Thistle, who was co-owned by Julie Harris of Hermon and Ann Short of Acton, demonstrates one of the exercises Julie used with her to teach retrieving from the water and retrieving to hand. The ball was thrown into the water and Thistle was sent after it and directed to bring it to hand or to drop it at Julie’s feet in a specified place. Credit: Julie Harris

I was lucky my first Brittany dog named Rosie came from strong hunting lines, so my husband and I were able to just hunt with her without a lot of training. Just as well. We knew nothing about training anyway.

Our Sassy came from Brittany breeders who were into hunting and training, and they recommended several books for us to read. We joined a Brittany breed club where we sought advice from seasoned trainers. We read the books, watched training demonstrations and took part in some training exercises. So many different opinions on training made the whole thing feel quite daunting.

What I eventually figured out is that training — though it has basic, common tenets for every bird dog — is as individual as fingerprints and is an ongoing process. Dogs have different levels of natural instinct and abilities to listen and learn. They have distinct personalities that can affect what training methods are used and how long training takes.

The basic goals are clear. Dogs should have hunting patterns that are methodical and thorough. Pointing dogs, such as Brittanys, should stand still facing “on point” where the bird is hiding once a bird has been located. Dogs should “honor” or stop behind another dog on point when encountered. Pointing dogs should not move while the hunter flushes the bird out of its hiding spot and shoots it. Flushing dogs should work within gun range of the hunter as they rush in on bird scent and flush the birds out for the hunter. Dogs also should retrieve the bird to hand on command.

Classic and simple expectations — not so easy to achieve.

Credit: Julie Harris

People who compete with their dogs in field trials and hunt tests — competitions based on the hunting experience — often will send their animals to professional trainers to prepare them for the stiff competition they might encounter. Hobby hunters will send their dogs to professional trainers, too, but it can be expensive and the dogs are away from home for weeks or months at a time. That can be unacceptable to people whose dogs also are family pets.

I cannot afford professional trainers, but I am fortunate my breeders and friends are great hobby trainers. I have learned a lot from them, enough to do at least the basic training myself, before I send my dogs to the breeders for the more refined levels that make my dogs finished gun dogs.

But even basic training can be tricky, depending on the dogs involved. Here are a few of the things I have learned:

— Never confuse natural instinct with the ability to listen and follow verbal cues and body language. I confused these things with Sassy, who now ignores my commands and does her own thing. Training should work with natural ability to emphasize the desired behaviors.

— When dogs fail to execute part of the process correctly, it is always the trainer’s fault. Intelligent dogs are reading body language as well as listening to voice and whistle commands, and come to their own conclusions about what is wanted. Be clear about commands so the dogs don’t have to interpret.

— Do not change the script in the middle of the play. For example, if you have decided on two short bursts from your whistle to tell the dog to hunt closer or to change direction, and one long whistle to come back to you, do not use them interchangeably. Too confusing for everyone involved.

— Dogs have body language, too, and we should try to be in tune with it. For instance, not all dogs point in the classic manner with one front paw raised. Some dogs, such as my two male dogs Bullet and Quincy, often just stop and become rigid with intense focus in the direction of the bird. It is more subtle than the lifted foot scenario, but effective if you know your dogs.

— Expect the unexpected. Even finished gun dogs have brain misfires that leave you shaking your head and going back to basics. My breeder calls it “the bonehead gene.” Basics will reinforce what the dogs have learned and boost their confidence. Before you know it, you are all back on track again.

— Do not try to teach everything at once. Teach the skills in small pieces and offer praise for each accomplishment. It is tempting when dogs are doing well to just keep going, but like with any learner, it becomes information overload for the dogs. They start making lots of mistakes, forcing you to go back to basics.

— Always end training on a positive note. You want your dogs to be happy about being in the fields and woods with you. If it is obvious the dogs are tiring, do not try to squeeze out one more retrieve or one more point. The last memory from the session should be a correct performance and a happy owner.

— Keep training sessions short, focused and regular. As a person with a full-time job, I find it difficult to fit in regular training sessions for the dogs, especially when daylight is limited. That is when I get more creative, such as using a favorite toy to work on retrieving to hand in the house.

— Make keeping the dogs in shape a priority. These are athletic, working animals that should have a good quality food and regular exercise so they will have the strength and endurance they need in the fields and woods. I find this a challenge in the winter especially when it’s icy outside, but we have “house games” we play, such as tossing toys to the top of the stairs and sending the dogs after them, over and over again.

— Above all else, reach deep into your soul and find patience. If the dogs are not catching on to what you are trying to teach, examine your procedure to find possible confusion you could be causing, come up with a new method to teach the skill, or seek advice from more experienced people. Remember, failures in training are always the trainer’s fault. (See No. 2)

Training, first and foremost, should be special time you spend with your dog so that you both can have rewarding experiences together in fields and woods. It is an opportunity to form a solid relationship between animal and human that will carry through the dog’s lifetime.

And, dare I say, it can be fun.

Julie Murchison Harris is community editor at Bangor Daily News. She is widowed and shares her life with three Brittanys — Sassy, age 12; Bullet, 10; and Quincy, 4 — in an old farmhouse in Hermon.

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Julie Harris

Julie Harris has served in many roles at Bangor Daily News since she joined the staff in 1979, but is now on its senior editor team and editor of five of BDN's weeklies and their associated websites, including...