Working as a team, training gun dogs is the most efficient way for amateurs to ensure success. My good fortune allowed me to train for years at the grounds of the late Ed Whitaker, now enshrined in the Bird Dog Hall of Fame for his numerous contributions to English springer spaniels. Whitaker's only requirements for training at his grounds were to behave like a gentleman or lady, and to care about and work toward consistently improving one's dog.
Whitaker and his close friend, the late Ed Berger, were my mentors, though many other knowledgeable trainers assisted. Trust me when I say they had their hands full.
A typical training session started by gathering pigeons and pheasants from their pens at about 10:30 a.m. and continued until about 4 p.m. Refreshments and endless discussions on birds, dogs and shotguns followed.
If anyone had young puppies we started with puppy quartering drills on a low-cut part of the extended yard. The format we followed provides a good guideline for anyone training in a group situation, so I'll outline it here.
The pup's owner/handler and two others should have a dead pigeon or two in their training vests and line up parallel to each other, facing downfield, about 12 to 15 yards apart, with the owner/handler in the middle. As the owner casts his pup toward one side, the helper on that side says "Hey pup!" and waves/shakes a dead pigeon so the pup sees it.
Pup races toward the pigeon and just before reaching it the helper hides the pigeon behind his back, just as the owner blows the whistle with two short, sharp blasts. Pup will turn toward the whistle to see what the commotion is about and see the helper on the far side of the owner waving and shaking another pigeon so pup can see it.
An interested pup will race across the field toward the second dead pigeon, passing in front of his owner. Again the bird is hidden just before pup reaches the helper and the owner toots the whistle twice. Pup again turns to look for the whistle and sees the helper on the opposite side waving a dead pigeon.
On this, the third crossing of the field, the first helper waits until pup nears him then gives the dead bird a short toss, being sure pup is looking at him and will see the tossed bird. If pup's preliminary retrieving drills have worked, pup will race and pick up the pigeon and retrieve it to his owner.
The owner/handler should stoop down to pup's level, and before taking the pigeon, pet and praise pup enthusiastically while holding one hand under pup's mouth so the bird doesn't drop prematurely. After praising pup, the owner takes the bird and continues to praise him, then puts the bird out of sight in his vest.
If you're using this program, allow two or three retrieves but no more until later. Give pup some water and put him in his crate.
After training our young dogs we do basically the same thing with the older dogs, except with live birds, not letting them see the live bird dizzied or tossed into cover. Pup is going to find and flush this live, healthy bird.
Pup should quarter three to four times before having a bird planted. Make sure pup turns quickly on the whistle and that he stays within 10 yards when he passes you during quartering.
If during the drill pup turns and begins to cross too far downfield, whistle pup towards you with repeated short toots and your hand reaching out towards him. He should pull in toward you; don't let him pass by.
Occasionally you might have to produce a treat for pup to bring him in to you, then cast him toward the side he was headed for. It should not take many treats to keep him close. DON'T OVERDO TREATS!
Have a helper toss a dizzied bird into short cover and allow pup to scent the bird and flush it, being sure he is steady before the bird is shot by one of your helpers. Caution helpers not to shoot if your dog breaks on the flush.
If pup breaks, you must run him down, bring him back to the spot he broke from and return to your starting point while he waits. Certainly you had a little "heart-to-heart" talk with pup, perhaps while giving him a firm, controlled shake.
We hope the next attempt at the same drill works and you get two good retrieves from the drill. Water pup and crate him after praising him for his successful retrieves. If pup breaks on the second retrieve, crate him and try him again later.
We will go through everyone's dog the same way, correcting as necessary, and remembering to praise as earned. Remember, a well-bred dog wants to please his master — that is one of your best training aids.
Each dog should get three retrieves, and we hope the guns successfully drop the birds so a retrieve can be made.
It is not life or death if a bird is missed occasionally, because pup must learn we do not get every flushed bird. An occasional miss, in fact, helps instill steadiness to wing and shot.
An extra drill to help pup (while not taking up much time) is introducing pup to "go back" to retrieve a bird he did not see fall. Perhaps he was in heavy cover or on the opposite side of a hedgerow and did not see a bird go down. This is how to start him making that retrieve, or "hunt dead."
After pup's two or three retrieves, the helpers, you and pup turn 180 degrees and re-trace your course up-field toward the starting spot. You drop a dead bird on the ground as you start walking back to your starting point.
Pup will almost assuredly see you drop the bird, which is fine, but you should not let him grab or retrieve it. Rather, keep walking and keep pup heeling at your side, even if he must be leashed. You actually want pup to know the bird was dropped early in this learning stage.
When you and pup walk back about one-third of the field, your helpers walk away while you turn around and face downfield again, with pup doing the same. With pup at your side, put your hand in front of pup's face and direct him downfield where the bird was dropped.
If you use the same training area you will have a nice, beaten path and pup will follow it — again, good for now. Give the command "Back!" and pup will race downfield and retrieve the dead bird. Bend down as he returns and pet him before taking the bird, but do not let him drop it. Praise is an important key when training.
Do this drill regularly from now on and increase the length of the retrieve as pup continues to retrieve boldly with speed and enthusiasm. Eventually pup will be going the length of the field. When finished, water pup and put him up. Repeat this mini-drill each time down the field.
After completing these sessions, some of us would take the dogs to the pond if it was warm enough. By late spring we never missed a quick water workout.
Water work is another perfect way to solidify steadiness. Have two to five dogs sit (hup) about eight yards from the pond while owners stand between them and the water. One person tosses a dummy into the pond and while each dog is dying to retrieve it, only one is allowed to make the retrieve.
Wait several seconds then have one owner call his dog's name to break for the water while the others wait their turn. If another dog breaks, his owner or a friend should be able to stop him and put him on his butt and make him wait as he should. Give each dog at least one chance to retrieve and then let another few dogs take their turn.
Finish with anything your dog might need special work on, but do not take too long or you will be late for cheese and crackers, and that all important cold beverage.
From down under, John Hoy (Lower Southgate, NSW Australia) submitted this photo of Gerty at nine weeks. John notes that Gerty's tail is not docked as it is against Australian law.
Birds! Bugs! Bananas! These are a few of eight-month-old Tully's favorite things, according to Greg and Annette Snow of Vancouver, WA.
Casey Jones is a two-month-old black Lab who enjoys watching the Red Sox and taking naps. He is owned by Edward Bilsky, Ph.D.
I didn't do it, honest! This Brittany, named Abbey Road, certainly LOOKS guilty!
Kevin Richardson, of Roscoe, Illinois, says that Bullet, his 10-month-old Brittany, loves the water almost as much as he loves pheasants... 'almost! '
POINT taken! Valentine, at 10 weeks, pointing a pen-raised quail. The Brittany is owned by the Harrison family of Jonesville, LA.
Four-month-old Midge, an English cocker, may look sweet here, but she will be terror on pheasants, predicts owner Dick Greene, of West Yellowstone, MT.
Now what? Field-bred English cocker Rowdy is looking back at his hunting companion (a yellow lab named Doc) asking, 'Now that I've retrieved it, what do I do with it? '
Bath time for eight-week-old English setter Cody. Jack York of Colorado Springs, CO, says although Cody is not fond of baths, he is on track to becoming an excellent hunter.
Twelve-week-old English setter Yuma takes a break for lunch during a grouse hunt in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Yuma is owned by Tom Milakovic of Michigan City, IN.
Resting up for hunting season is Angelette Mon Diamant. 'Angel ' is a 12-week-old French Brittany spaniel.
Minnesota's FS Dakota after her first hunt at 7 1/2-months. This lovely French spaniel is owned by Karla and Paul Fischenich.
Four-month-old Fred has a taste for trailer wiring harnesses, huntng gloves...and anything green! Nevertheless, Derek Wenzel, of Livonia, MI, says he could not have asked for a better German shorthair.
Three-month-old Gauge, a German shorthair, loves to play with his DeadFowl pheasant and jump off the dock into the pond, according to owner Nathan Sherwin, of Blackstone, VA.
Worth every mile! Steve and Cindy Hutson traveled from North Carolina to Jasper, MO, to pick up Karli, their three-month-old German shorthaired pointer.
'BEE CAREFUL! ' Grant Stencil of Bonita, California, says his German shorthaired pointer, Rosie, loves pointing bees in the backyard. Amazingly, to date she has not been stung.
Matt Davis submitted this photo of his first bird dog, Sawyer, a six-week-old German shorthaired pointer.
Life is good! Ten-month-old German shorthaired pointer River enjoys a pheasant wing in the afternoon sun. Ed Eick, of Rochester, MN, is River's owner and hunting companion.
Jeremy and Kasey Anthon, of Morrison, TN, submitted this photo of Sawyer Anthony, a 10-week-old German shorthaired pointer who LOVES ducks!
Ruger never fails to find and retrieve birds regardless of where they fall...water, blackberries, ANYWHERE! The 5-month-old German wirehair is owned by Kenneth Larson of Monroe, WA.
Picture Perfect! Coop is an 8-week-old German wirehaired pointer owned by William Swinarski, Jr., of Omaha, NE, and photographed by Adam Swinarski of Swinarski Photography.
Lucky number nine! Norah Bones, a 10-month-old golden retriever, flushed and picked up nine birds while quail hunting in East Tennessee.
Wrap them up€¦I'll take them! These 8-week old Labrador retriever pups will soon be retrieving machines. Jasper, Calypso and Ragen are owned by TJ and Mercedes Jones of Laurel Hill, FL.
Simply a GREAT litter! 'Every one of these pups is being hunted, ' says Ike English of Jackson, GA.
Dreaming of future days afield, Leo is a Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever. Leo is owned by Dan and Pam Giberson of Okotoks, Alberta.
Life is a field of clover for this 3-month-old fox red Labrador retriever, Dawkins, owned by Hunter Moyer of Mifflinburg, PA.
You've got to start somewhere! Pointing low hanging fruit is Shiawassee's Smoking Joe (Joey) at 7 months. 'He is my best buddy for sure! ' says Bob Versica of Manton, MI.
Life is just a breeze! Twelve-week-old springer Breeze is owned by Tony Del Giorgio of Eagle, ID.
Allie will retrieve anything, including blowing leaves. The 10-week old springer is owned by Gary Bondy of Brooklyn, MI.
Why can't I go? Three-month-old springer spaniel Murray was feeling a bit down after being told he was too young to go pheasant hunting. Brian Maher of West Chicago, IL, is Murray's owner.
CHEERS! Tommy is an 11-month-old springer spaniel from Vermont (where Switchback Ale is brewed). He belongs to Karen Cartier of Rutland, VT.
SURVIVOR! Maggie, now 10 years old, was photographed here at 8 weeks. An Epagneul Breton, Maggie has hunted all over the U.S. and survived a mountain lion attack two years ago while hunting in Arizona.
Dean Stainberg, of Redding, CA, submitted this photo of Cooper, his 7-month-old vizsla. Cooper earned his AKC Senior Hunter title at 11 months.
Liebchen, shown here holding a pheasant wing, is no doubt daydreaming of whole birds. Gregg Shunkwiler of Berrien Springs, MI, owns this 4-month-old vizsla pup.
Vacation can be exhausting! Four-month-old Weimaraner Nala is resting at her family's Northern Michigan cabin after a long walk through the woods.
Wirehaired pointing griffon Magnum at four months loves to hunt and enjoys boating and long walks through the forest.