Out of Bounds

The Power of Whoa

With a smart pup, we'll master whoa in good time

By Rob Breeding

I’ve been lucky with bird dogs. My first two English setters took readily to pointing. 

It’s been nearly 20 years since Jack was young so my memories are a little fuzzy, but a couple moments stand out. The first was the time he found a covey of Huns in the field across the street from our house in Pocatello. 

Jack hit the scent trailing off those birds and locked up. Over time we got a lot of work on that covey. They lived in the city limits so were never hunted. 

I’d note conditions as we crossed the street and let him work into the wind. He’d point those birds almost daily. After the flush we’d mark where they settled and get another point. They rarely offered a third opportunity. After that second flush they’d fly into a large juniper tree in the backyard of one of my neighbors.

We also sometimes hunted state stocked pheasant, which is a thing in Idaho. That was helpful when he was young as those cage-reared numbskulls gave him plenty of easy work.

Doll was a little more challenging in her early years. Partially, it was circumstance. We no longer lived in Idaho so there weren’t any stocked pheasants nearby, and the resident wild partridges were chukars. 

Chukars are wonderful birds, my favorite after the quails, but they are runners and tough for a young pointing dog, which was likely reflected in Doll’s early unsteadiness.

Also, she only had a one-season pairing with Jack, and it wasn’t a great fit. They were buddies at home, but never seemed connected in the field.

After Jack passed we had a couple uneasy seasons before Doll settled in. By her fourth year she was a cagey, smart bird dog who has since vastly exceeded my ability to execute my role in a successful hunt.

Fortunately, she’s never really held it against me.

Now comes Jade, setter No. 3. She’s 8 months old and has a productive season of learning behind her. Unlike Doll’s dissonance with Jack, she took young Jade under her wing. The pup followed Doll around for three months, and Jade paid attention. Almost immediately she was backing the big dog, which made me happy.

Unlike pointing, a behavior primarily driven by scent, backing is a visual reaction. It is partially fueled by instinct — when a dog sees another on point, they’ll often freeze as well, until they can at least size up the situation. 

In time, she’ll connect the point to the bird scent wafting on the breeze, tickling that magnificent nose of hers. I bet she has already.

Backing is an advanced skill, one that usually comes in the latter stages of training, after “whoa” and steady to shot or flush are mastered. Backing just came naturally to Jade.

She also shows every sign of being a willing retriever, which isn’t something you can say about every setter. There’s still work to be done here too: after she mouthed her first California quail, the first step she took wasn’t toward me, but the opposite direction. I responded with a stern “Come!” That stopped her in her tracks. She trotted over and gave it up, reluctantly.

I also learned on those California quail that we have “whoa” work to do. On the open ground of southwestern deserts, dogs can get an eyeful of birds as they hunt. Doll and Jade were leading me to one covey when I heard the birds chattering just beyond a pair of Joshua trees. Jade also heard the chatter and rushed in, without the caution prompted by a Doll point, and didn’t stop until the covey was in the air.

Jade’s still a puppy. We’ll keep training on whoa, and once she’s steady, I’ll incorporate live birds.

She’s a smart pup. We’ll master whoa in good time.

Rob Breeding writes and blogs at www.mthookandbullet.com.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.