October 15, 2012
It's been repeated so often, and for so many years, that nearly everyone now accepts it as gospel: too many running pheasants will ruin a good pointing dog. Of course that's true. Everybody knows that. But is it? At the risk of getting a raft of poison pen letters — more than normal, anyway, but thanks for thinking of me — I would respectfully disagree.
So let's talk about that for a moment, and why I think the way I do.
First: gamebirds run. That's a pretty broad statement because there are a lot of upland gamebirds in this country, but I've hunted most of them at one time or another, and nearly all of them run. There are a few exceptions, notably woodcock, Mearns and bobwhite quail. But every other bird I can think of will hoof it out from under a point at least some of the time, and some of them do it all of the time.
Grouse, despite all the classic paintings of birds holding fast under the nose of a staunch setter, run like hyper 6-year-old kids on a sugar high. Sharptails hold reasonably well in September, but those same birds in December will sprint to the ends of the earth and then launch themselves off it. Gambel's, scaled and valley quail, birds I have perhaps the least experience with, have "run" built into their job descriptions.
Blue grouse, a personal favorite of mine, rarely break into an actual run, but will often amble out from under a point while your trembling, bug-eyed dog watches in bewildered fascination. Huns, which hold far better than they're given credit for, nevertheless can hoof it like little roller derby queens if the spirit moves them, and it often does. And of course there are pheasants€¦but you already know about pheasants.
Deal With It
My point is, unless you spring for a Texas bobwhite quail lease and never leave, your dog is going to have to deal with running birds. (And by the way, if you want to spring for my Texas quail lease, I'm not hard to get hold of.)
Time for a reality check: It's probably not ideal to run a young dog on pheasants during its first season. But what if, as is true in some areas of the country, wild or planted pheasants are all you have? What if you live in the desert and desert quail are the only game in town? Will they destroy all your hard training and turn your young pointer into a flusher?
Nope. Not from what I've seen. In fact, from what I've seen of the dozens of dogs I've hunted over, despite how much they're hunted on pheasants, chukars or desert quail — all big runners — when they finally get an opportunity to hunt birds that hold, like woodcock, they settle down and stick 'em where they sit. Inexperienced dogs may try to crowd tight-sitting birds at first, but after they've bumped a few they almost always learn to back off, and they usually learn it on their own, with no help from their owners. I've seen a few exceptions to that observation, but very few.
Can you train a dog not to creep on a running bird? More important, should you?
You can try. I did. Back in the day, if I thought I knew where the bird was, and where my dog was vis a' vis the bird, I'd whoa my dog when I thought he was getting too close. It almost never worked, for a very simple reason: although I thought I knew where the bird was, I didn't. And unless you can actually see the bird, you don't, either.
Let me say again, as I have periodically throughout my tenure at this column, that I'm a hunter, not a field trialer. I'm all for pointing dog trials and I love trial dogs, but they have to play by different rules — not better or worse, just different. But a hunting dog needs to be able to adapt to running birds that don't play by the rules, and that means that if the bird runs, a smart dog will creep right along with it until it stops and the dog can establish a solid point. Which most dogs will do on their own if you just step back and let them.
That doesn't mean you should give up on training; far from it. I'm not a big believer in the laissez-faire approach to dog training — I'd be out of a paying job if I was — and with running birds and non-running birds alike, the command "whoa" is critical. But it's just as critical that you use it at the right time.
Here's how I do it: There are a lot of ways to whoa train a dog; I use a bench and a whoa board; others use barrels and whoa posts, and there are probably other ways I haven't heard of that undoubtedly work. Far more important is how thoroughly you gradually increase distractions by conducting training sessions in different locations, then with live pigeons, gunfire, other dogs, marching bands, whatever you can think of.
The point is to get a dog that will whoa on command no matter what you throw at him, and who will stay rooted to the spot until you tell him to go. When you've done all you can do, he's ready for the big soiree — an actual hunt. Now you're going to let your dog tell you when he's ready to be given the whoa command. Let's say its opening day in South Dakota. Thirty minutes into the hunt, your GSP hits scent and starts trailing a bird. Don't whoa him, follow him.
Yes, I know that's tough to do in corn or wheat stubble; I've done it. But do your best. Eventually, if the bird doesn't flush out of range, it will hit some type of cover barrier and stop (or at least slow down), and your pup will lock up. Now he's got the bird. You can't see it — you never will — but you're getting a strong read because you've watched your dog point dozens of planted pigeons during the summer whoa-training sessions and you can tell by his body language that the bird is close. Whoa him. Then walk in and flush the bird.
Here's what you've just done: You've given your dog the freedom to determine just how close to the bird he can get. And then you've taken over and given him a command he knows he has to obey. He's done his job; you've done yours. If you've trained your dog to be steady, it's really helpful to have someone else do the shooting while you correct the dog if he moves. If not, flush the bird and fill him with hot lead.
This is going to be a learning experience for your dog, and he may not get it exactly right the first few times. He'll push birds too hard and bump them. Some birds, no matter the species, will run and simply disappear or flush out of range, and you'll get frustrated. But that's show biz, folks. Nobody wins them all.
Eventually, though, if you're patient, he'll figure it out, and that's when bird hunting is at its best: when it's almost as if your dog knows what you're thinking, and you, him. You've become a team, and if you shoot another thousand pheasants over him, nothing feels better than that.