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How to Train a Bird Dog in a Big City

Urban gun dog owners struggle to find time and locations to train their bird dogs—here's how to train like a pro anywhere.

How to Train a Bird Dog in a Big City

City-dwelling sporting dog owners face a challenge when it comes to training, but actively looking for suitable grounds is the best way to overcome it. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

As a freshly married, 26-year old, I had a Golden Retriever on order and a new house in the suburbs of the Twin Cities. While I was stoked about my bride and the pup, I was less than enthused about moving from a town of a couple thousand folks, to a place with over a million people within a short drive. 

I knew that the hunting opportunities would be limited but wasn’t sure what the dog training opportunities would look like. It turns out they were much better than I expected. But it took a little digging to find the right environments to churn out a quality sporting dog between interstates and strip malls while tucked into the shadow of downtown St. Paul. 

I’m not alone in this dilemma either. Work and family life often brings us to the metropolitan centers and we bring gun dogs along with us. Instead of turning them into couch potatoes, we look for the openings that will allow us to work with them in close-enough scenarios so that when we leave the masses behind for wide-open grasslands, our dogs know what to do. As with anything, there are some tricks to this. 

Like-Minded Trainers 

Perry Dlugie, (President of the German Shorthaired Pointer Club of Illinois), lives in Chicago with three German shorthairs, and is adamant that to truly develop a bird dog, you’ve got to make some training friends. “It takes a village to train a dog, and what better way to find a village than to join a local breed club, or a training club? This allows you to tap into the knowledge of experienced handlers and watch them and others work their dogs.” 

If there is one silver-lining in being around tens of thousands (or millions) of people, it’s that some of them are bound to be really good dog trainers. Spending time with someone who is better than you at something, provided they are into teaching, is a huge benefit. This goes for just about any skill but is paramount to leveling up as a dog trainer. 

Yellow Labrador Retriever at training club
Urban gun dog owners looking to level up their handling skills should consider joining a local training club, which can be an excellent way to improve yourself and your dog. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

Dlugie also says that a good training club can help you get over another big-city hurdle, which involves training tools and resources. “Training groups provide a great opportunity to pool resources for purchasing equipment like bird or dummy launchers, blinds, flags, kayaks, and bird crates. Plus, having others around to help set birds, launch bumpers, and mind the guns, while you focus on handling your dog, allows you to be more efficient and effective as a trainer.” 

Group work does another thing for you as a handler—it holds you accountable. No one wants their dog to stall out, especially when they know that other handlers are going to see them in action every week. In this way, a little peer pressure is a good thing and can really keep the fire going for working with your dogs. 

Solo in the Suburbs

I’m not much of a joiner. In fact, the very idea of belonging to a club of any sort makes me anxious. According to my wife, this is a flaw in my design, but after 41 years I’m guessing it’s time we accept it. With dog training, this means that I’m mostly on my own and that I’ve had to locate as many training areas as possible to mix up environments for my dogs.

Now, before that, I should offer up a word of advice—make sure you know what the leash laws are in your city. I have found local law enforcement and just about everyone else to be very accommodating to training in a variety of situations, provided the dog is obviously under control. If your dog isn’t, going to a busy park where dogs are supposed to be leashed so you can do some trailing drills is a bad idea. 

Find spots to work without the interference of other folks. When I embarked on this mission, I located a couple of city parks with the requisite soccer or baseball fields. The shortgrass fields are great for easy dummy work and long-range drills. At almost every park there are also smaller retention ponds and drainage areas that offer up some taller grass, shrubs, and next-level nose-work options that closely mimic the cover roosters and quail tend to favor. 

In some cases, it doesn’t take more than maybe half of an acre to show your dog a different environment and help him work on his hunting skills. Of course, during the summer on a random evening, these places are also full of people, so training around the busy hours is not a good idea. 

Because my dogs also double as waterfowl retrievers, I’m always looking for water. Within 10 minutes of my house I’ve got a public lake, and access points on two rivers. One is good-sized with plenty of current, the other is tiny and ringed by cattails. They are all great spots to train throughout the spring, summer, and fall. Even if you don’t plan to ever target greenheads, water work is an excellent option for conditioning and cooling off upland dogs during the summer months, so finding some H2O to train in and around is a good idea. 

Black Labrador Retriever with dummy in water
Locating a suitable pond or river for water work is essential for developing a retriever or versatile dog, and can be found almost anywhere if you look hard enough. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

An Inconvenient Truth

I’m pretty lucky in that where I live offers up quite a few training spots very close to my house that allow me to replicate a variety of hunting environments. Not everyone has that chance, and I get it. This often leads to urban sporting dog owners going the training route where instead of 20 minutes each day, they try to get in three hours on a Saturday morning. This is bad news and doesn’t jive well with dogs’ learning styles and attention spans—especially when it comes to younger dogs.

Just like with finding actual hunting spots, locating training grounds is a never-ending process. You can look at satellite imagery of your city to locate parks that might be suitable, and you can tap your network of acquaintances. Maybe one of your dog-loving coworkers has five acres behind her house that features a small pond and some overgrown meadows. There are an awful lot of people out there who wouldn’t consider letting you hunt their land but who wouldn’t think twice about green-lighting you for some dog training sessions. 

Whether you stick to the city parks, a local boat access, or are lucky enough to get in on private ground, treat it just like you would any place else—with respect. The local nine-year olds sliding through a pile of dog poop during soccer practice aren’t going to be happy about it, and those experiences aren’t going to open up any more areas for people to train their dogs. 

Living with and training a hunting dog in a suburban or urban environment comes with its own set of challenges. But it’s worth it. Especially once you’ve pinned down a group of like-minded trainers or have discovered some killer spots to run drills with your dog, all while listening to the not-too-distant hum of rush hour traffic. 

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