Observing pointing dogs and their handlers at work live, on television or elsewhere, I am convinced that while whoa is their most important command, it is also the weakest link in most pointing dog's performance package. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard the 'whoa' command followed by the dog taking a step, or two, or more. That is not what 'whoa' means. It means STOP RIGHT THERE, RIGHT NOW AND DO NOT MOVE until I release you. Mistakes in teaching and enforcing whoa are many, and are made at various stages in the training process.
Whoa, hold or stay are all words used to instill pointing manners in a pointing dog. All bird manners, including staunchness, degrees of steadiness, stopping to flush and backing are facilitated by this command. Next to come, which is the most important command for all dogs, whoa is the most important command for any pointing dog. Like all commands, the word itself is not as important as having the behavior it demands properly instilled and consistently enforced. So use the word you prefer and the one that fits into your dog's total vocabulary, then get started teaching it in the yard from puppy basics to the finished product in the field.
Problems that often arise during field training are usually the result of a poor foundation, and the basic building blocks of obedience not being in place. At ten to twelve weeks my pups are standing to whoa over their food dish and on the grooming table every day. Like all commands in my failsafe/positive reinforcement approach, the first step is to physically show the pup what whoa means. The second step is to teach them not to move until they hear the release command, “okay”, and feel my touch. Too many owners want to walk away and/or have pup hold for long periods of time before they are ready. Stay with them, and do not expect long periods of motionlessness. At first only expect a couple of seconds, then 'okay'! Once they understand not to move until they hear 'okay', you can lengthen the time period. Then when they will stand motionless for a minute or two, you can begin to move away to the front in increments. Do not forget to always have pup on a lead so that you can get control, and put them back immediately if they do move. If a correction is necessary, the earlier in the violation it is delivered, the more effective it will be. When releasing, go back to pup and physically touch them when delivering the release command. When time and distance start to improve, start to include whoa in regular obedience sessions on the ground. At first put them in place by following the same technique as before. Soon they will be standing while you walk around in front, and await your touch and command to move.
The next step is to get them to stop while on the move, and hold as before. Start with a six foot lead, and deliver the command while they are on the move in front of you. If they do not stop, go to them quickly, put them in place and follow the earlier, familiar technique. Increase the distance with a longer lead, and increase the distraction level while always being in position to enforce.
All of this work is done before the pup even hears whoa around birds. Do not handle the green pup on birds. Let it start to show point naturally and gain boldness before ever using whoa on birds. The combination of boldness on birds and confidence with a known command will help prevent such problems as blinking that can occur when a sensitive pup is handled too much too soon on birds. In fact, if your dog is pointing staunchly, whoa should never be uttered while on point. Flush the bird and shoot it. Stopping and whoaing until released can be achieved anywhere from around five to seven months in the yard. Bird work for my pups begins with fun walks around five months. However, the two do not come together until later in the pup's development.
Whoa should not be barked at the pup. It should be delivered in a calm, soothing, almost two syllabic manner. Pups sitting or dropping on whoa are responding to too much pressure. It has nothing to do with being taught to sit despite the myth that dies hard. Usually more sensitive pups and breeds are more suspect to dropping.
Finally, when you use whoa in the field, no matter the situation, it must be strictly enforced. Once whoa is uttered, the dog should not move on until released no matter what the bird does. If your pup is ever to be steady to wing, wing and shot or command, whoa must be firmly in place. The same goes for backing and stopping to flush on random flushes. Once trained, if you trust your dog, do not whoa it on point, then it is free to track and point a running bird on its own. If you do whoa it, the same game must be a partnership with the dog not moving until told to do so. If your dog has been properly whoa broke, you have the option. If not, good luck!
Remember, whoa is the foundation for all bird manners. Failure to instill it early, and to continue to enforce it will result in busted birds, a ruined hunt or worse.