Bird Dogs & Training  |  04/20/2020


Editor's Note: In this special preview of an article coming up in the summer edition of Pheasants Forever Journal, Chistine Cunningham (pointers) and Andrew McKean (flushers) explore the key bird dog command of "whoa." We thought Quail Forever members would like these approaches and insights too!

WHOA for Pointing Dogs

By Christine Cunningham

Above me on the rocky slopes, the shape of Winchester on point beckoned me upward. My hunting partner stood below me in the valley and watched as I made my way. 

Twenty minutes passed, maybe more. Winchester held his point without looking back, without moving at all. When I reached him, I had traveled 700 vertical feet over moss-covered slate. I was tired and sore, out of breath, with a shotgun slung on my shoulder. Winchester did not move as the white-tailed ptarmigan flock held about 20 feet ahead of him. In the half-hour leading up to that moment, nobody had said a word. 

But the idea of whoa wasn’t always like that for us. 

In the years since my early days as a bird hunter in the mountains of Alaska, I have often wondered how moments like the ones I treasure most ever happened at all. Sure, I read the basic books on how to train a pointing dog, but I made a lot of mistakes Winchester was able to overcome. Since then, I’ve learned from his pups that not all dogs master the field with an untrained hunter. 

When I contacted Ronnie Smith and Susanna Love of Ronnie Smith Kennels, it was to ask them for simple, straight-forward tips for teaching whoa. The method the Smith family developed decades ago revolves around the whoa post. Their stair-step format builds a conditioned response with repetition proven by thousands of bird dogs. 

The Smiths’ approach emphasizes communication, mutual respect, and building a relationship between hunter and bird dog. The result? Training doesn’t end with a command but provides a firm foundation for a pointing dog to continue a lifetime of learning. 

Start with a controlled environment, away from game. The biggest mistake most people make is to teach a dog whoa while the dog is on game, says Smith. If a dog is on scent, and you try to steady him, whether that’s making a correction or shouting verbiage, you may cause pressure-induced behavior on game. Starting a dog in a purpose-specific training area, away from birds, provides a solid foundation that you can work up from and go back to when the dog needs a refresher course. 

Teach the cue to stop and stand still with the whoa post. With a rope, quarter your dog to a stake or tree with a second rope attached. Run the whoa post rope between the dog’s back legs and over the lower back to create a half-hitch on the dog’s flank, then attach the rope to the collar between the front legs. Let the dog take a half step forward. The dog feels a slight squeeze on the flank and stops. In time, the dog associates the point of contact around the flank as the cue to stop and stand still.  

Name the command after the dog has learned the cue. While the dog is learning the appropriate response to the whoa post, you remain neutral, do not talk, and wait for the dog to acknowledge the cue on the flank. Later, you can transition from the physical cue of the rope to the remote signal of a training collar, placing the collar around the dog’s flank. “We teach the behavior, have the dog doing it perfectly, then we introduce a label for the behavior,” Love says. 

Create an ideal tone that is both clear and one of communication. Ronnie and Susanna agree that whoa is the most important word a pointing dog will learn: “In any situation, if you could only teach a dog one thing, it’s whoa,” says Smith. “If he is in harm’s way and you can stop him, you can save his life, whether that is from traffic, a bear, or any behavior you want to stop.” 

When approaching Winchester on point in the mountains, I often find myself saying whoa in a whisper. I am not issuing a firm command in these situations. My single word is less a cry from the distance and more an intimate expression that has gained meaning over the 10 years between us. In these instances, whoa is a hallowed word that means “birds.” Sheepishly, I had to ask the experts if this was alright. 

What a relief it was, after some silence, to hear Ronnie tell a story of how he had walked up to one of his dogs that he could see standing with intensity and found himself softly saying whoa … not as a command but as “I’m here.” This seemed to prove the adage that you don’t need to say a word to a finished pointing dog, but it takes learning the meaning of whoa to get there.

WHOA for Flushing Dogs

By Andrew McKean

Nellie is as boisterous as a 6th grader on a May afternoon. And just about as oblivious to expectations of social norms. A coming 3-year-old yellow Lab, she will literally auger herself into the ground, she’s so squirmy with anticipation of whatever’s next, whether it’s food or a hunt or even a romp in the yard. 

But one command will quiet her like lightning before a storm.

Sit I say, and she becomes an obedient, watchful coil of expectation: ready to find, retrieve or stay sitting until I release her, which is achieved with a light tap to her right shoulder.

The sit command is extremely useful when I’m in a duck blind and don’t want clod-footed Nel padding all over my buddies and spooking the birds. And it’s good when I’m in the house and don’t want her breaking for the food dish or for the UPS delivery person at the door. But sit is less valuable when I’m in the pheasant fields, and want her to stay close but not stationary.

So, I have introduced a second command: Whoa. Nellie struggles with its nuances from time to time, usually when a hot-running rooster is making a break for freedom. But she knows that it’s a middle course between sit and okay, which is my command for her to run wide and find whatever is next. 

If I’m being honest, whoa is the command I employ most fervently when we’re hunting with friends with pointing dogs. I want Nellie out there, questing for game with her buddies, but I absolutely do not want her roaming out of gun- and voice-range and flushing birds that the pointers would happily pin down and hold until their owners approach.

Whoa -- and Hup -- as a Reset

I trained whoa in order to build civility, and frankly livability, into my trip-wire Lab. But Dan Murray says that’s really just the start of the utility of the command. The owner of Absolute Gun Dogs near Bismarck, North Dakota, Murray trains spaniels, setters and retrievers, and says each requires a slightly different command, though the goal is the same.

“Essentially, whoa as a basic command enforces the point where the dog’s momentum ceases, but it’s desired at different points of contact with scent or birds, and may mean slightly different things for different breeds,” says Murray. “The basic command is hup for spaniels, sit for retrievers, and whoa for pointers.”

The difference is that pointers are required to cease their momentum prior to flushing game while Labs are commanded to sit to indicate that a transition is coming, usually a retrieve following a successful flush and shot.

“With spaniels, the momentum continues until the game is flushed,” says Murray. “At this point, momentum stops, and the command is hup to signal a changed focus to mark the retrieve.”

Murray dissects how that foundational command — hup — is used in a typical day hunting with a cocker spaniel. First, the dog should hup until the hunter or group is positioned to push cover, and the dog is given permission to quest. The second hup comes when game is scented, commanding the dog to stop his momentum as game is flushed from cover. The third hup is given as the dog retrieves the bird to hand or is directed for a blind retrieve.

But in the course of a hunt, hup has additional utility. Murray commands a dog to hup when moving game is taking her out of gun range. And a spaniel should hup at the sound of gunfire, in order to either honor another dog’s flush and retrieve or to raise his head to see the fall of downed game, and thereby mark a retrieve and increase the likelihood of bringing a bird to the bag.

Murray says that same hup command is given for springers, cockers and Labs as an early indicator that they should stop their headlong forward motion and wait (and watch) for a transition. But with Labs, especially those that will do duty in waterfowl situations, there’s an even more fundamental command, one that has utility for spaniels and setters, too.

The Value of Place

“The very first command I teach is place, coming to and staying on a slightly elevated platform, only 3 to 12 inches off the ground. From place we can teach everything else, including the hup or sit or whoa commands,” says Murray. 

“The place board teaches three important concepts,’ he explains. “The first is hup or whoa, which we instill as a focus needed to do anything before hunting or retrieving. The second concept is to teach a dog to come to the handler with enthusiasm, which we build by offering treats when the dog places correctly. And the third concept is to teach the dog to go away from the handler with enthusiasm, which is necessary on both marked and blind retrieves as well as questing for game.”

As for my Nellie, our sit is a surrogate for Murray’s place. It’s a command that demands that she slow down, watch for whatever’s next, and respond to my next command, which at its very best is the “Go Git It!” directive that there’s a dead bird to be retrieved somewhere in the tangle of cover just ahead.

Christine Cunningham and her setters work on whoa in a big backyard called Alaska, while Andrew McKean and Nellie work on hup from their home in Montana.