One year ago today, we met Atlas at barely four weeks old. It’s crazy to think back to that day. He just passed his 1st birthday! It’s been a long year, a wild ride, and Atlas has changed Catherine and my lives in unexpected ways. Let me introduce you to Atlas.
Atlas, our German Shorthaired Pointer
While we prepped to receive our pup, people told us things like ‘Oh, wow, I hope you’re ready. German Shorthairs are high maintenance and tough to train.‘ Let me tell you, they were right, at least for the first part. Atlas has basically unlimited energy. But, for the most part, we love it. We joke about how other dog owners mention they haven’t been to the dog park in a week, while we sometimes go twice a day. Atlas can hike or jog miles with us, do hundreds of fetches and still want to play tug before he goes to bed. A two-mile walk is the bare minimum exercise per day, for now.
However, it’s almost exactly what I needed. It forces me to get up from my desk, get outside, and enjoy the day with him. We also get to socialize a bit at the dog park which gives Catherine some relief from my pent-up thought stream which shes gets an earful of because I work from home. For both of us, Atlas offers companionship so we aren’t lonesome, even if it’s in the form of bringing you a dirty sock.
Atlas is the most curious, happiest dog. And he’s handsome too. Just ask anyone at the local dog parks. He’s a great companion, whether it’s hiking, camping, or napping on the couch.
Before we got Atlas, I had no idea what to expect. I basically knew nothing about training, or even owning a dog since I hadn’t been around them much growing up. To put it simply, I couldn’t have told you how to teach a dog to ‘sit‘. Catherine was a bit better off since she’d had a dog growing up and was our initial driving force behind the search for a pup.
Because I knew so little, I made it my mission to learn everything possible about owning and training puppies. I managed to get through a couple of books before we brought him home. All told, I read about a dozen books*, and dozens of online articles, about all breeds and GSPs specifically. I found the best tactic was to have several methodologies on hand, and use almost entirely firm, but positive, training methods.
Atlas was eager to learn, and took quickly to most training, which probably helped in the beginning as I was just getting the concepts down. Pretty much everything we did was a first for both of us. Catherine and I would switch off giving him commands around the house and the yard. Before three months we started taking him on short hikes to local parks and training him on a long lead.
Luckily for us, Atlas is very food motivated. I feel that training would’ve been a lot different otherwise. We graduated from lures to clicker training for heeling and recall along with random reward and varied reward schedules. I think continuing to have occasional food rewards, especially for off leash obedience helps him continue to improve. Many dog owners either over treat or trail off the reward so quickly that it hurts training. For the most part Atlas got mini-treats, 1-3 (or none) round pellet like chicken treats. For potty training and off leash work we used dried liver, then cheese. Now that I’m more experienced, I sometimes catch myself as I’m about to repeat a command, since it’s definitely a bad habit I picked up early on.
A benefit of my work situation meant that I could train with Atlas anytime the opportunity presented itself. Often during lunch, I’d grab a treat bag and we’d head out into the yard and around the block to focus on the skill for the day. That could mean fun training with fetch and retrieve, or pacing up and down the street working on leash walking.
Now, Atlas knows many commands: sit, stay, wait, down, up, off, leave it, look, touch, place, spin, fetch, go to it, find it, take it, OK, come, heel, this way (casting off), bring it, go play, kisses, calm down, go potty. He also knows words: Mommy, Daddy, Dylan, Bird, Crow, Toy, Ball, Bone, Crate, Couch, Harness, Walk, Dog Park, Cheese, Good Boy.
Of those commands, we can also take Atlas through the basics on hand signals alone. He does really well with signals at the dog park, or to cast him back in the direction we’re headed. We had a few different training zones. First, inside the house, then the yard on and off leash, then on walks, then at the dog park both during playtime and when we were on our own, and lastly, off leash during hikes.
While Atlas hasn’t mastered all his commands, he’s always learning. If we were to do it all over again, I think we’d focus more on leash walking and even more on recall. I feel that GSPs especially have unbridled joy, curiosity and a drive to explore which can make a short walk a tedious process when Atlas is at full energy.
He’s pro at a lot of things, and of course some things are a work in progress. We try to keep teaching him new tricks so he doesn’t get bored.
Atlas in the Outdoors
One place I found most dog books leave out is training your dog for the outdoors. Basic training books essentially tell you to never let your dog out of your sight, and only off leash rarely, if ever. Make sure your dog is well socialized and trained enough to behave at the dog park and prevent incidents, and you’re good to go! Great, I thought, but what about MY dog who needs to run miles a week, sleep in a tent and loves to smell every inch of the world?
Hunting books were helpful, as were hiking specific books. A lot of it was trial by fire though. Camping is part of our lifestyle, so we took Atlas. In the winter. Often, that meant tying him out at the campsite and wrapping him up at night in the tent. Luckily he took to sleeping in a tent pretty quick. We worked on his recall with a long lead and in empty school fields. Dylan lent a hand to keep us sane.
The big turning point was when we went to Montana. We were in forest land, away from civilization and most other people. We let Atlas off leash, trusting him to return. We turned it into a big game. All day, he came and went, we called him back, played fetch and gave him treats for staying near us. After that, we knew he’d at least always return, and wouldn’t go too far. Since then he’s been getting better and better on off leash hikes.
After hikes or serious activity Atlas reaches ‘normal’ dog energy levels and loves to cuddle, and just generally chill out. For a few hours at least.
Another thing is, Atlas’ excitement is hard to contain on a hike. Yes, I can rein him in and we can leash walk up and down the trail, but it’s more fun for all of us if he can explore a bit. At least, if there’s not too many people on the trail. Having hiked a lot without a dog, I know that not everyone wants to encounter even a friendly dog off leash on the trail. That etiquette lead us to select less popular hikes that are farther afield so we can all enjoy a more tranquil experience without needing to call Atlas to our side around every bend. I’d say that while I like sharing the trail and meeting new people, it’s made our hikes more pleasant to come across fewer groups.
Sometimes I get concerned when Atlas gets ahead of us, out of sight. A quick whistle or call, and he comes bounding back down the trail. He was just ahead of us, a tiny bit out of sight! So far my worries have been unfounded, and more often than not even if we come upon something or someone abruptly, we can distract or recall Atlas. I think that even with the best trained dog, when you let a dog off leash you have to accept that the unexpected might happen. To me, it boils down to the same argument of whether to frequent the outdoors or not. It might be safer to exercise myself and Atlas around our neighborhood, but we’d be depriving ourselves of the great outdoors in the process.
Now that Atlas is full-grown and has boundless energy I want to do some dog roading with him attached to my bike. Our first experiment met with a defective bike attachment so I’ve built a sturdier one and converted his harness into a roading harness, transferring any stress from it to his shoulders. It’s a work in progress but I know we can do it!
Also, come this ski season I think Atlas will be ready to play in the PNW powder with me!
‘Do you hunt?‘ is a question we get asked a lot, from people who recognize Atlas’ breed by his brown and grey flecking. The answer is no, we don’t. That’s not to say we never will. The past two summers Catherine and I have been fortunate enough to try trap shooting in Oregon with her family. This year we brought Atlas and he got acclimatized to the sound, at a distance. That said, there’s a few steps and a lot of bird dog training between that and taking Atlas pheasant hunting.
However, we have taught Atlas the basics. We do wing on a string to work on his points, and practice fetch and retrieves with bumpers. I work on getting him to quarter fields when he’s off leash. A lot of commands I want him to understand for hiking are the same or similar to what you might use while hunting.
Also, Atlas has good instincts, and it would be a sight to watch him put them to use. His sire was the 2011 Gun Dog champion. Atlas sees with his nose, and can spot all the crows in the neighborhood from 100 yards away, 50 feet up in a tree. Regularly on our walks we pause while he goes on point at a robin or crow. Usually I let him creep up and then tell him to flush them. I honestly don’t know what the right thing to do is, I mean, a robin is not a quail. Pull him away, or let him try to chase?
One possible answer to off leash control is an e-collar. Even positive gun dog trainers and many GSP owners seem to use them on a vibrate setting in training to get attention and act as a mild negative reinforcement. The vibration is removed when the dog is performing the proper command. While we’re a bit uncomfortable with the idea, and the associated cost, I could see using it in the future to train even more reliable obedience.
Dylan is Atlas’ best friend, and has been an integral part of his life growing up. He is always there to help us out and get some extra playtime in with the pup. I’m sure Atlas feels like ‘Uncle Dylan’ is part of the family. As puppy owners it was great to have a third person around to divert Atlas’ energy and attention occasionally.
Future with Atlas
Life with a dog continues to improve, and it’s certainly interesting. Even though Atlas has added some complexity and costs to our life, he’s helped us out in many ways. Atlas helps remind us that being excited, curious, and friendly everyday helps make life an adventure. We’ve made plenty of memories in the past year and when I look back, I’m glad Atlas was there to experience them with us.
*Full list of books: “The German Shorthaired Pointer”, “Before & After Getting Your Puppy”, “Gun Dogs & Bird Guns”, “Hiking and Backpacking with Dogs”, “Training the Best Dog Ever”, “Positive Gun Dogs”, “German Shorthaired Pointers Today”, “I’ll Be Home Soon”, “Best Hikes with Dogs: Western Washington”, “Inside of a Dog”, “The Koehler Method of Dog Training” (outdated and not recommended). Another good online resource specific to GSPs was YT channel “Willow Creek Kennels“.