Real-world experience can be the best training tool with hunting dogs.
I run a sizable pheasant-hunting operation in the heart of pheasant country near Redfield, S.D., and when it comes to dogs, this is where the real rubber hits the road, or in this case, paws pound the cover for wild roosters.
I have been around long enough to have pretty much seen it all — the good, the bad and more than my share of the ugly — as it pertains to hunting dogs. What follows is a common-sense assessment of a few simple things you can do this off-season to ensure that your hunt goes off without a hitch and ends up being an enjoyable experience for you and your dog.
First and foremost, dogs need to be in the proper shape for conditions at the beginning of pheasant season — conditinos that are generally warmer than we would like. If we are breaking a sweat walking behind our dogs, just imagine what they are going through continually bouncing through cover, which can trap heat and be anywhere from 10-15 degrees warmer than the air temperature.
Far too often, owners fail their dogs by allowing them to get too far out of shape and then expecting the dogs to perform like rock stars right out of the gate on opening day. I host clients from mid-October through December, which means I depend on all my dogs to perform at a peak level nearly every single day of the season. No matter if it is hot, cold or in between, there are simply no days off.
One of the ways I prepare them for the rigors of a complete season is to keep them in at least moderate shape in the off season and begin working them in earnest about two months prior to opener. This typically involves a three-tiered approach.
First, I begin by walking with my dogs for 1 to 4 miles, depending on the temperature, through some actual cover. I am fortunate in the fact that I can just walk on a gravel road around a section (one square mile) while the dogs “hunt” birds up out of the ditches and adjacent fields, which I have permission to hunt. While doing this, it’s not a bad idea to throw a bumper into cover for realistic retrieves or, better yet, use a dummy launcher for the added realism of a shot, search and retrieve.
Not only does this increase the dogs’ prey drive and stamina, but it helps condition their feet, elbows, hips and every other body part to prepare them to endure a long, hard season in rough country.
Once a “walk” is completed, a thorough watering and moderate cooling down is in order. This is immediately followed by a more vigorous run, often behind my Honda Rubicon, during which I lead them right to a pond or river where they can swim to cool down and as a fun treat for them as a reward for their hard work.
As a further reward and valuable training method, some water retrieving is also in order. The dogs dig it, because even though they’re primarily upland bird dogs, water retrieves are needed more often than one might think. After all, it’s not uncommon to drop roosters into ponds, the center of wet sloughs or even rivers as we hunt cover that’s immediately adjacent to these water bodies. I have seen far too many of my guests not shoot at birds over water because their dogs won’t go after a floating pheasant (yes, they do float and even swim surprisingly well) or make the false assumption mine won’t either.
Although my dogs may look a bit beat up, adhering to such a pregame program means they always make it through the entire season and work each and every day without the conditioning injuries and ailments I all too often witness within the first few hours of my clients’ dogs hitting the fields.
Many dogs that make the trip with my clients appear fit at first glance but quickly fail when doing real work. This is a completely avoidable shame, and it is an injustice to good dogs that desperately want to make your trip memorable by watching them perform their magic in the field rather than watching them spend it exhausted in a kennel or, worse yet, on an emergency trip to the vet.
Start ‘Em Young
Another fact to consider is that it is never too soon to start your dogs out in the field. A good case in point is the latest — and looking to be the greatest — addition to my team of working-class dogs. He is already in the field and learning on a daily basis. Boxer is a yellow Lab with pointing bloodlines that has impressed me right out of the gate. I got him when he was 8 weeks old, just three weeks before season. The very minute I got him home and set him on the ground, I tossed a small ball out and he immediately chased it down, brought it back and placed it in my hand. Great start!
Continuing with short fetching drills immediately reinforced the fun part of his natural retrieving trait, and, by doing so, I formed an inseparable bond with the pup over the next three weeks leading into pheasant season. At 11 weeks old, this young upstart was dutifully following me through all manner of cover and watching the “big” dogs on each and every walk through the field.
On his first outing he even struck off on his own and managed to find a downed bird in heavy grass and was proudly standing on it when I finally caught up with him. This lesson is now permanently ingrained into his bird hunting brain, and the above scenarios simply cannot be purchased from any trainer, of any level, at any price. By taking the pup out this fall and continuing his conditioning through next summer, I will have a full-fledged working dog on by the time next season rolls around.
This is something to consider before sending your pup off for training before you have had a chance to develop a relationship with the pup or let it know exactly what you want it to do. I am strongly of the opinion that the best dogs perform at their peak when they are doing so to please their human hunting partner instead of being constantly distracted by performing a continual list of silly commands that are often useless in the field.
Take note that I have refrained from using the term “master,” as this is exactly the kind of relationship I personally wish to avoid with any of my dogs. Master carries the negative connotation of “owning” the puppy by purchasing it as a possession — not a partner — and sending it off to what amounts to obedience school, only to return with proper manners but no real idea as to whom it should be pleasing. Many of these dogs are relegated to a kennel right up till it is time to run off for a bird hunt, and then they’re expected to impress the living heck out of their masters and their hunting buddies. This is a recipe for instant disappointment and, unfortunately, I continually see it play out with a number of my new hunting guests each and every year.
You will also note that I have not even bothered to mention the “best” breeds or the pros and cons of either flushing or pointing dogs. This, quite frankly, can start silly arguments, is a never-ending debate and is more about personal opinion than it is about results.
The most important thing is doing what works best for you and your style of hunting by getting a dog that does what you want, when you want. In the end, isn’t that all that really counts in what you’re trying to achieve?
Leave the hype and hyperbole to the folks who spend more time clinking cubes in glasses of brown water and talking smart than those who are actually out in the field hunting. Don’t train the instinct out of your dog, but instead help it develop the natural potential of its breeding and heritage. Follow behind your dog faithfully, and you will both be as happy as can be.
Editor’s Note: Dennis Foster is a freelance writer and pheasant guide from Mellette, S.D. For more information or to contact him directly, go to dakotapheasantguide.com.