There are a couple requirements that I think are absolutely critical in a good bird dog, and they may not be what you think they are. A great nose is nice, but I’ve yet to figure out a surefire way to determine that. A beautiful gait is a wonderful thing to watch, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into more birds. Instead, my two requirements are intelligence and prey drive. Today, I’m going to talk about the latter.
Prey drive is what good dog breeders continually strive for. Prey drive is what motivates your pup to keep hunting when he’s already given you two hours of brutally hard work, and what makes him dive into painful, thorny thickets in search of one more bird.
Prey drive is something that’s innate in a dog, and if your dog doesn’t already have it, you’re out of luck. Fortunately, if you buy a pup from a reputable breeder, a lack of prey drive in all the long-established American hunting breeds is rarely a problem. I’ve yet to see a dog fitting that description that didn’t have it.
But having it is one thing, developing it is another. You can and should do everything you can to enhance your dog’s prey drive. Here’s how.
Start ‘Em Young
Starting later—at any age, really—will work just as well, but starting young will allow your pup to develop his prey drive as he matures. I’ve introduced pups to birds as young as seven weeks. More typically, I introduce them at around three to four months of age.
You’ll need live birds for this, so if you haven’t already got a coop of pigeons at your disposal (like I do), see if you can borrow a bird from a friend. One or two is all you’ll need.
The idea is to allow the puppy to find the bird, then encourage him to do whatever it is he decides to do. He may or may not point it, nor is this a hunting drill (although you’ll be amazed at how quickly very young pups start using their noses to search for a bird they know you’ve planted). Rather, it is simply an introduction.
The first step is to truss the bird and plant it in thin cover. At this stage, the unmown grass in your backyard will work. You can truss a pigeon in a couple ways. The first is to buy a truss from any of several manufacturers. These aren’t always ideal, but they’re better than nothing. What I usually do, however, is much simpler: I take a few turns of masking tape around the bird’s body and wings, locking the bird’s wings to its body. Then I put the bird under a release cage, which you can also buy from a manufacturer or make on your own. The cage protects the bird, which you’ll want to use multiple times over the next several weeks.
Put your pup on a leash and bring it in to the planted bird from downwind. Then watch to see what happens. Is your pup tentative, or perhaps scared? That’s not an uncommon initial reaction, so gently lead the dog away and wait another week before trying again. Does it point the bird (hallelujah!), or pounce on the cage? If so, you’re good to go!
If the dog is showing interest in the bird, I remove the cage and return the trussed bird to the grass. I never get tired of watching a puppy’s reaction to the first bird it can actually smell and touch. Some point it with all the style of a two-year-old finished dog. Some grab the bird by the tail feathers and proudly drag it around the yard. So far, I’ve yet to have a young puppy injure a pigeon (although it’s a different story with adult dogs).
Introduce your pup to the bird as many days a week as you can, gradually allowing him to spend more time hunting for it. As he gains confidence, loosen one of the pigeon’s wings so that it flaps, which will create even more excitement in your pup. Eventually, you can remove the truss or tape and return the bird to the release cage, then release it for your pup to chase. Most of the puppies I’ve introduced to birds in this way are nearly beside themselves with excitement when they get to this stage. When your pup is excited about finding and either chasing or pointing birds, you’ve arrived. You will have built up a reservoir of prey drive that will serve as a cushion for the months of training that follow.
Don’t Force It
But let’s say your pup is one of the shy ones that doesn’t show an immediate interest in the bird, or is perhaps a bit scared of it. This, too, is a fairly common reaction, and rarely anything to worry about. Don’t try to force the issue. If your pup seems intimidated, encourage him to approach the bird. But if he doesn’t want to do it, then give him another week or two to come around and try it again. I’ve sometimes had to introduce birds over the course of several weeks before a particularly shy puppy overcame his hesitancy and started actively hunting for the pigeon I planted for him. Patience is the watchword.
Once I’ve given the pup several weeks of exposure to planted birds (you can’t do this too much, so if you want to extend it for several months, that’s fine), I introduce it to wild birds—and by “wild birds” I mean any bird that is wild, not necessarily game birds. I do this by taking the pup on walks or runs anywhere he’s likely to find birds: robins, meadowlarks, sand pipers, whatever. Again, there’s no pressure involved. I encourage the pup to find and either point or chase whatever it comes across. At this stage, many puppies will flash-point birds, then chase them. That’s fine. The idea is to get the dog excited about anything that flies; work on pointing drills comes later. Incidentally, this process is fairly relaxed and can be done at the same time you’re working on his more traditional training in whoa, come, etc.
When are you finished? When your pup consistently hunts for the birds that he either finds on your walks or that you’ve planted. I’ve seen puppies hunt for planted birds as young as three months of age, casting back and forth downwind and following their noses to the bird, a pint-sized preview of coming attractions. It’s a moment I look forward to with every dog I’ve ever owned or trained, and to this day that moment never fails to thrill me.