By Dusty Routh
For a lot of bird hunters, buying your first purebred hunting dog is the culmination of a lifetime dream. You might have hunted behind borrowed dogs at pheasant preserves, or hunted with a buddy and his dog, or bought a dog that was already trained, mature and ready to go. But if you’re hunting with a young dog that’s recently been trained either by you or by a professional trainer, and this is the first time for you and pup to go “live” together in the field, you’ll likely be feeling some angst as you drive out at dawn to hit your first field.
One of the preeminent hunting dog handlers in the western states is Corky Smith, owner of the Lincoln Creek Hunting Club (360-736-6609) near Chehalis, Wash. His take on that first morning in the field for you and pup goes back to the quality of the dog’s initial training, long before the season opened.
“A lot of what you’ll experience depends on what kind of dog it is,” he points out, “and how good the training’s been up to that point.” Smith hunts with both retrievers and pointers, including Labs, English pointers, and wire-haired Griffins. “Make sure the dog you bought is birdy, first and foremost,” Smith says. “Then you can work on other things after that.”
No matter the breed, Smith is adamant that if your dog hasn’t learned basic obedience commands by the time you’re jacking shells into your scattergun that morning, then it’s going to be a long day.
“First of all, basic obedience commands are critical,” Smith says. “Your dog must know how to sit, stay, come, heel, and whoa before you hunt. In real estate, they say it’s location, location, location. Well, to have a good hunting dog, it’s obedience, obedience, obedience. There’s nothing worse than screaming and yelling at your dog and seeing birds flush at 80 yards. If he’s birdy and he’s obedient, you’ve got a great dog. If he’s birdy but he won’t behave, you’re in real trouble.”
For a lot of field dogs, whoa is the most critical command the dog must learn. It’s essential that you’re able to get your dog to stop when you want it to stop.
As if you’re not nervous enough that first morning in the field with your young dog, there’s another element that’s going to help break pup in just right. At the first flush, don’t miss your shot.
To reinforce everything the dog has learned up to this point, you’ll need to fold that first bird. This is one reason why you might think about hunting at a pheasant preserve on pen-raised birds for the first time, rather than on wild birds in chest-high cover.
There are pros and cons to introducing your new hunting buddy to pen-raised birds. If the dog is hunted on the same ground over and over, it may inhibit his instinct to explore, to find birds on his own, says Ben Williams, author of the definitive Bird Dog: The Instinctive Training Method.
Dogs with excellent noses can also learn to track pen-raised birds not by sniffing up the bird, but by sniffing up the human scent around the release area. And, you want pen-raised birds that are good fliers, rather than racers, so the dog is able to learn the entire find-point-flush-retrieve process. If he’s finding birds but you’re not able to shoot them, you’re better off hunting wild birds.
On the plus side of pen-raised birds, you know there are birds in the area, and you can encourage your dog to keep working the field until the birds are found, thereby reinforcing his hunting behavior and his confidence for finding birds, not to mention building his base of experience.
Either way, you’ve got to hit the bird when it comes up.
“You simply can’t miss that first bird in front of the dog,” Smith says. “Take someone with you to help back you up if you need to. In fact, I like to let that first bird ride out a little, 40 yards or so, before I pull the trigger, so the dog doesn’t sense that heavy gun concussion.”
Your young pointer might tend to break and run after that first bird when it flushes. Some dogs, called shooting pointers, are bred for this purpose. Know where the dog is before you pull the trigger, and don’t worry too much about the dog’s ability to be steady to gun, or to remain “staunch” after the flush.
“He’ll show a lot of enthusiasm for that first bird,” Smith explains. “Most likely he’ll then point the next bird, and he’ll rivet his attention on it. That’s when I like to use a separate command from ‘whoa’ as I’m coming up behind him on the point. I say ‘steady…steady…steady’ and after a while he learns to be steady to gun as he’s pointing.”
There’s considerable debate in the dog training world about the use of electronic zap collars and their relative positives and negatives for dog training and field handling. “Used correctly, electronic collars are fantastic devices,
” adds Smith. “They save the trainers and dogs a lot of heartache.
“But they must be used correctly,” he continued. “Never use one on a pup just starting out. And be careful when you use it when you’re hunting that first time. Punch the button at the wrong time and the dog will think the bird did it.”
It’s a real conundrum, the fact that the more purebred your dog, the likelier the chances he’ll display all kinds of wild tendencies. Some of these tendencies you want to encourage, and others you don’t.
“Lots of pointers particularly have a tendency to be wild,” Smith explains. “For field trial dogs, especially, the breeders want them wild to start with.” That enthusiasm and boundless energy can make for a great gun dog. But when you’re not in control of the dog, disasters of all kinds can ensue. “That’s where an electronic collar comes in handy,” Smith says. “It can save you a lot of effort by giving just a tiny tickle when you say ‘whoa’ and you want that dog to stop.”
Also, in your own enthusiasm and excitement, don’t confuse the dog by giving confusing commands. Keep a calm head and be clear and direct with your commands. “Don’t use the same command to stop your dog to get out of range as you do when he’s on point,” Smith says. “That’s really, really critical. Those should be two separate commands.”
But do use the same commands for the same things you want – meaning, your dog won’t understand if you use the wrong command for a particular behavior because you got excited or impatient.
One of the best things you can do before going after quail, pheasant or chukars is to let your dog practice on pigeons. “Pigeons are perfect for dog training,” comments Smith. “You can train that dog to point a pigeon, you can train them to stay locked up, and you can train for the retrieve. Pointing is a natural instinct, but it can be enforced, and you can enhance that instinct,” Smith adds. “If you’ve got a dog that points naturally, and when you push him gently he locks up and fights back, that’s a very good thing. You know you’ve got a great bird dog.”
Smith has been hunting with dogs for decades. Yet he says that every season he sees the same mistakes being made by bird hunters with their new dogs.
“There are two cardinal rules when you’re hunting a dog for the first time in the season, whether that’s a young pup or an old experienced birder,” Smith says. “Those two things really tear me up. First, taking dogs that aren’t in shape out early in the season and into the field. People don’t realize that a dog’s got to be in good to great shape to hunt all day.”
Smith adds that walking your dog an hour or two a day won’t put that dog into the shape required for aggressive field hunting. “It’s not the same thing,” he points out. “The excitement level in a dog explodes when he realizes he’s hunting. You’ve got to make sure the dog is in shape, or be prepared to hunt over a shorter period of time.”
Which means, it’s likely a good idea to hunt a couple of hours or a half-day with your pup if he’s not accustomed to the rigors of a full day in the field. “You can lose your dog because that dog wasn’t in shape,” Smith warns. “I’ve seen it happen. Limit your hunting if your dog isn’t in proper condition.”
The second thing that Smith adamantly criticizes about bird hunters and their new dogs is that a dog working that hard must have lots and lots of water, and some rest throughout the day. “You’ve got to have water with you,” Smith says. “Especially in the early part of the season, when it’s still hot out. A hunting dog can run himself to death and expire from heat exhaustion.”
It’s a good idea to carry fresh water, along with some sugar water or electrolyte water. You can find electrolyte in most pet warehouse stores made specifically to help replenish your dog’s level of nutrients and hydration.
There are two ways to go once you’ve invested in a bird dog, and that’s to train the dog yourself or have the dog trained by a dog-training professional handler. What’s best?
“It depends on how you like to work with your dog,” Smith says. “If you like to do it, and you enjoy that kind of time with your dog, you’re better off doing it yourself. But if you’re not thrilled with that, or you don’t have a lot of time to invest, do it with a professional.”
If you’ve used a professional, make sure that you’ve also been trained and spent some time with the pro and the dog in the field. Otherwise, that expensive training could all be for naught.
“You have to learn how to work the dog according to how he’s been trained,” Smith explains, “and you must be able to discipline the dog yourself. A dog is just like a kid in a lot of ways. You want to praise the good stuff, and discipline the bad stuff.”
Smith says investing time with the trainer, you and the dog will pay off in the long run. “You’ll need to spend as much time as practical with the trainer. He’ll be the one who’ll tell you what you need to know and what you need to do. If he doesn’t volunteer it, then you’ll have to ask him: ‘What do I need to know?’ “
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