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Developing Steadiness in Your Flushing Dog

These final stages of training can go a long way for a dog's safety and performance in the field.

Developing Steadiness in Your Flushing Dog

Teaching a flushing dog to "hup to flush" not only leads to safer shooting, it can also improve your dog's marking ability. (Chris Ingram photo)

In past installments of the "Flush" column, we have covered a variety of topics and training tips ranging from the most basic and introductory to the most advanced. You have likely noticed that I have said the final stage of training a flushing dog requires that a trainer teach a dog to be “steady.” Steadying a dog is indeed that final bit of polish, but what exactly does it mean to have a steady dog, and what does steadying accomplish?

Steadying a Flusher

In basic terms, the job of a flushing dog is to quarter through the cover in front of the gun, sniffing out game but staying close enough that any flushed birds gets up within gun range. When game is scented, the flushing dog is supposed to follow the scent and approach the bird with conviction, creating a hard, high flush. Assuming the hunter kills the bird, the flushing dog then retrieves to hand. Steadiness refers to the behavior of the dog after the flush and before the retrieve. A steady dog sits/hups immediately after the flush and waits there until the bird is shot or missed, and the handler releases the dog.  

Many folks argue that steadying a dog is done more for style than anything, and that from a utilitarian standpoint, a steady dog results in greater incidence of lost game. The basis of this argument is the idea that a flushing dog that chases immediately after the flush gets a quicker jump on the retrieve, lessening the chance of losing a bird that hits the ground running or flies a great distance mortally hit. I personally disagree. I feel that steadying a dog has distinct positive benefits across the board.

English cocker spaniel sitting to flush with handler
A steady dog that hups on the flush can watch the bird and establish a mark from a fixed position. (Chris Ingram photo)

A steady dog is a safer dog. A flushing dog who isn’t steady with a strong prey drive, will go into a flush hard and fast and will be inclined to chase or jump after a bird as it gets up. Doing so may be fine if the dog is chasing cagey wild birds who flush fast and hard. The pen-raised birds that many hunters chase are a different story. Pen-raised birds are often slow to flush, slow to gain elevation, and unlikely to fly fast or far. If a flushing dog pursues these birds after the flush, they often put themselves in dangerous proximity to the line of fire. Numerous flushing dogs have been shot in preserve settings over the years when a driven dog, a weak bird, and an over-eager shooter come together. Steadying a dog keeps the dog low and gives the shooter plenty of time to let the bird establish sufficient distance for a safe shot.

Bird Marking 

I personally believe that a steady dog has an easier time marking downed game than one that chases on the flush. Think of it this way: a dog running full speed through thick cover after a hit bird has a good deal to think about. Not only does the dog have to navigate the terrain and obstacles, he has to keep an eye on the sky and the bird, trying to maintain a sense of where and when that bird falls. A steady dog that hups on the flush can watch the bird fall and establish a mark from a fixed position. Though there may be a delay in the retrieve, and a running cripple may get a few steps head start, the steady dog will have greater confidence and conviction in the mark than one trying to establish accurate position and distance at full speed.

Bumping Birds 

We all miss our fair share of birds. When we do, the missed birds may continue flying. A dog that is not steady will pursue the missed birds at least until the final shot is missed, and in doing so he will likely stretch out far beyond gun range. There is always the possibility that in said distance, another bird or covey is waiting. Because the chasing dog is focused on the bird in the air, he is unlikely to pick up scent and work the birds on the ground effectively. Invariably, these birds will get “bumped,” and fly off without ever being worked, and without ever providing the hunter a feasible shot. A steady dog ensures that the progression of the hunt is controlled and measured, and that all birds are pursued within gun range. Granted, birds may get bumped in front of a steady dog, but likely far fewer than in front of an unsteady one, and the resulting flushes will be closer.

Boykin spaniel at heel
A flushing dog under proper control and cooperation can ultimately provide you with a more effective and enjoyable hunting experience. (Chris Ingram photo)

Final Polish 

Steadying a dog is simply the last bit of work in training a flusher to completion. It requires diligent practice, but to my mind, it is a necessary piece of training if you wish to finish the job. To my eye, a steady dog is the true expression of a working flusher, and to stop short of training to that level of steadiness feels like a job left undone. Though there are those who will disagree, I firmly believe that steadiness in a flushing dog has multiple benefits, and should be the standard of training. The benefits are numerous, and the opportunity to enhance safety and productivity within the hunt, and add a touch of style to the dog work, is well worth the time and effort spent.

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