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Hunting with Non-Traditional Bird Dogs

Uncharacteristic gun dogs that are bird-finding machines.

Hunting with Non-Traditional Bird Dogs

Not all dogs are bred to pursue birds, but prey drive is innate in canines and sometimes an unexpected breed can love pursuing upland birds. (Photo By: Dan Towsley)

The opening morning of pheasant season brings out the crowds. Diehards who have been chasing grouse and partridge for months grudgingly shift gears, resigning themselves to the fact that they enjoy a cackle flush just as much as the next person. The equivalent of Christmas and Easter church-goers are there too, no less excited for their shot at holding a cacophony of colorful feathers.

Bailey and I pulled the old back door trick. We left the house in the dark and hiked into the black prairie. Bailey on leash, my gun empty, we sat in the cold and waited for legal shooting light. By the time we got back to the truck, most folks were just getting started. On the way out, we passed a couple fellows heading in. “Nice dog!”, one guffawed derisively. I looked down at Bailey, then looked back at him. I smiled and we walked away. The three roosters on my back were answer enough.  

Most hunters are more diplomatic when they meet Bailey in the field, but no less surprised. Around here, bird dogs run the gambit. The versatile pointing breeds are a staple, as are retrievers. A few setters and spaniels are around, but Bailey is the only husky/German shepherd cross—an outlaw and unusual sight you might say.

An Accidental Hunting Companion

When my wife and I first met Bailey, she was in a cage at the local animal shelter. Dozens of other dogs barked wildly, but she just sat there amid the din, her eyes imploring us to take her home. So we did.  

I had no intention of training Bailey as a gun dog. I wanted a dog that could accompany us on outdoor adventures. She effortlessly climbed wild mountains on backpacking and skiing trips. She obviously had a prey drive though, regularly reminding the neighborhood cottontails to stay out of our garden. One morning I grabbed my shotgun and headed out to hunt pheasants behind my in-laws’ house. I looked at Bailey and thought, “Well, why not? Even if she can't hunt, she needs exercise.” Turns out she could hunt.

husky dog with dead rooster ring-necked pheasants
The author's dog, Bailey, may be an unusual breed for the field, but she has a knack and love for the pursuit. (Photo By: Josh Tatman)

With minimal training, Bailey quickly came into her own. She showed a real knack for ground scenting and tracking. Just like any other flushing dog, if I kept her within gun range, we did well. I took a very casual approach to her training over the years, focusing on putting her on as many wild birds as possible.

We’ve had struggles along the way. When she was young, her prey drive extended to all creatures furred and feathered, and only consistent discipline focused her energy on upland birds.

As she aged, it became apparent that her hearing was getting worse. Unsure if this was in part due to the sound of the gun, I stopped hunting her for a season, but her hearing only worsened. She loved hunting so much that I couldn’t withhold it from her any longer. We began working with hand signals for “whoa,” “heel,” and “cast.” These commands have allowed us to communicate safely and effectively in the field.  

husky dog and hunter with ruffed grouse
The author and his non-traditional bird dog, Bailey, take a moment to celebrate after dropping a ruffed grouse. (Photo By: Dan Towsley)

Non-Traditional Bird Dogs  

I’m certainly not the only person to have a non-traditional hunting dog. Stay in this pursuit for long enough and you’re bound to meet someone who hunts upland birds or waterfowl with an oddball dog. In fact, there’s quite the renaissance of dogs that boast ancient hunting lines, but have long been relegated to a domestic existence in popular imagination. Jack Russell terriers, standard poodles, and beagles are just a few of these.  

Despite the fact that these lineages weren’t necessarily bred to pursue birds, prey drive is prey drive. There are also more common hunting dogs that perform outside of their prescribed scope. Chukar-hunting black Labs? Setters who water retrieve? They aren’t as uncommon as you might think. Then there are dogs like Bailey. Mixed breeds that would never turn a trial judge’s head, but that love the field as much as any dog.  

husky dog and hunter with blue grouse
The author and his husky, Bailey, take a break after bagging a brace of blue grouse. (Photo By: Dan Towsley)

How do all of these quirky dogs find themselves in the field? As a rule, outlaw dogs live with handlers who march to the beat of their own drum. They are inclined to seek out novel experiences together, status quo be damned.

Millie and Mike  

Mike Harrington is one of these. Like me, he lives in Wyoming. Perhaps more so than other places, the live-and-let-live ethos of Wyoming is likely to foster unconventional bird dogs and handlers. Mike's dog is named Amelia Daphne, or “Millie.” Her name manifests the outlaw spirit of the famous aviator who loved the Wyoming mountains.

I asked Mike how he came to hunt with Millie, a McNab/Australian cattle dog/setter/Brittany mix. He initially adopted her after the passing of his beloved yellow Lab, Reagan. “I was always going to at least try hunting with Millie, I just didn’t know how or when to begin.”  

Rather than focus on drills and training birds, Mike went directly to a real pheasant cover with young Millie. He was nervous about the gun introduction, but wanted to incorporate wild birds

“A young rooster flushed that she had been near. It was actually a poor shot on my part, and the bird hit the ground running, which may have been a blessing in disguise, because then Millie got to give chase! She was only a little more than four months old at the time, and wasn’t much bigger than the rooster, but she was hooked.

mixed breed dog upland bird hunting
Mike Harringon and Millie the mixed breed hunting dog. (Photos By: Mike and Melissa Harrington)

I'm a self-taught bird hunter, without the luxury of a mentor, whose method is basically trial and error with the benefit of a lot of hours in the field, and I take the same approach with Millie and her training. There's still a lot of learning and growth that can happen for both of us, but we’re having success (and fun) throughout.”

Does a herding/bird dog mix have performance limitations? Mike thinks so. Nevertheless, he enjoys hunting with Millie: “As long as the dog somehow alerts the hunter to the live birds and finds the downed birds so they’re not wasted or left to be scavenged, everything else is icing on the cake in my opinion. Would it be nice if Millie pointed, flushed, and retrieved to hand, all with a soft mouth? Sure. Am I upset all that doesn’t happen? Not one bit.

I’m sure serious bird hunters, who have their dog polished to perfection, would be slightly annoyed with my dog and bird hunting with me. We’re both rough cut gemstones. Thankfully, due to an influx of new hunters interested in a field to table consumption mentality and the inherently difficult nature of bird hunting, there’s undoubtedly more rough-cut diamonds out there than there has been in the past.”

Millie might not win the attention of purebreed aficionados, but she wins plenty of hearts. Mike thinks she’s even gained them access to private land hunting with her affable spirit and good looks. Will he look for a purebred hunting dog in the future? “I’d love to have a clone of Millie. I plan to continue chasing birds with whatever dog cocktail I pick up at the shelter next or is accidentally reared nearby, hopefully, with Millie close at hand to help with the training.

Arwen and Taylor

At a glance, my dog Bailey and Arwen could be confused as the same dog. Arwen is a husky from Colorado who was rescued at age three. Her handler, Taylor, told me, “I have always had a love for huskies, so when a good friend approached me about this sweet girl who needed to find a home, my husband David and I did not hesitate. Neither David nor I had any clue or expectation for her intelligence, or her untapped drive for hunting.”

However, they soon found out that their constant companion had some tricks up her sleeve. “We decided to take her along on a grouse hunt. Based off of the location it was more of an uphill hike and figured she would enjoy burning off some energy and to get her sniffs in. We recognized she was acting birdy as we had seen with our families’ hunting dogs. We began telling her to look for the birds and encouraging her to follow what she heard or saw.

We came around a corner and she perked up and pounced with all fours just like a little arctic fox on this nearby bush and sure enough, this grouse flushed up. David and I both shot and were able to bring it down.

The bird landed down the hill in some thick brush, and like clockwork, the second she saw it drop, she took off down the hill to find it. She found it almost instantly and looked up at us with the happiest smile we had ever seen on her face and waited for us to come down and see it.

husky as a hunting dog with hunters
A husky may not be your traditional bird dog breed, but Arwen is a real hunter. (Photo By: Burton Dines)

Bird Hunting is for Every Dog  

They say hunting is for everyone. It's true. Regardless of your gender, race, or socio-economic background, you can experience the joy of pursuing birds. Perhaps some people are better at it, due to some combination of skill and athleticism, but that doesn't give them an exclusive right to the field.  

The same is true of our dogs. Assuming your dog follows basic obedience commands, why not give them the joy of hunting? Like people, dogs are capable of so much more than our expectations allow. Who knows, maybe your non-traditional dog won’t show any promise in the field, but at worst you will experience something new together.  

I still meet skeptics. They scoff at the idea of putting anything other than a gun dog of the highest pedigree on the ground. To be sure, generations of careful breeding are the best way to select for desired performance characteristics in any dog. But a lack of pedigree doesn't equate to a lack of ability.

upland hunter with blue grouse and a husky dog
The wild uplands are indeed for anyone and everyone who wishes to enter and enjoy. (Photo By: Dan Towsley)

An Unbreakable Bond  

Bailey might not deliver tail-high steady points or long-range water retrieves, but her nose and her tenacious drive are superb. When we are together in the field, I am immersed in the joy of watching her hunt, with no thought of her limitations. Like skiing and backpacking, hunting is something that we can do together, and it’s the ‘together’ that matters.

We have been hunting partners for many years now. I've lost track of the times she has hit the brakes in the sagebrush and wheeled onto a covey of chukar. I don't know how many times I've followed her wagging tail on a meandering path through the timber, ending with the explosive flush of an old blue grouse. Countless are the times that she’s made up for my marginal shooting, running down a wounded pheasant in impenetrable cattails or finding a Hungarian partridge that’s burrowed into the snow.  

The current of these memories forms a confluence of pride. Not pride in Bailey's hunting prowess, but a fulfillment in knowing this dog and spending life with her. One sad day she will be gone, and I’ll be left with only this river of memory. Even then, we will sit together on the edge of a ridge, looking out over the landscape of my mind, relishing the end of another day in the wild—and no one can take that from me.

upland hunter walking in desert with a husky dog
Sometimes it’s okay to be an upland outlaw. (Photo By: Dan Towsley)
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