Without a doubt, the most important command for a pointing dog is “Whoa,” which means, simply, “Stop moving, NOW.” Of course, any breed of pointing dog from good bloodlines doesn’t have to be taught to stop. As pups they will stop and point just about anything that gets their interest, from butterflies to birds. The challenge is to keep the dog stopped until you say it is OK to go again.
There is a lot of preliminary work that goes into teaching this command. I’ll cover that here and we’ll go into the more advanced aspects of it in a later article. To successfully train a pointing dog, remember the number one rule: Don’t start out teaching whoa around birds. The worst thing that could happen would be for you to discipline a dog around a bird too early, risking the chance of making him bird-shy.
In fact, at our kennel, the first few phases of whoa training don’t even involve a verbal command. We start out with pups as young as 8 weeks, setting them up on a table and stroking them and getting them used to standing still for 10 seconds to 1 minute at a time. We give them a treat occasionally while they’re standing still. Everything about this exercise teaches the dog that standing still is pleasurable.
By 16 weeks, we move the exercise to a barrel turned on it side. Now the dog is learning that moving will cause the barrel to rock a bit, and that’s uncomfortable for him. You can let the dog fall off the barrel so his back feet are on the ground. Again, the lesson learned is that standing still is more pleasurable than moving.
At this stage, we’re still not using the word “Whoa.” What we are doing, however, is stroking the dog, giving him treats, and handling him. We rub his sides and stroke up his tail. This will pay off later when we’re doing bird work and you need to correct the dog. It will keep him from breaking down just because you’re touching him.
The next step is to introduce the word “Whoa.” Repeat it over and over while the dog is standing on the barrel. Now you’re ready to transfer the exercise to the ground. Again, repeat “Whoa” while the dog stands still. Keep a check cord on the dog the whole time so if he tries to break you can catch him. If he moves or tries to run, simply pick him up and place him back at the original point, then go back to stroking him and saying “Whoa.”
After a few sessions of this, you can introduce some pressure in the form of making the check cord into a half-hitch around the dog’s flank. Do this by attaching the check cord to the D-ring on the dog’s collar, then run it back under the dog’s belly and up over the back, sliding the end of the check cord underneath itself on top. When you tug on the tag end, the loop tightens around the flank. It doesn’t take a lot of pressure to remind a dog to stay stopped. Now you can move around the yard with the dog and command “Whoa” at intervals. If he doesn’t stop, a quick tug on the check cord will remind him.
This methodical process sets the stage for transitioning to the more serious whoa work, during which time we introduce an electronic collar to reinforce the whoa command, the goal being to guarantee our dog won’t break under any circumstances. I’ll cover this topic in my next article.