There’s a curious thing that can happen with flushing dogs during the season. If you’re not paying close attention, the distance at which they work tends to increase. This can happen so gradually, over a month in the pheasant fields or maybe while coursing the sandhills for prairie chickens, that it can come as a surprise when your dog is suddenly working at 50 yards or farther.
This, as we all know, is about 25 yards beyond the ideal range. What happens, at least most of the time, is that we have a few clunker hunts where the birds just aren’t cooperating and we let our guard down. Our dogs are always paying attention, and they notice when we let them roam a little farther than we usually do. After a while, they take that as permission to be farther out.
They also know that the more ground they cover, the more likely it is that they’ll catch a whiff of the good stuff and maybe get to flush a bird. That knowledge can work with our own lax attitude to create a dog that forgets just why he’s in the field with his nose to the ground in the first place.
It’s important to note that the dog I’m referring to that needs to stay within the perfect range is the mature dog with a few seasons under his belt. A young dog gets a little more leeway with me because I want him to develop confidence in exploring and I don’t want to constantly correct him to the point where he is too nervous to leave my side.
It’s a tightrope walk at first, allowing the young dog to range some but then expecting him to keep the right distance as he gets the right age and experience under his belt.
For the dog that does have those things, but isn’t quite staying within effective range of your over/under, here are a few ways to rein him in.
If you’re dealing with a dog that is exceptionally obedient, you can fix this ranging issue easy enough. What I like to do is to change directions in the route we are hunting so that when he checks back he realizes we are going somewhere else.
This works best if you can establish a cue word or use the whistle to give him the heads-up. This instills into the dog the knowledge that at any given moment the movement of the hunt can change directions and he needs to be aware of that.
It’s not easy to continually switch directions by 180 degrees while hunting, but if you can work in a few sharp turns you can condition your dog to check back more often, and over time this will coerce your dog to work closer.
Suddenly Live Birds
Another thing that I like to do to ensure my flushing dogs don’t range too far out is a trick pulled straight from the spaniel trainer’s handbook. This involves keeping a live pigeon in my pocket during training drills. When the dog is ranging out I sneak the bird from my pocket and toss it 10 feet in front of me.
Then I call the dog back so that he’ll get close to me and catch the scent of the bird. After that it’s flush, shoot and retrieve, which is exactly what he is looking for out of the experience in the first place. This time, however, he gets that flush in a place he isn’t expecting, which is right at my feet.
If you do this a few times the dog will naturally start to swing through your personal space to make sure he isn’t missing something and overall, he’ll stay closer. This is a good strategy to do on your own, but you can also do this with a training partner who should be working close to you and who can also toss a bird out to show your dog that it’s not just you who might have a bird bumping on the toes of their boots.
Collars & Control
Keeping a flushing dog within shotgun range without a collar is a tough proposition. An e-collar just gives so much more control over the situation that it is very hard to operate without one. I like to use my collars to not only issue corrections when necessary, but to give commands as well.
Instead of having to shout or use a loud whistle, I can use the tone or the vibration feature on a dog to communicate. This is beneficial for a couple of reasons, but one of the most important is that by the back half of the season I don’t want to have to make a bunch of noise in the field. Later-season birds don’t tolerate a lot of unnecessary commotion in the CRP, and you’ll have better hunts if you don’t alert all of the winged residents of a section to your presence.
A good e-collar also allows me to train a dog to check back in once I prompt the tone or the vibration on the collar. This is a silent way to communicate to my dog that he needs to swing around and see what I need him for.
Another advantage that an e-collar can provide is a locator. This is not unlike the beeper that pointing dog owners use, but for a flusher the constant or intermittent beep is unnecessary. The locator noise (I prefer the hawk’s scream) is perfect for hunting a flusher in the thick cover where late-season or generally pressured birds like to hang out.
One hawk scream from the collar not only lets my dog know that he needs to check back with me, but it also gives me the audio clue as to his exact location.
One of the key points to keeping a good flusher within range is that you’ve got to have control at all times. This goes for in the field, obviously, but if your retriever doesn’t listen at home you can’t expect him to when you open up the crate and let him do his favorite thing in the world.
Keeping a dog from ranging too far starts with making sure he listens at home. This includes backyard training sessions, neighborhood walks with the kids or any time you need your dog to do something. If you’re not shoring up that aspect of owning a retriever, it is very difficult to get him to understand that you’ll want him to stay close when you step into the cattails during the season.