There are countless books out there that can teach us the proper methods to train our canine hunting partners. Some of them are great and some of them are out dated. With all the cataloged info out there to help us, why do we often find ourselves dealing with so many problems in the field? The answer usually lies within us. Whether or not we can realize our own shortcomings as trainer and handler, is another story.
This list doesn’t take into consideration starting puppies and all that can go wrong there. Let us assume that we have done a good job at getting the pup started on the right path and we are now into at least season one of their careers.
5. Constantly telling the dog what to do and where to do it
How many times have we hunted with someone who is always telling their dog to get over here and check over there? The question that really begs answering is; How many times have we been that guy? Probably more than we would like to admit and possibly more than we recognize. We view ourselves as trying to help him find birds. Now how in the world do we know more about finding birds than the d’rn dog!? Sure we have a pretty good idea of where we think they should be given the time of day and the area we are in. But the dog has the nose and hopefully the brains of the operation. Now I am not telling you to the let them run plumb off the grid. That’s just self huntin’. But why do we always feel the need to tell them to get off that hillside and to hunt this one. Put it this way. If we let them learn where the birds are, by themselves, they will (if they have any grey matter between the ears) become better at knowing where and learning how to find birds, than we are. With exception to some of the “Lab guys,” we don’t hunt with robots. We’ve gotta let em’ learn on their terms. For some of us, it’s a hard lesson to learn!
I will always remember the field trial judge that I asked for advice. We were back at the trailers after my brace ran. I told him I was new and asked him what I could improve on. Without answering me, he walked 20 ft to his trailer and brought back a roll of duct tape. He smiled and said, “Next time you run that dog, put this over your mouth. He doesn’t need all that help, you keep offerin’ him.”
4. Over training on pen raised birds
Out side of those that live in the glorious west, many of us overzealous dog trainer wannabees just don’t have access to wild birds all the time. But discouraged be, we will not! We are going to outsmart the system and go buy some birds. Stinky, nasty, already looking for a place to die, pen raised birds. What could go wrong?
First off, if all you hunt is preserves, train on libbies all you want. But if you are like me and almost exclusively hunt wild birds only, tread with caution.
The most common disaster that I have found, is that the training birds will take more pressure from a dog and even let a quick dog close enough to catch them. I experience the repercussions of this first hand a few seasons ago. The first two or three coveys that each dog faced, graced us with a lesson on manners. None of my four-legged guides wanted to give the birds any respect. And as expected, they ditched us and didn’t even leave a forwarding address. A few more contacts and we were back to playing par golf but damn the frustration! “Worst part is,” I told a friend. “I know I caused this.” The next year, I did absolutely zero training on pen raised birds and as a result the opening morning re-learning curve was shortened exponentially.
The second problem with pen raised birds, in my opinion of course, is unless released correctly, they don’t teach the dog to hunt. They teach the dog to run down a mowed strip and point when it gets within five feet. The only way I have seen pen-raised birds teach a dog to hunt is when they are released in coveys in natural cover, a week or more before training on them. This is time-consuming and expensive. The other drawback, it takes a lot of birds. There will be plenty of death loss. The upside of doing things this; things play out on a more natural stage.
Pen raised birds are an often times necessity in some areas, but let’s try to keep it to a minimum. I think they’re fine for puppies, and as a once in a while substitute. Just don’t over do it.
3. Being inconsistent
How can we expect our dogs to become masters at their craft, if we don’t have the same set of rules every time we let them out of the truck? Now this especially pertains to young dogs and pups, and possibly a started dog that was recently acquired. It’s just common sense to keep obedience and other commands to a set standard and stick to it. We already know that, but what about some of the other moving parts of this machine. For example my biggest struggle is not shooting. Not shooting at birds that were mishandled by a dog for some reason or another. I fall so short in this pit of doom. I have to force myself to walk with an empty gun when I have a young charge on the ground. The old dogs are pretty much set in their ways I figure. But for the pupils, it’s a different course. We should in theory, only shoot properly handled birds. By doing so we are positively reinforcing the pups work, and the opposite is true as well. We are ignoring and negatively reinforcing the pup when he charges in and knocks the birds. I still have yet to pass this course.
2. Being overly harsh and critical
Now I’m not talking about physically being overly harsh, as we all understand that to be bad medicine. What I am discussing here is our personal critiques of our own dogs. *Notice* I said, “our own dogs”. Those are the key words. I don’t want to give anyone the impression that its okay to say anything of ill manner about someone else’s dogs. They may take the insult to heart and retaliate by depositing an ounce of #6 shot in your posterior, or worse. They could give you an honest opinion about your dogs!
Let’s face it. Our dogs aren’t perfect and they never will be. Hell, I have seen a multiple time Field Champion, that has run in the National Championship numerous years, precisely locate and stick a covey of slinking birds and then RUN THROUGH THEM like a puppy full of piss and vinegar. All this took place on center stage, with the whole gallery watching. Dogs will be dogs.
Have you ever noticed that the dogs that get all the praise and love are same ones that don’t meet your standards? His owner just loves him to death but you wouldn’t feed the mutt! Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, perfection is in the eye of the handler. I have hunted with many another that were just tickled pink with their dog’s performance and I wondered if the dog even points birds! But hey! He did retrieve two birds and he never got more than 20 yards away. (Roll my eyes..) And if that makes his owner happy; that’s what he should do. And who am I to think differently.
Bird dogs in general are for optimistic souls. For those like me that suffer spells of pessimism, don’t sweat the small stuff. If you are judging the negative, you will end up with a long list. I am constantly chastised by my wife because I am overly critical about a canine performance. I have to be reminded time and time again, to focus on the good things they did. “You have to be the only person I know, that gets back to the truck after a two hour walk with 4 coveys found and 5 birds in the bag and bitchin’ about one of the dogs because, she accidentally bumped a single.” she exclaims.
I guess its time to revisit #5.
1. Bragging on a dog before a hunt.
They say its in bad taste to claim every bird that falls. Even if you did shoot them all. Well in that camp lets just say this. Its flat stupid to brag on your dogs before a hunt! I don’t care what they did last week or last season, or what award they won or how many dogs they bested at the trial. The minute you tell your hunting partner how great your fireball is, clock starts ticking. It’s like a time bomb in a Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon. The best laid plan is going to blow up in your face. This is especially true if your gunning partner is a new acquaintance. Your old feather chasin’ friends are too smart to hear it and they likely know your dog as well as you do.
Not that we ever needed help, but ours dogs have the ability to make us look stupid at will. And sometimes I think they understand this!
I love to visit with new bird hunters and dog owners. They have that spark of enthusiasm, the drive to conquer and the will to overcome. And because they say some dumb stuff. Who can blame them, we all were once just like them… and I still am.
“My dog has never lost a bird!” Yeah,.. you need to hunt more.
“I can hunt my dog all day, she never slows down!” Well,.. some never get started.
“she would never mess with a porcupine, she doesn’t have any fur drive” NO Comment.
“He has never bumped birds” yeah… okay…
And finally, “I don’t need one of those tracking collars, my dogs aren’t run offs”
I consider myself lucky, to have had several good ones that I hope I didn’t screw up too bad.