I want to first preface this blog by saying that, for some, control of the German Shorthaired Pointer breed in the field is almost oxy-moronish. The point being, that a big-running GSP can cover more ground, and find more birds more efficiently than a tightly controlled GSP running a Quartering Pattern near the handler. I TOTALLY understand the differences!! But, where control is necessary (i.e., in a club environment, or where there are a number of hunters in the same area (public reserved put-n-takes)) this Blog describes a different way of looking at, and working with basic obedience to transition a dog to a well-controlled hunting dog in the field.
As I have researched the topic, and have worked with Sadie, I have learned a number of approaches to controlling the hunting dog in the field. Most center around a focus on "Come!", or "Whoa", or encouragement of a quartering (zig-zag) pattern (use of "bending") which keeps the dog running perpendicular (mostly) to the line-of-travel of the handler in the field. These methods work fine, and indeed I too have used them on my dogs.
The common approach focuses initial puppy obedience on the commands "Sit" (or a "stop" command, I use it as emergency control), and "Come" (a come-toward me), eventually transitioning to a whistle (for one or both commands). Initial obedience on a leash, and eventually a check-cord progresses with much focus on these commands, establishing trust before the leash is removed. The command, "Heel" comes as a necessary branch of this, with many obedience classes getting the dog to walk, then commanding, "Sit!" (with expected compliance).
With a hunting dog, the dog is allowed to range, and is periodically called-in with a "Come" command, or a Whistle (come). Logically, this approach leads to a dog that puts its "rear" to the handler, and ranges until it hears the "Come" whistle, where it turns around and heads back to the handler. Fine... Control is achieved.
Work progresses from there to walking in a zig-zag, throwing wings, or birds close to the handler, on the end of the field, and generally encouraging the dog to range perpendicular to the direction of the handler (if Quartering is desired). This is also where it helps to be able to "Bend" the dog. In some cases, a game of "Hide-and-seek" is played where the handler will actually hide on the dog when it ranges, and call it to come - the thought being that the dog will eventually keep an eye on the handler, thus adjusting range, and encouraging walking "with" the handler (although it can also teach the dog to go off and hunt by itself, and can damage the trust the dog has in the handler (imagine a child suddenly lost in a grocery store) - I don't like this method).
With Sadie, I started this way as well (focus on "Come", and control), and within her first hunting season I had a dog that would range, and somewhat cover a field at various range. I also found that due to the fact that she liked to run, and jump in high cover, I was constantly blowing my whistle, either to "bend" the dog, or to get her to "come". Quite coincidently, I also realized that Sadie's "Heel" was not where I wanted it to be. This is where the eureka moment came.
With "Heel", ideally, you want a dog that keeps an eye on where you are at, and puts itself exactly where it needs to be (i.e., Dog's front shoulder even with your knee). When you stop, it stops (and optionally sits in some schools), and when you walk, it walks (when you run, it runs, etc...), and when you turn, it turns, when you walk backwards... You get the point. Well, this is EXACTLY what you want during a hunt with the only difference being the range at which it is done!
Anyways, I pulled Sadie out of the field after her first season, and went back to work on "Heel" on the leash, then off the leash. She already pretty much understood it (conceptually), and I had transitioned to her e-collar through demonstration, avoidance, and on to P+ (however, I started over after season 1). The difference, though was I would change-up my pace, stop on occasion, turn without warning - all the things you do with "Heel" - only much, much more. When she would range more than about 6-feet (a leash-length) ahead of me, I would give her a nick with the collar, and command "Heel!". Where before, we would heel around the neighborhood in about 15 minutes, it would take us 40 - minutes to an hour with all the turning, stopping, etc. This continued from April until about mid-June, before I felt I was ready to go back to field-work.
Tranisition to the field was quick. I started by enforcing "Heel" in the field, just like in the neighborhood. Then, I gave her hunt command, "Hunt!". From our very first moments, she seemed much more intent on where I was at. When she reached the end of her range (where I wanted her), I would nick her and command, "Hunt!", and she would do like she did on "Heel", come closer! I still mixed in directional changes, and stopping. As expected, when I would stop, she would stop, and then run back toward me ("Check-in") (with Heel, she would zero-up shoulder-to-knee, so this was almost the same, and easier transition). I would then start walking again (this game replaced the "Hide-and-seek" in my mind, although I never did do that with Sadie anyways).
As an aside, I now give a 1-pip on the whistle (was and is still my "bend" command) when I would change direction. I feel that instilled trust with Sadie that I was going somewhere else, and I wanted her to follow (come is a 2-Pip with my whistle, and a long trill/blast is "sit/stop/whoa"). This is equal to a "I am BENDING" communication, where it was, "I want you to 'BEND'".
At the beginning of Season 2 in lat October, Sadie hit the field running (literally). But, the difference was that I rarely had to use the whistle to call her in, or bend her. When I commanded, "HUNT!" she was "Heeling-at-range", free-wheeling through the field, and pretty much naturally quartering, and focused on hunting where I was hunting. I was pleasantly amazed at what a hard focus on "Heel", and transition to the training field accomplished during the off-season.
I work Sadie in the mornings, about 2 - 4 days a week. Because of my schedule, I cannot get out when it is light out. With a focus on transitioning her from "Heel" to field, however, I am confident that she is always aware of where I am at, and not expecting me to give her a "come" wistle if she gets too far out (which I can't even see her anyways). It has worked beautifully, and I expect I will train this way again - with a laser-focus on Heel - with my next pup!