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How to Pattern Your Dog for Pheasant Hunting

How to Pattern Your Dog for Pheasant Hunting
Because Kelly was able to swing his dogs around and downwind of likely cover, they caught scent and pinned an old rooster who was headed for parts unknown. In pheasant country, you’ll benefit by not letting any likely cover go unchecked, as even the most subtle structure change or clump might hold birds.

Before setting out to hunt an area, most hunters look the area over to decide on the best approach.

They consider the type of birds being hunted, how the cover lays, the wind direction, etc.

As for using the wind, I’ve read so many articles saying you should always hunt into the wind, I could croak.

How far from the truck would we be by the end of the day if this were taken literally?

Now that I have that out of the way, I’d like to offer the following suggestions, originally written as training drills meant to teach young dogs the basics of field search and patterning, and to introduce and reinforce a couple methods of “swinging” the dog in different directions to complement the style or pattern best suited for pheasant hunting.

Pheasant hunting requires a little more open lateral swinging pattern than most upland birds. With the right wind, a nice day and plenty of cover to hunt, both young and veteran dogs can use some help and direction as they apply to the search.

Any productive gun dog must apply itself to working cover and must inherently want to hunt; they can’t be lazy or overly aggressive. Great dogs should show self-control and discipline while hunting and stay on task when the going gets tough.

The dog’s sole intent should be an ongoing effort to position itself/nose to take advantage of cover and wind to locate bird scent. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on helping our young dog put this all together. This works with older dogs also.

I’ll assume your dog obeys the “Whoa” command and will “Come” when called. He should also understand a release command or cast to “Hunt ‘em up” when told. With these commands in place we can move our dog through the field as we wish, the idea being once we guide him through some productive search patterns our dog should begin to do it on its own.

By enhancing the search pattern we hope to develop a dog who stays to the front, working for the gun, and covers ground quickly but efficiently with little “pottering” or “back casting.” At the same time we will discourage long misguided casts. In short, our finished gun dog should show independence in its search, thoroughly cover objectives, be cooperative in working for the gun yet require little “hacking” or “handling.”

The first lessons in patterning are best taught on flat fields with eight- to 10-inch cover, no pronounced objectives and no birds. To begin we work on the mechanics of the search using and enforcing learned commands. Later, we reward the proper search by placing birds in likely cover, the natural objectives wild birds would use.

The following suggests the training field set-up but these same principles can apply to an actual hunt.

With the dog at heel, set up at the downwind end of the field near the middle. I suggest you leave a checkrope attached or, even better, have the dog wearing a remote training collar (providing your dog is collar conditioned). As always, we must be able to reinforce any commands not immediately obeyed.

Once ready, cast the dog off to hunt using “Hunt on” or some command word of your choosing. The word isn’t important; using it consistently is.

As the dog begins the search, you should move forward at a good pace. If he moves to the front too far, get his attention and turn your line of travel across the field. Then swing your arm to that side as you release him to hunt on. He should follow your line of travel.

Now turn back across the field. If the dog doesn’t move with you, call his name and gesture with outstretched arm in your direction of travel. Repeat this exaggerated weaving pattern back and forth across the field, encouraging and reinforcing the dog as he moves with you. As his swing lengthens, you walk a more direct line.

If the dog is slow to your directions, correct him with the checkrope or a light bump on the training collar. At this level of training the collar gives us the best advantage, instantly reinforcing our command at any distance with slight stimulation.

Once the dog is responding and moves predictably well through the field, we can reward his efforts by planting birds before the next session.

As a means of enhancing or reinforcing a “proper search,” the placement of birds is important. Placing them far enough apart to encourage good ground coverage is important. Using two or three birds each session will build on the dog’s natural desire to hunt as he anticipates the reward of his continued efforts.

Birds at the far end of left and right swings will encourage the crossing pattern. Placing birds near objectives of structures encourages him to check these likely places.

Moving the dog through planted cover, you can now steer him in the direction of a likely bird contact. With the reward of these finds, the dog soon learns that by cooperating with you, good things happen. As you move on after a find, do not allow the dog to chase flushed birds or return to the site of the find. Encourage him to move off as directed to the next bird.

If your hunting cover includes fence rows or creek ditches, train in similar areas. Birds thrown well inside the cover reward the dog that gets in there and works those hard-to-get-to places. On long, narrow stretches, like grassy fencerows, the “Whoa” command is critical to maintaining control, as most dogs tend to line the downwind edge. With the “Whoa” command we can stop the dog and move him on as desired, especially when the dog is on the downwind track of Mr. Rooster.

The downwind cast is handled in a similar way. As the dog reaches a distance you are comfortable with, stop him with a “Whoa” or turn him with his name or a blast of the whistle. Then turn your travel across wind at 90 degrees to your line of travel.

As in other areas of dog training, successful repetition is the answer.

These suggestions may seem structured, mechanical and controlling, but remember it’s not our goal to direct our dog’s every move in the field forever. Rather, our goal here is to teach the basics of handling, building the foundation so we’re able to assist as young dogs develop or direct the seasoned veterans for any number of reasons.

With this foundation you will have the required commands in place, and with experience the productive search is a natural evolution. These exercises are only a means of nurturing its development while continuing to reinforce the more important commands and building on the overall team concept through obedience, understanding and cooperation.

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