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The Complete Guide to Dove Hunting

Dove hunting is a great way to bridge the gap between summer training and fall hunting seasons.

The Complete Guide to Dove Hunting

Dove hunting can help handlers gauge the skills of their young pups, as the weather is warm and there’s no shortage of shot opportunities. (Photo By: Scott Haugen)

It took Kona a bit of searching, but finally he caught wind of the dead dove laying in the grass field. The bird had come in fast, and the shot was quick. Kona didn’t get a mark. But when my three-month-old pup smelled the dove, he didn’t hesitate to grab it and run it back to me as quickly as his lanky legs allowed.

Tail wagging, ears perked, Kona released the dove into my hand. I picked dried feathers from his lips and gums, gave him a drink of water, and sat him on my left side. It was back to hunting.

That was Kona’s first bird hunt. For both of my pudelpointers, doves were their first hunts. While Kona’s took place in a field, Echo’s first—at seven months of age—was in rolling hills with a pond.

Echo is now eight, Kona, six, and both dogs have been on numerous dove hunts. For many states, dove is the first season to open, and when done right, can be a great way to kickstart the hunting  season for both you and your gun dog.

dove hunter with pudelpointer dog
Author, Scott Haugen and his three-month-old pudelpointer, Kona, on his first bird hunt. (Photo By: Scott Haugen)

The Basics of Dove Hunting

Dove season can be a great place to begin your pup’s hunting career. The days are warm, you don’t have to get an early start, and the amount of shooting action can be impressive— usually with a lot more misses than hits.

Most dove hunting across North America takes place in agricultural fields. Hunters usually set up along an edge, waiting for doves to either leave or enter the field. Setting up in the shade with the sun at your back will help keep your dog cool and allows them to spot birds; something that’s tough to do with the sun in their eyes.

Wherever you choose to hunt, dove decoys can be effective at helping to bring birds into shooting range. In states that allow motorized decoys, the added motion can be the ticket, as the moving wings catch the attention of doves at a far distance away. Then again, as in waterfowl hunting, there are times when doves want to be in a certain spot and nowhere else, meaning you may have to adjust your position to get in their flight path.

dove hunter with pudelpointer dog
Dove hunts are laid back and create situations that are easy for hunters to control their dogs in. (Photo By: Scott Haugen)

Where to Hunt for Doves

Before hunting a field, check for grass seeds. Some fields that are too thick with seeds may not be worth hunting. If setting up along fencerows, scour the area for any loose barbed wire a dog might tangle with. Mornings, later afternoons, and early evenings are prime times to hunt fields.

Hunting over water is another effective approach. Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, many dove hunters head to big rivers with exposed gravel bars. Here, doves not only frequent to drink, but they’ll also gather grit and roost in nearby trees. Evening hunts along the rivers here can be exceptional.

Doves can also be hunted along creeks meandering through open country, as well as ponds. Dove hunting over water is a great way to keep your dog cool, while working on water entry and retrieves.

Hill country can also be hunted for doves. This habitat is used by doves to roost in after having fed in nearby fields during the day. Hills can also be early morning staging areas where doves stop to look over the feeding grounds below before entering them.

dove hunting cover
Dove seasons are an overlooked opportunity by many hunters and are a great way to kickstart the fall bird hunting season. (Photo By: Scott Haugen)

Dog Work for Dove Hunting

Some of the most alluring benefits of dove hunting is that it’s fun, easy, inexpensive, and can be exciting for both you and your dog. Enter the hunt with patience and the goal of making it fun for everyone, and you will come out having learned something while enjoying your time afield.

You won’t need much dog gear for a dove hunt, but a fine-toothed brush to remove burs and maybe a protective dog vest can be helpful should seeds become an issue. Personally, I like hunting short grass fields where seeds aren’t a concern and where it’s easier for dogs, especially pups, to mark birds. Set up the hunt for your dog to succeed, just as you would any training drill.

If it’s exceptionally hot, have enough water to cool your dog. Aging or overweight dogs can easily overheat and suffer from hyperthermia on early season dove hunts, which can be life-threatening, and is actually more commonly encountered than cold weather hypothermia. Dark-coated dogs should always hunt from the shade on hot, sunny days.

Because there are so many shot opportunities when dove hunting, don’t be in a rush. You want to maintain control of your dog and keep them focused. Pups will benefit from calm direction, eye contact, and walking them through basic hunting skills. If wearing shooting glasses, use a pair with clear lenses so your dog can read your eyes.

Veteran dogs can also benefit from dove hunting, through high-volume shoots, long-distance retrieves, and other advanced handling objectives. If you have something to work on before upland bird and/or waterfowl season, this is a great opportunity to hone those skills with your dog.

Due to the loose, dry feathers of doves, be sure to thoroughly clean your dog’s mouth following each retrieve, even if there are multiple birds down. Dry mouths can lead to discomfort, overheating, and a reluctancy of your dog to continue working.

If you have a dove down, be aware of where your dog or your buddy’s dog are when more birds come buzzing by. Refrain from firing over a dog’s head, as this will result in hearing loss, and keep track of where dogs are in the field when low-flying doves whiz by. That’s one great thing about dove hunting, you don’t have to force the shot as there will be more opportunities.

Guns & Loads for Dove Hunting

Simple field loads, even trap loads, are effective for dove hunting. I like 2 3/4-inch #7 ½ shot when hunting fields and over water, and #6 shot when hunting hill habitat. Be sure to check the local regulations in case there are any non-toxic shot requirements for the area you plan to hunt. 

If your pup is gun shy, try hunting with a .410 or 20-gauge shotgun. If gun work be your top priority of the hunt, have another hunter join you so they can shoot and you can focus on handling your dog.


The Benefits of Dove Hunting 

For bird hunters, there’s no better bird to hone shooting skills on than doves. Last season some buddies and I hunted cranes, geese, and ducks in Texas. Then we went dove hunting. We all struggled to hit the little speed demons cruising across the field. We laughed, but deep down, I think we were all a little embarrassed with the number of misses.

Because doves are so plentiful, often coming in from all angles, they allow you to swing from both the left and right, as well as shoot approaching birds and those that pass straight overhead. It can happen fast, and because doves are so small and quick, they can be challenging for dogs to locate. A pup will likely need help getting started on some retrieves, so get a mark on the dove yourself so you can position your dog to work into the wind.

female dove hunter with pudelpointer dog
Dove seasons run long in many states, creating extended hunting opportunities. Here, the author's wife, Tiffany Haugen, enjoyed a fun October dove hunt with their one-year-old pudelpointer, Echo. (Photo By: Scott Haugen)

Several gun dog owners I’ve hunted with take great value in using dove season as an opportunity to pair young pups with mature dogs. Not only will pups learn from watching experienced dogs hunt, but they’ll also build social skills with fellow hunters and learn how to get along with other dogs. For upland bird hunters, there aren’t many hunts where we can sit and actually wait for birds to pass in front for a shot. With this style of hunting comes a very effective means to teach your pup steadiness and proper obedience while on an actual hunt.

Think of all the training drills you’ve done over the summer and how you’re preparing your dog for the upcoming bird season. Then think of continuing that training by way of a live hunt. That’s what dove hunting is, and once you and your dog get a taste of how effective and fun these hunts can be, you’ll be wanting more and more, for seasons to come.


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