Rocky, owned by Walter and Christine Longley of Litchfield, demonstrates one of the first steps in learning how to retrieve, according to the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association's program. Here he is holding a cracker in his mouth until he is told he can consume it or someone removes it. He won this challenge in a recent contest during an hunting dog association demonstration at the sportsmen's show in Augusta. Rocky also is son to Julie Harris' Brittany Bullet. Credit: Courtesy of Walter Longley

Obedience is a foundation skill for so many dog sports, including training bird dogs. Bird dogs at high skill levels heel (walk beside hunter) in and out of the woods, come when summoned, stay where told, fetch on command and willingly release what they fetched.

Some training programs, such as the one taught through North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association, recognize the need for obedience and incorporate deliberate obedience steps in its training program for bird dogs. Dogs are taught every skill in small steps that lead to the ultimate goal of a perfect performance.

Obedience training allows me to have some level of trust in how my dogs will behave off leash. It helps my dogs develop the ability to focus on what they are doing and on me so that they will listen to my commands and act on them.

This kind of training also can save a dog’s life. If the dog is running toward the road while pursuing a bird, and he is trained to stop on command without question, there is a better chance of the dog not getting injured by vehicles.

A dog that may come upon unfriendly woodland creatures can be called away from the threat if he is obedient. There are plenty of hazards in Maine’s woods: skunks, porcupines, coyotes, bears, fishers and big cats like lynx and bobcat all can turn a pleasant hunting experience into a nightmare. Having an obedient dog can lower the risks of injury or death, although admittedly all the obedience training in the world cannot overcome a dog determined to get into trouble.

Obedience training can come from multiple sources, but all of my puppies go through what I call “puppy kindergarten” at an established training facility where they learn to be around other dogs and some basic obedience commands.

Some of those are:

Sit: Plunk your butt where you are please.

Stay: Leave those feet where they are and don’t move.

Down: Lie down where you are and stay there until I invite you to move.

Off: People often confuse this command with “down.” To me, off means get your feet OFF my counter, get OFF the bed and my pillow with your wet or muddy body, get OFF my kitchen table and get OFF my friend you just greeted by jumping up against her. You can probably think of a few of those yourself.

Through: This command is most often taught in conjunction with agility to teach the dog to go into one end of a tunnel and come out the other. It also can be used to encourage the dog to go into a small open space in a thicket or other tight places and come out the other side. I rarely use this command in the woods. My bold Brittany dogs generally plow through everything anyway in their quest for game birds.

Up: I use this when I want the dog to jump into the vehicle or onto the grooming table for some coat or toenail maintenance, or as an invitation to hop into my lap to talk about their day and for snuggles.

Over: This most often is used to encourage the dog to scale a rock wall, log or other large obstacle while in the woods. In agility, it is used to ask the dog to jump over bars of different heights. In flyball (think dog relay racing), it is used to ask the dog to leap over the jumps on his way to the spring-loaded box that holds the ball he will grab and bring back to me.

Leave it: Dead animals and piles of feces are just irresistible to my two male Brittanys. A good strong “leave it” command often helps me avoid the post-hunting bath to rid my dogs of whatever they rolled in. This also is a good tool for keeping my dogs from eating something that is dropped to the floor mistakenly and could hurt them if ingested.

Come: This is the most important command of all. Good recall is the basis for all else I do with my dogs. It brings them in closer to me when there is danger. It is the basis for teaching the “fetch” or “retrieve” command. It is what allows me to walk with them in the woods and not fear losing them. It is the best building block for trust between human and canine. If something doesn’t go right, good response to this command refocuses the dog and brings him back to me so that we can get reset and try again or move on to the next thing.

There is a lot to be said for good obedience skills for many reasons, but one of the most significant to me is that when I can trust my hunting partner, the hunt is a lot more enjoyable.

Julie Murchison Harris is community editor at the Bangor Daily News. She is widowed and shares her life with three Brittanys: Sassy, 12, Bullet, 10, and Quincy, 4 — in an old farmhouse in Hermon. “It’s a Bird Dog’s Life” is published every two weeks.

Julie Harris

Julie 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...