Training Pointers and Setters for Hunting, Shooting and Falconry
Go Pets America is honored to be able to publish this guide to selecting, and training a pointer and setter by one of the UK's leading authorities on the subject, Derry Argue. Although focused on setters a great deal of the advice is very relevant to other gundog breeds.
Before you rush out and buy a pup, seek out a breeder of the type of dog you need who has been at it a long time, has a track record and knows his stock. This applies whether you want a shooting dog, a field trialer, or a show dog. He will know what matings produce good pups. Buy a pup or a dog from a strain that you know can do the job you want and that is going to be easy to manage.
Beginnings - Before you start, decide clearly what you want. You want a dog to live in the house for the kids to play with? Fine. Buy a nice looking show dog. You want a status symbol to show off to your friends? Buy a Crufts' show champion. It will be happier and suit you better.
But maybe you want a dog as a hunting companion that will give you a thrill when it finds and points game. Perhaps you want that buzz that the horseman gets when his hunter takes a big fence. Or the thrill the falconer experiences when he sees his falcon stoop from 500 feet onto a fleeing grouse. That electric feeling the salmon fisher knows when a spring run fish takes his fly. Get a quality bird dog and it's all there!
Oh, there will be times when you wish you had bought the show dog but those who have been there know it's worth it! If more knew the thrill of working a top class dog, they would make it illegal!!
When does training begin? That's easy! From day one by choosing the right strain and the right parents. I handle my pups as much as possible as soon as their eyes are open. They are talked to daily and by the time they are a few weeks old, they are following me around and dashing up to be petted. My problem is to stoop over to tie a shoe lace without a dozen wet noses pushed in my face!
The most import part for me is the founding of a relationship with that pup. It gets to know my voice and body language. We communicate. Coming to call to get a game or petting or perhaps a few table scraps at the back door lays the foundations for "Come here". Later that will be useful, first in training and then in handling the dog when out hunting, more of which later.
I'll teach pup things like the Sit as I go about daily chores. Make use of the pup's natural inclinations and occasionally pop in a trigger word to mould associations. You can read how this is done in my book "Pointers and Setters" and see my techniques in action on my videos. Don't take my word for it, judge for yourself whether they work.
Critical Periods - these are periods in an animal's life when learning is very rapid. In the dog, they are thought to occur at about four weeks, six to eight weeks, sixteen weeks, and - I would add another - around eight months. There are, of course, other times too but these are the important times to remember for training. A dog is not mature until it is about two years old and does not settle down and become serious until it is three, after that it builds on experience in the field and becomes wiser as each year passes.
At four weeks the pup ventures from the nest for the first time and encounters the outside world. From this time I introduce the pup to the sights and sounds of life on the farm. They hear loud noises and see new sights. By six weeks they have been introduced to local school children and by eight or nine weeks play boldly with anyone who will give them the time. I might put a dozen in the back of the truck and take them on errands. That way they get used to the vehicle and to seeing people and traffic. They may follow me down through the fields as I look at the stock or mend fences. Pups ought to be outgoing but cautious. There is nothing wrong in a pup high tailing it home if it encounters something frightening. I hope my pups will learn to fear vehicles, large animals, strangers, etc. and later to treat anything strange and threatening with caution and respect. These are working dogs, not pets.
By sixteen weeks I normally expect to have all the pups beginning the "Sit" (flat down). They will have encountered game and will be on country walks through the fields several times a week. They are ranging out, but not too far, using their noses and hunting butterflies and perhaps taking an interest in small birds. But they still come at a rush when called because it means fun and fussing from me, the trainer. I may encourage hunting by scattering pieces of meat for them to find or letting them hunt up and chase some of my reared game birds. But rabbits and hares are strictly tabu. I won't let them even scent one until they are keen on feathered game.
By eight months I would normally expect them to be hunting with serious intent, some will have have started pointing from seven weeks, and the Sit will be fairly well instilled. These two branches of training are kept quite separate. Hunting brings out natural instincts; control is instilled at exercise time away from game so there's no confusion in the doig's mind. I want to stress here that all I want my pups to do at this stage is to know what game is and to know how to use their noses. I believe in keeping my youngsters naive and unfit. That way they are managable!
Soon, they have heard a few shots and are reasonably confident but in no sense trained. One of the nicest things I've seen is two nine week old pups pointing and backing on a pair of partridges as I looked out of the window early one morning! The partridges didn't quite know what to make of it!
Gunshyness -- I feel it necessary to insert a paragraph on gunshyness. Frankly, very very few dogs are born gunshy. Well bred gundogs are as highly strung as a Thoroughbred racehorse and I can say with some assurance that I have NEVER bred a gunshy dog. . Young bird dogs, like finely bred horses, are all nerves and fire and very quickly ruined by stupid and ignorant handling. Firstly, a class bird dog is bred to respond to his handler at a distance while at the same time having the guts and fire to drive out to find game birds. The two elements should be in balance. But they cannot be in balance in a young dog because he is still in the training process and doesn't yet know what he is expected to do or what life is all about. He is like a gawky unsure teenage child.
A young pointer or setter is still very unsure of himself. With time and patience, he will come to trust the handler and to know what hunting birds is all about. Until then, the occasional shot fired around the kennels should mean very little to him. It is of no consequence. Later, when the Sit is firmly established, the training goes on (ever so cautiously) to teach him to drop to shot. This is a very delicate stage and the successful trainer will be sympathetic to the natural apprehension of a young dog to such a strange and alarming noise and to new situations.
When a young dog hears a loud bang it might naturally run back to it's owner for reassurance. If the owner has any intelligence, he will appreciate what is happening and reassure the dog. What has happened? Why this sudden noise? Tempered with the introduction to game (which the dog enjoys), the bang of a gun (which the dog initially suspects) also becomes something the dog accepts and, finally, rejoices in.
Shaddow is stopped from chasing a bird by use of the Sit command
Now here is a true story. I sold a young dog to a person who claimed he was a good trainer and could manage a part trained dog. But the dog was kept as a house pet for over a year. It was brought out briefly the first hunting season, shown no birds and not unnaturally exhibited anxiety with the strangeness of the situation, with all the shooting and noise of other hunters. No game was found (so the dog had nothing but unpleasant associations with the situation) and the matter was forgotten for another year. A year in which the dog had plenty of time to think about that unpleasant experience.
Then the owner noticed that the dog jumped in surprise when there was a loud noise in the house. So, jumping to the (incorrect) conclusion that the dog was gunshy, the owner decided to "test" the dog. He quietly walked up behind the dog while it was eating it's food and banged two saucepans together! The dog not unnaturally ran to it's kennel, the one place of safety it knew, and there no doubt contemplated the lunatic nature of humans!
To confirm the diagnosis that he had been sold a gunshy dog, this man then took the dog to a so-called professional trainer who put out some quail. The dog hunted and pointed stylishly. The trainer shot a quail and the dog ran back to his owner's heel. To make quite sure that they had totally destroyed this dog's trust in humanity, they then repeated the experiment with the same results. The dog's owner then demanded I supply another dog or he would tell everyone how he had been cheated. My reply, Please do. The good dogmen will understand exactly what has happened here and judge him for ruining a good dog. The other sort I don't want to know anyway. As I live next to an RAF Weapons Training Range the suggestion that the dog was gunshy is too ridiculous to warrant further consideration.
Many young dogs are nervous of the gun, but this is overcome with patience and understanding. Gunshyness is a trainer induced problem, the product of ignorance and stupidity. I take the dogs through basic training at exercise time
"Sit" - Serious training starts by getting the pup to Sit on command. This is the flat down position, with the head flat between the dog's paws and belly on the ground, and it gives the handler complete control. I believe the best time to commence this is around three or four months when puppies would normally be joining the social society of the pack. The procedure is easiest understood by watch a good video such as Bird Dog Basics available from Firth Productions.
The first step is to get the pup to feel safe in that Sit position . It must have confidence that it is safe and free from attack. Some moderate but gentle force may be needed but as soon as the pup is in the correct position it is gently stroked and it's ears scratched until it relaxes. I find it helpful to push the head back down immediately the pup starts to raise it. Keep the lessons short and repeat them at odd moments and in varying locations rather than in formal training sessions.
If you set aside a specific period and place for training your dog, you will quickly find it performs impeccably during these periods but not at other times. We have all seen the dog which works beautifully at home in the back field but goes to pieces at the local shoot. That's the reason! All the time these Sit lessons are given the trigger word "Sit" is repeated in the same tone as it will later be used to induce the response. There is no praise for going flat down. We want to form an association between the word Sit and the flat down position, so why vary inputs like tone? It will just confuse the dog. To prove my point, I regularly teach this in under 20 minutes -- because I am consistent.
By constantly working at these exercises, a dog will look to you for communication and can be controlled with a whisper or the slightest gesture. There is no applause for the dog trainer who flings his arms about, gives repetitive blasts on the whistle, and shouts at his dog. None at all for those who indulge in the verbal and physical abuse of their dogs.
I'll work on the Sit at exercise and odd moments, usually making it a game. Yes, it is quite possible to have that "mildly threatening" situation (the Sit) in a game -- in fact, children and puppies regularly include the mild threat in their games and enjoy it. Watch either at play and you will immediately see what I mean. The pressure is applied - "SIT" you say. Down goes the pup. Then a clap of the hands and call it to you and have a game. The idea is to get both responses as instantaneous as possible. You want fast reactions from the dog.
There is no Stay command in my training system. When a dog is told to Sit, it should remain in the flat down position until released with "Get on" or your whistled signal.
With daily training, what we are aiming for is a fluid response. A quick "Sit" and an equally quick run on at "Get on". See if you can "hold" your dog with a gesture or change in your stance or pace. See what body movements provoke a reaction in your dog. Store these signals for future use and practice them whenever possible. Horde them for situations when you need to communicate with your dog. All this will be used later as you communicate when out hunting. The more you teach a dog, the easier it is for him to learn new things.
During a training session, a young dog may attempt to lift that feeling of being threatened which comes with being presentred with threatening situations during training by running off. The diagnosis is simple. Firstly, do not over do the element of threat and force during training as the dog will attempt to increase the distance from the trainer. The feeling of being under threat diminishes in direct proportion to the distance!
There are three solutions to the problem of the bolting dog.
Firstly, don't let it occur in the first place. It is caused by subjecting the dog to too much stress. Second, anticipate the dg's actions. A dog that is about to make a break for it will look in that direction before it takes off, measuring the distance and mentally checking that the exit is clear. Just move around so you are in between the dg and the escape route. You should watch your dog at all times and by his behaviour you will learn to anticipate his next actions. When you know his proposed escape route it is very easy to use your voice to control the situation. If a dog runs off and escapes you once, he will do it again. So be ready. It is easier to Sit a dog when it is coming towards you (you have eye contact) than when it is going away from you (there is no eye contact and the control is diminishing as distance increases).
The third solution to use a check cord if you must - far better to use eye contact and body language to control the situation but any light cord strong enough to hold a bolting dog can help. I use baler string which is (for me) cheap and easy to get. Otherwise it has no mystical qualities. The trick to using a check cord successfully is never to let the dog know it is wearing one. Use it to teach a lesson and discard it. Just a slip knot at one end, pop it over the dog's head as he dashes up to you for a petting, and you have complete control if he does decide to run off. Better still, you can give it a tweak to make contact with the dog who (if you use it seldom) will be convinced you have super-natural powers. If you use a check cord as a lead, your dog will soon be convinced you are a fool, and he may even be right! Again, watch the videos and read the book to see how this is done.
"Come Here" - The Sit is the first lesson, the Come Here is the second. On these two pillars, everything else depends. With these, you can control a dog. Without them, chaos reigns! The pup should rush up to you whenever called because it knows it will get some pleasant attention which it enjoys. But dogs must also come when they are called because they must. This is one time I use the check cord so the dog knows it has it on. Again, slip the cord over the dog's head, walk off a few paces, stoop down and call the pup to you. If it does not come immediately, step back a few short paces, call again and pull the cord tight. The pup may come, in which case it gets petted. Or it more likely struggles violently as the cord tightens.
Try not to create a confrontation. Maintain firm pressure on the cord without being vicious. As the pup struggles there will be periods when it will inevitably come closer and the strain on the cord will lessened. As it begins to calm down, it will realise that the pressure on the cord lessens the nearer it gets to yourself. Don't tighten the cord and try to pull the pup in, just maintain firm pressure. As the pup calms, gently tighten up on the cord and try to call the pup to you, again, without hauling it in. One authority recommends stooping down and doing a backward run to encourage the dog to follow and this certainly helps. Sooner or later (sometimes later!) the pup will come towards you and the pressure on the cord will immediately lessen which, of itself, rewards the pup.
As the pup comes to realise that coming in to you as you call "Come Here" releases the pressure on the cord, so it learns to come when called. Now you can go for a walk with the pup trailing the cord and, surreptitiously grasping the end of the cord, call it to you in the certain knowledge that you can tighten up if necessary as before. Keep the cord handy. Use it if the pup refuses to go into it's kennel or any similar situation. So pup learns that beside you is not only a safe but a pleasurable place to be when it hears "Come Here". A quick but firm jerk on the cord brings instant obedience. That bit of wisdom is brought to you care of trainers over at least four hundred years! There is nothing new in dog training.
Introduction to Hawks and Falcons
Most gundogs respect birds of prey instinctively but it is wise to introduce your dog to the bird in a strictly controlled situation. Bring you bird up to the pup when it is in the run and restrained by wire netting. Use a tiring and use the situation to man your bird. When the hawk is reasonably confident, have someone slowly bring the pup up to your bird when it is on your fist. Use a small light stick to tap the pup on the nose if it becomes too bold. Next time it will approach with more caution. To get both the dogs and hawks used to each other, have your kennels in plain view of the weathering lawn or mews. Familiarity will eliminate fear.
Subtleties - From the Sit and the Come Here a whole spectrum of communications can be built up. Initially, the Sit means "stop and go into the flat down position - NOW!". Later, it means a whole range of things from flat down to a slight hesitation. It can be delivered as an emphatic "SIT" or as a slight hiss "ssss.....". The first is self-explanatory; the second might just be enough to make a dog hesitate for a split second. In between there is a scale from the one extreme to the other.
Same with the "Come Here". It might mean just that, or it might mean change the angle of your run slightly towards me. You see how subtle this is becoming? If you believe all dog training is done with the stick, staccato commands and the electric collar you are missing a very great deal.
Chaining - Nothing to do with tethering a dog! If the word "Sit" will cause a dog to go flat down, the dog can be programmed to a whole range of signals and signs to create the same response. This is called chaining. By shouting "Sit" and raising your hand, you chain the trigger Sit and the action of the dog going down to the hand signal. If you deliver both at the same time, after a while the dog will respond to the hand signal alone. The same thing will happen if you invariably shout "Sit" when you notice a dog seeing a bird fly up, or when a shot is fired, or you blow your whistled signal. If you always do it, absolutely consistently, the dog will learn to respond accordingly to the alternative triggers. Where most amateur trainers fail is being consistent. The most difficult thing about dog training is training the trainer.
You can chain the Come Here to the whistle, hand signal, or even a body movement. My pups are used to my going down flat (yes, me!) when I call them to me so that they get to rag me and lick my face. When I am in the Down position, they find this attractive because my position (body language) signals that I am subordinate to them for those few moments! This is something they enjoy and remember, so just a duck of my head (lowering my height) acts as a shorthand signal to call my dogs to me! No need to shout or whistle, it's as simple as that. I can also catch a dog's eye, when I may have thirty out at exercise, and crook my finger. The selected dog knows the gesture and willingly and quickly comes to have his ears scratched. This has a two way benefit. As youngsters learn what these subtleties mean, they watch me with ever closer attention.
How far? Advie pointers and setters are bred and trained to maintain contact with the handler and range is something we regulate out hunting according to the conditions. Most intelligent dogs will regulate their range according to the terrain, the game population, and the amount of cover. But this is something that can be trained in, too. I start training this to pups by giving a sharp blast on the whistle and by smartly changing my direction. In effect, I show them my back. It's as simple as that. I'm using the "Come Here" chained to my body language and perhaps a hand signal, though the latter should not be necessary. Habituate pups from an early age to know that when you call, you mean business and will move off without them if they don't come.
The dog's natural instinct is to get ahead of the handler so he wants to catch up and overtake when the handler changes direction. As the dog passes the handler, he (the handler) passes out of the dog's field of view and the handler can then resume the original course.
Some trainers stand in one spot and whistle or shout to call their dogs to them. This communicates several things to the dog. First off, there is no doubt in the dog's mind where the handler is and that he's not moving, so why go to him? Second, the handler is making a lot of noise which will disturb game so the dog very sensibly decides to work further away! Third, the dog is happy to work further away, because he knows exactly where the handler is by all the noise he is making and he is confident he won't get lost!
A good handler can direct his dog with little more than body language and the dog will maintain contact because he knows the handler is a hunting partner who has something worthwhile to contribute to the hunt. Call to you dog when you must, but do it too often and it becomes an unwarranted intrusion. Yes, dogs do sometimes want to take control. But if you start early and avoid confrontations, usually all you have to do is walk in the direction you want your dog to hunt. The above advice applies to my dogs which are bred for foot hunting. I do not claim that it will work for all dogs, let alone field trial dogs or those wide ranging dogs bred for working from a horse or vehicle.
An Introduction to Game - Many trainers start here when the dog is about a year old and then have a long hard struggle keeping the dog under control. For some reason it is seen as a great thing to have a dog pulling a long rope or a lump of chain to slow it down. I do not understand this philosophy. I've done it, of course, because that's the way I was taught to train a dog but now I'm older I really cannot be bothered creating problems for myself. Let' start from the beginning....
Before that critical period at around eight months, it doesn't matter much what a pup does with game -- it isn't serious. Up until that time, the pup is experimenting. It can chase, perhaps even catch and eat game incapacitate in some way.
The dog is a predator. A predator kills and eats the flesh of other birds and animals. It is just fit and strong enough to kill what it needs. Nature likes it that way. If it were a more efficient killer, it would soon destroy all the prey upon which it feeds and starve to death. So a predator needs to be 100% efficient and fit to survive long term. It cannot afford to become damaged.
So, predators generally try to specialise in the type of prey they pursue and when they find something that they can hunt successfully, they become "wedded" to it, to use old fashioned terminology. Hence this period of experimentation. The gundog trainer ought to guide his dog to becoming a specialist in game hunting. Any game dieing around my kennels gets thrown into the puppy's kennel where it is torn up and eaten. The pups learn that game is something good. They begin to recognise the scent of game.
Even so, puppies rely mostly on vision. They have to be taught to use their noses. This can be done by letting them hunt up and chase game. This starts with puppies bumping into game which flutters up in front of them providing an exciting chase. After a few encounters like this, the pup may decide that chasing doesn't work. If they have realised the connection between scent and the presence of game they should next try stalking and pouncing. The pup has learnt to associate the scent of game with that fluttering object which is such fun to chase. There is nothing particular special about dogs doing this. Wild dogs and foxes do it all the time! But, with training, we will inhibit the stalk and hold the dog at the point.
Stalking prey is such a strong instinct in predators that at this point I always repeat the story of the New Forest pig that was taught to find and point partridges within a fortnight! It is the exceptional bird dog that cannot be taught to hunt and point in under an hour. The easiest way to teach a dog to point is to use the line of dizzied pigeons technique described in Bird Dog Basics. If you want to see how this is done, take a look at this video.
Assuming you have enough game, another way to get a dog to point is to run it on and let it chase every bird until it starts to point out of sheer exhaustion. Don't forget that you are wasting your time running a young dog when birds won't lie to a point, i.e. after the start of the shooting season. Train on paired birds in the spring or on broods in late summer. Or you can bring a young dog up behind an older dog when it is on point. The principles are the same.
Once you pup has started to point, it is an easy matter to give a hiss (remember "sss..."?) when your pup first begins to stop on game. If you feel it helps, let the pup drag a cord of, say, ten feet which you can catch hold of when it starts to point. Then get up to it and gently encourage it to point. If you have done your ground work with previous training, it ought to be possible to communicate to your dog and control it so it either stops or moves forward when told. This is the way it has been done in Britain for centuries.
Once you have got to that stage, all the dog needs now is experience and the next part of the job is achieved by wearing out a few pairs of boots on the mountains. Personally, I don't worry too much if my young dog chases hares or rabbits. I whistle, turn my back and walk away. Nine times out of ten the dog will leave Fur and follow me. The trick to doing this is to make sure your dog has a positive introduction to game so that it knows what you are hunting. Of course, you could jump up and down and shout, but what is the doig to make of this? Are you encouraging him to catch it or to leave it? If you walk off, your meaning is clear.
The Electric Collar
Many successful trainers will tell you that "punishment" needs to be administered as close as possible to the moment the "crime" is committed. My philosophy of dog training doesn't assume dogs commit "crimes" any more than they know that they have "done wrong" or need "punishment".
Dogs know nothing about human morals. Dogs follow their natural predatory instincts and these are moulded in training to suit our human purposes. That apart, the electric collar seems a most wonderful instrument because you can administer an electric shock to the dog at a considerable distance at "the right moment". At least, that's what is says in the glossy brochures.
Those who are in favour of the electric collar tell me I don't understand. For the record, I was the first person to import one into Scotland back in 1972. I have owned at least four different makes since and several different models. I live in sheep and deer country and we used to kill 1,200 mountain hares in two days when hares were considered vermin and had to be controlled. Yet I now find I have no need of an electric collar. How's that?
Mr Robert Wehle of the famous Elhew pointer kennel in the USA also condemns their use. Those who use electric collars have very little knowledge of canine psychology or they are professionals who train dogs which are totally screwed up mentally anyway. I have just had an email from a lady in the USA who hunts a pack of hounds. She asks why it is that gundog owners need an e-collar to control one dog when she can control a pack of 50 hounds without one! Good question! Have a look at my videos and see what I achieve without electric collars. I would not bother housing and feeding such an ill bred brute that required such methods to train it! So why are they in such general use and so widely recommended?
Electric Training Collars
Here are a few facts....
Fact 1: The electric collar is a small tin box containing electronic components which is strapped to the dog's neck. A hand held transmitter sends a pulse which causes the collar to give an electric shock to the dog. These instruments probably cost a few pounds sterling (a few dollars) to make yet sell for a starting price at least twenty times that. So the manufacturers have huge profits out of which to pay for widespread promotions, advertising, seminars, free videos, etc.
Hunting and dog magazines profit from the advertising revenue these companies generate so most do not discourage their use and the irresponsible publications won't even allow reasoned debate in case it cuts advertising income.
Fact 2: Scientific studies shown that harsh training methods usually have side effects which may not surface for years and then do so usually in some unpredictable way. Use an electric collar and you will be creating more problems long term and possibly ruining the dog short term. The better dogs are usually the quickest spoilt.
Fact 3: The mere act of strapping an electric collar onto your dog's neck changes the environment in which the dog is being trained. The collar is very noticeable to the dog. The whole point of using any corrective device (e.g. the check cord) is that the dog should not be aware that there is anything unusual going on. Very soon you will find that your dog won't work as you wish unless he is wearing the collar. This regular use leads to the collar contacts setting up an irritation of the skin which can lead to infection. How do I know this? Read above: I have veterinary training and personal experience of their use!
Fact 4: The collars are unreliable. Although the electronics has improved dramatically, there are other factors involved. A dog's coat is a great insulator and the probes need to be up tight against the neck to be sure of making a good contact every time. You think your dog won't notice this? Again, you are changing that environmental factor.
Fact 5: You won't know the effect of an electric shock to your dog until it's too late because you simply cannot predict that reaction. Guess wrong and you have created problems in the training program most won't need or possibly caused irreversible trauma in your dog. How is it we never read about these dogs? They undoubtedly exist.
Fact 6: None of the official dog training organisations (e.g. police, RAF, sniffer dogs, rescue dogs, guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf, the vast majority of shepherds, hunt kennels, etc.) find they need to use electric collars. Corporal punishment was abandoned in schools long ago in civilized countries -- because it doesn't work!
Occasionally I get emails from American trainers who tell me I still don't know what I am talking about. If what you say is correct, please take it up with Mr Robert Wehle of Elhew pointers who doesn't appear to approve of electric collars any more than I do. Mr Wehle has unprecedented experience of breeding and training bird dogs in your native land so please don't bother me.
Do I need to go on? If a dog cannot be trained humanely, there is either something wrong with the trainer and/or his methods -- or something seriously wrong with the dog's breeding. In either case, the solution is clear. But sadly there will always be some who are so low on the human social hierarchy that they need something small and defenceless like a dog to dominate to keep themselves off the bottom of the heap!
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Derry Argue can be contacted ( preferably by email) but otherwise at
Address Advie Gundogs, Miller's Place, Fendom Tain, Easter Ross IV19 1PE
Scotland UK. Tel/Fax: +44 (0) 1862 893856 Email: DGArgue@aol.com.
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