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Generalize Your Dog

Last fall, your writer met a young man in Maine who was on his first season of grouse hunting and the first for his young Brittany.  Hearing from young hunters and their experiences is always fun.  The young man said his dog was locating and pointing birds fine but wasn’t retrieving well.  Further questioning revealed that the dog had had some retrieving training with a dummy in the back yard and only the back yard.  This dog was never generalized with his training.

What does the word generalized mean when referring to dog training?  If a dog has been taught a command or action in the same location during every training exercise, it will often not respond to the command in a different location.  The repetitiveness of the command in the same location imprinted that location and command in the dog’s brain.  The dog has difficulty transferring the imprint to a different location.  Generalizing is executing the command in different locations.  That ensures the dog will respond properly in any location or environment.

Introducing a command and doing most of the early training in one location is permissible.  When you see that your dog is grasping the command and providing the desired behavior in a fairly consistent manner, then start changing your location.  Go from the front yard to the back yard, from the yard to a field, from a field to a wooded area, from dry conditions to wet and warm to cool.  You want your dog to respond to the command in every situation you may encounter during hunting season.

Several years ago, a good friend called to tell me he was invited by a business associate to hunt a preserve.  Although an avid big game hunter, he had never hunted upland birds.  He told me they were getting the deluxe package; guides, pointing dogs and lunch.  Although happy for him, I was feeling a bit guilty for having never invited him to hunt grouse over my dogs.  My friend called me about one week later all excited after spending the morning hunting pheasants over two English pointers.  I asked him how the dogs worked.  He told me that, as soon as the dogs were released, they ran hard to a small brush pile and then stopped and pointed.  The guide kicked the  brush pile but nothing was there.  The guide then commented “guess they didn’t plant a bird there”, released the dogs and on they went.  My friend said that happened once more.  These dogs were conditioned to think there would always be a bird in that first pile of brush. This was not what we call an unproductive due to a fading scent cone.  These dogs were conditioned that they would always find a bird in that location…nothing to do with scent.  Most likely, this is the only work these dogs get.  They need to be generalized by hunting them in many different locations…and even different species of birds.

Most pointing dog people accept that the “whoa” command is the most important command to be taught.  The command helps to steady-up your dog and is also a huge tool in your tool box for use when a dog is running toward a road or chasing a deer.  If whoa has only been taught in the front yard and never in the field, then expecting compliance while hunting is unrealistic.  The dog must be generalized to the command.

The recall command (here or come), falls under the same rules.  If all recall work is done in the yard, expect spotty compliance in the field.  Again, the dog must be generalized to the command.

Here’s another way to look at it.  If you played basketball and practiced your jump shot from exactly the same distance and location every time, your shooting percentage would be very poor in a game when you must take the shot from several different locations and distance to the basket.

Generalize your dog to your commands and you’ll be much more pleased with the result while hunting this fall.

Paul Fuller is a lifelong sportsman.  He’s been an outdoor writer since 1971. He’s the host and producer of the award winning Bird Dogs Afield TV show ( and produced the epic video Grouse, Guns & Dogs. Paul shot over his first German short-haired pointer in 1961.

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