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Balancing Hunting and Handling with Your Dog

How to maintain boundaries during the hunting season.

Balancing Hunting and Handling with Your Dog

Pay close attention to your dog's body language to evaluate his state of mind. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

Every year, as we anticipate the opening of the upland bird season, topics of proper preparation occupy our thoughts and conversations. We spend the hours leading up to the season with worthwhile pursuits: planning hunts, maintaining equipment, and preparing dogs for the prospect of a great few months in the field. Once the season kicks off, however, it is easy to get immersed in the day-to-day of hunting. As we too get caught up in the moments, we can become slightly sloppy in our handling. Sometimes we get caught up in making those perfect shots, and we therefore forget that we are balancing the desire for a full bag of birds and the attention required in handling our dogs. Sometimes we get more distracted than we should as we walk through the hunting fields, forgetting to monitor our dog’s pattern and race as we instead fall into the preoccupation with whatever covey of birds might lay ahead. In light of these distractions, one might assume that the experience of actually hunting could result in a degradation of actual hunting performance, and a slipping of some of the training that you have put into your dog.

As we recognize that we can be imperfect in the demands of handling, it is a comfort to know that the hunting season can and should in fact present an opportunity to continue cementing great behavior and mindset in your dog. The key is to remember to always fall back on a good foundation. One of the great things about having a solid foundation in your dog training is that you can correct mistakes in the field and reshape behavior during the hunt. A handler who has a solid foundation with his or her dog can work on that dog’s mindset and performance on the fly, even as the hunt is transpiring. This approach to the hunting season as an opportunity to continue to refine behavior allows you to maintain consistency in your dog’s behavior throughout the season.


Finding Balance 

But what strategies should we employ to ensure that training doesn’t rapidly fall by the wayside when the season comes to pass? Foremost, we must approach the season with realistic expectations of ourselves and our dogs. As we know, dogs and humans are susceptible to our impulses. It is easy to succumb to the excitement of the moment, or to the desires we have for the hunting experience. Dogs get caught up in the scent, the proximity to the bird, and sometimes the sliver of an idea that they can “catch this one.” Dogs can be won over by their impulses and can be tempted to flush the bird and chase it off, despite all the best training. Handlers too can become more focused on shooting a bird for the table than they are on the essential duty of monitoring the dog’s behavior. Approach the probable lack of impulse control that will arise during hunting season, both where hunter and bird dog are concerned, with a desire for balance.

This idea of balance can manifest in the decisions we make in the field, and the priorities we set for ourselves and our dogs. In order to maintain your bird dog’s performance, there may need to be some shots sacrificed and the focus placed on the dog instead. This is particularly true when working a first-year or unseasoned dog.

There may be some bird encounters during the season where it is fairly easy to determine that the dog is wanting to punch and chase the bird. Predicting this behavior might be based on a prior occurrence, or the dog’s behavior after catching a whiff of scent. If you watch closely, a dog will often telegraph his thoughts and feelings, and give you a pretty fair idea of what his next move might be. Watch the dog’s pace and intensity as he catches scent. An assessment of whether the dog sped up in a flushing mindset when he caught scent or slowed down to work the scent in a more methodical way is a very good indicator of a dog’s state of mind and a predictor of how he will handle that particular bird encounter.

Each dog has their own indicators of their state of mind. If the handler can read that individual dog, he can predict behavior and the outcome of the encounter with some degree of reliability. When the likelihood that the dog might make a mistake is high, it may be time for the handler to focus all attention on making a cue to maintain the steadiness, even at the risk of not getting a shot off. The work of ensuring a productive bird encounter may be as simple as watching the dog and using a cue to stop the dog from moving in after he establishes point.

The way we train our dogs is with a stair-stepped approach where all of the cues used in the hunting field are taught in a controlled environment. Those cues are then practiced repetitively to build a stronger association, and then applied in increasingly challenging situations to replicate real-world hunting scenarios. Time is spent building a solid foundation with the expectation of developing a dog that will consistently respond appropriately to cues and be capable of relying on their training in any environment. This approach allows handlers to make cues in the field and gain compliance and consistent responses from their dogs every time, even when distraction is high. A dog’s performance on a hunt can be tidied up by offering “reminders” of this foundation, specifically by being cued to turn, stop, come in, etc. With a solid foundation, a simple verbal “whoa” or cue with the e-collar can cue a dog to stop, maintaining the steadiness on point. We use our collars as a way to communicate a cue. If your dog does not have that basic understanding of what you are communicating with a remote cue, it may simply not be hunting time quite yet.

liver german shorthaired pointer running in grass field with a long check cord
Your season may be better spent in the training field where you can reshape your dog’s behavior while he is on a check cord. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

Set a Proper Pattern

Another area where the handler can utilize the dog’s training to maintain a steady mindset during the hunt is by continually monitoring their dog’s race and pattern while hunting. A dog running in a highly excited state of mind with little intentional handling will often correlate to poor performance on birds. We always recommend evaluating the pre- and post-correction behavior to evaluate the corrections’ impact on their state of mind and predict future behavior from that point forward. One interesting thing that we have seen is that dogs that are in more of a running mindset than a hunting mindset will miss birds and their bird encounters will not be worked as well. Often this situation causes dogs to find themselves on top of a bird before they realize it. By handling those dogs just a little more, typically with direction changes, they can morph from that thoroughbred racehorse mentality to slowing down and being more aware of the terrain they are traveling through, thus able to work scent more effectively. This can be accomplished by attentive handling at the outset of a hunt, well before birds are even encountered.

Remember, every experience a dog has colors how they react in the future. The more consistent you can keep your dog’s behavior at home, the more consistent it is likely to be in the field. Play the game of averages—try to maintain a balance between handling for consistent bird work and the personal fulfillment of getting in some shooting. In doing so, you’ll still create those memories for yourself and feel the pride of building a better bird dog each season.


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