Tips for keeping flushing dogs in range


Sportsmen on the far side of middle age may want to consider a closer working, easier handling dog for their bird hunting endeavors.
Illustration by Lynn Bogue Hunt, courtesy of Remington Firearms.

(Question) I recently turned 55, and my knees are starting to go. I’ve been a lifelong setter fan, but I have to admit my days of following big-running pointing dogs are about over.

I’m thinking of getting a flushing dog, maybe a golden retriever (similar in temperament to my setters), as my next–and possibly last–gun dog. But a few years ago I hunted over a buddy’s two springers and we really had to hustle to keep up with the dogs when they were on a bird. So I guess my basic question is, just how hard is it to keep a flushing dog in range all of the time? (Iowa)

(Answer) A wide-ranging spaniel or retriever, chasing birds into the air too far out to provide decent shots, is a disaster. It’s as simple as that.

Dogs that flush birds before the gun must be close working. The desired hunting range for pointing breeds varies greatly according to conditions, game, terrain and the preference of individual hunters.

For some hunters, a gun dog that is stanch on point can’t hunt too far from the gun. For most on-foot hunters a close to moderate range of 50 to 200 yards seems preferable.

But any flushing dog that frequently punches out 50 yards ahead of a hunter is at extreme range. Wild running and refusal to heed commands and signals results in exasperated shooters attempting impossible shots and a ruined hunt.

A bird flushed at 50 yards will be at least another 10 yards from the gun before even the most practiced shotgunner can swing through it and pull the trigger. In heavy cover, even “luck-out” shots are impossible.

But if anything is worse than a wild-running gun dog, it’s an indifferent mutt content to walk along in his master’s tracks. Self-hunting outlaws at least produce some game and occasionally a bird flies back over the hunter to be shot. A good spaniel, or retriever that hunts in the manner of a spaniel, must apply itself eagerly and hunt for the gun.

Short of the absolute control over a flushing dog that is demonstrated in spaniel field trials, how does a hunter quickly develop a hard-working gun dog that virtually guarantees birds in the bag–the kind of dog that’s a source of pride and pleasure, not an irritating, blankety-blank nuisance? Yes, Iowa, you can do it…and have fun training your dog.

Start by selecting an English springer spaniel, cocker spaniel, American water spaniel, Irish water spaniel, Labrador retriever, golden retriever or Chesapeake Bay retriever puppy from gun dog or field trial stock.

Well-bred spaniels, from proven parents, should need little if any encouragement to seek game before the gun. A certain percentage of retrievers will also be imbued with strong, natural hunting instinct. But since retrievers have specialized for generation in picking up birds after the shooting is over, many will need encouragement to hunt in a manner natural to most spaniels.

Puppies destined to be molded into personal gun dogs are best acquired before the age of 16 weeks, the earlier the better. If you don’t care to mess with puppies, you can find a mature, still young “field trial reject.” It will be worth considerable time and money.

Taking that tack, you should find yourself with an already well-trained springer who needs only hunting experience to become a fine shooting dog. If it is to become a successful hunting dog, a retriever that has undergone trial training will usually require more understanding and effort on your part–you may have to partially “untrain” such a dog.

The pressure and discipline applied in attempts to meet trial standards can knock the “hunt” out of a dog. Unremitting discipline results in drill-team obedience but a lack of the “figure-it-out-for-myself” independence gun dogs need to produce game in the field.

Once acquired, make much of you puppy. Talk to him. Play with him. Have him in the house, if you will. But whether kept in the home or kennel, set aside time to devote to him and take every advantage of random opportunities to have him with you on a casual basis.

Training of people-acclimated pups is 100 times easier and more fun than trying to gain the confidence of a semi-feral animal whose apprehensions have been caused by benign neglect. Like children, pups and adult dogs thrive on warm attention. Cold, indifferent treatment retards development.

Three things are involved to ensure that a flushing dog will hunt hard and within gun range: early introduction to game, instilling a love for retrieving, and obedience to the command to “Heel!”

Once those things are behind him, he is ready to learn to busily seine cover in a quartering pattern that sweeps 10 to 30 yards to your front and out to 40 yards on each side. To give you a timeframe, I expect my spaniels and retrievers to have flushed planted or wild birds between the ages of four and eight months. Any dog should know what birds are before one year of age.

Play training to retrieve begins between seven and 16 weeks of age. By six months, pups should be chasing a training dummy as far as you can throw it and bringing it back to you.

There’s no way to gentle-break a dog to walk alongside you, at heel. Collar and leash can be introduced as early as eight weeks of age and used in a relaxed manner until the pup is about six months old, at which time he can absorb the force required to make him heel.

If you’ve taken your pup for rambles in the game cover from early on, offering the opportunity to let his inquisitive nature lead him into a bird or two he can flush and chase (having taught him to come, sit and heel in the yard), anytime after six months of age he’ll be ready to learn to operate in a hunting pattern you specify. Sometime before he reaches his first year, you can expect to get some shooting over a flushing dog.

When afield with a pup over four or five months of age, aimless wandering on your part is out. Simulate a hunt when you walk. Set a zigzag pattern as you check out likely cover. Poking around in front of you, his investigative instincts will be encouraged and eventually his interest should carry him out to extreme gun range.

When he reaches the limit, change your direction and as you angle away from him, speak his name or blow a couple of whistle beeps. Unless thoroughly engrossed, he will look to you and come along, working to your front. This becomes habitual and e
stablishes the elements of hunting within gun range.

While afield, keep him brushed up on things he’s learned in yard training, assuring response in any surroundings. A mix of commands and responses avoids monotony. Carry along a retrieving dummy to throw for him to fetch occasionally. As long as he stays within gun range, allow him to run and search as he wants while crisscrossing in front of you as your constant direction changes have taught him to do.

Temptation and desirable aggressiveness will prompt your youngster to kite out of gun range from time to time. When he does line out straight and gets beyond effective shooting distance, call him to you and put him at heel.

Keep him at heel for a minute or so. Then release him and encourage him to “Hunt ‘em out!” Let him have a good time out there as long as he’s within range and responds to direction changes. Repeat the procedure as necessary.

To an eager gun dog, being made to heel when there are goodies to check on out front is more effective punishment than more stringent measures you might be tempted to take.

Without cowing or confusion the dog will grasp the idea that he can have his fun as long as he moves in a certain pattern at a prescribed distance from you. If he doesn’t, he winds up walking alongside you. It will save you a great deal of running, cussing, whistle-blowing and rope-jerking. The amount of repetition varies with individual dogs.

Many spaniels and a few retrievers are born with an inclination to quarter before the gun and fall into this pattern without much effort on your part. Occasionally, recalcitrant demons won’t catch on. Stringent restraint is then in order. Work them off a long rope attached to the collar. Drill them to respond to your direction changes by being jerked when you speak their names of blow your whistle.

In all training sessions, as in hunting, whenever possible, work your dog into the wind. It simplifies training and makes for successful hunting. A dog’s natural tendency to use the wind is coupled with an aversion to meeting it head-on. Hence they will angle or quarter when headed into it, naturally aiding in establishing a good hunting pattern.

Should you be forced to hunt downwind, allow your dog leeway in ranging. Smart dogs learn to get out beyond gun range and then hunt back into the wind toward you. If there is a quartering wind, experienced dogs do not go as far to the side from which the scent is coming, but will hunt deeper on the downwind side.

While “patterning” your dog, when you get his attention and change direction, make a sweep with your arm in the new direction. This will instill basic response to a “hand signal.” When he is hunting, should he leave a likely piece of cover unchecked, you can wave him over to it or, with no whistling or hollering, cast him off in a new direction when he looks to check your position.

A reward, or a reason comprehended by the dog, is more effective than punishment in obtaining good results. Finding birds as the result of following the proper pattern is a reward. Unless you are in unusual circumstances, however, it will be necessary to provide some bogus birds to spice up training sessions. Utilize retrieving dummies with taped-on bird wings or sprinkled with training scent.

He knows to fetch thrown dummies and loves doing it. Now, unseen by the dog, plant those dummies in cover. Start him in his hunting pattern, guide him to the vicinity of the fake birds, and let him zero in on the scent, scoop up the dummy and bring it to you. Use the wind properly and remember the spot where you hid the dummy so you can steer him right. When he learns your signals result in a “goodie” he can catch and fetch, he’ll respond with alacrity.

You can distribute several “birds” over a “hunting course” to encourage his hunting purposefully. But if you misdirect him and consistently have him crossing on the upwind side of the “plant” (actual birds on the move leave more scent than anything that’s planted) he may become skeptical about the ultimate value of responding to your signals. In training, you attempt to set things up to encourage the dog to do the right thing or to tempt him to do wrong if he presents you with a problem that needs correcting.

Hidden dummies can also be used to teach your dog to respond to the “Hunt ‘em out!” command, programming him to enter cover and use his nose, which will assure recovery of shot birds he hasn’t seen fall and diligent search of any likely cover clump.

Really hard-driving flushing dogs are doing their damnedest to capture a bird, not just put it into flight. But when you start with dummies that the pup hasn’t seen thrown, he may not associate what he stumbles on with picking it up and bringing it in.

When he goes to the dummy, if he hesitates about picking up, tell him he’s a good boy and remind him to “Fetch!” Usually that’s all it takes. If he refuses to pick up, put your toe under the dummy, flip it up into the air and tell him to “Fetch!” He should make the correlation and respond. When he “catches” and brings you a “bird,” lay the praise on him.

When he’s established that he’ll hunt fake birds, whenever the opportunity arises, use recently killed or dizzied live birds that will fly off when the pup approaches, as alternatives to the inanimate dummies. After your pup has been properly introduced to gunfire, have a buddy who’s a good shot kill a few of the flushed training birds over the pup. That done, he’ll be ready for a real hunt.

Your expectations should be high and with experience and advanced training, you’ll have a gun dog that hunts the way he should, where he should.

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