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How to Present and Plant Training Birds

Follow these considerations to ensure you're making the most of your off-season bird training.

How to Present and Plant Training Birds

Help your dog learn to properly handle birds by sticking to a proper training program that allows for building upon success. (Chris Ingram photo)

Whether you own a pointer, flusher, or retriever, the key to developing a bird dog comes through bird contacts. The path involves getting our dogs excited about birds through a proper introduction, followed with advancing stages of teaching them how to properly handle bird contacts. Our goal is to cut the dogs loose in a hunting scenario feeling confident they will work under careful control and cooperation and properly conduct themselves around birds while we wait in gunning range.

Wild birds are great teachers, and while we can’t run the covers all year long and these contacts are often unpredictable, we can optimize the outcome during our training sessions. These semi-controlled situations allow your dog to learn real world lessons from live birds while you can directly shape their behaviors. Summer is a great time to introduce a young dog to birds or work through sticking points with your older dog by putting in some refresher reps.

Trainer with English setter
By picking out the individual steps of a larger process, we can make bird training more manageable for ourselves and our dogs. (Chris Ingram photo)

Before you head out to the training field, there are a few things to consider when presenting and planting birds for your dog that can make your training more effective and enjoyable.

Successive Approximation 

Professional bird dog trainer Alec Sparks of Snowbound Kennels in Addison, Vermont describes his training program using birds as “successive approximation.” According to Sparks, this progression is based upon starting dogs in bird work at low levels of distraction to generate a desired response and gradually increasing the number and intensity of distractions. Sparks reiterates the main objective when training bird dogs is to stop them once they encounter bird scent.

“We’re not teaching them to point—that’s going to happen naturally—we’re teaching them where and when to point.” says Sparks. “These dogs need to think clearly at increasingly higher levels of arousal amidst multiple distractions in order to properly handle birds at longer distances and remain steady to flush, shot, and fall.”

He starts all dogs by teaching the fundamentals and basic obedience. They learn verbal commands, respond to the whistle, and follow hand signals. Flushers will hup to flush and pointers learn to “whoa.” Dogs will also be transitioned from a flat collar and check cord to an e-collar before moving on to bird work.

Trainer with English pointer
Aside from the initial bird introduction, it's good practice to provide your bird dog with proper obedience and handling before moving onto live bird work. (Chris Ingram photo)

Running a dog off-leash and under remote control, Sparks first uses a hand-tossed glove or hat to introduce a distractive, bird-like flush to the dog. “I want the dog to comply at this lower level of excitement in close proximity before we can move on to live birds and continue to build success,” he added. Dogs advance to hand-released pigeons, then remote-launched birds, and later liberated birds shot over them.

Sparks provides a few additional tips for handlers bringing their dog up the bird progression ladder:

Releasing birds by hand. Tossing a pigeon from the hand for a young pup can be a great way to bring out their natural prey drive and get them excited about birds. These smaller birds are usually better suited for a young dog’s initial bird introduction as opposed to a large, long-spurred cackling rooster. Many times, a single handler or another volunteer will be several yards away from a dog to release a bird from behind their back before putting up birds directly in front of the dog. Hand-tossed homing pigeons are a great way to ensure abundant access to live bird contacts for any gun dog.

A pigeon pole can be used with a helping hand as an initial introduction to birds or used alone to work on a pointer’s steadiness and control. They are cheap to construct and offer countless opportunities for a quick lesson. A long string is tied to one end of the pole, and a training bird (typically a pigeon or chukar) is in a harness or tied by a foot to the other end of the string—allowing the bird to fly and flap without escaping. The pigeon pole allows a bird to be flushed multiple times in a controlled and repeatable environment and condition a dog against a very enticing distraction.

Use a tip-up release with or without a helping hand. A tip-up release is a simple cage-like trap that allows you to plant a bird and keep it in place without dizzying the bird. When ready, the bird can be released by a simple push of your foot. Foot-operated tip-up releases offer plentiful bird scent and allow birds to flush in a natural way. These are a great tool to have when a dog can be trusted to practice steadiness on their own. This method demonstrates the teamwork needed between dog and the handler(s), where the dog watches a handler move in to flush the bird.

Trainer with German Shorthaired Pointer
We want our dogs to understand the dynamics of teamwork when advancing through the stages of bird training. (Chris Ingram photo)

Remote bird launchers/releases work well for single handlers or in more complex situations such as styling up a pointer, getting a dog steady to flush, shot, and fall, teaching a young dog to understand the scent cone, or presenting multiple birds from a single spot. The SportDog Brand launcher even offers an audible duck quack, rooster cackle, or shotgun blast for added realism. Launchers work over a long distance (up to ½ mile) and provide optimal control of a situation. Launchers should not be used with puppies until they have a proper introduction to birds and birds flushing. Sparks introduces dogs to the sound and action of the remote launcher prior to bird work, as releases from these devices are often abrupt and audibly aggressive, which can scare young bird dogs.

Sleeping/Dizzying Birds

Once your dog has gone through the levels of bird training and is nearly ready to hunt, many handlers will run through scenarios that involve planting training birds without restraint (“liberated”) in cover to be flushed and shot to simulate a hunt. This is an integral part of the process. This is where handlers can identify any disparity in their dog and correct any mistakes before the hunting season.

American Brittany with pigeon
Identify and correct any sticking points in your dog's bird handling during the off-season and reap the rewards this fall. (Chris Ingram photo)

When you take liberated birds and plant them for your dog to point or flush, it can sometimes be imperfect and can become an art form. Different birds react in different ways and may neglect to follow your script altogether, but the main point is to dizzy or sleep hand-planted birds long enough to provide your dog with a chance to find them. If you sleep them too light, they may flush early or run away. Sleep them too heavy and your canine may show you their primordial carnivorous instincts. Other factors that influence your strategy might be the type of dog you are training, bird species, how many birds you plan to plant, what type of cover you are using, or if you have a second hand to help.

Sparks outlines three ways to dizzy or sleep birds prior to planting them. With each method, the idea is to carefully and quietly place the bird in the cover. Ensure they are not moving or overly alert before you walk away and lose a bird.

In the first method, take the head of the bird and gently tuck it under a wing. Give the bird a light shake before setting it into cover. This works well for Huns, chukar, and pheasant that generally want to stay hidden.

Shaking a bird to dizzy

The second method involves tucking the bird’s head under a wing and with a hand on each side of the bird, swing your arms wide, hard, and fast in a 360-degree circle with ten to twenty reps to dizzy them before quietly placing them in cover.

Swinging a bird to dizzy

In the third method, tuck the bird’s head under a wing, cradle the bird in one hand, and with the other hand, grab both legs and allow the bird to hang upside down under its own body weight for about 60 seconds.

Hanging a bird to dizzy

“Whether you are using pigeons, quail, chukar, or pheasant, try to plant birds in cover they would likely inhabit in the wild—locations you will want your dog to eventually learn to seek out. This might include brushy hedgerows, cover strips, or cattail edges,” says Sparks. “Dropping a bird into thick cover will also help them feel safer and less likely to immediately flush or run away.”

He reminds handlers to pay attention to topography and wind direction and to set your dog up to succeed by bringing them into the scent cone, perpendicular or at an oblique angle on the downwind side.

Lastly, Sparks recommends treating your training birds kindly. They are another tool in the kit and often bring some level of time and monetary investment.

Placing a pigeon into a release
Treat your birds kindly and you'll have a renewable training resource for a longer amount of time. (Chris Ingram photo)
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