Training Hunting Dogs: The Role Of Instinct

When training hunting dogs, instinct is a huge help in getting the dog trained into a quality hunting dog. When training hunting dogs, it is the job of the trainer to shape and mold that instinct into usable behaviors and patterns that help bring game to bag in the field.

This blog is about Zeke, a Llewellyn Setter that I have the privilege of helping train up to be a quality bird dog. Zeke comes from a great line of setters and his breeder has worked hard to create a line of dog that has all the instincts to make a good bird dog:  bid-ability, nose, point, and retrieve.

I went out last with Zeke a couple or three weeks ago. Zeke took his turn training, then it was my dog Shiloh's turn. When one dog is being trained, the other waits in the air conditioned car.

Once both dogs have been trained, they are released into the field to run and play. Often there may still be a training bird in the area that one of the dogs may find as a bonus.

On this particular day, Shiloh found and pointed a bird that escaped us. Nice beautiful point. Zeke came up in a little bit to see what the hubbub was all about.

And then we saw it:  Zeke's instinct rose to the surface and he gave us a behavior that we had never trained. Zeke honored Shiloh's point.

Honoring (or backing as it is sometimes called) is a behavior where a dog sees another dog on point and comes to a standstill. The usefulness of this behavior is to keep an unaware dog from blundering in and causing the bird to fly away before the hunters have a shot.

We were ecstatic. The day's training had not yielded any breakthroughs, but to see Zeke offer this behavior stemming solely from his breeding and instinct made us quite happy.

What Is Instinct

Instinct, in this context, is behavior that occurs without it having been trained. A Labrador Retriever that has not been through a formal fetch training program will often still love to chase and retrieve tossed objects.

Labrador Retriever

Labrador Retriever

A pointing breed will naturally point toys and objects that it cannot catch. These are examples of instinct. As far as behaviors that are beneficial for hunting, these instincts usually come from the breeder making conscious decisions about which pairings of dogs will make good hunting dogs. In other words, a Bulldog and a Great Dane will not come together and make a strong pointing dog. But two Llewellyn Setters that have proven themselves in the field will tend to make puppies that will have the instincts to hunt.

As a trainer, I love and long for instinct in my pupils. Instinct means the dog is already mostly trained and all I need to do when training hunting dogs is to direct and polish the instinct that is already there.

What If The Instinct Is Not There

It is not necessarily a deal breaker if the dog does not have much instinct or natural behavior in certain areas. A typical example of this is retrieving. Many pointing dogs have little to no desire to retrieve; preferring instead to leave the downed bird in search of other living birds. These birds can be trained to retrieve sufficiently enough to keep most owners happy. These dogs will probably never win in a retriever field trial against a Labrador Retriever, though.

Springer Spaniel

Springer Spaniel

Likewise, a dog such as a Labrador Retriever or a Springer Spaniel can be trained to "point" birds, even though these breeds often have little instinct for this behavior. And if you were to run such a dog against an English Pointer in a pointer field trial, the Pointer will win every time.

As I sit here and think about it, I am going to go out on a limb and disagree with the bulk of the hunting dog trainers out there. I do not believe that there is any instinct that is *required* in your dog to make him able to be a hunter. But, to be sure, if your dog has no instinct for hunting, it will be very difficult to train this pup for hunting. A trainer training such a dog would be venturing out into uncharted waters.

German_Shepherd_Dog_agility_teeterThink about something like dog agility. There are no breeds that have come about because of agility. Certainly, there can be some things innate that make a dog easier to train for this, but no dog has an instinct to run weave poles. The trainer has to motivate and shape those behaviors without relying on instinct in the dog

So, go ahead, teach your Poodle to point. Teach your Chihuahua to retrieve. Teach your German Shepherd to bolt rabbits. Or, if you already have enough challenges in your life, get a dog from a breeder who breeds proven dogs.

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