August 10, 2016
Training a bird dog is a weird process if you think about it. For example, we expose them to challenges that are meant to be so easy they won't fail. If they do fail, we either have a knothead of a pup, or we've given them more than they can handle. The latter is usually (hopefully) the case.
As a puppy grows, they get into the teenager stage of dogdom. What happens then is that they tend to have the basics down pretty well, but they still need a lot of training. This is the stage where a lot of us start working advanced drills with our dogs, and this is also the stage where we often say that their obedience is at a good enough stage.
Any dog trainer worth his or her salt will tell you that good enough is usually not, and that most problems with sporting dogs - especially retrievers - stem from poor obedience. There are ways to foster a better dog, and there are ways to test your dog to see where he is at.
Following are five ways to challenge a young bird dog.
Workin' The Wind
When dogs screw up in the field while hunting down a cripple, it's often our fault. We either aren't working them in with the wind in their favor, or we haven't encouraged that behavior in them with our drills. The toss-a-dummy-and-send-them training that a lot of us do is great for getting a dog exercise, but doesn't really prepare them for what often happens in the field.
Because of this, I like to command my dog to sit and stay so she can't see me. This is best conducted in a local park or another location where I can walk out of the dog's sight. I'll throw a dummy into tall grass and then walk back to the dog. After that I'll send her and follow her into the thick stuff to give hand signals.
A good dog will recognize the need to immediately orient itself to the wind and then hunt the dummy. A dog that hasn't been trained as well will often dive into the cover like a maniac and sprint all over without a purpose.
It's important to note here that youthful enthusiasm can trump good sense so don't be too harsh on your youngster, just make sure to pay close attention to wind direction and how you send him for a retrieve during every hunt, and every retrieve.
Steady, steady, steady...
Steadiness in a dog is as important as a good nose. Maybe more important. A dog that breaks is a dog that is going to cause you and your hunting partners fits in the field. I'm of the humble opinion that it's a good idea to work steadiness drills every day with a bird dog.
With my current pup, I like to tell her to sit and stay. I then toss a dummy into the backyard pond or the neighborhood soccer field. She lives for nothing more than to retrieve, so her body language is that of a caged lion. Her muscles quiver and she almost hovers over the grass as she sits.
Instead of sending her right away, which she expects, I make her wait. It might be 30 seconds or three minutes, but the goal is to get her to relax and understand she is operating on my schedule, not hers. If during this drill, your dog breaks or creeps, you've got work to do.
Late last season I got a true double on ruffed grouse in north-central Wisconsin. That is not a common occurrence for me or any of my hunting buddies, but it does happen. It might not happen as often as it does in the waterfowl world, but training for a doubles retrieve is necessary for a well-rounded upland bird dog.
It takes two dummies, and a dog that will listen. Provided you've worked simple double-retrieve drills already so the dog has confidence in retrieving more than one bumper at a time, you can test your dog's ability to count past one by working doubles.
I like to do this where the grass is tall enough to hide the dummies from the dog's eyesight. The perfect retrieve is where the dog will go after the second dummy first and bring it to hand, and then look to you for guidance.
Send him after the first and if he brings it to hand, you're doing well. If not, it's time to go back to a simple double's retrieve.
An awful lot of people train their dogs with certain bumpers or dummies, only to realize their training tools don't mimic the size of the game they hunt. More than one first-time goose hunting dog has run up to a honker only to shy away from picking up a big Canadian.
The same goes for shed dogs that do all of their work on small antlers only to realize that they now are expected to drag back a good-sized elk shed.
The more tools you use in your dog's training, the more comfortable he'll become with different things. This builds confidence that he can do whatever you ask him, which is the cornerstone of a killer bird dog.
Break up the routine and work with new tools, just make sure that you don't overdo it when you test his ability to retrieve a goose dummy. Take it slow and let the comfort and confidence levels build.
Distraction training is essential to ensure your dog can handle the real world. This might involve retrieving drills with decoys, or maybe having to ignore live birds in order to follow your commands.
Distraction training is all about preparing your dog to follow your lead at all times, even when something awesome is right in front of him. This can lead to a dog that doesn't jump all over your house guests just as easily as it leads to a dog that heeds your direction in the CRP fields where roosters call home.
Test him with simple stuff, like retrieving a bumper tossed into a neighborhood lake where local waterfowl honk, quack and swim just out of reach. Even if you don't hunt ducks, this is a good test to see where your dog is at and whether canine A.D.D. is going to kick in.