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Giving Chase: Do Running Birds Ruin Pointing Dogs?

by Dave Carty   |  October 15th, 2012 11

It’s been repeated so often, and for so many years, that nearly everyone now accepts it as gospel: too many running pheasants will ruin a good pointing dog. Of course that’s true. Everybody knows that. But is it? At the risk of getting a raft of poison pen letters—more than normal, anyway, but thanks for thinking of me—I would respectfully disagree.

So let’s talk about that for a moment, and why I think the way I do.

First: gamebirds run. That’s a pretty broad statement because there are a lot of upland gamebirds in this country, but I’ve hunted most of them at one time or another, and nearly all of them run. There are a few exceptions, notably woodcock, Mearns and bobwhite quail. But every other bird I can think of will hoof it out from under a point at least some of the time, and some of them do it all of the time.

Grouse, despite all the classic paintings of birds holding fast under the nose of a staunch setter, run like hyper 6-year-old kids on a sugar high. Sharptails hold reasonably well in September, but those same birds in December will sprint to the ends of the earth and then launch themselves off it. Gambel’s, scaled and valley quail, birds I have perhaps the least experience with, have “run” built into their job descriptions.

Blue grouse, a personal favorite of mine, rarely break into an actual run, but will often amble out from under a point while your trembling, bug-eyed dog watches in bewildered fascination. Huns, which hold far better than they’re given credit for, nevertheless can hoof it like little roller derby queens if the spirit moves them, and it often does. And of course there are pheasants…but you already know about pheasants.

Deal With It
My point is, unless you spring for a Texas bobwhite quail lease and never leave, your dog is going to have to deal with running birds. (And by the way, if you want to spring for my Texas quail lease, I’m not hard to get hold of.)

Time for a reality check: It’s probably not ideal to run a young dog on pheasants during its first season. But what if, as is true in some areas of the country, wild or planted pheasants are all you have? What if you live in the desert and desert quail are the only game in town? Will they destroy all your hard training and turn your young pointer into a flusher?

Nope. Not from what I’ve seen. In fact, from what I’ve seen of the dozens of dogs I’ve hunted over, despite how much they’re hunted on pheasants, chukars or desert quail—all big runners—when they finally get an opportunity to hunt birds that hold, like woodcock, they settle down and stick ‘em where they sit. Inexperienced dogs may try to crowd tight-sitting birds at first, but after they’ve bumped a few they almost always learn to back off, and they usually learn it on their own, with no help from their owners. I’ve seen a few exceptions to that observation, but very few.

Can you train a dog not to creep on a running bird? More important, should you?

You can try. I did. Back in the day, if I thought I knew where the bird was, and where my dog was vis a’ vis the bird, I’d whoa my dog when I thought he was getting too close. It almost never worked, for a very simple reason: although I thought I knew where the bird was, I didn’t. And unless you can actually see the bird, you don’t, either.

Let me say again, as I have periodically throughout my tenure at this column, that I’m a hunter, not a field trialer. I’m all for pointing dog trials and I love trial dogs, but they have to play by different rules—not better or worse, just different. But a hunting dog needs to be able to adapt to running birds that don’t play by the rules, and that means that if the bird runs, a smart dog will creep right along with it until it stops and the dog can establish a solid point. Which most dogs will do on their own if you just step back and let them.

That doesn’t mean you should give up on training; far from it. I’m not a big believer in the laissez-faire approach to dog training—I’d be out of a paying job if I was—and with running birds and non-running birds alike, the command “whoa” is critical. But it’s just as critical that you use it at the right time.

Stay Rooted
Here’s how I do it: There are a lot of ways to whoa train a dog; I use a bench and a whoa board; others use barrels and whoa posts, and there are probably other ways I haven’t heard of that undoubtedly work. Far more important is how thoroughly you gradually increase distractions by conducting training sessions in different locations, then with live pigeons, gunfire, other dogs, marching bands, whatever you can think of.

The point is to get a dog that will whoa on command no matter what you throw at him, and who will stay rooted to the spot until you tell him to go. When you’ve done all you can do, he’s ready for the big soiree—an actual hunt. Now you’re going to let your dog tell you when he’s ready to be given the whoa command. Let’s say its opening day in South Dakota. Thirty minutes into the hunt, your GSP hits scent and starts trailing a bird. Don’t whoa him, follow him.

Yes, I know that’s tough to do in corn or wheat stubble; I’ve done it. But do your best. Eventually, if the bird doesn’t flush out of range, it will hit some type of cover barrier and stop (or at least slow down), and your pup will lock up. Now he’s got the bird. You can’t see it—you never will—but you’re getting a strong read because you’ve watched your dog point dozens of planted pigeons during the summer whoa-training sessions and you can tell by his body language that the bird is close. Whoa him. Then walk in and flush the bird.

Here’s what you’ve just done: You’ve given your dog the freedom to determine just how close to the bird he can get. And then you’ve taken over and given him a command he knows he has to obey. He’s done his job; you’ve done yours. If you’ve trained your dog to be steady, it’s really helpful to have someone else do the shooting while you correct the dog if he moves. If not, flush the bird and fill him with hot lead.

This is going to be a learning experience for your dog, and he may not get it exactly right the first few times. He’ll push birds too hard and bump them. Some birds, no matter the species, will run and simply disappear or flush out of range, and you’ll get frustrated. But that’s show biz, folks. Nobody wins them all.

Eventually, though, if you’re patient, he’ll figure it out, and that’s when bird hunting is at its best: when it’s almost as if your dog knows what you’re thinking, and you, him. You’ve become a team, and if you shoot another thousand pheasants over him, nothing feels better than that.

  • Dale Hartner

    Nothing more fun than watching an experienced pointing dog point a running dog. Have done it for years. Some of the best points ever. Of course there was once the big cock pheasant that turned around on my Master Hunter and tried to spur him twice. Always bothered me I missed the shot but was so out of breath I couldn't shoot straight.

  • Steve

    I have a lodge/guide business out here in Kansas, http://www.springcreekoutfitters.net. 98% of the hunters coming to hunt bring German Shorthaired Pointers, or English Pointers (mainly GSP's). There are NO better dogs to use on the Ringnecked Pheasants or the Bobwhite Quail here in Kansas. I also personally have GSP's. For the record, Bobwhite Quail can run like crazy! The dogs will learn to hunt running birds. One mistake many hunters make is to try and hold their dogs back close. Let them go. They get out in front of the birds and turn them back toward you and cause them to sit. If you hold them back, they'll just keep pushing the bird/birds ahead and out of the field. The ones that run and fly up way ahead, you'll never get anyway and most times won't even see.

  • Dave

    I hunt Woodcock in Michigan and the local birds learn to run. I have had the birds run out from under my dogs tons of times. They get pressured and learn to boogie, then flush 20 to 30 yard in front of the dog. Flight birds on the other hand are less likely to do so and sit nice and tight.

  • Paul Zoba

    Can you explain how you use the bench and Whoa board?

    • Phil

      Pick up the video series from George Hickcox. He has everything broke down for even the novice trainer. The Pointing Dog DVD Collection of Volumes 1 through 4 with George Hickox

  • John leach

    I hunt both grouse and woodcock in Wisconsin with my Brittany and believe me, both birds will run on my dog. I also let her creep forward when the bird is moving and try to get around and ahead of the dog to cut off the bird. Works sometimes but not always, but this idea that woodcock don't run is totally wrong. I personally have witnessed a running woodcock many times. I agree with Steve that if you let the dog work it out, he/she will, most of the time, find the bird and corral it.

  • RALPH LAWLESS

    I have 2 GSP's.One retired at 13.The 13 year old through his whole life would hold a point forever….that is until the bird moved.He would chase it till it went up or he'd catch it.Either way you pretty much would get it.I never minded this practice.My pup on the other hand stays solid as a rock even though he can see the bird run.I've only seen him creep once.It's a fine line on how to handle these two situations.I guess sometimes you just have to let them have at it.

  • Anne Cooke

    We hunt in the bush of Zimbabwe with pointers and GSP's and running swainsons, natals and guineafowl are our common birds. Even the coqui and shelleys which are supposed to sit tight often don't. Our best and most reliable dogs can track running birds for 500m if they need to, withour that ability we would shoot a lot less birds. When we take them to the open mountains of the Eastern Cape in South Africa they adapt to holding greywing easier than the Cape dogs adapt to our conditions here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/clink83 Chris Link

    Why would you tell a dog on point whoa?

  • Dick Memmer

    I had a english setter that knew what to do with running dirds When she was working a running dird she would sweep out to the side and get ahead of the dird then she would work back toward you and pin the bird down. It would work evertime for her. She figured this out on her own.

  • C. Lasich

    I can understand why a person would be concerned about a traditional "Whoa" trained dog being ruined by running birds because that dog has not developed natural steadiness and has not developed a true understanding of how to be successful. In the real world of predator versus prey, the birds say "Whoa". A tightly holding pheasant says "Whoa" and a dog that understands success will hold steady. When the bird moves, the dog will move carefully with it too. Because as we all know, the point is merely the pause before the pounce. A deferring dog that is working with the master hunter, the person with the gun, will pause for as long as it takes for the pack leader to get the kill. That's synergy and that the Higgins Gun Dog way. I never worry about my steady to wing/shot/kill Higgins dogs being ruined by running birds and I never say "Whoa". The bird does all the commanding for me. I just do the killing.

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