Quality companion gun dogs are different from competition dogs, both field trial and bench, not better or worse, just different. I have discussed it many times in the past decades, and will briefly do so here again. Even if the genetic pedigrees overlap, which ideally they should not, the training philosophy and techniques to be used should suit the goals of the owners in each category.
Competitive trainers generally wait to begin training until a pup is old enough to display the necessary field aptitude to justify the time, money and effort that will be invested. Pups that do not ‘have it’ are sold or otherwise removed from the trainer’s kennel. Waiting makes sense and works for the goals for these trainers. Bench show enthusiasts likewise wait, but for different reasons. A pup needs to display a potentially winning phenotype to justify further investment. Both of these groups have reasons for waiting to begin training, and it works for them.
On the other hand, you have just purchased a seven week old pup, and made a commitment to it for its lifespan, for better or worse. You and your family will soon be emotionally attached to the new addition. You have no reason to wait to begin training and every reason to begin.
First, when properly implemented, puppy obedience does not harm your pup’s hunting desire as is often suggested. In fact, failsafe, positive training techniques will make your pup more self-confident and eager to learn throughout life. Second, canine science tells us that training while the pup is maturing emotionally will accomplish the dual purpose of teaching obedience before force training becomes necessary and of achieving behavior modification, making it an acceptable member of its new human pack. The second can only be achieved as the pup passes through childhood, puberty and early adolescence. Remember, the first year in a dog’s life is equivalent to fifteen human years. Picture a fifteen year old human teenager that has had no structure or discipline.
In addition to hunting, your companion gun dog is going to be a member of the family. Socialization and obedience are as essential as field training in its life. These should be equal considerations in breeding and training companion gun dogs, but here we are focused on training. When bringing your pup home at week seven, eight or shortly thereafter, give it time to learn the ropes of daily life in its new environment. Teach its name, crate and house break, and start to develop a bond of mutual trust. Within two weeks or so you should start short yard sessions on obedience using a failsafe approach and positive reinforcement. Always have pup on a lead, show it exactly what you want and praise when it succeeds. Not only will pup learn commands, but it will also become more focused, self-confident and eager to do more. It will also begin to naturally view you as leader of the pack. Learning to learn in a positive manner will serve your pup well throughout life.
There is not sufficient space here to cover commands and techniques, but from nine or ten weeks until six months your pup can achieve a basic understanding of the needed commands. At that age my own pups will come and quarter to voice and whistle, whoa, sit/stay and heel. They will also be started on retrieving using the fetch, come and drop commands. At this age training has been distraction free, but distractions will now need to be gradually introduced using proper training techniques for transition to the field.
Fun walks on birds are usually begun around five months of age. There are very few restrictions placed upon the pup around birds at first. Obedience is engrained in the yard away from birds and during birdless field sessions on handling. Early field sessions on birds are used to build bird drive, to start to deliberately search for bird scent, to naturally start showing point and to introduce the gun. Once these are achieved, control can be gradually engrained in the field paying close attention to your pup’s temperament and readiness. By the first season a juvenile should be staunch on point, accept the gun and handle to voice and whistle (come and quarter). Every pup is different, but around seven to nine months mine are usually ready to hunt.
Competitive trial dogs have an over-abundance of bird drive, and bench dogs meet a certain conformation standard. The ideal companion gun dog should have an equal share of bird drive, biddable temperament and suitable conformation. Sufficient bird drive should be balanced by a desire to please its owner/handler. Its conformation and temperament should suit it to hunt at a reasonable pace all day today, tomorrow and so on. It should also be as content in front of the fireplace as in the field.
Remember, your pup will be expected to be an all around dog, combining the traits of a hunting partner, companion, family member and generally good citizen. Hunting aptitude, temperament and phenotype should all be factored into its breeding and training. Consult a text such as TRAINING YOUR POINTING DOG FOR HUNTING AND HOME aimed at your needs, and get started early. You will not regret it.