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Don't Spoil Your Bird Dog & Other Bad Advice

Weeding out myths and false information surrounding training your bird dog

Don't Spoil Your Bird Dog & Other Bad Advice

As a youngster growing up in Oklahoma in the 1960s and ’70s, quail hunting was at its peak.

Bobwhite populations were extremely high, and nearly every family I knew had a bird dog or two that they used to chase quail every weekend during the season.

If I heard it once, I heard it a hundred times back then: “Don’t spoil your bird dog, or it won’t hunt for you.” The mental picture that was painted was if you got just a little too affectionate with your dog—maybe petted it too much, or let it into the house every now and then when it was bitter cold outside—it would be ruined forever. I guess the assumption was that the next time you took the dog hunting, it would just walk alongside of you, waiting for you to scratch it behind the ears.

Fast-forward 50 years, and I now have a somewhat personal reason for writing this story. As I type this, I have an old field-champion setter sleeping soundly in a soft, cushy bed behind me. I also have an up-and-comer that recently garnered a placement at the Irish Setter National Amateur Field Championship sleeping in another plush bed alongside the first. Both seem perfectly content to spend their morning hanging out with me in my office. And while both would be just fine living in a kennel, I’m happier having them here with me to keep me company.

Fact is, to a certain extent, spoiling your bird dog isn’t really a bad thing at all. A good, well-bred hunting dog can sit on the couch and watch a baseball game with you one evening, then go out and wholeheartedly hunt grouse or woodcock the next morning without missing a beat. The switch that is flipped from couch potato to bird hunter is a fast-acting one, indeed!

An extension of that bad advice is, “Bird dogs shouldn’t live in the house.” Most of the reasons cited for this advice involve the same old spoil-your-dog lines just discussed. They say a dog that’s used to living in a warm house won’t want to go out into the cold to hunt birds. And dogs that are used to a cushy lifestyle won’t want to hunt in really tough conditions.

While there can be disagreement on these points, I’ve certainly seen my share of bird dogs that live in a house and hunt just as hard as any kennel dog. That’s not to say that there aren’t some bird dogs that make better kennel dogs than house dogs. But I think it’s largely a matter of the individual dog’s personality, not whether he’ll hunt poorly if he lives indoors.

Note that just because I’m not against bird dogs living in the house and believe them doing so won’t diminish their hunting ability in any way, I don’t think of my dogs as “furry people.” They’re dogs, and I treat them as such. But by them living in the house, we spend many hours together each day. The payoff is a bond that makes the dogs want to perform even better for me than if we didn’t spend that time together.

upland hunter in field with 2 Irish setters

Another topic where bad advice runs rampant involves feeding bird dogs. In fact, if you spend much time looking at the nasty fights over dog food on social media dog groups (my advice is, don’t), you might conclude that a documentary called “Bird Dog Food Wars” could quickly become a Hulu bestseller and rate a violence warning for viewers.

I won’t discuss brands of dog food, nutritional values, and such, because I’ll be addressing that in another feature story in an upcoming issue, but there’s plenty of bad advice out there on other aspects of feeding. One such is, “Feed them a big meal right before the morning hunt.”

Even expounded by some otherwise sensible bird dog owners, the theory is that the dog will need the “extra fuel” to keep him going strong all day. In truth, that theory is misguided because of a misunderstanding concerning digestion. In most cases, bird dogs should not eat right before a rigorous workout. While bird dogs are athletes and need the proper nutrition to keep them going strong in the field, timing is important.

It can take up to 12 hours for food to digest—and for its protein, fat, and carbs to become available to burn. So feeding a dog a good meal the evening before the hunt makes very good sense. But feeding your dog a big breakfast the morning of the hunt is just not a good idea. The reason is that food in the dog’s gut will draw blood to the stomach to aid digestion, instead of directing it to the circulatory system where it will do the most good to keep your dog running at full efficiency.

The flip side of that same bad feeding advice is, “Always hunt them hungry.” I remember an old man saying that when I was just a kid, and at the time I thought it made some sense. His theory was that if they were experiencing hunger pangs, they would have even more reason to want to find a bird to alleviate that hunger.

In reality, a well-bred bird dog that has been properly introduced to birds and has learned to love them more than anything else in the world doesn’t need an excuse to want to go hunting. That’s what such dogs live for, and for many, it’s nearly impossible to make them quit hunting, full belly or empty. Keeping food away from them so they’ll “hunt hungry” only increases the chance that they won’t have the proper nutrition needed to hunt as long and hard as they’d like.

Conditioning pups to gunfire so that they don’t develop gun shyness is an extremely important aspect of bird dog training, and it’s another topic that is rife with bad advice. One of the worst I’ve heard is, “Take your pup to the gun range.”

The scheme goes like this. You take your young pup with you to the local skeet and trap range. Start out far enough away that the gunshots aren’t very loud. As the pup becomes more accustomed to the gunfire, move closer and closer to the firing line. By the end of the morning, the theory goes, your dog will be sitting there happily watching shooters break clay after clay, and will never have a problem with being sensitive to gunfire.

That might work for some pups. But unfortunately, those that have any kind of bad experience doing it this way will likely associate that bad experience with the gunfire. Consequently, the next time they hear a gunshot nearby, they’re likely to head for the nearest hills.

Fact is, there are many productive ways to acclimate your bird dog pup to gunfire, and most are associated with the pup learning to associate gunfire with something positive—birds, for example. The gun-range method isn’t the best way to do that.

I’ve heard it said time and time again, and I’m still not sure I understand the old axiom, “Never teach your bird dog to sit.” The theory is, I believe, that if you teach a dog to sit, it might sit when on point, and that would be a bad habit. In a field trial, the argument goes, it could even lead to judges thinking very poorly of a fine dog.

In reality, a dog that sits while on point is usually the product of over-pressuring during training, not a victim of his learned “sit” routine. I personally don’t teach my bird dogs to sit, but that’s mostly a factor of my laziness at training, not because I think it is a bad thing for them to know. In fact, every now and then I find myself wishing they had been taught that command.

Akin to that advice is, “Never teach your dog to whoah.” Again, some of these pieces of advice can be hard to track back to a reasonable explanation. As one old-timer explained to me years ago, teaching a dog to whoa can lead to the dog “whoaing” when you don’t want it to. Say, for instance, you are hunting with a guy who has a dog named Joe or Bo. Every time he calls one of his dogs, your dog stops and stands until you release it.

Of course, most dogs are a little smarter than that. And while such an occurrence might happen a time or two if you were to ever hunt with Joe or Bo, most dogs would quickly understand the situation and move along.

In truth, I can go either way on the “whoa” issue, but lean toward teaching the command. There are just times when a dog could be endangered by vehicles or other factors, and having it trained to stop immediately and stand still could be a lifesaver. Note that the command doesn’t have to be “whoa,” as other words like “wait” and “stand” accomplish the same purpose.

Another piece of advice that I consider dubious is, “Never work dogs on pen-raised birds.” This advice generally comes from people who have used poor-flying, pen-raised quail, chukar, or pheasants improperly, and in doing so, taught their dogs some bad habits that are hard to break.

Sure, pen-raised birds can lead to creeping, flushing, chasing, and other bad manners. But many trainers use them effectively and successfully, proving that such a blanket statement shouldn’t be heeded.

Heck, in areas with poor wild bird populations, if you never work your bird dogs on pen-raised birds, they might be several years old before they have seen enough birds to know what this hunting game is all about. The simple fact is that birds make a bird dog. And while pen-raised birds aren’t ideal and can sometimes lead to problems if the trainer isn’t careful in using them, they certainly have their place in productive training.

A relatively new piece of bad advice, coming mostly from folks who consider their dogs to be small, furry people is, “Don’t use e-collars because they are cruel.” Of course, they’re not cruel when used properly. If they were, my dogs wouldn’t run up to me and stick their necks out every time they see me with an e-collar in my hands. The key is taking the time to research how to use them effectively, without teaching dogs something you’re not trying to teach them.

In fact, advice stating, “Don’t use e-collars improperly,” would be perhaps the best training advice ever, as many people try to use them without studying and seeking advice from those who have done so successfully.

Years ago, when e-collars were new on the scene, I witnessed such a poor usage of the device firsthand. While pheasant hunting in a row of hunters, one hunter thought his dog had run off. He repeatedly yelled the dog’s name while burning it with the collar.

What he couldn’t see, but I could, was that the dog was on the other side of a round hay bale only about 60 yards in front of me trying to urinate. Every time it would hike its leg, he’d shock it again. While it’s likely that dog never tried to pee on another hay bale, its owner should never have been using an e-collar if he didn’t first go to the effort to learn how to use it properly.

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