Photo by Pamela O. Kadlec.
The dog is in hunt mode: His head is down — not quite like a bloodhound seeking a trail but low enough to capture the scent coming off the field grasses — and he is moving in a zigzag pattern about 10 yards in front of the guns with a steady motion back and forth, cutting 30-yard swaths on each side through the cover. The dog whips around and his tail starts wagging faster than windshield wipers in a Florida downpour. He’s on the scent of a quail, your heart starts beating faster in response to the excited spaniel, and the gun is raised as the dog busts into the cover and pushes the bird into the air.
If you’ve never hunted upland game behind a spaniel, you are missing a lot of fun. There is challenge working behind a flushing dog, because you have to be ready to shoot quickly when the hard-charging spaniel forces the birds into the air. This is not the kind of upland hunting where you walk up and kick the cover to make the bird flush. If the bird is too slow, he may end up being caught by the dog flying up in his wake. Watching a young dog figure out how to work the wind and cover, all while staying in gun range, is like watching a kind of poetry in motion.
Different breeds of spaniels have different methods of quartering and flushing game. Generally, Boykin spaniels, cocker and springer spaniels are very bold flushers who will sometimes catch the bird in midair. American water spaniels, Clumber and Sussex spaniels are more methodical and often have a softer flush. Some spaniels actually stalk and circle the birds rather than charge in. Whichever spaniel you choose to own, they are all a joy to hunt with when taught to work close to the gun.
The best part of all of this is that most spaniels quarter naturally. Your job is to teach pups to stay in gun range while hunting their quarry.
Training a more finished dog — a pup that is steady to the gun, hupping where the flush took place — is the typically the most difficult part of training. Most “meat” hunters, however, aren’t worried about that. Their reasoning is that if the bird is crippled and flies a long way off, the dog can be chasing all along and has a better chance of recovering the game. I personally prefer the dog to be under control, steady to both flush and shot because it means less yelling to bring the dog back, less chance he will flush other birds out of gun range, and less chance that he’ll accidentally get shot.
Let’s look at some of the fundamentals of training a flushing dog for work in the field.
INTRODUCTION TO THE GUN
Introduce a pup to the gun in a way that will cause the pup to relate bang to bird and you won’t have any problems. You must introduce the pup to gunfire carefully. A birdy pup won’t do you much good if he bolts at the blast of a shotgun.
Whether you have one pup or several, the individual training is the same. When the pup is eating, clap your hands loudly. If the pup startles, move away from him and try again. Once he ignores the hand clapping, bang feed pans together from a distance and gradually move closer. When he could care less about that level of noise, move to the yard with a .22 starter pistol or a shotgun with an insert that allows you to shoot primers. Have some help. Give the pup a couple of short retrieves to prime him and get him excited. You toss the bumper or bird while your helper shoots the pistol from about 50 yards away.
If the pup is so intent on the bird that he ignores the pistol, great! Move the helper closer gradually until the gunner is next to you. This may take one lesson or 10. Don’t rush it!
If you don’t have help, take pup out to a field. Let him run around and get 40 or 50 yards away. As pup is running around, shoot the pistol — aim behind you and toward the ground. If he startles, ignore him and just keep walking. The ideal situation is when pup learns that bang means bird. You want to toss the bumper or bird and shoot at the arc of the fall (to simulate an actual hunt situation). Walk around the field some more. Yell, “Hey, hey!” toss the bird and shoot the pistol. Repeat until pup hears a shot and looks for a bird to fall.
Never shoot a shotgun directly behind pup, always next to him or in front and to the side. Shooting behind pup can deafen him from the muzzle blast or worse case, pup could jump out and you might shoot your dog by mistake.
Once pup is used to the pistol, use a shotgun, again with a helper. Remember to start off about 50 yards away. Have the helper toss the bird and shoot at the bird as it reaches the arc. (If you are using live shells, do not shoot the bird or you won’t have anything for the pup to fetch.) If all is going well at this stage, the pup will be so intent on the bird that he will ignore the gunfire. As pup relates bang to bird, he will get excited about the gun and start looking for the bird.
SIT VERSUS HUP AND WHISTLES
As a non-slip retriever trainer I have always used “Sit” over “Hup.” The purist spaniel trainers prefer “Hup.” Use whichever comes as second nature to you. Either command works; in fact, you could use “Cat” as the command if you want to be really unique — the dog wouldn’t know the difference, because the dog, after all, is learning a command and not English: He would simply learn that the command “Cat” means that he should sit.
The universal whistle command is a single toot. Again, you have choices: This can be a whistle with a pea or without, an English “spaniel” whistle, or you can even just whistle with your mouth. It doesn’t matter as long as you stay with the same whistle you started with since they all have different tones. I personally prefer the Roy Gonia Professional clear whistle with a pea since it has a sharp clear tone. On the rare occasion I am without my whistle or it breaks, I have resorted to yelling the command, “Sit” with acceptable results.
STEADY TO THE FLUSH
To teach the pup to be steady to the flush and steady to the shot takes a lot of time and patience. Teach pup to sit to the whistle as soon as possible. Condition the 3- or 4-month-old pup to sit to the whistle and your hunting life will be a pleasure. To do this, take a pocket full of treats and your whistle out in the yard with pup. When pup sits on his own, toot the whistle, say, “Good sit,” and give a treat to the dog. Pup will be looking for more treats and will most likely
sit while trying to figure this all out. When his fanny hits the dirt, toot and treat. By the end of the first lesson, pup will be sitting when he hears the toot of the whistle. Do this two or three times every day or as often as possible. Teach pup to sit away from you as well as next to you. If you toot for a sit and pup is 10 feet away, toss the treat to him. You want pup to sit whenever and wherever he is. When he flushes a bird, he won’t be right by your side.
OK, now the pup knows to sit to the whistle. Next, you want to teach him to sit to the flush. Put the 25-foot check cord on pup, go for a walk and carry a bumper or a dead bird. As pup is wandering around, toot for a sit and toss the bumper. Position yourself so that you are between the pup and the bumper so that if he breaks you can block the way. Instead of treating this time, if pup is steady, let him fetch the bumper. If he breaks, stop him (toot the whistle for sit) and pick up the bumper yourself. Try again. When you get one steady to the throw, quit for that lesson. Always end on a positive note and don’t push pup past his endurance.
When pup sits automatically as the bumper/dead bird is thrown, it’s time to move to live birds. Carry one or two pigeons on your next outing. Pull the primary flight feathers from one wing so the bird can’t fly. Let pup wander off. When he’s a few feet away from you, toss the bird so that you are between pup and the bird. Toot for sit. A live bird is going to be very tempting to a pup with a decent instinct for hunting, so be ready to grab the check cord if pup doesn’t sit.
As with the bumpers, when pup sits to the whistle, his reward is fetching the bird. If he doesn’t sit, he doesn’t get the bird. When pup will sit with you blocking his way, start tossing the bird out in front of pup. Change directions and distances you are away from pup so that he learns that no matter where he is, he sits before he fetches.
During the same period that you are working pup in the yard on sitting, you can also be taking pup out and teaching him how to quarter. I start off with the pup on a check cord and we go for a walk in the yard. When pup wanders off in one direction, I immediately turn and go the opposite way. As the rope becomes taut, I whistle with two short toots to get pup to turn and come with me. Praise pup as he turns. Continue this until pup is watching you to see what you are going to do next. Pup has to make eye contact to make this work. If he’s out hunting for himself with no care about your whereabouts, he won’t be sticking close to you or the gun. Walk in a zigzag to get pup in the habit of working in a windshield wiper pattern.
As the pup gets proficient in watching you and quartering, move to a field with moderate cover. Start throwing birds/bumpers down for pup to find. As you walk along and pup is going off to his right, toss a bird to your left without pup seeing you. Toot for pup to turn and turn him into the path of the bird. When he finds the bird, make a huge deal of it with tons of praise. Send pup back out with the command, “Go out.” Continue walking and tossing birds off to the sides.
You can speed up the quartering process if you have two helpers to play “keep-away” with pup. Position each person about 20 yards to each side as if they were gunners. Give them each a pigeon. The idea of this game is to teach pup to move from side to side while staying in gun range. Walk off with the command, “Go out,” and the helpers maintain your pace. First one helper shakes his bird and yells, “Hey, hey!” to get the pup’s attention. When pup races out to get the bird, the helper lifts it up out of reach. At this moment, the helper on the other side shakes his bird and gets the pup’s attention. Soon you have a pup quartering back and forth chasing birds. To keep pup interested in this game, move to the next step. As pup is running to the left, have the right-hand helper toss his bird to the right away from him and angled forward. When the left bird is lifted out of range, you toot for pup to turn and using body English get him moving to the right. His momentum should take him to the planted bird. He’ll get all excited and fetch the found prize.
Now you are ready to plant live birds for pup to find and flush. Ideally, you have access to live birds and a callback pen. That way you can release birds that will go back home if not shot or caught by the dog. Failing that, locate a quail hunting preserve and pay to have birds put out for pup. Do not shoot the birds yet. Plant the birds in the same zigzag pattern way you want pup to hunt, the first one about 30 yards to the left and the next one 30 yards up and to the right of center. Mark the areas with some surveyor’s tape (or flags) so you know where the birds are.
Working the pup into the wind, send the pup out and encourage the zigzag pattern. As pup continues to work the area, he will come up on the planted birds. Keep an extra clipped-wing bird in your vest. When pup flushes a bird and it flies off, pup will want to chase after it. Let pup chase a little and then start calling him in. When you have his attention, toss the clip wing up so pup can see it. He will come charging in to get the close bird. With repetition pup will learn to come back after a “no bird” since his reward is getting to fetch a bird near you. This is the best way to teach a pup to hunt close and stay close.
If you have access to wild birds, your work will be much easier. Take pup out, without a gun, and let him hunt. Encourage him to work the field in a windshield wiper pattern by walking back and forth with pup. Start off working pup into the wind so he has the advantage. With luck, pup will find and flush some birds. As mentioned before, keep an extra clipped-wing bird to toss for pup so he doesn’t get discouraged or to get him back in after he flushes and chases one that flies away. Always toot for the sit on the flush and pup will soon automatically sit when the birds fly.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Take a hunting buddy and go to a quail hunting preserve or plant several birds in a field for your pup. Let your friend do the shooting while you handle your dog. Make sure your partner understands he doesn’t shoot unless the bird flushes at least four feet off the ground. Ask him not to shoot if the dog is chasing the bird — only if the pup is steady to the flush. As before, have an extra clipped-wing bird in your vest to get pup to come back in if he bolts after a flyaway.
Get your pup out as often as possible in different cover and different scenting conditions. Work pup initially into the wind, then work with cross winds and then with the wind at your back. If there is no wind, take that into consideration if pup passes over birds. If you’ve planted birds and have marked where they are, you will see the bird hidden or maybe walking away. When that happens, back up, call pup in, and encourage him to work the area again.
If your hunting partner is a perfect shot, ask him to miss one so that pup flushes a bird, hears a shot and sees the bird fly off. This is where your extra bird comes in handy. If pup bolts, give him a few moments of chase, get his attention and toss the bird for him to retrieve. With practice and practical experience in the field, your pup will be working close to the gun, flushing birds, sitting to the flush and retrieving on command. Happy hunting!