Sunday, February 10, 2013

Training A Hunting Dog Begins Before Stepping Outside

It's hard to get a shot when the dog is off chasing a deer, ignoring calls and flushing game a quarter of a mile away. But don't blame the pooch. It's more likely a matter of bad training than bad genes.

"My motto is: Don't blame 'em, train 'em," said Rich Kerlin, owner of Kerlin Kanine Training in Hopewell.

At two seminars this week at the Allegheny Sport, Travel and Outdoor Show at Monroeville Convention Center, Kerlin will offer tips for training quality hunting dogs.

Kerlin specializes in pointers and retrievers but has helped hound owners to keep their dogs focused on the scent. His kennel generally keeps about 10 dogs in training, but 85 percent of his business is in private lessons -- training owners to train their dogs.

The hunt for a good hunting dog starts before meeting the puppy, he said. Pre-purchase research can make all the difference.

"Dogs are just like people -- each one has its own maturity rate and personality," Kerlin said. "Pedigree and background can be important in helping you to find a good, healthy dog, and you could spend $1,000 or $50. But I tell people to think about specifically what kinds of hunting they'll want the dog to do, what kind of home and family they're bringing the dog into, and how much time they plan to spend on training it."

If you think you might hunt pheasants and ducks a few times a year and want a family dog and good buddy, consider a Labrador retriever, which Kerlin calls "the stereotypical family dog."
If you live in an apartment without a lot of running space and want a dog that's good with kids, think Brittany or another small breed. Grouse hunting is the speciality of the English setter, which requires more exercise than some breeds. German shorthair pointers may be too active for families in cramped quarters with young kids.

Nothing runs rabbits like a smelly but lovable beagle. But while a good trainer can finesse the hunting instincts of a bird dog, Kerlin said individual hounds either have a good nose and sense for hunting or they don't. A bad point-of-purchase decision could be impossible to correct.
Before buying a dog, consider the cost. In addition to the initial purchase, plan for a one-time $200 to $250 investment in a kennel, collar, leashes, initial training supplies and retrieving dummy. Trips to the vet can be expensive, and expect to pay $30 to $40 per month for a 40-pound bag of food. Kerlin is "a firm believer in good, quality dog food."

Consider the time. Failure to teach a puppy to obey can set a negative standard that's hard to break in later years.

"I hear all the time, 'I don't have time to train a dog,' " said Kerlin. "With a young puppy it takes 10 to 15 minutes a day, and you work it into your daily routine. If you can't put 10 to 15 minutes a day into it, don't get the dog."

As pack animals, hunting dogs naturally want to be part of the family. That's a good thing, provided the owner correctly introduces the new member of the family in the right way.

"If you're getting a puppy to raise with your kid, it's probably the hard way to bring up a hunting dog," Kerlin said. "I'm a big believer in getting the kids involved in the training -- a 7-year-old can be very much involved in training the dog. But if you have a newborn to 3-year-old, now you have two infants in the house."

Some quality breeders, hoping to place their puppies in good homes, ask a lot of questions and want to meet the family. That's a good sign that you're getting a good, healthy animal, Kerlin said. The flip side is that it's not always wise to take the whole family when picking out a dog.

"Leave the kids at home," he said. "Any puppy out there will look adorable. The more research you do, the better, and do your thinking with your head, not your heart."

Avoid picking two pups from the same litter. Kerlin said the dogs may be forever engaged in sibling rivalry or bond with each other more than with their trainer.

Obedience training begins on Day 1. Puppyhood is the imprinting age, when positive and negative associations are introduced that may remain through the dog's lifetime.

"The old-school way was to wait one year to begin training, but that's not the way to do it," Kerlin said. "Under 6 months, you're setting the foundation for more formal training. First comes housebreaking, getting the puppy used to the leash and correcting common puppy problems -- play biting and jumping up. Later comes basic retrieving skills -- getting the animal comfortable in water and used to the sound of gunshots, introducing it to live birds."

A tip for teaching soft-mouth skills: Train the dog to retrieve a frozen bird -- a deep hardy bite will be uncomfortable, and it will learn to lightly cradle the bird between its jaws.

A tip for teaching obedience: "Aggression breeds aggression," Kerlin said. "You don't want to slap, hit or kick a dog -- it makes no sense to them. You want to duplicate natural canine correction. Grab it by the scruff of the neck or the muzzle."

At some point in the dog's training, Kerlin recommends seeking the help of a professional trainer.

"The main thing I see people doing wrong is pushing the dog too fast too soon," he said. "They're puppies for a long time. Up to 6 months, they're like little kids. At 6 months, they hit puberty, and around 1 year, they're like high school students -- not fully adult but mature enough to start taking them hunting."

Most big breeds reach adulthood and full mental development at 2 1/2 to 3 years.

"Training should be fun for the dog and the trainer," Kerlin said. "Any dog can be trained to do something."

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