I was browsing YouTube recently when I came across a video from Berg Bros setters in Minnesota (you may remember Berg. Bros. from my blog post on tips for buying a started dog). The video shows a five-month-old Berg Bros setter pup absolutely steady to wing on a flushed bird. It was a pretty amazing video for a dog so young, so I called up Scott Berg to ask him about it, and as I do every time I talk to a knowledgeable dog trainer, managed to learn something in spite of myself.
“Well, that was an unusual situation,” says Berg, “And I’d caution anyone not to push for this type of result so early, or to even try this with a pup that young, but I had worked this pup on whoa, both on the bench, and playing fetch. I’d mix in whoa while playing retrieve. I’d throw a ball, then gently restrain him while saying whoa. When he was steady for a bit, I’d release him. It was a fun game and the retrieve was his reward. You want to make it fun for the dog. Keeping it fun is very important, and letting them learn on their own with wild birds or strong flying liberated birds.”
When they put the dog into planted birds, Berg says it only took a few reminders to whoa (and strong pointing instinct) before the pup was completely steady to the flush. “I told my brother we had to film this because otherwise no one would believe us.”
Again, Berg stresses that a steadying a dog that young through the flush certainly isn’t typical, but the foundation for that kind of success–for any dog–is the proper early introduction to birds. “You have to remember, this pup was introduced to birds at 14 weeks old. We’d let him find birds, point, chase and just have fun. We shoot a blank pistol while the pup chases and stop the chasing once the dog has demonstrated they are fine with gunfire. What we want to do is simply bring along the natural talent the dog already has. If a dog is properly introduced to birds early, and that dog has the proper mental makeup, then everything else comes along.”
“But,” Berg adds (and this is key), “you’ve got to let them learn on their own and develop their innate abilities before you start trying to control it. And that’s what that early introduction to birds does.” But, Berg cautions, that’s not to say you should immediately go out and throw your new eight-week-old pup into a bunch of birds. Things can go wrong that spook a pup this young. “Fourteen weeks is about the youngest we’ll introduce pups to birds, and depending on the individual dog, 16 to 18 weeks is more typical.”
Interesting, and it reinforces a theme common to virtually every good trainer I talk to: if you want to make a bird dog, you’ve got to get them on birds.