Retrievers are one of American pheasant hunters’ most popular companions. In pheasant country, I see more Labs than anything else, with goldens running third or fourth. For our beloved retrievers, it’s all about range. As long as a retriever is ranging just right, there isn’t much else he can do wrong.
Few things in upland bird hunting are more exasperating than a dog that flushes beyond your shotgun’s capabilities. But there’s nothing more useless than a dog that covers no more ground than his master. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of retrievers at both ends of that spectrum.
Ranging properly is not the same as the textbook description of quartering we read in training books, though some enthusiastic new retriever owners aspire to see their dogs hunt in this manner.
Retriever field trials and hunting tests have not (yet) put a heavy emphasis on upland bird hunting, so you’d have to watch a spaniel event to see what I mean. What you will see are dogs running back-and-forth before the gun like high-speed lawn mowers, cutting neat lines perpendicular to the hunter’s direction of travel. These lines extend perhaps 20-25 yards on each side of the gun, and 10 to 15 yards in front. One spaniel field trial judge told me this was “ideal” for hunting upland birds.
I think that’s crazy.
Ranging right is not a mindless, mechanical activity, and it is not a series of all-out sprints. It is a nuanced and intelligent quest that recognizes which areas are likely to hold birds, and which aren’t. It means effectively covering as much likely bird-holding cover as possible at an endurance pace, in such a way all birds put to flight by the dog are reasonable targets.
Proper range begins with canvassing the wind for bird scent, and culminates with investigating the sources of scent. Ranging just right may even take a dog momentarily beyond the range of the gun in order to expose a bird to the gun. But ultimately, a dog that ranges just right understands the physical and ballistic limitations of his master and hunts within them, because he also understands his own need for the master as an indispensable teammate.
By that careful and multi-layered definition, we probably should not expect a very young dog to range properly. With the right guidance from us, a retriever will keep getting better throughout his career. So, what kind of guidance is the right kind?
Bonding & Hiding
I firmly believe the friendship between dog and master is of paramount importance in developing a dog’s range. Certainly, even without this bond, a dog can be drilled into quartering mechanically, but only a genuine buddy will hunt with you by nature.
During the dog’s first year of life, and especially during the first few months after you bring him home, you and your dog should be almost constant companions. During that period, the dog should have absolutely zero autonomous time. I mean no time hanging out in a fenced backyard by himself; no time wandering around a farm on his own or with other dogs. If the dog is not with you, he’s in the kennel. Period. A dog who thinks he’s in charge will never range properly.
By 10 or 12 weeks, you should be taking walks with the dog in light cover and encouraging him to explore. When he is distracted, hide from him in a spot where you can see him but he can’t see you. He’ll get distressed and come find you.
Don’t reveal yourself unless he gets headed off in the wrong direction. Praise him when he finds you. I never do this more than once on a walk, but I never take a walk without doing it. This routine teaches the dog to keep tabs on you at all times.
Quartering & Finding
The basic act of quartering is not something we have to teach. Given the opportunity, dogs naturally figure out for themselves that quartering into the wind is the best way to find stuff. As an illustration, humans also “quarter” naturally with our most acute sense. When we are looking for something, we pan back-and-forth with our eyes—whether scanning a woodlot for deer or a messy workbench for car keys. Granted, some people may be more adept or more systematic than others, but we all do it, and no one taught us how. It is simply the way our brain puts our senses to work.
Rather than “teaching a dog to quarter,” we habituate our dogs to be more systematic and expansive in their quartering. And we give them opportunities to find stuff in the process. Quartering drills should not be done until the dog is at least a few months old. The dog must be strong enough, tall enough and confident enough to romp happily through light cover.
Plant a few freshly killed or wing-shackled pigeons in a field of light cover. Plant them somewhat randomly, but fairly wide apart. Zig-zag through the cover and direct your dog to follow suit, giving two quick pips on the whistle each time you turn him. Do this drill into the wind, and try to plan your route so the dog finds pigeons out on the ends of his pattern, but still within 15-20 yards of you.
Correcting & Reminding
I’ve left obedience last, because I’ve hunted with numerous dogs that ranged just right their whole lives despite having little or no obedience training. With the right mix of genetics, bonding and early experience, some dogs simply never develop the tendency to push beyond shotgun range. Or they learn doing so is ultimately unproductive, resulting in lost birds. And there is no more “obedient” dog than one who learns on his own that excessive range is simply a waste of his own time.
Nevertheless, some dogs really enjoy flushing birds with or without an ensuing retrieve, and others are just so darned birdy they lose their heads a bit when tempted. Such dogs need correcting and reminding.
A thorough treatise on collar training is beyond the space limits of this column, but nothing is better than an e-collar for correcting range problems. Buy one when you buy your pup, and get a book or DVD on how to use it.
A low-level “nick” is all most retrievers need to remember you’re back there, and they should be back there with you. But before an e-collar can be effective, the dog must have the obedience training necessary to make sense of the correction. The collar should never be deployed unless the dog ignores a whistle command that has previously been well taught.
Doing Your Part
Finally, when pup is all grown up and you go afield for the first time, remember you are not hunting with a pointing dog, and you are not gunning planted pigeons. If you bought a retriever for upland hunting, that probably means your favorite birds are prone to use their legs for escape. Your dog’s job is to put them in the air as soon as possible, and not let them get away on foot.
To a certain extent, the range between you and your dog is your responsibility, and not the dog’s. There are times when you owe it to the dog to shut up, put away the whistle and transmitter, pick up your pace, and be there when he finally busts the bird.