while giving treats to tell the dog "good job". Soon you ask him to whoa before you give him his dog bowl. And you ask him to whoa before crossing streets on leash. Whoa is woven into his life and there is not a day that goes by that he isn't asked to whoa. And it is all taught with treats and praise and positive reinforcement. There will be a time for some pressure on the dog, something besides treats, but that comes later and is a matter for another article.
This video is something I found on YouTube which is about exactly what I do with a pup. No yanking, no harshness, just treats and fun.
How Is Zeke Doing?
A couple of weeks ago, I asked Zeke's owner to start teaching whoa. Zeke lives about an hour from me, so I do not get as much time hand-on with him as I would like. But Zeke's owner took to the training and Zeke is well on his way. He has a tendency to want to sit, so the hand under the belly is essential. He is getting it.
Zeke has an advantage, though. He is going to puppy training classes. The trainer is an agility trainer who has a lot of experience with positive reinforcement with puppies. This trainer doesn't understand bird dog training, but she isn't opposed to the changes that I have made to her program. She teaches sit as the bedrock behavior of her program. Zeke's owner is simply changing the sit to whoa and following everything else. Zeke is getting a lot of exposure and repetition in whoa, which is great. Zeke's owner has already progressed him to the point where he must whoa for his meals and when crossing the street. He is well on his way.
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