Teaching the ‘Whoa’ Command: Part 1
The “whoa” cue or command is considered essential to the training of a pointing dog. Whoa means to stop and stand still until released. In hunting situations, you can imagine how valuable this command is. Steady to wing. Steady to wing and shot. But, beyond this traditional use with classic pointing breeds, the whoa command has proven itself with other types of dogs. Labs with at least some pointing instinct, for instance, can have their natural pointing tendencies brought to the surface, through training exercises involving birds. Separately, these dogs can also be taught to whoa.
Then, the two skills are brought together to create an exciting combination. Imagine your lab finishing on a running rooster, then flashing a quick point. Everything in the lab’s makeup is building to the next natural step, where it wants to plow on in there and try to grab the bird, which typically causes the bird to flush. But you see the point and tell the dog to whoa. The dog freezes in place, and if the bird holds (no guarantees there), you have a ‘pointing’ dog that would otherwise bust in there on its own timetable. There are steps to this process, but that is the gist of it.
No matter what type of dog you own, the whoa cue or command brings a measure of control to your hunts that would not otherwise be possible. Also, regardless of breed, all dogs used for waterfowl hunting can be steadied in a blind or boat. Control, in these situations, brings calm and safety.
There are many ways to whoa train a dog.
The first session simply gets the dog used to standing on the tub. Any time the dog moves or jumps off the tub, we set them back up on it, calmly petting them when they are doing well. After about 10 minutes of this, most dogs understand that we are asking them to stay up there. When we see that they are understanding us, they get a treat and are released. We use ‘OK’ as a release command– along with a tap on the collar, something we’ll talk more about later. After that introduction to the elevated board, the next couple sessions are a little more intense. Once we think dogs know that we want them to stay up there, when they move or try to jump down, we pick them up with the pulley. They are literally lifted into the air, so they cannot jump down off the plywood. Once they stop struggling, we help them back down onto the plywood.
With the use of the pulley, we are able to separate ourselves (our presence, our hands) from the act of lifting the dog. Dogs are all about association. After it stops struggling, we help the dog gets its feet comfortably situated back onto the plywood surface. We are gaining their trust, and they are learning that the elevated plywood is a good place to be. When the dog will stand still on the board, keeping all four feet still, letting us walk around him or her, we are ready for the next step.
Time out for important tips
Before we move on, a few tips that can help your training succeed…
• After a dog has been corrected (lifted by the pulley, set back up on the plywood), it is important to give praise for the proper action.
• ‘Whoa’ is a calm command. Therefore, calm praise is needed. Long, slow strokes on the dog’s sides help reassure them that they are doing well. With pointing breeds, we also use this opportunity to pick the dog’s tail up and help keep it suspended in the air. This helps develop ‘style’ which is reinforced later in training.
• It’s important that the dog keeps all four feet still, as it stands on the small and elevated plywood surface. At this early stage of whoa training, it’s important to realize you are teaching the dog what you want. The goal is for the dog to understand what this command means. Whoa does not mean ‘to walk slowly,’ but rather to come to a complete stop and remain stopped until released.
• We believe that training progresses faster and easier (for dog and trainer) when we help the dog succeed, rather than tricking it into failing. There is no need to have the kids run circles around your dog “just to see if he’ll stay.” Another scenario we do not like is asking a dog to ‘whoa’ and then leaving the room, to see how long he’ll stand there before he moves. When a dog moves after 10 minutes of standing still, it isn’t because he wants to disobey. It’s usually because he’s confused as to why he’s still standing there.
Back to training
The next step is to take the tub away and set just the plywood on the floor. This is called a ‘place board,’ and the dog will continue to be taught that this small space is where we want it to stand, and remain, after we give the whoa command.
Using the same method the dog knows, from the ‘elevated’ sessions (expecting him to remain still, picking him up when he moves, etc.), the dog will quickly understand that the board is the ‘
Notes: Chad Hines developed a pointing lab for Outdoor News writer Mark Strand, using the whoa command to build control into upland hunting situations. Mark reports that the dog, Ali, is a delightful bird-finding machine to hunt over. More and more, Chad specializes in developing pointing dogs at their Orvis-endorsed Willow Creek Kennels and Hunt Club near Little Falls. If you’d like help training your dog, or you’re looking for a good place to hunt, call them at 320-360-3603. Also, visit their booth at Game Fair.