A few years ago, a friend came to me for some help with a young English springer named Wylie. At the time the dog was over a year old; he had received some basic foundation training and obedience and had been effectively socialized and conditioned to gunfire. He had even seen some birds, for which he had expressed clear enthusiasm. The dog was athletic and driven; his breeding was decent, and he had all of the raw material required of a solid, functional, hunting gun dog.
What Wylie lacked, and what my friend was struggling to establish, was any sense of range. When put down in the training field the dog immediately stretched way out beyond gun range and followed his nose well out of sight. His casts were far too big, and despite repeated attempts to get his attention and redirect him closer to the handler, he simply wouldn’t rein in. My friend was at wit’s end.
Knowing that Wylie had a high degree of prey drive, I felt that this question of range was easily fixable. I sent my friend on his way, having shared that I would like to keep the dog for a month to undergo a reboot of sorts. I then set about re-establishing clear foundational expectations for the dog and ensuring that he keyed in on me as the boss. This process simply required some additional obedience and yard work. From there, I leaned into the process of tightening up Wylie’s range, and establishing in his mind an appropriate working distance in the field.
Over my years as a flushing dog trainer I have found that there is no greater teaching tool than the pigeon. Provided that a dog has a degree of prey drive established, a live bird proves to be the ultimate “reward” and therefore the ultimate bargaining chip. In Wylie’s case, I knew the dog wanted birds, and had come to believe that more and better birds lived well out front and over the horizon.
What I needed to do was clarify that birds are found most often nearer to the gun or handler. The objective for me was to create a training experience in which Wylie was successful in finding birds repeatedly within the range I desired. We therefore set out into the training field with a bag of pigeons, prepared to re-define optimal effective range.
On the early days of this process, I released Wylie knowing that I needed to get him in contact with a bird (i.e., to get him rewarded) fairly quickly. After his first cast I could see him stretching out, and I therefore changed direction, assuming I could get him to key off me and cast back across my front to get ahead of me. Just before I changed direction, however, I took a pigeon from my bag and rolled it just in front of me, approximately in the line that Wylie would have to travel.
The bird was fairly close when the dog crossed it, but he winded it just before it flushed, and the contact was clear and impactful. The dog chased, but initially I was not worried about that. What I’d accomplished was a clear lesson: birds, the ultimate reward, occur close to me, the handler. This is the critical lesson that a rangy, far-working flusher needs to learn. The rest of the month was spent getting in reps that cemented this lesson.
A few years before this experience with Wylie, I watched another friend work a cocker in some local field trials. The dog was similarly well-bred. He was also actually quite well-trained with regard to obedience, whistle commands, etc. What he lacked, however, was a degree of confidence and range. This dog, unlike Wylie, was a bit too “sticky.”
He simply wouldn’t get out far enough to hunt effectively and stylishly, and he didn’t have the drive to make his range noteworthy in field trial circles. I was faced with the challenge of telling my friend that his dog needed to stretch out a bit if he was going to be competitive. Fortunately, my friend was willing to hear what I was saying.
In the case of this sticky pup, I again leveraged my favorite training tool, the pigeon. This time, however, I needed to ensure that the dog encounter the pigeon well ahead of the handler, and that the scent/promise of game tempted him out of the comfort zone of his too-close range.
This required that I plant the training field with birds, ideally well upwind of our intended direction of travel. I set the field with three dizzied pigeons, making sure that the birds were well spread both laterally (across the wind) and lengthwise down the field. I then took the cocker and set him out at the start of the field, really letting him work, and not pushing him forward.
As he covered ground, he began to catch scent of the nearest bird, and he worked that scent timidly at first, but soon became more certain. As the scent got stronger it overruled his timidity, and he charged in to flush. I, meanwhile, had stayed well back, establishing a much more realistic distance between handler and bird contact.
As we worked the field I continued to let the cocker gain some confidence, stretching out into located scent only to be rewarded with a bird contact. As these contacts took place further from the handler, a valuable lesson in range was being cemented.
These two anecdotes illustrate the incredible utility of using pigeons, either planted or rolled, to quickly educate a dog in effective range. As you move into the bird field with your dog, get a sense of his natural range. Use this as a barometer for what needs to change.
Some dogs will naturally quarter at a comfortable gun range and need little fine-tuning away from their innate tendencies. For me, this means that a dog works comfortably out, say, 25-30 yards laterally on each cast, and no more than 25 yards ahead. This feels to me as the limits of effective shotgun range, and flushes that occur within this space present feasible shots for the average hunter. The dog that trends inside or outside this range as a rule requires some work.
As illustrated in Wylie’s case, the rangy dog needs to be reined in. The rolled pigeon works optimally for this purpose, as it can be planted nearby and on-the-fly. To roll a pigeon, simply hold it in your hand with wings pressed down and spin it in a circular motion to dizzy it. Once dizzied, the bird can be rolled secretly into the nearby cover without flapping or flushing, and the dog can encounter it naturally.
The rolled pigeon, by virtue of its proximity to the handler, will create a sense that birds are often encountered when the dog takes a line similarly close to the handler. When this is communicated by multiple reps, the big running dog will quickly reduce his range, as when he runs big there will not be any birds in place to reward him. He will teach himself quickly to track closer, and will eventually strike that happy medium of range.
When rolling pigeons, remember to do so without the dog seeing what you’re doing. He needs to encounter the pigeon as if it occurred naturally, and not as the result of the trainer’s action. Remember, in the dog’s head he is making the pigeon appear as if by the magic act of following his nose. Any visible action on the part of the trainer interrupts this thought process.
The planted pigeon, ideally dizzied and placed in the cover, presents the sticky dog with a chance to encounter birds further out. Key points here are to know where the pigeons have been planted prior to entering the field, ensuring that you are working the dog into the wind, and not crowding the dog or pushing him too far too fast.
When setting the sticky dog out into the planted field he must explore at is own pace, and be rewarded similarly by following his nose out of his innately comfortable range. Think of this a stretch drill; only when the dog learns that good things come from his stretching out a bit will he adopt that range more readily as natural.
In the end, the flushing dog’s purpose is to put up birds within gun range of the handler. Though there are those dogs that find this range naturally, there are certainly those that require some coaching. By using pigeons to stretch or rein in a dog, the optimal range can be taught, and cemented. In this way a flushing dog can be tailored to meet your personal pace and desired hunting experience.