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Training Young English Setters
By Jerry McAllister 

The author beginning a field 
workout with Daisy.

I spent the summer and fall of 2007 training two young English setters for Jason Gooding and for myself. Both were born at Good Go Ing Kennels in March the year before, in separate litters. Daisy is a smallish classic female setter with a moderate amount of black spots on a white background. Her signature feature is a black mask covering both eyes. Hunter is a male black and white classic, full-sized, with a mask covering only a single eye. Both setters are affectionate dogs wanting to please, Daisy more than Hunter. They have the gift of a sense of smell which detects game birds downwind from thirty or more yards away and which causes them to lock tightly into a point when closing to within five to ten yards. They are also blessed with an uncompromising desire to hunt birds intensely, under all circumstances. Fortunately for me, these inherited characteristics were not enough to make them valuable hunting companions. They needed some training.

I met Jason in the mid-90’s when a friend with birddogs started taking me to Jason’s hunt club in Baldwin, Wisconsin. At the time I had a five year old female setter who had seen some grouse shot over her. For the rest of her life, she saw a dozen or so pheasants shot at Jason’s, a handful of times each year. She became a much better grouse dog, learned how to hunt synergistically with flushing dogs, and how to work for multiple hunters in the field. Soon after she died I retired from work forever and for one of my primary avocations, volunteered to help Jason train some of his young setters. It didn’t hurt at all that my retirement home is less than five minutes from his farm.

I had used a setter for over 30 years to hunt pheasants and grouse since getting my first in 1971 as a college graduation present. Each one had been trained by me using quail in call-back pens, remotely activated live bird throwers, electronic collars and whistles, twenty-five foot leads with choke collars and lots of traditional obedience training. These are also used by Jason, plus a lot more that he showed me.

When I met Daisy and Hunter in May, they were almost 15 months old. Jason had given them a few obedience lessons, flushed some planted birds from in front of them, and fired enough shells over them to establish they were not gun shy. Both dogs were completely fixated on Jason with no interest in a strange person. Jason put out three pigeons in electronic throwers spaced about 300 yards apart in a mowed hay field, and let each dog find the birds and hold a point. He released each the bird and allowed the dog to chase it for a minute or so before calling it back with electronic coaxing. Then on a 25 foot lead with a choke collar and an electronic collar, he showed me how they knew “come”, “whoa”, and “heel.” Their knowledge of these commands was imperfect for Jason even with electronic reminders, and later that same day, hardly at all for me.

Hunter on point during a training session.

At this point I embarked on 30-40 minute training sessions for each dog about three times a week. Jason answered many questions every week but left me alone with the dogs. In the beginning, each dog was taken on a big run before training was commenced. I only used the command “come” and they responded fairly well after a little shock with the first “come.” Daisy and Hunter responded very differently to the electronic collar. Daisy needed very little, and Hunter a lot but only at low intensity. I immediately started using the whistle to announce that a “call” was forthcoming. All this worked well unless there was a distraction – a wild game bird, Jason’s voice within 200 yards, a visible loose dog, or a moving vehicle. Any of these caused the dog to forget me, any knowledge of “come”, or the meaning of the collar. So we went back a step on the “big run before training” – I began with the 25 foot lead and let them off the lead only after they did “come” well without a shock. Some days we never got to this point; so I started simply, with walking on a leash and requiring them to respond to heel and whoa. They learned this exercise quickly, even fresh out of the kennel. And a few minutes the heeling was followed by the lead and “come”, and this allowed me to release them for a big run with the expectation of “come” working. 

Within three sessions we had this down – “heel” on a leash, “come” on a lead, “come” on a big run. Each dog had started to learn that it was accompanying me on a run, not just out on its own. However, for the dog the run was just an obedience session without a leash. I wanted for the dog to start being a team with me. It was obvious that both dogs were hunting on our runs although they weren’t sure where to look or what to look for. I had been getting them used to me as one of their people with my voice and with a lot of reward, both voice and petting. On the runs I began to reward them when they looked to find me. This led more frequently to their locating me visually. I followed this with blowing the whistle, and often, if they looked to me for the command, there would be none but instead praise for recognizing the whistle as an invitation to find me. If they didn’t look my way, I always made them “come.” Later, when they learned to hunt, they knew the whistle first meant to stop what you are doing. Although, we did obedience training on a leash and live bird work almost every session, the “big run” and its preliminaries were where almost all of the training and learning occurred the first month.

Live bird work was with homing pigeons in electronic throwers. The release was always followed with a fired shotgun. About once every two weeks, I put out pheasants or quail and killed the bird when the dog performed adequately. Both dogs were able to find the pigeon baskets easily. They got the scent about 30-40yards away, methodically worked in closer using the wind vector, and then locked up. After about 5 seconds, I’d release the bird, let them chase, fire a shot, and call them back with “come” when they got about 100 yards out. This training carried over very well to shooting live birds. Generally, 5-10 second points worked well for young pen-raised, planted birds. They don’t run much and only a few seconds are needed for the trainer to make them flush. I encouraged any attempt by the dogs to retrieve and repeated any success by hand throwing the dead bird. I did no formal retrieve training.

Before progressing to realistic hunting situations, the male Hunter regressed. He began breaking his points after a couple seconds and jumping on the electronic thrower. My theory is that we spent too long with the pigeons in electronic baskets. This led to a month of remedial training to get Hunter to hold points again. I used the 25 foot lead with choke collar and the “whoa” command. I set it up so he would hit the end of the lead before reaching the thrower. We also spent a lot of time doing “whoa” on the 25 foot lead with me on one side of a post or tree and him on the other. 

The author working Daisy on point steadiness.

After 3 months the dogs were associating me and my commands with their finding birds. We never went to the birds’ locations until the dog was hunting for me. They were finding planted birds in throwers, holding points and coming back quickly after my releasing the birds. At this point we progressed to planting adult birds in realistic cover situations. Daisy was confused by the first bird or two that ran away from her point. With a little show-and-tell by me she learned to circle until she found the hot trail away from the initial point. Hunter had more difficulty probably due to his earlier tendency to bust points and all the remedial training with “whoa”. When the birds ran away, he became confused and came to me looking for direction. I was not able to teach him how to get back on task until the hunting season opened and he actually saw experienced dogs working wild birds.

Throughout my four months training at Jason’s farm, I began each session with a big run followed by obedience training. I trained each dog separately in every session. We did “heel” with a leash and choke collar, come” with a 25 foot lead and a choke collar, and “whoa” with the 25 foot lead. Much of the “whoa” training was with me on one side of a post or tree and the dog the other. All this repetition led to a sooth transition to the dog being obedient when off the leash and birds present. The other big piece for this transition was getting the dog to work with me as a team early on, and not to allow it to find birds until this teamwork was being demonstrated. Some days the dog went back to the kennel with the birds still where I had planted them.

This story is two-part. The second deals with how Daisy and Hunter went from training on Jason’s farm to hunting wild pheasant and grouse. It also contains an upland game report for northwestern Wisconsin in 2007. On this same site, see “Hunting Young English Setters.”