Let Birds Train Your Gun Dog

Let Birds Train Your Gun Dog

Pup is your best friend; birds are your training assistants.

This is what we're after--an enthusiastic flush, and a snappy retrieve.

The young spaniel raced through the moderate cover, his windmilling tail communicating his excitement, and the two gunners moved their smoothbores to port arms. Their timing was perfect, for just then a bird flushed into the overcast sky. The gunner on the right allowed the bird some distance before dropping it cleanly with one shot.


The drill was a success, the important part being that the dog sat at the flush, and remained sitting until sent by his owner to retrieve the bird.

Last month we covered the mechanics of planting birds. As often stated in this column, no birds mean no bird dog.


Initially we planted birds primarily to provide pup with experience finding and flushing birds. That's a good, and necessary, starting point for all flushing dogs. Eventually, though, we will plant bird for many reasons, culminating with using birds to steady, or finish, pup.


We will now consider other ways that birds can be used to learn and accomplish other tasks with our gun dogs. These include teaching dogs to quarter, getting dogs to stay close, getting dogs to move farther from the hunter (we don't want to get carried away with that too soon), getting dogs to go into cover, helping dogs learn to use the wind, helping them learn to track running or wounded birds, getting dogs to retrieve, getting them to retrieve in water, and more.

Birds are pup's second best friend. (If one doesn't know who pup's best friend is, it is time to start reading Golfer's Digest.)

Pigeons will be utilized for most of our training.

Field bred spaniels have a given amount of genetic "quartering" in them. It is up to us to mold and fine- tune that natural inclination, and teach them to cover the appropriate ground when hunting.

Terrain, cover and other factors help determine the appropriate amount of ground to cover, but pup must always remain within gun range. A bird flushed out of range is a wasted bird, and it reinforces incorrect behavior in pup.

Quartering should start in very low (or no) cover when pup is quite young, but after he is retrieving reliably to hand. It is best to have two assistants, preferably other dog folks, though wives and youngsters can sometimes be pressed into service to remain on schedule.

Each assistant has a dead, un-bloodied pigeon. One stands about 10 yards away on each side of the handler who has pup at his feet, with everyone facing downfield. At a nod from the handler, one assistant calls pup and shakes the pigeon so pup sees it, which encourages pup to run in that direction. Just before pup reaches the assistant, the handler toots his whistle twice while the assistant quickly hides the pigeon behind his back.

At the whistle, the second assistant calls pup's name, and as both the whistle and the called name make pup turn to look in that direction, the second handler shakes the pigeon for pup to see. Pup should go racing across in front of the handler and run toward the assistant waving the dead bird.

Repeat the whistle toots and calling just before pup reaches his destination, and the pigeon is hidden from pup. Pup heading across the field makes this pup's third time across, so the handler should toss the bird in a slow, short arc, about 10 feet in front of himself while pup approaches and is looking at the bird.

This is the basic set-up to teach quartering, with two assistants out to the handler's side.

Pup should retrieve the bird, and as the owner calls his name and then toots his whistle multiple times, return the bird to his handler. The handler makes a bit of a fuss over pup, petting him while giving him terms of endearment and praise.

Do this drill repeatedly, always providing a retrieve every three passes for a while. As pup performs more confidently, and with speed, vary how often a pigeon is tossed. After pup has progressed well, turning to the whistle and retrieving on the whistle, spread your assistants a bit wider and do it again.

Assistants eventually should be able to stop calling pup, and instead, just shake the bird and toss it when directed by the handler. They should toss the bird a bit farther, though not too far. Then they should toss the bird in light cover when pup is not looking.

Repeat this drill in moderate cover, gradually extending the assistants to the widest range one would have his dog quarter, and continue drilling.

Eventually pup will quarter a field nearly on his own, requiring only an occasional whistle toot for guidance. You now have a gun dog that can quarter and find birds. Live birds can now be planted to further enhance pup's learning and experience; just be sure of your goals at this time.

After pup learns quartering, and is searching for planted birds, he will likely try to go farther downfield than he should in an effort to find birds, putting pup pretty quickly out of gun range--a bad thing.

The first thing to do if this occurs is use the whistle to recall pup, and when he comes, recast him on his quartering pattern. Hopefully repetition will cure him of "punching out" downfield. If not, do two things: (1) Take pup back to yard training and drill on coming to the whistle; and (2) use birds to keep him from punching out.

If pup punches out downfield, call him back and recast him directly toward an assistant, who will toss a bird closely in front of him so that pup sees the bird. He will immediately race to the bird and retrieve it to the handler. Do the same thing with the opposite assistant.

Repeat this three or four times and then go back to planting a bird when pup is not looking, and be sure the birds are very close to the assistants that toss the birds. Use dead birds, wing-clipped birds (pigeons with primary feathers taped or removed so they cannot fly) or fliers if you are far enough along.

Pup should soon get the hint that birds are found near people, and then stay nearer to people while quartering. That goes for training and should carry over to hunting.

Punching out is especially common for young dogs that are not finding enough birds while hunting. This is part of why I have long recommended taking several pigeons along when hunting young dogs, and planting them unseen if pup becomes disinterested. This not only keeps pup in range, but also keeps him excited and hunting hard (check local/state laws about using pigeons this way).

Fact is, young dogs without much experience finding and flushing birds should not be hunted too long in one session. Short hunting sessions keep pup fresh, but more importantly, this keeps him excited and builds in him a desire to hunt.

Spaniels are generally good in heavy cover, but occasionally one shies from heavy cover. Yep, you guessed it; birds can turn that around.

Through training sessions with planted birds and field sessions finding wild birds, pup has (hopefully) learned that birds are his reason for being. Pup should be crazy for birds.

Take pup to a training field with moderate cover and toss an unseen wing-clipped pigeon into the cover while pup quarters in front of you. He should find it, and while attempting to flush it he will grab it and retrieve it.

Move to moderate cover adjacent to heavy cover like that which pup generally avoids. Have him quartering in front of you with the heavy cover to your upwind side, and just within what would be his normal quartering distance. One should have a decent breeze for this drill. Have an assistant with a couple of wing-clipped pigeons in his vest walk in the moderate brush, right next to the heavier cover. Let pup quarter a couple of times and at your signal have the assistant toss a bird ahead of him, and just inside the heavy cover.

If you have the necessary breeze, and it need not be a strong wind, pup will probably "make," or scent, the bird, and heavy cover notwithstanding, will go into the cover to get it. Repeat once, then give him a live bird or wing-clip in the light cover. Then do one more in the heavy cover, and call it a day except for some fun retrieves and romping.

We want pup under control, but sometimes using birds to get him to do what we desire is a better way to proceed than additional yard work. After all, drilling pup this way puts him with his two best friends'┬Žjust don't ask pup to make a choice!

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