March 24, 2021
A common question surrounding pointing breeds revolves around range. Is range bred into dogs, and can it be trained out of them? The short answer: Yes, range is bred into dogs. A wider-ranging search pattern is sought after and selected for in many pointing breeds and specific family groups within these and other breeds. This selection is based on the type of birds hunted, or possibly the competitions a person is involved in.
But, can it be trained out? Hopefully, not literally “trained out.” I would feel better saying, yes, most dogs can be taught to respond to commands to work within a given distance. Range is so closely tied to desire and drive, that without it, we may as well get a goat to trot around in front of us.
Basic Drills for Ranging
After all the work is done, folks don’t trust their dog and won’t let them work. I feel we have to decide whether we’re out to enjoy a day hunting, or we’re out to kill everything in the woods. My point: Even the best pointer won’t pin every bird. Flushing dogs—springer or Lab—can miss or run over a bird with no indication or fault.
In the real world, we are forced to hunt all around the wind, and we must make due with the ground available where we have permission. Let’s look at a few basic drills designed to help you and your dog build on obedience, understanding, and teamwork to help you better understand range in your bird dog.
From here, we must assume your dog obeys the “whoa” or “hup” command and will “come” when called. If you plan to use a remote training collar, be certain your dog has been collar-conditioned and understands collar pressure and how to avoid pressure through obedience. Now is also the time to introduce a release or cast to “hunt ’em up” when told.
With these bases covered, we can now move our dog through the field as we wish, rather than subduing his drive. The idea being once we guide him through a few productive searches, he should begin to do it on his own.
Early lessons in patterning are best taught on flat fields with eight to 10-inch cover, no pronounced objectives, and no birds. To begin, we work on mechanics of the search by using and enforcing learned commands. Later, we reward the proper search by placing birds in likely cover wild birds would use.
I suggest you leave a check rope attached to your dog, and/or use a remote training collar. Either way, we must be able to reinforce commands or directions where needed.
With the dog at heel, set up at the end of the field near the middle. Once ready, cast the dog off to hunt using “hunt ’em up,” or some other command of your choosing. As the dog leaves to begin the search, you should move forward at a good pace while encouraging him to get out there. If he moves to the front too far, don’t hack on him; simply toot on your whistle and turn your line of travel across the field. If he doesn’t move with you, “whoa” him, pause a few seconds, and then swing your arm to that side as you release him to hunt in the direction you’re moving. He should follow your line of travel. If he doesn’t move with you, “whoa” him again—this time with “whoa,” and then a nick from the collar followed by another verbal “whoa.” Pause, then swing your arm and move off again. He should move with you this time.
Next, swing back across the field in the opposite direction. If the dog doesn’t move with you, call his name and gesture with an outstretched arm in your direction of travel. Repeat this exaggerated weaving pattern back and forth across the field, encouraging and reinforcing the dog as he moves with you. As his swing lengthens, you can walk a more direct line downfield while letting him do the work. Don’t forget to mix in forward downfield travel as well.
These drills help reinforce simple commands and encourage the dog to be aware of where you are and to move to the front.
Ideal Bird Placement
The key to the patterning drill is the placement of birds. When we begin using birds, I like to switch my training area to be more in line with actual hunting cover. I begin by placing birds far enough apart to encourage good ground coverage, as well as to make the dog work a good while between finds. Using two or three birds each session will also help build on the dog’s natural desire to hunt as he understands the reward of his continued efforts. Birds at the far end of left and right swings will encourage the crossing pattern. Placing birds near likely natural bird territory encourages the dog to associate and seek out these places.
As you move the dog through planted cover, you can now steer him in the direction of likely bird contact. Your dog soon learns that by cooperating with you, good things are likely to happen. As you move from one bird contact to the next, do not allow your dog to chase flushed birds or return to the site of the find. Encourage him to move off with you.
Always Trust Your Bird Dog
Forget about killing everything. Take the time to enjoy developing your dog to the point you can relax. Coming home with one bird found, shot, and retrieved with a dog you’ve developed on your own feels like killing a charging lion.
By the end of season, you’ll realize your dog still has what it takes to range far out to the end of the field while hunting. That way, he can retrieve that cripple you would have lost without him, and your trust in your bird dog and his range will grow. This will lead to memorable seasons together.