A short history and ‘how to’ of training bird dogs on the barrel with some wisdom from Bud Moore
Let it be known before we get into the finer details of training a pointing dog on the barrel: I’ve found no concrete source identifying the first person who tipped over an old oil barrel and figured it would help set a foundation for their young bird dog. However, I can speak of the foundation that I’ve observed, learned, and implemented from friend and Hall of Fame legend, Bud Moore. Bud has helped me clearly define the particulars of steadying a dog, modeling proper pointing dog behavior and standing tall on a barrel.
A short history of barrel training from Bud Moore
Bud’s barrel experience started over the time period that included both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He had a good friend, Harold Ray, coming back from the Korean War who went into the business of training bird dogs. With a pen full of puppies, typically two or so litters at a time, Bud watched Harold turn over old and empty oil and gasoline barrels, set in place with rocks or planks on the side to limit movement. The objective was to get young puppies to stand tall while maintaining balance on the barrel as the trainer lightly nudged and rocked the barrel side-to-side with their knee.
The expectation was that the pup would learn to tense its muscles and get staunch, learning to maintain that stature while on point for birds. All four feet on the ground were best for practical and realistic balance for the dog, unlike the three-point stance that many of us adore in many of the famous bird dog paintings and photos. The technique worked for many of their puppies; others did not catch on so quickly. With this in mind, Bud decided to make a few adjustments of his own..
Bud figured that the barrel training method was quite effective and could get the most out of his dogs in a shorter amount of time. Often, Bud would have to leave for extended periods of time (days, sometimes weeks) and he needed something that would stay put in the dogs’ memories. Although his friend’s way fundamentally worked, Bud made a few more adjustments that took a closer look at the dog’s physiology and broke down the way the dog uses its anatomy from the head and shoulder to the flank.
Sometime between 1973 and 1975, Bud hypothesized that staying away from the head and neck of a puppy would constitute a much bolder and more confident dog. Like the scientist he is, Bud’s processes were altered to move more towards the dog’s flank. He concluded that the dog’s head and neck were akin to power steering in an automobile, and the flank like a vehicle’s brakes. Due to this insight, the single-armed original barrel was improved by adding a bar placed over the top of the barrel and connected at both ends (before, the bar had been connected only on one side). Bud found that this would assist the dog in controlling the head and flank simultaneously while providing a cue at the flank and keeping the head held high.
Bud Moore’s first graduates
The first batch of pups that graduated from Moore’s modern barrel program came from an Elhew-bred male by the name of “The Kansas Challenger” and a Rebel-bred female named “Shadow’s Witchy Woman.” As it turned out, Witchy Woman was Bud’s first graduate of his modern barrel work and a true talent in her own right. A highly exceptional dog, she excelled at all levels of field trials and could handle for both the trial competitor and the hunter.
Her puppies were started on the barrel as early as 7 weeks old. At that age, they were taught to respond to human touch and voice. Each would carry their own unique traits and distinctive personalities, which could be better observed on top of the barrel, feet off the ground. Bud taught me that a puppy responds much better to hands-on praise than being rewarded with treats. With that in mind, Bud has since excelled at developing many young dogs into field trial champions in the American Field.
Why the whoa barrel?
So you’ve decided to start training your own bird dog and likely realized that the path to training a pointing dog often presents a never-ending search for new and innovative means to getting to the point of your training (pun-intended). Using the Whoa Barrel to help teach a dog steadiness will help in a variety of venues whether you’re training for field trials, hunt tests, or simply a pleasant day afield on upland game birds.
To evaluate a good hunt, we typically look to implement methods that are non-slip and embedded into a dog’s memory well into its bird dog career. Before getting started, consider the ease and simplicity of using the Whoa Barrel in training and compare it to the amazing results that come naturally. With consistent work, you’ll likely find yourself with a steady, modeled, and molded bird dog that should be excited to hop back on the next day for another session.
Thus far my young pointer, Vegas, has enjoyed his training and takes every opportunity to pose with a head high and nice tail set. Keep in mind that it is not an overnight process and will take a few weeks to learn. Each puppy is different, as Moore describes, “Puppies are not cookies, they’re not made with the same cutter.” And considering that, he notes that “If a puppy is treated right, they will love barrel work.”
What type of barrel should you use?
I have seen a variety of different barrels from different trainers. Many use the larger blue plastic barrels and many use the rusted metal oil barrels. I honestly don’t think it really matters. Personally, I’ve found mine in the back of my granddaddy’s shed where it sat — black, brown, spray painted, rusted and empty for years. When I decided to get my pointer, I figured that the old can would suffice. It was free and simple, nothing fancy and no extra moving parts. So with that being said, let’s get started.
How to barrel train a bird dog
As my conversation with Bud Moore continued, I brought to him the observation that some trainers opt not to incorporate a mat or carpet on their barrel. In Bud’s diagram, you can clearly see that it’s an important aspect of the device and one that I’ve found to be very useful in my own practice.
Nailing down a scrap piece of carpet or mat gives consideration to the fact that the barrel process is meant to build a puppy’s confidence and make him feel good about the work he or she is doing. A 6-, 7-, or 8-week old pup has no business sliding around on top of that barrel. As Bud notes, the goal is to make a young dog feel loved. When a handler places his dog atop the barrel, they’re asking that dog to accomplish some objectives:
- Look you in the eyes
- Square himself up, get relaxed, and look pretty
- Learn the “Whoa” Command in three different ways
- Verbally — Lightly stating the word “whoa”
- Visually — Lifting either one finger or five with the palm out
- To stand with all four feet on the barrel/ground and not move
It is Bud’s experience that a consistent handler will have the dog master the barrel in roughly four to six sessions. Remember that with this process, a handler is asking quite a lot from a puppy whether it be a 6-week old pup or even a 6-month old pup. One should be keen on checking for signs of learning and understanding such as eye contact or lip licking; I personally like to see my dog, Vegas, yawn real big, indicating he is relaxed and receptive.
The tail end
As an aside, many folks — myself included — are guilty of looking for a high point tail as an indicator of a good point. While it is lovely and reassuring, it shouldn’t be a deal breaker, especially for a puppy under a year old.
Encourage the dog’s tail posture by brushing it up and creating a sense of muscle memory. Throughout the process, the dog’s tail will mold itself naturally. I’ve noticed in my own dog that from a young age until now at 6 months old, his tail has developed more muscle and gotten stronger through repetition and age. As the handler brushes the tail up, it’s also good to push forward on the dog’s hindquarters. Dogs work in opposites, so pushing him forward will make him naturally resist, inherently helping him staunch himself.
In order for the dog to truly learn on the barrel, they have to build tension in their muscles, make themselves square, and be sure-footed. The method of barrel training has been implemented by a number of trainers throughout the years, but Bud Moore has been instrumental in developing a sure-fire technique that is truly ingrained into the dog.
I trust Bud’s process and have spoken with him in detail on the matter, and my own young pointer has seen success from following the program. Other whoa training programs have been used, but I’ve not seen many as simple and to the point as Bud Moore’s. With the advent of newer technologies in the bird dog world, there are an increasing number of ways to get a dog to stand its birds, but sometimes it’s important to go back to the beginning. The barrel method has found itself to be at the foundation of bird dog training. If a trainer decided to give it a try, they might very well find a training tool that will last the tenure of their dog’s campaign.
Durrell Smith is a 28 year old Georgia native, visual artist, wing shooter, and dog handler. While creating compelling ink and watercolor illustrations based on his field experiences and hunting dogs, he also runs a podcast called The Gun Dog Notebook, which can be found on iTunes and Soundcloud. Aside from hunting upland game and waterfowl, he participates in Hunt Tests with his Labrador Retriever. As a first generation hunter, Durrell seeks to learn and contribute to the community by connecting with visionaries and veterans within the bird dog community who are willing to share stories and knowledge about the various breeds, creating a bridge to welcome new and novice dog handlers to the gun dog community.