A bird dog on a staircase during whoa training.

Whoa Training on Your Home Staircase

Using at home time to reinforce and build the “Whoa” command in your bird dog.

Our bird dog training routine has been completely uprooted, though my dogs are thoroughly enjoying all the extra training. Unfortunately for many people, what would have been the start of training season with friends and professional trainers has now become a stay-at-home DIY situation. Nevertheless, we can take this extra time to get some excellent training drills put together and maybe even include the family in the routines. For starters, we will look at building up one of the most important commands in the pointing dog world – “Whoa.”

Teaching “whoa” on the stairs is a great way to introduce or refine your dog’s understanding of the command. For them to make the move to the next step takes a deliberate act. When on the table or ground the dog can be sneaky, getting away with an extra step here and there. However, on the stairs body language is made obvious to the trainer and can easily be corrected. Developmentally, it clearly paints the picture that “whoa” means freeze, eliminating the tendency to take that extra step.

When we allow that step it will eventually lead to two, then three. For our training system at Merrymeeting Kennels, having a solid whole body “whoa” is essential. It’s a command we rely heavily upon throughout our program. 

The staircase “whoa” begins by getting your dog to be still on the bottom two stairs. Neither the front end nor the back end should be allowed to move. After the dog understands that both ends must be still and will do it on command, we then move forward to the staircase “heel.” I like to start by facing the bottom stair and have my dog wait patiently. If it lunges for the stairs, take a quick step back and bring it back to heel. You don’t proceed until the dog exhibits balance and correct behavior.

Once your dog settles, teach them to heel properly up and down the stairs. If they are nervous, be encouraging using rewards and a supportive tone. Once it learns to heel accurately and confidently, begin the whoa process. 

If the dog is struggling to understand that “whoa” means freeze, you’ll need to put the visual, physical and verbal corrections in place. Start with a sharp verbal “whoa” with a quick stop on your behalf, giving a crisp snap of the lead either forward or backwards, and a hand shown out in front of its head in the stop position. In time these extra crutches will be removed where the dog only needs the “whoa” to trigger the freeze response.

This will certainly take some practice, preferably on a training table or on the ground. Once you can put all four parts together simultaneously, bring it back to the stairs. Begin the whoa process moving very slowly up the staircase, which forces the dog to pay attention. When the dog is focused give the “whoa” command. A focused dog will be successful and success builds on success. In no time that three step “whoa” becomes a dog that locks up on command. Your goal is to be able to walk up the stairs and the dog freezes on command without any visual or physical cues. This will provide you with a solid whoa foundation to take to the field.

A word of caution: before you start and find yourself in a tangled mess at the bottom of your stairs, be cautious and take it slow. There will be quite a bit of coordination that goes along with this drill. If your dog’s exuberance is too much for the stairs, temper that attitude before proceeding with the exercise. The dog should have a balanced mind and firm grasp of heeling before utilizing this technique.

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Last modified: September 22, 2020

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