Three experts explain what they look for in a pheasant dog.
By M.D. Johnson
Based on our first three black Labs, two of whom were pointing Labs, I am, without question, quite possibly the greatest dog trainer ever to walk the uplands in search of ringneck pheasants. Not one of the best, but, like the late Muhammad Ali, the greatest.
Do I have your attention now?
Why was I the greatest? In truth, I wasn't.
My dogs — Maggie, Jet, and Jet's son, Deacon — were absolutely outstanding when it came to pheasants. All I did were two things.
One, I taught them and insisted upon adherence to the basics; the basics being unwavering obedience.
And two, I exposed them to pheasants. Lot and lots and lots of pheasants. I'm talking Iowa in the mid-1990s pheasants. And South Dakota pheasants. And Nebraska Sandhills pheasants. And Kansas. And a long list of hunting preserves.
I helped them learn, and they in turn helped us put weight in our game vests. These dogs were sharp, eager, physically fit, obedient, and, perhaps most of all, possessed a desire both to hunt and to please me, their master, unmatched by any hunting dogs I've encountered before or since.
Perfect? No, they weren't, but they were pretty damn close.
Not all pheasant dogs are like my trio. Nor is every uplander lucky enough — and yes, I did get lucky with these three — to start with the foundation I did with Maggie, Jet, and Deacon. Fortunately, there are ways and means by which to transform a blank canine slate into a dynamic pheasant finder; methods both backyard trainers and professionals can and do use to turn a good dog great, and a great dog into something incredible.
We reached out to three dog experts: Tom Dokken, Nick Hall and Bob West.
- Tom Dokken has had, for close to four decades now, a name that is synonymous with dogs and dog training, a reputation in large part due to his introduction of the innovative and widely favored training dummy, the Dokken DeadFowl Trainer, in 1995. Dokken is to dogs what the late John Wayne was to movies involving cowboys.
- Hailing from Defiance, Missouri, Nick Hall, owner of Hall Kennels, says his pheasant focus is, nowadays, on flushing dogs; Labrador retrievers to be specific. "When Missouri, and especially southern Missouri, had good (bobwhite) quail numbers," said the trainer, "I did quite a bit of work with pointers. These days, though, quite a few of the waterfowl retrievers I work with also pull double duty as pheasant dogs up north and in the Plains." Training professionally since 2004 and as an independent businessman since 2010, Hall trains a wide variety of skill levels including Juniors, Seniors, and Master Hunters.
- Bob West hails from LeClaire, Iowa, and has spent all of his 73 years in The Hawkeye State going, as he says, "head to head with Iowa pheasants." For 30 years, the professional trainer served as the director of the Nestle/Purina Sporting Dog Field Program, and is currently retired, though still consulting with the canine nutrition powerhouse. Today, West, who by his count has some 80 hunt-test and field-trial dogs to his credit, trains Labrador retrievers for his own hunting purposes which, not surprisingly, still include a lot of pheasants.
LET'S GET STARTED
Great dogs, be they destined as pheasant dogs, duck dogs, grouse dogs, or house dogs, all come from the same humble beginnings. Or rather, they all share a common denominator, one that stretches across breeds and bloodlines from the very first day training begins — obedience.
"Control," said Dokken. "Any upland dog, you have to have under control. A dog can make or break a hunt, depending upon how much control you have — or don't have — over it."
Hall seconds those sentiments.
"Obedience and control make up this basic foundation," he said. "And socialization. Socializing a pup is wildly important. This gets him ready for public situations. This gets him prepared to go into the tall grasses and heavy cover with confidence. Socialization has to start right away (with pup) because I want that dog to be confident."
Dokken echoes Hall's words on introducing the new pheasant dog to the world at large.
"You start with good bloodlines, the best bloodlines you can afford," he said. "Find out or try to see how well the breeder has socialized the pups. I wouldn't look for one that wants to stay in the corner. The 'independent one.' Is that a sign of a lack of confidence? That the pup's shy with its surroundings? And will the average owner know what to do on a daily basis to bolster that pup's confidence? Probably not, so it's important to get the dog out in different environments — different situations — so it can learn to adapt. A shy dog," he continued, "is always harder to work with."
Perhaps Iowan West said it best. "Whether this dog will be a good citizen or a field champion," said the pro, "the fundamentals better be there. True, the genetics are very important. Same with the nose. The desire. The coat and confirmation. Still," he continued, "the basic drills need to be in place. And, if necessary, you have to go back to these basic drills."
But West's sage advice comes with a word of caution during these early days.
"Guide the dog," he said. "If you try to put too much in their head too soon, you may compromise the situation. You have to trust the dog. Let them work, and (let them) focus on their job, which is finding pheasants. The training," he went on to say, "has to be at a level where a compromise can be achieved. Guide. Train. Trust."
TOP 3 QUALITIES OF A PHEASANT DOG
In addition to a strict adherence to the fundamentals of obedience and control, along with ample amounts of socialization both afield and in public scenarios, what qualities do our trainers believe all pheasant dogs, be they pups-in-training or finished pheasant finders, should have?
"Drive, perseverance, and compliancy," said Hall, without hesitation. "When I was younger, I liked that fire-breathing dragon of a dog. I loved that dog. But now that I'm older and wiser" — the 34-year-old laughed — "I'm partial to a dog that doesn't need a heavy hand. A dog with drive, but that wants to please me. Not soft. I don't want people to confuse compliancy with being soft or shy. And I want perseverance," he continued. "Endurance. I want a dog that's not afraid of ice. Of cold. Of briars or thick cattails. A hard worker. A hard-charger, but not necessarily hard-headed."
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West's top three characteristics in a dog are similar to Hall's.
"Mental stability, cooperation, and desire," the Purina Pro said. "A good pheasant dog has to have the ability to focus. That mental stability. They need the desire. A work ethic. They have to work hard and work hard often over a long period of time under adverse conditions. And they have to be cooperative. A team player. We have to have team players."
THE WAYS OF ROOSTERS
The groundwork has been laid. The obedience is firmly in place. So, too, is the desire. The drive. The confidence. Training dummies have become almost ho-hum; second nature. The dog searches. Hunts. Finds. Points. Flushes. Everything during this stage of canine basic training seems to be as it should be.
How, then, is the next level achieved? How does the student travel the road to becoming a master?
"If," said Dokken, "you have a dog that has the desire, nothing beats time in the field. And time in the field means nothing without success. You have to produce (birds) in order for them to learn the ways of pheasants. Watch the dog," he continued, "and they'll tell you when they've figured things out. But to develop a dog, you have to kill birds for them. There's no substitute for that."
Confidence, Dokken revisits, is so important to the building of this exceptional pheasant dog, and confidence, while learned in formal training, is deeply engrained through repeated exposure to what has now become the single object of that dog's desire — the pheasant.
"You can develop a great pheasant dog," Dokken said, "but this only happens by way of success in the field."
West agrees wholeheartedly. "The major contributor to having a truly premier pheasant dog," he said, "is experience. You might have a wonderful dog that's tremendous on other upland birds, (but) they still have to learn about pheasants. It's being out in the field day after day. Pheasants," he continued, "will drive a dog nuts. But it's a good bird for a young dog. Now you won't get a lot of them shot with this young dog; still, your training is starting to solidify. The dog is gaining experience, and you're maturing as a pheasant hunter."
THE TRUST FACTOR
My late Labradors became good pheasant dogs when we began to work as a team. When they began to understand the ways of rooster pheasants, and I, in turn, began to understand their reasons for doing what they did. These same dogs became exceptional pheasant dogs when trust — confidence on their part, as well as confidence on mine — was introduced into the equation. A great pheasant dog knows its job, and does that job efficiently. A great pheasant hunter, likewise, is efficient and learns over time what it means to trust these four-legged finders of pheasants.
"Trust," said Hall, "is so important. You'll learn to read your dog. To know when he's getting birdy. To connect with the dog. It's the bond. You can see the difference. You know your dog's not lying to you. You can see that bond develop and grow."
So true, said West. "With a pointing dog, you get to where you trust them to point the whole game. To be steady until you walk up. Springers and cockers will stay within a reasonable distance. Within effective gun range. With a Labrador, they're reading every move you make. They're far more sensitive to your actions than you are to theirs. You're a team, and you work together. There's got to be that trust."
Trust, and you know you've both, man and beast, arrived at pheasant perfection.
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