Spring is a wonderful time of the year, but as seasons go, bird hunters all look forward to fall because that’s when hunting season opens up. And bird season is when we can do what we love to do best — to take our best friend afield. And by best friend I mean a bird dog.
My favorite hunting trips include a well-trained dog; we work together as a team: I bring down the birds and my Boykin spaniel fetches them for me. If he doesn’t see them fall he will stop on a single toot of my whistle and take arm cast directions to the fall. He will watch the sky and sometimes spot the birds before I do. He might whine in anticipation when he hears the safety click off as I shoulder the gun and swing with the bird to shoot. He might even bark at me if I miss.
Or, we might go upland hunting, where I turn him loose to quarter and flush quail, his feathered tail going ninety miles an hour when he gets a nose full of scent as he busts into the cover and forces the bobwhites to head for the hills. The dog sits to the flush and after I raise my gun to shoot and if I am lucky enough to bring down a bird or two, the spaniel is released to fetch and bring the bird to hand.
My favorite hunting companion is a 10-year-old Boykin spaniel named Mule. Mule has been trained to the highest standards and has titles and accumulated points to show for his lifetime of work. He loves to retrieve so much that he will fetch up bumpers in the yard and if you ignore him he will toss the bumpers at you from his mouth then pounce at them to give you the message to throw it! He doesn’t need training to learn new tricks but he does need retrieves every day to keep him in condition.
Senior dogs are a joy to hunt with because they have a lifetime of training behind them and because you have worked through the hunting seasons until you are a great team. If they have bad habits you may have learned to accept them and allow some less-than-perfect deliveries and, possibly, a slipped whistle or two. You might even make excuses for the misbehavior, blaming it on failing eyesight or hearing loss.
But what if, for your old dog, hearing loss is not an excuse but a reality? The older our hunting dogs become the more they are likely to show the effects of their years beside the gun, effects that can include deafness and loss of vision, achy joints and possible arthritis.
On the flip side, senior dogs are a lot like us as we age: We get set in our ways and bad habits become difficult or almost impossible to break. Recently I had two old Labrador retrievers come in for a training tune up for basically the same issue — lack of control. One would not stop and sit to a whistle in the dove field and the other would break on the shot.
Both of these dogs were trained with electronic training collars and both of the owners did not use the collars in the field. The owners felt bad about hunting with training collars, even though that is one of the best times to use the collar — to keep the dog honest. You are caught up in the hunt, watching the sky for birds or perhaps anticipating the flush of a covey of quail. Your dog is trained and “should” do what he was trained to do, right?
Well, not always. Dogs will continue to test you their whole lives to see what they can get away with. And like you, they also get caught up in the excitement of the hunt, the adrenaline pumping, and can temporarily forget the lessons they’ve learned.
When I worked the dogs with the collars they listened perfectly. It’s much better to put the collar on the dogs and not need it than to leave the collar at home and end up yelling at your dog in the field. Nine times out of 10, the dog is “collar-wise” and will be the best dog ever when wearing the collar, whether you need to use it or not. If you do need to use it, low-level corrections are all that are necessary to get the old pup’s attention.
The training collar can be a positive reinforcer, particularly if you are hunting with an older, deaf dog or one with limited hearing, since the collar becomes a ‘hearing aid’ in the most literal sense.
Sometimes the deaf dog cannot hear your voice but can hear the whistle. If he can’t hear the whistle, you may have to work with the dog to condition him to look at you when you nick him with a low level on the collar. If he has advanced to handling on blind retrieves he will already know the hand signals/casts to get him to go out and find your birds. He may even know the arm movement to come in; arm straight down, palm out extended to the ground.