It was the golden hour, and the roosters were pouring out of the private agricultural fields to dig their way into the cattails for the night. The first bird that flushed off of Luna’s nose flew nearly right over my shoulder, so I had to spin around and burn through a few loads of 4s before he crumpled in the jungle. It took Luna 10 minutes to sort out the scent and pick up the bird, which meant we were running on borrowed time.
The second rooster – a young bird that took off straight away – hit the cattails after a single shot. I knew Luna saw him go down, so I marked the spot and waited. And waited. After a few minutes of watching her course through the area where the bird had hit, I walked up to the spot and found some feathers. Luna and I had a lively discussion about what her job was, and she kept slipping farther and farther from me while I got madder and madder.
Anyone who has spent time afield with a good dog knows what happened next. After wringing the rooster’s neck and apologizing to my dog, we hiked out of the slough. It was a good reminder – one I seem to need every season – that teamwork makes the upland dream work. Without it, the whole thing falls apart. The good news is the spring and summer training you do with your dog can result in a much better relationship with your retriever.
Maybe this is a poor analogy since I’m a terrible dancer in general, and even more so now that I don’t drink, but here’s the thing – when hunting with a good dog sometimes you lead and sometimes you follow. Knowing when each is appropriate is the key to working in sync.
For instance, with the wounded rooster in the intro of this piece, I should have taken my cue from my Lab’s body language and realized she knew something I didn’t. Stubbornly, I just assumed the bird would be where I saw it fall, even though a lifetime of hunting wild roosters has given me plenty ofevidence that that is not always true.
On the other hand, a two-foot tall dog in six-foot tall cover or maybe in the grouse woods doesn’t often get the best mark or any mark at all. This means that sometimes it’s up to you to reset your dog when the retrieve just isn’t panning out. In this case, wet your finger and stick it in the air. Wherever the wind is blowing from is how you want to position your dog to restart the hunt-dead process. I also like to give my dog a 25- or 30-yard cushion so she can work her way in from a distance that seems unnecessary. This is because I oftentimes don’t nail my marks either, and it’s fairly common for a downed bird to not be exactly where I expect it either. The good news is that unless you’re dealing with really challenging conditions or a bird that somehow slipped out of the zip code, your dog’s nose will take care of the hard stuff.
Back To Basics
Here’s the thing about developing a team strategy with your upland dog – you’ve got to have control. What good is resetting a dog to hunt into the wind from a new angle if after five seconds the dog decides it knows best and takes off in a random direction?
This is why it’s so important to work blind retrieves with upland dogs. The difficulty of retrieves and thickness of cover in which to work blinds will vary depending on your dog’s skill level, but regardless this provides the perfect opportunity for you to be integral in your dog’s success. A good bird dog is a dog that wants the reward of a retrieve, and if they learn through proper drills that in many situations, you’re the key to finding that bumper, the bond with grow.
Trust Is The Ticket
You can train a dog a few different ways. With a pocketful of treats, through constant correction and fear, or through confidence building drills that promote challenges and task rewards. Guess which one is the best long-term strategy?
To work as a team, you must trust your dog and your dog must trust you. It’s simple but requires years of work. It also requires us to read our dogs and ourselves and be honest with each training or hunting interaction. If things go south and we lose our cool, we might be tempted to correct too harshly. This is no good. At the other end, if we don’t provide the dog with something challenging to overcome and be rewarded for, he might start to think everything we do is child’s play and not that important. The goal is to get your dog to a point where he has confidence in the job but not so much that he never checks back with you for guidance.
There is nothing like having a solid bond with a bird dog. That’s one of life’s greatest gifts, but it doesn’t come without some work. The good news is the off-season is the perfect time to plan training drills designed not only to increase your dog’s skill level but also to truly forge a trust-based relationship between you and your four-legged cohort.