All gun dogs, including pointers, flushers, and retrievers, will likely need to learn how to be controlled and show docility. (Photo by: Chris Ingram)
Hunting dogs are often divided into three different categories: pointers, tracking dogs, and retrievers. When it comes to choosing your first hunting dog (or your next one), questions keep popping up. Which is the easiest to train? Which is the hardest? What gear do you need for one versus the other? And what about the required knowledge for the different groups?
To answer some of these questions, I contacted my good friend and longtime dog trainer Trena Cardwell of Chukarhill Kennels in Kittitas, Washington.
Trena has been a professional dog trainer for over 35 years, training the full range of sporting dogs, from retrievers and flushers to pointers of almost every breed. In that time, the dogs she has trained have won more than two dozen national field trial championships in England, Ireland and Gordon Setter.
Armed with my questions and in search of the right answers, I was immediately closed by Trena, who concluded that we had hastily divided dogs into three broad categories without properly considering a much more important factor: the individual nature of hunting dogs, regardless of breed or purpose.
The individual factor
According to Cardwell, it’s not possible to have a valid discussion about pointers, flushers, and retrievers by dividing the dogs into three artificial categories and saying, “train one like this, train another like this.”
“Every dog is different, it doesn’t matter what breed it is or what you do with it,” Cardwell said. “I’m talking about individual dogs. Individuals are just individuals and they are all different. Everyone learns at different speeds. They all learn in different ways, no matter what category you put them in.”
“Which are the hardest to train? Which are the easiest? Which require more finesse? Which require more muscle?” I asked.
“I still think that’s an individual thing,” Cardwell said. “Some dogs of all types are softer and some are harder. A field test lab is generally a tough guy. They have to be because they take heat like nothing else.”
Aside from the individual nature of dogs and how difficult or easy they are to train, I led Cardwell into a discussion of the equipment needed to train the different types – pointers, flushers, and retrievers.
Equipment and resources for dog training
However, Cardwell believes there are far more similarities to the equipment needed to train these three different types of hunting dogs than there are differences.
“A set of good electronic fowlers is a good thing for pointers, flushers and retrievers,” she said. “A set of good e-collars too. You will also need a test cord and bumpers. Even for pointers, if you want to train your pointer to retrieve, you need bumpers. And you need a force retrieve table for all three if you’re going to teach them to retrieve.”
Most notably, Cardwell mentioned that one of the most important tools you need to train any hunting dog is live birds. She prefers pigeons for most of her training because they are available and because she can use them over and over again. “Regardless of the purpose, you can’t make a bird dog without birds,” she said. “No matter what kind of bird dog it is, one must have birds. Pigeons are good for all three types.”
Cardwell believes that good training is important for all three types of hunting dogs. These dogs that train pointers are likely to require larger possessions than for flushers and retrievers as they naturally tend to stray farther from their handler.
“Water is also crucial if you want to make a duck dog or a goose dog,” she added. “And a jumper can sit in the duck blind just as well as a Labrador. I’ve had a few jumpers in my career that were very nice duck dogs, but water isn’t that critical unless the dog you’re training is going to be doing water retrievals.
dog training methods
While someone starting out with gun dogs might think the training of the different types would be very different, Cardwell says the similarities again outweigh the differences. “There are basic fundamentals,” she said. “You make them start the same way, then branch out from there.”
Gaining control of the dog from the start is so important to Cardwell that it outweighs all other aspects of training, regardless of the type of dog and long-term training goals. “The most important part of training any of these three is obedience,” she said. “They must come when called. Even a big pointing dog has to deal with it. A good Springer or a good Labrador will have to handle it. The type of grip will obviously be different, but the non-negotiable part isn’t.”
Of course, this is where the natural instincts of different types of hunting dogs come into play, because as different as people are, dogs are bred for different types of hunting. “There’s a big difference in what turns their crank,” Cardwell said. “A Labrador puppy will pack things in their mouth from the moment they’re a little guy, and typically a jumper will too. Our pointers run around showing tweety birds, shadows, flies and bugs. And they tend to think more independently.”
While similar, there are of course some differences in what a gun dog owner should teach different types of puppies from the start. “I wouldn’t train a pointer puppy to sit on command just because of my experience in field trials and competitions,” Cardwell said. “But I would teach a retriever and a flusher to sit, and I would do it with a single note on the whistle since I first started teaching them. And I would teach them to move backwards – which is a straight line away from your body. And I would teach them to mark. You should also teach all three types to walk forward. You don’t want to be looking behind you all the time. It just depends on how high the forward gear is. It varies with different dogs.”
Ultimately, however, the training styles required for the three different dog types go back to looking at each individual dog rather than simply saying train a retriever this way, train a pointer this way, and train a flusher this way. “You can’t just throw them in three different pots,” Cardwell concluded. “Train dogs as individuals, no matter what you’re training them for, and you’ll have a lot more success in the long run.”