Sit, lay down, search, stay, point, apport, heel, slowly… Say "hunting" and you'll most likely have the image of an agonizing wild animal in mind. Yet, hunting is developing more and more as an obedience training discipline in which owners compete with their dogs and which doesn't involve any killings.
Each group/type of hunting dog has specific tasks to accomplish and will be graded individually and against the group of candidates. These sets of skills are even required in some countries to breed pedigree hunting types - a way to ensure the continuity of traditions and breed purposes.
Types of exams
Several types of exams occur throughout the year to test different abilities and skills. One of the main events in the Czech Republic for dogs part of the pointer group is so-called talent exams, in which the dog will be asked to search the fields for about 10-15 minutes.
Pheasants are usually released in order to test the dog's behavior in real conditions, and as soon as the bird is spotted, the dog must stop and point. No pheasant will be touched or killed in the process. Two shots will then be fired in the air to assess the dog's mindfulness about the noise.
Once the judge is satisfied with the first part of the exam, the handler will then be asked to walk around the fields with a heeling dog, the dog being connected by a leash which however should not be tensed and nor held tight, but instead simply passed over the handler's shoulder.
Throughout the whole process, the examining judge will grade the pointer's performance based on predefined specific criteria: speed, system, obedience, silent communication and distance. To score optimal points, the dog should be athletic, fast, and long-lasting while patrolling the fields and do so in an organized way, running against the wind to catch the smells. He should also pay attention to the commands passed through whistling and match his search with them: one whistle with a hand movement commands for a change of direction, while three whistles command the dog to come back immediately and sit down.
The fewer verbal communication between the handler and his dog, the better the score, as it reflects on the level of obedience and subtle communication the pair will have developed. Last but not least, the distance between the handler and his dog will also be assessed. Ideally, the dog should maintain by himself a fair distance from the person without exceeded roughly 70 meters, while always remaining in front.
Another type of essential exam in the Czech Republic for pointer breeding is the Autumn Exam. It includes similar components from the Talent Exam while examining more skills in different types of surroundings.
The exam starts off with a group search of the field, including a maximum of four dogs with each their handler. Dogs will be required to have their own searching zone, not minding nor crossing other working dogs, and will be out searching for about 15 minutes. Once this is done, the dog will go on to the second stage of the exam, where he will be asked to track a smell on the ground. The track will be about 150 meters long, which the dog will follow to find at the end of it a dummy and a judge. The judge will blow in a horn to signal the owner that the dummy was found, which the dog will pick up and apport back to the handler, only to release it on command.
The third stage of this exam will consist of noise sensitivity assessment, in which the dog will be asked to lay down without moving for 10 minutes. Shots will be fired in the air every two minutes during this time. During that phase, no commands should be given to the dog apart from the initial lay down and stay. Last but not least, the dog will be asked to apport a duck dummy from a water area, swimming to fetch it and bring it back to you. During all those stages, the judges will evaluate the same criteria as the ones in the Talent Exam.
How to get started
Whether or not you are planning on attending a hunting exam, training your dog for this discipline is a great way to stimulate his brain in a different way, and as such could be regarded as an adapted obedience activity.
All types of dogs are suited for the work, as long as the gear involved is adapted to the size of the dog. Of course, hunting breeds will become particularly fond of the exercise and learn to develop their innate instincts. Coming from a household with two German shorthair pointers who are crazy about mushing sports, hunting training is the single stimulating activity that gives them more mental and physical satisfaction!
As you will have probably guessed by now, hunting training is the synonym of loads of discipline and obedience, as well as very subtle teamwork between the dog and the handler. The first things you can work on with your dog is basic commands such as come, sit, stay, lay down, heel. Not only are these commands a requirement for hunting training, but they can also turn out quite useful in your everyday life with your furry buddy.
It's also important to work on those commands in different kinds of environments, ranging from your quiet, isolated garden to a city center full of people, or a forest full of smells and animals.
The focus of your dog on you is key. Even if he's not looking at you, he should be aware of you and keep an ear out for more directives.
Incorporating the whistle command on your daily walks is also very practical; as soon as your dog comes back after having whistled three times, ask him to sit next to you, and then reward him with a good pat or a treat.
Once those basic tricks have been learnt, you can start teaching apporting, which is basically like teaching your dog fetch but with a heavier object. Wooden "bones" are typically used, and several weights are available according to the dog's size.
Make your dog sit or lay down next to you, then give the stay order and walk away to place the object to retrieve somewhere on the ground. Once that's done, walk back to the dog, point at the object, release the dog and tell him to apport. Going and placing the object instead of throwing it is important; you don't want to initiate the excitement of a ball throwing process, but instead place your dog in a concentrated, calm and specific environment. Once he fetches it back, reward him at first to bringing the object, and then up the level by asking him to hold it for a while longer.
Specific hunting training
Next step, once those preliminaries have been mastered, is to integrate more specific hunting training into your training routines. Some aspects of it are harder to train than others - pointing, for instance, being predominantly based on instincts. Your best friend will then be on a field full of animals, with your dog nicely held on a leash, however. In any case, you really want to avoid letting your dog chase! Let him sniff around while watching him closely. When spotting some animal, your dog with normally instinctively slow down, wag his tail, seem very attentive to something, and typically lift one of his front paws, literally pointing at the direction of the game. Your job then will be to congratulate him in the most discreet way possible, walking very softly and silently to the dog and petting him on the back from the tip of your fingers. You don't want to disrupt his focus, while at the same time letting him know he's doing a good job!
Once the point is done, walk away from the area with him and play it out a bit. He's just used a lot of his cognitive functions and could definitely use a bit of a distraction!
Currently living with six dogs, our pack is quite heterogenous, and each dog has its own character and capacity. My partner's first dog was an unwanted adult German Shorthaired Pointer back in her breeder's care after having been judged to be too sticky by her previous owner to be any good in hunting. He fell for her charm and quickly realized she was anything but a couch potato.
With Andy and her cousin Scott, another unwanted adult back at the breeder who later joined the pack, he discovered firstly mushing sports as a way to let them work out their energy, while attending obedience classes held by a hunting handler who initiated him to the discipline. As the months passed, he met more people in that field, attending training weekends and participating to exams, which requires a lot of training prior to it. While his two GSPs absolutely love harness work, there is nothing quite as satisfying as hunting field work. You can truly see how happy they turn out when a dog bred for the work performs. And the best part in all of this? The sticky unwanted female turned out to be a gifted in that discipline, doing things she had never tried before as if she had done it her whole life.