All new puppy owners take pride in seeing their dogs’s first few “points” and snapping a few quick photos to commemorate them. It is a beautiful thing to see that inherent natural trait come out in a pup, and sometimes also a relief if it comes easily, since some dogs need more specialized exposure to bring out their inherent pointing instinct. (That is a topic for another discussion.)
Once a new puppy owner gets a few photos of their dog on a nice pretty point, there can be a natural rush to keep advancing the dog into steadiness training, especially if that first hunting season is approaching. Having a dog that is at least “steady to wing”, is a big step in improving the safety of the dog, and increasing the hunter’s chances of bagging game.
While initial bird exposure building search desire is vitally important to the development of a young bird dog, this is a period of a pup’s development where an owner/handler should exercise caution and not be in a hurry. Some key NAVHDA principles can provide some guidance with this.
In the NAVHDA Natural Ability test, a dog is not being judged on Obedience. As the name implies, the test is a measure of a dog’s inherited natural abilities like Nose, Pointing, Cooperation, and Desire.
A key NAVDHA principle is that the the judging of “pointing” ends when a dog on point “is aware of the presence of the handler.” The reason this is an important concept is that it defines the transition between what a dog coming into contact with a bird does naturally (pointing and cooperation) and trained obedience. Obtaining steadiness in a bird dog requires Trained Obedience.
The NAVHDA AIMS Programs Book states that a puppy is eligible to run their NA test up until the day they turn 16 months of age. While all dogs are different, and develop at different rates, this 16 months of age timeline perhaps should not be ignored, even for dogs who have already run or are not running the natural ability test. A dog at least 16 months old has had more time to mature and form a bond with its owner/handler. Being around gunfire and wild birds in real hunting situations will also build a pup’s confidence prior to being subjected to the training pressure it takes to becoming a “finished” gun dog.
Young dogs that have not had enough proper bird and field exposure can have their natural abilities diminished by the obedience training required to achieve steadiness. Obedience training requires “pressure” and all dogs react differently to various types and levels of corrective training pressure. Pressure can come in the form of physical or verbal commands, a check cord, an e-collar, gunfire, or even a poorly timed launch of a release trap. Some dogs can take a lot of pressure without affecting the intensity of their point or their desire to do a productive field search. Some cannot.
Dogs learn by association and the last thing you want is for a pup to associate negative experiences (too much training pressure) with the tasks of searching for and pointing birds. Some traits exhibited by over-pressured dogs:
- Lack of Intensity on Point
- Flagging tail on Point
- Blinking (avoiding birds)
- Diminished search (clinging to handler)
- Avoiding the field altogether
- Gun Shyness
The pace at which a dog develops and when to apply certain training techniques to achieve your goals with your dog is a personal decision. Understanding the proper amount of corrective pressure to use with your dog and thinking about some basic NAVHDA principles related to pointing and steadiness just might help you avoid some mistakes and setbacks.