In the far north, hunting with dogs is older than human civilization. It predates writing, metal tools, government, the wheel, and just about everything you can imagine from modern life. It was a common survival strategy along the edges of the ice flows of the last ice age, and never ceased, even to our own times. People still hunt and subsist with dogs in the Northern forests and Arctic plains.
One universal constant in traditional Northern hunting dogs is that they were all in the category commonly called, "Spitz," dogs. They are much like wolves, coyotes, and other wild canines. They have thick weather hardy coats, upright ears, and often a curled tail. The curled tail is the one distinctive trait that seems to be common to all, which they do not share with their wild cousins.
The various elk-hounds such as the Norwegian, Jamthund, Norbottenspetz, and other Scandinavian dogs quickly come to mind. In Finno-Russian Karelia there are the Karelian bear dogs, and Finnish Spitz. As one heads East across Russia there are many native localized strains of what the Russians call, "Laika." They are divided into two common types, the Western Laika and Eastern Laika. Both of these are native to Siberia and used professionally by trappers, hunters, and reindeer herdsmen.
Further East, to the Arctic edges of Eastern Siberia, we encounter the Samoyed sled dogs and what are often called, "Siberian Huskies." The aboriginal Siberian Husky still present in Siberia is often used to pull sleds in subsistence work to carry nomadic homesteads; but also used as a hunting dog. The Chukchi people were often in contact with Inuit people across the bearing sea, sometimes competing for resources in the area. It is likely that some trade between them happened between times of warfare, and dogs would have been highly valued goods. The Inuit had their famous dogs that have come to be known as, "Eskimo dogs," the malamute being one of the more well known kinds of Inuit dogs.
These Inuit dogs have been long used to hunt seals, caribou, walrus, and polar bears. They were hunting dogs of the highest quality, and for the Inuits, life depended upon their hunting ability. Such dogs were used as pack and draft animals also. The Inuit culture stretched from the Bering sea on the coast of Alaska, across Canada and to Greenland. Such dogs are still used extensively in many remote Arctic lands where Inuit still hunt.
It was a very useful dog that could scent fresh breathing holes in the ice for seals. Such a dog was worth many times his weight in seal flesh. As the Inuit hunter searched for food at sub-zero temps, his dog would know which holes were most likely to have a seal return in a few minutes to get air, and the Inuit would be waiting to harpoon the vitally needed flesh and fat.
Further south in Asia we find the Chinese chow dogs, and their relative, the Akita. Through out much of Asia the aboriginal dogs are of the Spitz type, though less commonly used for hunting and sometimes used for food. The original Chow dogs and Akita were dogs used by the wealthy aristocrats to hunt, though much of that original hunting prowess has been lost. In Japan there are still small Spitz like dogs used to hunt wild hogs like the Akita once did in former times. There are several Japanese hunting breeds... the Shiba, Kai, Hokkiado, Kishu, and Shikoku. All of them have a striking resemblance to Siberian Laika, except with a shorter coat for warmer climes.
All these dogs branched from the same original stone age dogs, that followed the human migrations as the Ice age glaciers retreated to the mountain valleys. Thousands of years and many environmental barriers have separated these dogs from each other. They now have been bred for their local specializations; but in the beginning these dogs were relatively universal and barely domesticated from the wild. Genetically they are so similar that little but color and relative size distinguishes one from another.
Modern people imagine a long droop eared dog with a short tight coat, when ever the words, "hunting dog," are said. But for most of human history, most hunting with dogs was done with a Spitz type hunting dog. Hunting with such dogs is a very different discipline than hunting with a modern pointer, retriever or coon dog.
Hunting with Spitz dogs is more primitive, more primal, and more on the dog's terms than the human's. They are different in temperament than the typical short coated, southern European Hunting dogs most are used to. Here I want to lay some good foundational tips for maximizing your Northern hunting puppy's potential to hunt. Getting the most out of them requires understanding the primal origins and historical setting they came from.
The first step training such dogs is understanding they still have a little of a wild streak in them. Their domestication is not as complete as in more popular American/European hunting breeds. These dogs must be convinced that cooperating with you is mutually beneficial. They are not born with the assumption that their human hunting companion is always going the right way. They trust their own judgment and senses more than those of the human. One has to prove to them while they are still pups, that the human has good ideas that lead to good results. If the trainer does stupid, destructive or dangerous things, the pup is going to form a strong opinion... one that is generally negative about the hunter.
At our kennel we have introduced some breeds that have a very independent tendency. They form their own judgments and act upon them, even if it contradicts the owner. You must build respect in your new puppy, so that he can work with you in trust and confidence. They are more pack oriented. This means that someone has to be the Alpha, the leader. The hunter must assert himself as leader, but also respect the senses and intelligence of the dog, and learn to recognize when the dog has a better idea.
Because of this pack instinct, similar to a pack of wolves, they are very sensitive about their rank and status. It is not uncommon for them to have rivalries between them, asserting themselves to maintain or increase their status in their social setting. Some can be jealous and possessive of the hunter, seeing their place at his side as an earned privilege that should not be challenged or trespassed upon. They are more feudalistic, rather than democratic. If the owner upsets or disrupts the social order of the dogs in his kennel, he stirs up trouble for himself and his dogs. If a dog or pup has a history of possessing a certain social position or property, then the human owner must not treat it like property common to all the dogs in his care. Particularly Akita, can be very upset and angry about this. They perceive it as a violation of their rights and a great disrespect. You can not deal with such dogs like a committee, but more like a military unit with a chain of command.
Status is earned by physical prowess and accomplishment. This social instinct is genetic and goes back to their wild history in the last ice age. The more domesticated dog breeds have had these traits diminished, if not all together removed in them.
The second step is communication. The dog must learn you are a team, and that you must keep contact with each other in the hunting zone. Wolves and coyotes do this by howling, so that they can be aware of each other from a distance and coordinate their movements. Hunters today use many methods for this, such as leashing, whistles, and GPS/radio collars. The most simple way to do this with a young pup is to go on walks. Dogs are designed for travel, and they are mentally wired for traveling in groups. One can tap into these natural instincts and hard wire it into the puppies mind very early on. They naturally want to be near the hunter on walks and will follow. Being alone in a strange environment is stressful while young and they will eventually seek out the hunter as he travels.
As the puppy ages, regularly assert your leadership by calling the puppy to you when it strays or wonders too far ahead. Establish certain cues to call them back, to stop where they are, or to go forward. I often use distinctive whistling jingles for certain behavior. One must establish a vocabulary that you and the pup share very early in their life. This can include verbal, whistles, and body language cues. Body language is very important. Dogs are very sensitive to body language and can take many orders silently by physical gestures. I have also adopted some of their own natural canine sounds, for they are born with an instinctive set of vocalizations that are universal to dogs. Examples would be whimpers, low soft growls of warning, sharply deep woofs that are very quiet and short, a moan, snorts; all have specific meaning to dogs and can be used. Why not use a language a dog is born knowing instinctively?
Communication between owner and dog is a vital step, without which success can not be found. It also includes the skill of reading the signals and cues from the dog. It is vital to be able to discern the thoughts and attitude of the puppy by how they move and verbalize. Northern dogs have very distinctive physical postures and movements in different situations. Over the years, I have learned to tell when they are aware of a bear, a moose, an intruding fox, or a human visitor; all this can be discerned by the differences in tone and posture.
For example, if a bear is present, it is common for experienced dogs to get very stiff, raise their nose high to scent the wind, and look forward with their head real high. They will then listen intently with ears very erect and alert. They will often utter very low guttural growls and very soft woofs in a deep tone as a warning to the bear. It seems that they are trying to imitate the warnings that bears use in confrontations, for I have witnessed bears using the same postures and sounds as a warning. When a dog acts this way it is very wise to immediately prepare your weapon for an encounter and visually scan the surroundings.
They also have a similar but less stressful response to moose passing nearby. A hunter that fails to learn to read a dog, will not have much success with their new pup as they age. After you have begun these steps and mastered them, it is time to take them out to track and hunt.
Third, we move onto tracking game. Tracking is something they learn quickly, for they are designed to track. But they will need some encouragement to notice your preferred target species. If you are going to use them to track wounded moose, then introduce them to a moose hoof; which are easy to acquire from hunters during the moose season and keep in a freezer until training time. Between the moose toes is a gland that secretes hormones and scent in every step. Moose use this to keep track of each other and find each other. Between the toes you can find a green stain that is the musk gland substance that exudes with each footstep. Often a bull will paw up a patch of ground to leave a large scent marker for the cows to find. While young, introduce the pup to this scent by presenting the moose foot to them. Let them play with it and even part the toes so they can get their noses in to smell it.
I often take a stretched and dried moose leg skin with this gland still on it, and use it as a wrestle toy for the puppies. It is also a good indicator of prey drive. They have to be in a wrestling mood at the time of the test, or they may ignore it in preference for some other thing (such as a nap, food, or wrestling with sibling pups). Over time their interest may wane in the leg skin, once they age and have grown bored with it. Once they reach that stage it is time to introduce them to moose track in the wild. They will quickly recognize the scent and with encouragement follow the trail.
This basic method can be used with other game, such as letting a pup smell and handle a Martin carcass, grouse, squirrel, or whatever you are hunting. All of them have a distinctive odor and other sensory input that the pup will recognize later tracking in the field. I presented grouse wings and squirrel hides to them as wrestling toys while about 4-8 weeks old. Being allowed to bite and feel feathers and fur imprint the pleasure of finding prey on their memory.
This should never be allowed without the hunter controlling the introduction of these methods. If the pup engages in these activities without your initiation, he will not associate it with your hunting partnership. Such a mistake has taken potentially good hunting pups and turned them into dogs that kill neighbors' chickens or cats, or menace moose and domestic livestock when running loose and uncontrolled. Many hunting pups have been lost to such destructive habits and ended up shot or killed by passing traffic. I know of more than one fellow that has lost hunting dogs to traps, because the dogs were allowed to roam alone and hunt without the owners' leadership. Another young dog took to tearing up a trapper's stretched fox pelts, trying to satisfy a neglected and untrained hunting drive.
Once a pup has imprinted a positive memory with the target prey, such as the scent of a moose hoof, or grouse wing, we take them out to track real live animals. It is not necessary, at first, to harvest the animal once found by your pup. Merely give some reward when their tracking has led you to a real prey. This allows you to do a lot of out of season training with real prey; yet not violate any harvest limits and seasons. The first encounter with game sign should be pointed out to the pup by your finger touching it and associating that touch with verbal signal. For example the first moose track you find, place a dog treat right in the track and tap it while saying your verbal signal. Or place a treat in the empty bed of a grouse, or spent grouse feather. After eating the treat they will smell the track or feather and take interest in it. When they do, pat them on the head and say something encouraging, like, "Good dog," or, "Go get' em!" As they move from the first game sign to the next, such as a moose track, feathers or the like, continue verbal affirmation and positive signs.
If they loose the track and wander from the trail, point it out to them again, just as before. Soon they will begin to comprehend that you are focused upon this one target trail, and the prey that is at the end of it. This is crucial to come to an agreement with the dog about what the target prey is, otherwise they will track a multitude of things and never pick any one thing. This dissipates the pups energy and will end in disappointment for the pup. They must learn to follow the sign until it results in real prey, so that they realize there is reward for persistence and success.
In the case of birds, such as grouse, even if the birds flew from the bed without leaving any track or scent on it's departure, a good dog can follow airborne scent. As it flies away it leaves an invisible aerial trail that slowly drifts down to the ground on a windless day. They are very aware of this scent and I have seen a dog trail airborne grouse scent with great success.
Generally it is good to let the pup have a little taste of game in the field as soon as possible after harvesting game. This is not required for experienced older dogs, but when they are young and in early training, they must associate hunting partnership with eating something good. For example, while butchering a moose in the wilderness, if your pup is present with you or helped you track the moose after a wounding shot, give them small pieces of meat. Let them watch you butcher it and see you cut pieces for them. Always assert that you are the owner of the prey animal, and that you are the one who decided when and what they can have as reward. Never let the pup steal meat or challenge your ownership. You are the alpha leader, but you must show generosity and gratitude to the dog, or he will not have faith in you.
I often let my Laika hunting dogs eat the grouse heads, feet and entrails. I let my Karelian Bear dog have some visceral gut fat from a harvested moose. When a Northern hunting dog is presented with raw wild meat, they become aroused in predatory lust. The taste of wild meat makes a dog react far differently than when they are eating dry or canned dog food. Some sort of genetic instinct is awakened that makes them more like a wild canine, than a well bred pet. In that setting the social rules of a pack are normal. You must be the pack leader, or bad things can happen when the dog is older, especially if more than one dog is present.
Wolves have a pack order in which the high status wolves eat first, and only after they give permission do younger or lower ranking wolves get their turn at the carcass. This pack order is sometimes challenged by up and coming younger ones that have a lot of confidence. Fights are not uncommon. Inuit dogs of any kind have a reputation for vicious fights over food and social status. Stabilizing the social order is easier when the puppy is young, and very difficult if they don't work it out before adult hood.
Although there are many other practices and techniques in hunting puppy training, the last one I mention is essential. That step is breaking away from pursuit, and holding position. A dog that spooks the target prey before the hunter can shoot can ruin the hunt. The pup must learn, while young, proper range and stealth. Once the pup has led the hunter to a target animal, the pup must stop when the hunter stops and move when the hunter moves. If the hunter breaks away and stops pursuing an animal, the dog must do so also. For some dogs this is natural, for others it is difficult. But generally building respect for your judgment is the foundation for this skill. Dogs respect success, so expose your dog to success often.
I once spent almost an hour with my son slowly stalking up on a target prey that was in open water, crawling in the brush and using cover to hide my presence. As I waited for the prey to get into the proper shooting lane that I was planning, two of the dogs I brought along saw it. They could not resist running out to confront the animal, thinking they would simply chase it down and grab it in their jaws. The dogs could not understand that my bullet was faster than their feet. The game was spooked, our opportunity lost, and I was perturbed by those dogs. This is why leashes can be very helpful. They are necessary in some situations, until the dog gains enough experience and training to understand that the hunter is the one who takes the shot.
This control of your hunting dog can be taught with a rope around the dog's waist. The slightest tug on the rope at the waist signals the dog to look back at you and stop. It is good to practice this use of the rope with verbal commands to, "Go," on the slack, and, "Stop/stay," on a tug. It is also important to teach them to turn back and return to the hunter's side. The roped waist is a very good training tool, often used on sheep herding breeds.
This is not an exhaustive set of instructions, but lays the foundation for a future Northern hunting dog. Science has conclusively proven that experience and training while young affect how the brain physically grows. A pup that is neglected in hunting training while young may never be able to develop his brain for hunting when older. By starting young, the hunter is literally growing their pups brain and physically changing it's mental potential.
Many pups that could have become good hunting dogs are ruined irreversibly by a lack of proper training in formative years. Lay a good foundation, wire your dog's brain for success, and go make some good memories with your dog.