I’m not talking about just the way these dogs conduct themselves in the field during the hunt. You know, responding to their handler’s every word, whistle or hand signal. That’s “well trained” and is absolutely essential to the success of the hunt and pride of the dog's owner. But “nice manners” are measured by conduct beyond the hunting habitat, like around the house, or on a leash in a civilized area like a lodge or shopping district.
All the bird hunts at Joshua Creek Ranch are conducted with pointing, flushing, and retrieving dogs, so we’ve got to breed and train actively to keep fresh dogs coming into the hunting program. Consequently, my husband, Joe, almost always has a favorite pup at our house to personally socialize and introduce to field training. I’ve made it my mission to teach these pups some manners while they’re at the house and honestly, I think it’s their manners as much as their training that’s given rise to their favored positions in the line-up of Joshua Creek Ranch hunting dogs.
While Joe is teaching them to respond to commands like “come,” “heel,” “hup,” “back,” and “whoa,” I’m teaching them the manner commands most important to me: “outside,” “down,” “no chew” and “hush.” I like the idea that I can use the field commands Joe’s taught them whenever I want them to come, sit (hup), stop (whoa), fetch (back), and heel in a civilized setting, along with my commands for some even more refined behavior like stay outside, stay down, no chewing my whatever and hush that unnecessary barking or whining.
Painting “The Good Setter” by Ric Dentinger from the collection of Joe Kercheville.
So why am I so insistent about the dogs having nice manners? Because I want to be happy about having them around even when they’re not hunting, which, for the average hunting dog owner, is most of the time. Look, they don’t know if their paws are wet and muddy and the house was just cleaned, so I’ve taught them to play it safe and stay outside unless invited inside. They can’t discern “dressed to go to a wedding” from “dressed to mow the lawn,” so they’ve been taught to just wait for attention rather than jumping up to demand it. Same goes for chewing. If it’s in their dish or has been given to them, have at it; otherwise leave it alone. And as for any unnecessary barking or whining, they’re taught to zip it. Whether they know it or not, they really don’t want to be the dog who cried wolf.
I’m no dog whisperer, but I do have some very well mannered dogs I like being around. If you're interested in how they got that way, I’ll share a few pointers. Teaching a pup manners is as easy as teaching your kids manners. They just have to be consistently reminded, rewarded when they get it right and scolded when they get it wrong.
Example 1. When the pup makes a dash to follow you inside an open door, firmly say “outside” and gently use your feet or hands to be sure he stays outside when you go in. If he outmaneuvers you, put him outside with the verbal command “outside,” followed by “good pup” as you close the door. Never let him win the contest if you've said “outside.” Same rule applies to the cars. It’s that simple.
Example 2. Use your wide open palm in his face to teach him to stay down. NEVER pet him if he jumps up on you. Pet him only when he has all four paws on the ground or is sitting. If he does jump up on you reward him with a thump on the nose or top of the noggin and a sharp verbal “no,” then firmly push him down, keeping the open palm of your hand in his face to prevent him from jumping up again. When he is down, bend over and pet him and speak kindly to him.
Example 3. Give your pup chew toys from the get-go and avoid leaving other temptations laying around or leaving him alone around valuables like oriental rugs with alluring fringe or collector shotguns with exotic wood stocks in floor stands or leopard mounts with long tails that surely appear to twitch before the eyes of a young pup. (All of the above examples are the voice of personal experience speaking, and resulted in temporary puppy personality disorders from the consequences.) The same thump on the nose or head and sharp verbal “no” signals wrong behavior. Give the pup an acceptable chew item immediately and remove him from the area of the temptation. I find it useful to keep a small inventory of new toys on hand for those times it’s particularly difficult to distract him from a particular temptation.
Example 4. Breaking unnecessary barking or whining is the hardest one for me because it requires the greatest endurance on my part. This behavior is usually for attention and occurs when the pup is alone in a kennel, etc. Sternly say “hush” to your pup, and then leave him in solitude. Wait for a break in the noise and immediately give your pup some positive attention. If the noise persists as soon as you stop giving him attention, punish your pup with solitude until he is quiet, then reward him with your company. Obviously, this is not recommended for bedtime training.
The great reward in all this is for the owner as much as the dog. With good training and manners, you can literally take your dog anywhere without fear for how he’ll behave. You’ll be the envy of every dog owner and your dog will be coveted by even those who've sworn off dog ownership forever. Sometimes it happens that a dog is almost too well mannered, like our English Cocker, Java, who is such a delight that he has the privilege of spending a couple of months with us each summer in Colorado. Java doesn't even attempt to come inside the house, never jumps up on anyone or chews up anything, and barks only if there's a significant reason. He responds immediately to every command regardless of the nature of any distraction that has his attention, so naturally we take him everywhere with pride and confidence.
So it’s no wonder that when Java started barking early one Colorado morning before daylight I knew something significant was outside. But I didn’t want him to wake Joe, so I opened the kitchen door and said “hush” and “come,” both of which he promptly did, never taking his eyes off the direction he'd been focused on. But when he got to the kitchen door he halted abruptly and looked at me. In the meantime, I was looking for what had him in such a dither and saw a big black bear about 30 feet away looking back at us. Java sat boldly outside the kitchen door, and even as I grabbed him by the collar to drag him into the kitchen, he had the brakes on since I’d not issued an official invitation to come inside. I slammed the door and hugged that dog the next instant.
What a dog. What responsiveness to the commands we’d practiced since he was a pup… even in that tense “bear moment.” He makes us proud and I’m happy to have him around, whether it’s in the hunting field or around the house.
Ann Kercheville is President of Joshua Creek Ranch. Located in the renowned Texas Hill Country just 45 minutes northwest of San Antonio and 90 minutes southwest of Austin, Joshua Creek Ranch occupies a uniquely diverse terrain including miles of Joshua Creek and Guadalupe River bottomland planted in fields of grain crops for prime upland and deer hunting habitats. You can visit their web site at http://www.joshuacreek.com.