Photo by T.C. Flanigan
My partner, Ed Lewanowski, normally hunt pheasants over my American water spaniel, Mocha, and Ed’s springer spaniel mix, Sonny. However, on this particular day we were hunting a preserve with a guide named Dave Trusty.
Trusty likes to guide pheasant hunts with pointers rather than flushing dogs because the flushes are more controlled and his clients have time to get ready to shoot before the bird goes airborne. The flushing breeds, (like American water spaniels, most retrievers and springer spaniels) work a field with speed and precision, but the pheasants can explode skyward anywhere and without warning.
As we were working a field, Trusty’s pointer, a Brittany named Spanky, came running out of the prairie grass into the walking lane ahead of me and took off running down the lane. He went about 40 yards and then darted back into the weeds and went on point in a classic “J-hook” maneuver.
I approached Spanky from behind, and when I was close enough, Trusty told me to gently nudge Spanky’s hindquarter with my right leg to get him to move in on the bird. The worried ringneck flushed into the air, giving me an easy 15-yard shot. Spanky retrieved the handsome cock bird to hand to complete his classic fieldwork.
What I had just witnessed was a culmination of several hunting dog behaviors. Let’s take a look at these behaviors to determine what makes a good pheasant dog.
RECOGNIZING LEVELS OF BEHAVIOR
All dogs operate on five levels of behavior. In the order of complexity they are: 1) basic irritability, 2) reflexes, 3) instincts, 4) emotion and 5) intelligence. All breeds of dogs possess some degree of these behavior levels.
Basic irritability refers to the acuity of the dog’s five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. In terms of what makes a good pheasant dog, the ability of the dog to detect pheasant scent is probably the predominant factor. However, to focus on the ability of the dog’s olfactory nerve tissues to discriminate airborne scent molecules alone would be a mistake.
We also have to take into account a dog’s ability to see and hear. Any upland bird dog must be able to hear his master’s commands, see a pheasant take flight and after the shot, see where the bird hits the ground. A good pheasant dog needs all of his senses of perception to recognize what is happening during the hunt.
However, it is because the dog’s sense of smell is so much better than ours that we make them our choice for a hunting companion. Some scientific studies estimate that dogs have a sense of smell 10,000 times greater than humans. All of the hunting breeds have good noses. Breeds like English setters, English springer spaniels, Vizslas, Brittany spaniels, just to mention a few, all have good noses. It would really be hard to say (with accuracy) that one breed has a better nose than another.
As mentioned above, eyesight and hearing are important, too, but when pheasants are hiding in tall prairie grasses or cattails, they’re not too easy to see or hear, either by dogs or humans. What gives them away is the scent they leave behind.
When a pheasant walks or runs through a field it rubs against the plants that are present, leaving molecules of its scent on the plants. This is called ground scent. As a dog works a field with its high-powered nose, it is these scent molecules that it detects and tracks.
However, dogs can also wind-scent pheasants by detecting molecules of scent that are drifting in the air. Have you ever seen dog lift its head and sniff the wind? He was checking for or had detected air-borne scent molecules.
Olfactory acuity varies from one dog to another, and dogs that posses a greater sense of smell have a greater potential to become good pheasant dogs.
If a dog’s nose isn’t good enough to sense its prey, then he probably isn’t going to be a good pheasant dog. To avoid getting stuck with such a dog, do your homework and know what you’re looking for when picking your gun dog’s breeder.
A reflex by definition is an involuntary response to stimulus, and belongs to the autonomic nervous system. Although reflexes are important for all living animals, it is not super important in a dog’s ability to perform as a pheasant dog. However, the quicker the reflexive reaction time, the better the nervous system, and that would include all nervous tissue, including the brain.
For example, when a good pheasant dog is working a field, you’ll often notice a sudden change of direction while he is running or walking as he scents the ground or the air in search of Mr. Ringneck. The sudden change of direction is stimulated by the dog’s nose picking up a variance in the scent trial, but the amount of time it takes for the dog to physically change direction is reflexive (i.e., the quicker the change of direction, the better the reflexes).
Of course, not all dogs need lightning-fast reflexes to be good pheasant dogs. As dogs get older, their reflexes will diminish, but they can still be very effective at finding and flushing birds. It just might take a little longer.
Level 3 is instinct, and instinct is considered to be inborn and also unlearned. In the hunting breeds, the instinct to hunt or seek out prey is what is desired.
There are instincts of self-preservation and species preservation. A wild dog’s instinct of self-preservation (stalk and capture) is most important for survival. If a particular dog can’t successfully catch and kill its prey, that dog most likely won’t survive long enough to breed and produce offspring.
As Darwin said, “It’s survival of the fittest.” This theory is somewhat modified by domesticating the dog to a point that it doesn’t need to hunt food; however, it is important to realize that all dogs are direct descendants of wolves, and obviously a wolf’s hunting instinct is essential for survival.
Dogs are bred to take advantage of their genetic predisposition, and the hunting instinct is high on the list. Therefore, it is the hunting instinct that we breed to the best of our abilities.
It can be said that hunting instinct is proportional to a dog’s enthusiasm in the field, or its desire to hunt. This needs to be differentiated from the desire of the dog to just go hunting (with or without with his ma
ster), and the desire to actually seek out specific game species (not squirrels, song birds or rabbits). When you drop the tailgate on the truck, open the kennel door and say, “Hunt ‘em up,” a good pheasant dog’s hunting instinct will be stirred. The most basic of wolf-like traits should be awakened. Pheasants beware!
Yes, dogs do have emotions, too. We’ve heard them whimper and cry when they think they’re getting left behind. We’ve seen them with tails wagging vigorously as they greet family and friends with excited glee. We’ve also seen them bark or even growl angrily when they perceive a danger to themselves or their master.
Boldness, pizzazz, style and energy are all part of a dog’s personality. But how does emotion comes into play while they’re hunting pheasants with you?
Essentially, the emotional makeup of a dog, or the personality of a dog, should be that it easily forms a friendship or even a family bond with its master. Rooted in this bond are the realistic expectations that you have for your dog, and what the dog can expect from you.
Do you want a hunting dog that is people friendly, and one that is eager to please its master? Well, of course you do, and to achieve this you have to tune your training intensity (especially in terms of obedience training) to the personality of your dog.
For example, my American water spaniel has what I would classify as a sensitive personality. Because of this, I’ve never been heavy-handed in my field or obedience training with her. Golden retrievers are another type of dog that are sensitive in terms of personality, and don’t respond well to being treated harshly.
Can the personality of the dog be modified or taught? Yes, but remember, education or training does have limits depending on how much adaptability the dog has and how good of a teacher/trainer the dog’s owner is.
When you drop the tailgate on the truck, open the kennel door and say, “Hunt’ em up,” a good pheasant dog’s hunting instinct will be stirred.
Intelligence just might be the most important trait that defines a good pheasant dog. The ability of the dog to understand what to do in certain situations and to listen to its master (at all times) is essential. When a dog is trained to perfection, its performance becomes an art form.
When pheasants are running from dogs (i.e., not flushing), good pheasant dogs, through their cognitive skills, know how to cut them off with a J-hook maneuver, such as the one I described earlier. Some dogs learn that when they hear the report of a shotgun something is about to fall out of the sky, and they’re going to be dispatched to retrieve it.
Not all hunting dogs are going to be geniuses, and conversely, not all hunting dogs are going to be dummies. On average, all of the hunting breeds that are used for pheasant hunting can be trained well enough to do a good job in the field.
How does a hunter determine how intelligent a dog is? Most humans learn by repetition when it comes to learning tasks. So it is with dogs. If a dog owner were trying to teach quarter left (i.e., maneuvering the dog to the left part of a field) using a hand signal, and the dog grasps the signal after two repetitions, this would indicate the dog is quite intelligent.
Generally speaking, the fewer the repetitions needed to teach a skill or command, the better (higher) the intelligence level of the dog.
Here’s a look at five training steps that will help your dog improve his hunting ability.
Regardless of breed, a good hunting dog will always be under control. In other words, it must be obedient to its master, and be a positive influence in helping its master find and kill pheasants.
This is especially true when the hunting action gets hot. It is frustrating to have your flushing dog get too far ahead and watch helplessly as he bumps birds out of range. It is equally frustrating to have a pointer that won’t hunt where you want him to or that bumps birds prematurely.
Work with your dog on obedience for 20 minutes each day, if possible. Reinforce the basic commands of sit, come and stay.
I highly recommend an electronic shock collar. Remember, however, that a shock collar is not a substitute or a cure-all for not putting the training time in with your dog, nor is it meant to be a punishment. A shock collar is simply a tool to help enforce commands and modify behavior. Read the instruction manual that comes with the unit, and gear the shock level to the personality of your dog.
Get ‘Em On Birds
It almost goes without saying that the more you train your dog with real birds, the better they will perform in the field. There are many of what I call artificial training aids available nowadays. Some of them look and feel like real birds, and they are beneficial. But any time you can train your dog with real birds, the sessions will be much more productive.
A good place to train a dog with real birds is at a hunting preserve. I’ve belonged to one club for several years and my membership comes with a quota of birds for training purposes. I strategically place some of these birds in the field so I can control the training situation.
For example, during training sessions, we’ll place the birds so that we can approach them from the downwind side. A good idea is to attach a piece of tape to a weed at the bird’s location so you’ll know exactly where the bird was placed. As the dog approaches the area, you can practice approaches and teach him how you want him to hunt. For flushers, this could mean teaching him not to get too far ahead — 25 yards is the maximum — and for pointers it could be point, hold and flush training.
The training session should be planned so that you can devote complete attention to handling your dog. This will require that you bring a hunting buddy to be the shooter. Using real birds will really amplify your training efforts.
Physical Fitness/Veterinarian Care
We should think of our four-legged hunting companions as skilled athletes. Like the highest paid pitchers in the majors on the opening day of the baseball season, we want our dogs to be in tip-top shape when the hunting season arrives. To accomplish this, there are several fitness and health care tasks that we need to consider.
First, exercise your dog daily. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy. A stroll around the block or a walk through the park will improve your dog’s fitness (as well as your own). Toss a ball or retrieving dummy along the way to add to the exercise session and improve retrieving skills.
Always keep up with your dog’s veterinarian care. Make sure all shots are curre
nt and be sure your vet knows that you’ll be using your dog for upland hunting, which involves a lot of running. Ask your vet about the general cardiovascular condition of your dog, its weight and diet requirements before, during and after the hunting season.
Ask your vet for his recommendations for keeping your dog in shape. And don’t forget to provide your dog with plenty of water through the hunting day.
One of the most important aspects of a good pheasant dog is its ability to retrieve. The best scenario is to practice retrieving with your dog for a few minutes every day. Use a ball, a retrieving dummy, a favorite toy or a dead bird to teach bringing a retrieved bird (or substitute) all the way to your hand. Use a rope to control the dog if he stops short or insists on the “one circle” trick, and when he does the job properly, reward him with enthusiasm.
When your dog obeys your commands, retrieves to hand or otherwise performs in such a way that it pleases you, reinforce his positive behavior with a great deal of enthusiastic attention. Your dog will respond with increasingly improved performances that can only benefit you both in the field this fall.