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The Evolution of Whoa Training Bird Dogs

The Evolution of Whoa Training Bird Dogs

A pointer on whoa in a steady point.

Dog trainer Jason Carter takes a look at the historic context of whoa training and how the technique is still evolving today

The benefits of teaching whoa early in the development of your bird dog are many. Among other things, it provides the handler with a stop action and refocus command (stop and listen). Stop chasing that skunk, don’t go out the door, stop and wait at your food bowl or don’t leave the crate.

Though most commonly associated as a steadiness tool, it is also used throughout our training program. If done correctly and early on, it can be done with minimal pressure and no resentment. The fear most trainers have with whoa is the understanding that whoa is designed to break a dog using high pressure and fear. If started early you will use very little pressure and will develop a deep rooted understanding that is imprinted into the fabric of the dog without using fear or intimidation. 

READ: Weaving Whoa Training Into Our Daily Routines

For many of us, sharing our dogs with new hunters enriches our upland experience. In doing so, the dog’s ability and understanding of whoa is an absolute necessity. Being able to stop your dog in the field provides a safe, lead-free experience for all, assuring that you and your hunting partners have an amazing hunting experience. Memories that will likely push that hunter recruitment needle forward in the future. 

The history of the ‘whoa’ command

Whoa has not always been an important part of training, but a quick historical peek at how bird dogs developed helps give it perspective. As far back as the 16th century, we as hunters have been teaching dogs to whoa to signal the presence of game. Dogs were trained to circle, point, or circle and point game. For dogs required to hold point they were taught whoa. Dogs had to be well trained as hunters used crossbows prior to the invention of the shotgun. 

The whoa command originates around the early 1600s from the word “ho” as a stop command for horses. Teaching whoa to horses has always been critical and has direct parallels to how we teach it to hunting dogs. After a quick Google search I found we follow the same general principles.

Teaching horses to ‘whoa’ step-by-step as applied to dogs

  • AuthorAnna Twinney
  • Dog Training Notes Jason Carter

1. Begin driving your horse around the round pen, remaining in the “driving zone” about 45 degrees behind the barrel of your horse. I will sometimes bring a line in with me for safety and to enhance my communication. Always remember there is a difference between driving and chasing, and your intention should never be to create fear in your horse.

  • Dog Training – Train in drive. A dog that wants to work learns better than one that feels it has to. Fear makes our dogs dumb.

2. Decide on the exact location within the round pen you would like your horse to stop.

  • Dog Training – Always plan ahead so your timing is right.

3 Say whoa before you take any action to stop him.

  • Dog Training – Command followed by marking the correct or incorrect behaviors.

4. Keep your eyes on your horse’s eyes and step with determination into his path of travel; do this well ahead of him to allow him to understand and see your request.

  • Dog Training – Train towards the eye of the dog so they can read you.

5. Gauge the distance needed to be effective. Do not walk directly towards your horse’s eye and head, as that will turn him.

  • Dog Training – A good trainer can present him- or herself as safe and is careful not to tower over sensitive dogs.

6. Do not get too close to the horse or “pinch” him against the round pen wall. It may cause him to bolt or even kick out.

  • Dog Training – A good trainer shows the dog how to avoid pressure without making it feel cornered and helpless.

7. Gauge the correct amount of energy needed to facilitate the stop – project or absorb your energy where needed.

  • Dog Training – A good trainer varies their pressure depending on the character of the dog that is currently exhibited.

8. If your horse is traveling in a clockwise direction, use your right hand to influence his nose; use your left hand if he’s moving counterclockwise.

  • Dog Training – A good trainer is visually consistent in commanding, showing the dog what you want in conjunction with the verbal command.

9. Step towards your horse, if needed, to prevent him from turning towards you.

  • Dog Training – Don’t allow your dog to disobey you by returning. Move towards them to gain compliance.

10. Keep your horse’s nose straight in front of him to ask for a stop on the round pen wall (you can build up to this).

  • Dog Training – A good whoa is one where the dog freezes its whole body in place.

11. Use your line to back up your hand gesture, if needed.

  • Dog Training – Combining a tap of the lead with a hand signal to whoa is the beginning of teaching whoa at a distance.

12. Soften your posture slightly at the moment he stops, as a reward.

  • Dog Training – Be expressive when marking good behaviors to show the dog that you’re pleased with its choices.

13. Hold your horse in this position, increasing the duration over time.

  • Dog Training – Slowly increase the duration of the whoa.

14. Return to the driving position and say “walk on.”

  • Dog Training – Dogs are very visual creatures, consistently using specific body positioning and hand signals helps your dog understand what you are asking of it. 

15. Repeat multiple times, gradually eliminating bold body language and becoming more subtle until you eventually remove the body language altogether and replace it solely with the verbal cue.

  • Dog Training – In the learning process we visually, verbally and physically guide our dogs towards success with the understanding that we need to slowly eliminate those crutches. 

16. Always end on a positive note and do not spend more time in the round pen than your horse can handle. The round pen should be a place of learning and fun, not work and fear.

  • Dog Training – Always end your training when your dog wants more!

17The steps themselves are really quite simple. However, the true art of free schooling is not a step-by-step process but rather lies in your ability to understand and communicate with your horse. After all, you cannot give him a voice and discover what he has to offer if you can’t understand what he is saying.

The best part is that this doesn’t just apply to teaching your horse to stop. It can open many doors. You can take this exercise to so many levels, from the ground through to horseback. You are limited only by your imagination. Just remember – success is in the listening, not the speaking.

  • Dog Training – Becoming a bilingual trainer is essential. You must be able to read your dog to know what it needs.

READ: How To Read a Bird Dog’s Body Language – Becoming a Bilingual Trainer

How the timing of whoa training has evolved

What is interesting and something you may want to ponder a bit is that many trainers and writers today still don’t include whoa in their puppy development. In fact, they “let puppies be puppies” up to nine months of age or older. Prior to the distemper vaccination many trainers would avoid wasting time training a puppy that might die.

Today this belief has evolved into putting a hunting season underneath them prior to putting on the controls out of fear of stealing drive. Until recent times, many lines simply didn’t have the hunting package we see in our dogs today. The necessary hunting attributes were latent in the dogs and the temperament and nervous system were not conducive to early training. I would argue that today we have incredibly talented lines out there capable of supporting early whoa training from the moment you pick up your pup. 

Early reward-based whoa training simply motivates your pup to want to stop and focus on command, allowing low to no pressure early steadiness. It creates a working relationship that promotes focus and drive and eliminates the need of heavy handed training techniques later on. 

There are many techniques and training programs out there proven to be successful in the development of a pointing dog breed. We’ve developed early foundational whoa training techniques that avoid high pressure training and the many issues that result from developing toxic stress and fear in our dogs. It encourages and rewards good behaviors while ignoring the bad. I encourage you to research similar programs. Programs that meet the needs of you and your dog.

Learning to be better trainers and drawing out the best in our dogs is the goal of all upland enthusiasts. It’s a never ending quest for information. A journey we embarked upon the moment we decided to get our first bird dog. In the process we often find like-minded individuals and cultivate a community of friendship and support. During these uncertain times lets hold one another close, sharing the lessons we learned, bettering those around us and embracing the upland community as family. Be well, be safe and good luck training.

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    Thank you.

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