Three years ago my hunting buddy and I mapped out a weekend in northern Wisconsin. It was the duck opener, but we also knew that the grouse and woodcock were going to draw us from the water to the woods. I’d stumbled across a small, cattail-ringed waterhole in the middle of 1,000 acres of public land earlier that year, so I figured we should probably start there in the hopes that a few woodies or teal would swing through for some morning loafing.
As we walked a two-track that divides the property, my buddy whispered to me, “I don’t know how you expect this dog to sit still.” My Lab at the time had just turned two, and it would have been pretty hard to argue that she was fired up for the morning’s activities.
While using my phone to navigate to the pond, we slipped off the road and into a spruce swamp to a point of birch trees. As soon as we were situated, we turned our eyes skyward and checked the time obsessively. First light came and went, and while we saw a few woodies cruising in the distance, none of them decided to set down on the pond.
We did see several woodcock choppily fly from their roosts to their feeding grounds. For an hour and a half Luna sat next to me waiting to get in a retrieve that never came. As soon as we called it a morning and decided to switch things up and give upland birds a chance, my buddy admitted that he didn’t think it was possible for that particular dog to sit still at all, let alone for as long as she did.
Luna’s ability to shut off the drive and sit tight is partially due to her breeding, but largely due to the steps I took in training her to become a true dual-purpose hunting dog. It wasn’t easy, but if you want a dog that can hunt all kinds of fowl and upland birds, you need to think about how to make that possible.
Obviously, the first step for any good dog is obedience. Without the fundamentals, nothing else matters. Control over your dog means that when it’s time to sit, he’ll sit. When it’s time to range and flush or point, he’ll do that. And throughout both styles of hunting, you’ll be able to tell him what to do so that it goes well for everyone.
A puppy that starts to learn to stay, or place, is going to have a huge advantage over a dog that doesn’t. This is so important because to teach a dog what is expected of him during both styles of hunting, you’ll have to rein in his drive. The natural inclination to run, explore and hunt birds needs to be tamped down into an unnatural, wait-them-out style of hunting first.
This is one of the reasons I started my dog on dove hunting when she was five months old. She had already gone through gunfire introduction and plenty of daily obedience training drills, so I scouted a few likely dove spots and brought her out. The hunts were short, usually about 10 or 15 minutes per sit, but they introduced her to that style of hunting.
If we didn’t have any action at one spot, I’d toss a dummy and let her play while we moved to a new setup, which might have only been 100 yards away. It was a simple introduction to hunting that taught her good things can come if we sit quietly, and it allowed her to retrieve her first wild birds. While I fully intended to dove hunt with her every year, I really felt like those first hunts were more geared toward learning the world of duck hunting, which is more demanding on a dog than any dove excursion.
Luna and I spent quite a few mornings and evenings working doves that first fall, and as soon as woodcock season opened we switched gears. I don’t think there is a better bird for a pup to learn on than woodcock. They leave plenty of scent, sit tight and aren’t the most difficult gamebirds to hit. They also aren’t much for running, aren’t likely to put up any kind of fight that might cause second-guessing or live-bird fear, and are sized just right for a young dog.
It’s pretty clear with well-bred dogs that hunting for upland birds is fairly natural. When they’re young they don’t fully get it, but they still have instincts that usher them in the right direction. The hardest part for most of us is getting them to stay close. This is especially important for grouse, woodcock and often quail, because of the thickness of cover they inhabit. A dog that gets out 40 yards is already 20 yards too far in most cases.
Both of these styles of hunting, for dove and then woodcock, were soft introductions. I never asked my dog to go from not hunting to spending a week in South Dakota chasing roosters through a litany of new experiences. This is important, because too often we see our pups progressing through one style of hunting (or training) and assume we are dealing with the canine version of a rocket scientist.
Likely, we’re not.
Makie It Fair
When molding a dual purpose, stop-and-go dog, you’ve got to be cognizant of the learning curve. The best dogs are confident listeners that know what to do but are still willing to follow your orders. They become this way when we give them the proper chance to develop.
It’s way too easy to introduce a dog to a new style of hunting and just assume they’ll catch on. They won’t. If you don’t believe this, take a dog that has never duck hunted and go duck hunting with it. Or maybe, take a good duck dog and drop him in the grouse woods to see what he can do. Odds are, frustration will ensue.
This happens all of the time, and it’s entirely our fault. Expecting too much out of a dog is a great opportunity killer, and can have lasting negative effects on a dog’s development. If you know your dog is going to be asked to retrieve a goose at some point in its life, don’t introduce him to a goose-sized object during his first goose hunt. Pick up a dummy designed to teach the task and allow the dog the chance to grow comfortable with it.
If you plan to hunt ducks out of a boat in the morning and sharpies in the sandhills during the afternoon, you’ve got to introduce your dog to the boat long before that hunt. If you don’t, it’s unfair to expect any kind of positive performance out of your dog.
This means that you’ve got to anticipate the types of hunting you’ll do and not only plan an easy introduction to that style through both training and actual, short-in-duration hunts. And you’ve got to tamp down your desire to succeed.
Egos at the Door
The best dog trainers I know are all very humble. Their chosen vocation is a result of a deep and unabated love of dogs, and not a love of themselves. This is important, and it’s something all amateur trainers should pay attention to. When a professional works with a pup, he’ll give the dog every chance in the world to succeed at any task he asks of it. They’ll structure baby-step training drills that are all positive, all easy, and all built toward the slow-growth and promotion of a dog’s abilities.
Most of us have a hard time with this. We want our dogs to be rock stars right out of the gate, and that means when we take them duck hunting for the first time, we want a limit of greenheads brought to us through miraculous blind retrieves without ever having to put a whistle to our lips. Or if we’re taking our pointer pup into prime quail habitat, we want staunch points and perfect form from the first covey on.
The problem is, that’s not how it works with puppies. Or even seasoned, eight-year-old hunting dogs. Pros know this, and they know that our dogs will make mistakes, and when they do, most of them will be our fault somehow.
How we react to those mistakes will color an entire training session or hunt, and oftentimes it’s simply a matter of our egos getting in the way. We don’t want our dogs to look like boneheads in front of our hunting buddies, but they probably will at some point. If the anger creeps in, the session is shot. Don’t let it happen.
Opportunity Is Everything
The best dual-purpose, stop-and-go dogs out there have had lots of opportunities to learn. In addition to training steadiness daily, multi-taskers need the chance to shine in the real world. This comes from hunting with them more. It seems simple, I know, but the reality is most dogs don’t get all that much field time.
Make the time to take your dog out as much as possible, especially during the first couple of years. Time in the field is almost as big of an investment as time spent training, provided it’s done correctly. Even if you don’t think you’ll shoot a bird, which is often the case for short-duration hunts, suit up and go through the motions. Every time you do this, you’re banking away experience in your dog that will allow him to truly understand what is expected of him during every hunt.
It’s extra work, I know, but eventually when the dog is three or four years old you’ll realize that switching from ducks or doves to pheasants or grouse is natural to your dog, and will happen so flawlessly that your hunting buddies won’t believe it at first. All it takes to get to that sweet, sweet moment as a dog owner is to put in a hell of a lot of work and careful field time for the first couple years of the dog’s life.
After that, it’s smooth(er) sailing for you and your dog, no matter what your chosen quarry is.