You've got a good dog. He stays focused and understands what's going on," said Sal Roseland, owner of R&R Pheasant Hunting in Seneca, S.D., after a few hours spent hunting his farm's milo, corn and CRP fields; an excursion that produced hundreds of pheasant flushes. "When most people bring their dogs here, even Master-level trained ones, they usually blow up and run out of control because of the number of birds."
I was proud of my black Lab, Kona, for performing well, but chalked it up to luck and Roseland's compliment to that of a savvy businessman. It wasn't until a year later when Eric Johannsen of Johannsen Farms Outfitting in nearby Tolstoy, a property with literally thousands of wild birds, repeated the praise nearly verbatim that I began to wonder not what my dog had done well, but what many people were lacking in their training and hunting habits that left them so woefully unprepared for an encounter with numerous birds.
More important than any kudos your dog could receive, is making the most of a trip to the epicenter of hunting for your chosen species of upland bird — be that South Dakota for pheasants, south Texas for quail or Wisconsin for grouse. The memory you return with can be that of opportunities capitalized upon or lost. It all boils down to how your dog performs when his training literally runs headlong into his genetic instincts.
Even if you never plan to visit a destination famous for record hatch and harvest statistics, a dog that remains under control when faced with the sensory overload that accompanies the excitement of the hunt, numerous birds and multiple gunshots can pay huge dividends. For a dog that's used to tracking a single pheasant or satellite quail, but suddenly finds itself hot on the trail of a large covey's worth of birds, it could mean the difference between putting two birds in the bag, or watching as they flush out of range and disappear over the horizon — with your dog in hot pursuit.
When a dog, even one trained to a high level in the controlled environment of a field trial or test, encounters a large number of birds on a hunt, its mind often becomes conflicted. Nature becomes pitted against nurture and the sheer excitement of massive amounts of fresh scent, perhaps even with birds in such close proximity as to allow the dog to see and hear them, often causes the dog to "blow up," or resort to a state of hunting strictly by instinct and purely for self-gratifying reasons.
You will see the dog begin to work the ground very quickly; first taking one scent trail and then another. He becomes frantic in his attempt to process and decipher all the messages he's receiving from the multitude of interlaced ground and airborne trails.
"There's so much scent around that a dog can't concentrate on one particular trail to follow; it's like being in a blender," said Tom Dokken of Dokken's Oak Ridge Kennels in Northfield, Minn.
As the confusion progresses, a dog begins to rely less and less upon you and prior training and more and more upon instinct to reach his ultimate goal: bird contact. As the dog mentally devolves, the handler experiences a loss of control; basic training tenets like range and backing go out the window as the dog starts chasing and disregarding commands.
"The longer a dog is allowed to work in a frantic state of mind, the more correct and permissible he thinks it is," said Dan Hosford, of Dan Hosford Training in Spokane, Wash. "It's something that magnifies very, very rapidly."
On the Hunt
Once the downward spiral begins, it becomes a self-rewarding behavior for the dog. While in a frantic state of mind he's encountering more and more bird scent, which training and genetics have honed to an extreme desire. He inches evercloser to his goal of bird contact, regardless of your involvement.
To stop the cycle, you have to short-circuit the dog's frenzied mind and bring him back under control. You do this simply by stopping the dog for a few moments.
"The ability to cue a dog to stop is invaluable. Not only can you get things shut down before they escalate out of control, but it is also similar to rebooting your dog's computer," said Ronnie Smith, who trains bird dogs at his kennel in Oklahoma through the spring and summer and guides hunters in quail-rich south Texas during hunting season. "When things come unraveled, rebooting that computer allows your dog to catch his breath, regain his senses and compose himself."
Stopping the dog and having it stand, if it's a pointer, or sit, if it's a flushing breed, is a tactic echoed by Hosford. "When you see that dog begin to become frantic, you have to stop him as soon as possible," he said. "That allows him to start regaining his focus. His mind stops spinning about the bird scent and his focus returns to the handler."
Once the dog stops, leave him at a standstill as you calmly walk to him. Give him a few seconds to regain his composure; wait until the "crazed" look in his eye fades away and he begins to display more relaxed body language before releasing him.
If your dog becomes frantic again, repeat the process, but instead of releasing him after a few moments, make him heel for a while as you walk through the field. The return to basic obedience reinforces the standards and expectations despite the excitement of the setting.
In fact, if your dog can't handle the stimulation or just isn't quite ready, heeling allows him, especially a retriever, to gain structured experience.
"Keep it simple in a high stimulus situation by giving the dog tasks that aren't as complex. Heeling through a field while other dogs work reduces the complexity and allows you to keep him under control," said retriever trainer Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Miss. Stewart added that acting as a blocker is another role that allows a dog to participate in the hunt — including making retrieves — but with fewer intricacies required.
Giving your dog the proper foundation through training experiences can help reduce the effect and duration of sensory overload, even if it can't eliminate it completely. But if training is the answer, it is also part of the problem for many people and their dogs.
While it's impossible to replicate the excitement of a hunt, especially one involving numerous wild birds, many amateurs compound the problem by training in too sterile or too convoluted a manner and don't provide transition experience.
Too sterile: To teach our dogs various concepts, we use single birds in very controlled circumstances. It's the best way to train a new concept, but when the dog progresses and has learned what's required, that sterile scenario becomes a hindrance.
"People always train in the same area and the dog learns to memorize it and the routine. He gets confident and, while confidence is important, it makes it easier and allows him to pick up on cues and know what's going to happen," said Hosford. "Then when he gets into a new field and encounters big groups of birds he doesn't know how to behave or what to do."
The solution: Once your dog has a lesson mastered, don't keep repeating the scenario over and over. Challenge his understanding of the basic concept by changing locations, using more and more live birds and adding gunshots and other dogs to the scenario.
Too convoluted: Increasing the complexity and stimulus of a training session too quickly will cause your dog to come unhinged. This makes it impossible for him to learn the fundamental concept of a lesson and completely undermines your control. It can also create a misconception for the dog of acceptable behavior in confusing situations.
"When you move a dog too fast by making a lesson too complex and adding too much stimulus at the same time, they're going to blow up," said Stewart. "You have to successfully complete a task several times in several different locations before it starts to become a habit. Then you can begin to add complexity and stimulus, but you have to introduce those separately."
The solution: Break your training sessions down and be cognizant of the pressures placed upon your dog. Stewart, who runs multiple repetitions in a single session, likes to successfully complete five sessions in five different locations before adding first complexity (such as significantly lengthening a scent trail) and then stimulus (such as firing blank shots while the dog is following the scent trail).
Transition training: While each training session should be planned and balanced with specific lessons in mind, they are individual concepts that slowly build upon one another to create a foundation that teaches your dog how to behave and react under controlled circumstances.
Transition training, on the other hand, takes all of those learned skills of ever-increasing complexity and stimulus and forces the dog to choose which one to use and when. It's a realistic hunting scenario for the dog, but without the pressure on you of hunting wild birds with friends. You can remain in control, enforce standards and expectations, and even turn the situation into a training session.
The solution: When you believe your dog is ready for the field, take him to a hunting preserve. Pay to have birds released and place them in bunches to heavily scent an area. This isn't about shooting the birds, it's about maintaining control of your dog and teaching him to stay focused in the face of extreme temptation.
Put your training to use and if needed, stop your dog until his focus returns and he understands that all the same rules apply despite the overwhelming amount of scent.