I’m sorry to break the news to you, but it’s too late for advice on what you should have been working on all summer to prepare your pup for his first hunt. So, let’s go with Plan B: How not to screw up.
In fact, if you haven’t at least conditioned your pup to the sound of gunfire or worked on basic obedience, you might be well-advised to leave your pup at home this go-round. Now, I realize I’m coming off sounding a little knot-headed here, but over the years, I’ve seen a bunch of problems resulting from ill-prepared young dogs being exposed to the potential extremes and adversities of hunting too soon.
What’s the pup to think, when suddenly he’s thrust into unpleasant weather (rain, cold, heat), briars and brambles that grab and stab, creeks to cross, big scary critters—and then there is the loud BOOM noise, leaving the pup frightened and wondering where it came from and why. A pup not well-prepared for all this may think he is much safer back in the truck.
I’ve seen this happen all too many times, so let’s go over some fundamentals that I advise you to take into account before your pup’s first full-fledged hunting trip.
Age: Your pup should be old enough to have reached a level of physical and mental maturity to accept and endure the hunting environment.
Socialization: Your pup should be accustomed to traveling for long periods of time, and to being around other dogs and people. He should also be comfortable with the sights and sounds of working in various environments.
Basic commands: The more of the basics that are in place prior to actual hunting, the better. Heel, sit, and come are not only important in the hunting field, but also while traveling, airing, feeding, etc. Whoa should at least be in the works, so your pup understands check-rope pressure during bird contact.
Introduction to gunfire: This is extremely important. Hunting a young dog that has not been properly introduced to gunfire puts you at great risk for serious problems. The sound of a shotgun blast is very loud, and if the pup is caught off-guard, it’s pretty darn scary to him. Given this scenario, you may have months of work afterwards to help him recover from the trauma. Whereas when conditioned properly, your pup will already understand that the sound of gunfire is a cue to the fun and excitement of finding and retrieving game.
Collar-conditioned: If you plan on using an e-collar, it is very important that the young dog has been collar-conditioned well in advance. He should already clearly understand commands, and be comfortable dealing with and escaping pressure from the e-collar.
“Training hunts” are how you move your dog along in the process of preparing him for a full-fledged hunt. In fact, this is how we build and prepare our young dogs for actual hunting. Our goal over time, as commands, obedience, and socialization progress, is to move from the backyard to the hunting field, and eventually on to the “real deal.”
You can help your pup gain a bunch of in-field experience while working alone with him. Don’t even carry a gun. Focus on pattern by using a check-rope for control to move your pup to likely cover, while also working on basic commands. A trip to a hunting club is a great idea if you don’t have access to public or private ground. This is a great way of conditioning and socializing your dog to the hunting environment, while also reinforcing commands.
First Hunt Suggestions
Assuming you’ve covered the basics before the big hunt, I still suggest you go for a few short hunts initially, and work with a friend who can do the shooting. This way you can check-rope your dog and be sure he sees the bird go down, reinforcing steadiness and his understanding of the gun noise.
Young dogs are better off not getting into a lot of birds on their first few hunts because you’ll find too much bird contact can erode training/obedience to the point of losing control. It’s best the pup has time to calm down and regain his composure after each contact, and time to think about lessons and what he gains by yielding to learned commands and reinforcement pressure.
This is why I recommend you not get involved in what I call “army hunts;” lines of pheasant hunters sweeping across fields, with a young dog. Instead, go off with a friend to hunt cover along creeks and ditches, and small patches of heavy stuff where you’ll likely encounter birds. By doing so, you’ll be able to slow down on the pup’s confusion, while safely controlling each encounter with a bird to your advantage.
With the short check-rope, you can choose when to let your pup go for the retrieve, and when he has to stand and watch another dog’s retrieve—honoring another dog represents the level of obedience your young dog will require as he advances.
I like to let a young dog run and hunt. Sure, he’ll goof up and bump a bird or two; hopefully, you’re not out there to kill every bird on the farm. Remember, you’re out there to help your dog experience and enjoy the hunt, and to develop the skills necessary to become a great dog.
Young dog or old, always be open to opportunities to reinforce training during the hunt. When hunting is slow, use that time to check and strengthen your stationary command—whoa or sit—with voice and/or whistle. Make him do it, and reinforce with the e-collar if necessary. Then, if you have time, work on your recall command with both voice and whistle, followed by heel to your side and sit. If you and your dog are able to successfully complete these four commands while faced with the real-life distractions of hunting, you’re well on your way to many productive and enjoyable days afield.