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The Right Age to Start Breaking a Dog
by Mark Powell

Reprinted with permission from the Pointing Breed Sports in the Field Internet World Wide Web pages (, sponsored by Attwater Publishing. Attwater Publishing is the proud publisher of QUALIFY! A Guide to Successful Handling in AKC Pointing Breed Hunting Tests by Mark Powell, available for $21.90 including first class shipping and handling (Idaho orders must include 85 state sales tax), 1-800-513-3772.

One question, or some variant thereof, that I get asked regularly, is: "at what age should I start breaking my dog out?" .

I always have two answers. My first answer is at about five weeks of age, and my second is between about 30 and 36 months of age. I know there seems to be a big inconsistency in my answers, but not really.

I start working with my pups as soon as I can, mainly teaching them how to learn. I do not know which famous psychologist said it first, but learning is a learned behavior. This has proven itself so many times in my work with dogs that it has truly become axiomatic for me.

Tip #1: Start playing with your pup as early as possible, teach it stupid pet tricks.
Teaching stupid pet tricks to your puppy at a very early age, with lots of reward and no punishment, establishes that learning behavior that is needed to break a dog out. Nothing that you do with a puppy will contribute more to the ease of breaking a dog later in life. The selection of stupid pet tricks you teach your dog is important also, but that is another article.

Tip #2: Do not let your pup establish any bad habits from which you will have to break it later.
One old established and traditional technique for training pups to become good puppy/derby dogs is to let them run free and chase birds. Nothing could be worse for breaking a dog later than to establish such bad habits. I had a very good personal friend who always had super competitive puppy/derbies. Her dogs always ran like American Field Pointers and Setters. However, her dogs never really ever established points, but flashpointed just long enough to win in puppy/derby consistently. Her young dogs were always a thrill to watch run, but it was rare for a derby stake to end without her dog with a bird in it's mouth. And if you were not watching her dogs closely, you might miss the flashpoint. I worked very hard with her and her best dog to try to break the dog out. I hunted her dog for her as well. We used an electric collar until the dog soured whenever wearing it. And we never broke the dog well enough to enter adult AKC stakes.

Tip #3: Do not work or run your puppy when not in controlled circumstances.
Another technique this friend used to make competitive puppy/derby dogs out of her pups was to let them run free every morning, unmonitored and uncontrolled, for about an hour or until they came back or she had to go to work. This friend lived in the country and felt that there was nothing that could happen to her dogs. Unfortunately, one day when her dogs had not made it back by the time she left for work, on the way home from work she had the unpleasant chore of picking up pieces of her new pup out of a national champion that were strewn along the county road on which she lived. She did not learn from that experience, and today she probably still lets them run free.
Even without this unfortunate accident, there is absolutely no telling how many wild birds these dogs flushed each morning and chased.

Tip #4: Do not apply pressure in training your dog on birds until it has matured into adulthood.
Your puppy will remain a puppy for quite a while. The dog food companies do recommend feeding puppy food until at least age two. They know that about which they advertise, they are not just trying to make more money on puppy food. Bird dogs hit a maturity snap somewhere between the ages of two and three, just exactly when varies between breeds and individual dogs. After they have hit that maturity snap, they can take the pressure of serious training, without losing any style or souring. If pressure is applied before that snap, a dog's race may dramatically shorten up, and it may blink birds, both of which are very hard to correct.

It is also very hard to detect when that maturity snap has occurred, even with dogs you know quite well. I usually can tell with a dog if it has happened, but cannot tell you what I see that tells me that the dog has matured. Your best bet is to wait until about 30 months to start applying serious pressure in the breaking process.

If you have spent a lot of time with your pup, teaching it how to learn and working it in controlled situations where your dog has not learned any bad habits, breaking a dog when it has matured is relatively easy. Most of us (and I am guilty of this as well) have trouble being patient, especially with a good dog for whom everything appears natural.

Have fun and good luck at your next Hunting Test or Field Trial!

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