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Proper Bird Dog Group Etiquette

From dog introductions, to ranging issues, to bird aggressiveness, a group hunt can go south quickly without a little extra planning.

Proper Bird Dog Group Etiquette

Group hunts can be fun, but they require good behavior out of all hunters and their dogs. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

A great way to test the strength of friendship with hunting partners is to hunt your dog around their dogs. In most cases, there will be an imbalance in control and behavior, which can sour the mood of the most promising hunts in a matter of minutes. When it comes to older, seasoned dogs mixing with younger pups, the dogs often sort it out on their own.  

Other times, with prime-age dogs or dominant dogs, that’s not always the case. According to Aaron Joos who owns Red Cedar Retrievers and is a well-established hunting dog trainer, this can lead to the worst behavior a dog can exhibit around others: aggression.

“I split aggression into two kinds,” Joos said. “Barking, growling, and snapping toward other dogs is one. The second is bird aggression. This is when a dog has such high prey drive it’ll fight other dogs for a flush or retrieve, and even rip birds up while trying to steal them from other dogs.”

Labrador retriever with ring-necked pheasant
Personality quirks like bird aggression can cause major problems on a group hunt. When you hunt with others, it’s best to really focus on your dog’s behaviors and make corrections as needed. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

Both are bad news. When it comes to dogs with low tolerance for the presence of other dogs, the best bet is often to split up and hunt different areas. This is hard for owners to recognize and accept, but is best for the group dynamic. The other scenario with high-prey-drive aggressors can be a bit trickier.

I’ve got a good buddy who owns a dog like this. While Piper is a sweetheart Lab 99 percent of the time, when another dog (my dog) has a bird, she goes into mugger mode. It drives me nuts, and after a long conversation with my buddy (and a trainer who advised me on how to approach it), we came to a solution. When we recognize the setup for this situation, my buddy gets ready to issue an e-collar correction the second Piper tries to pilfer my dog’s bird. It’s a work in progress but seems to be moving her in the right direction.

Upland bird hunter with two Labrador retrievers
If the right behavior isn’t there, it’s best to split up and reduce the distractions while keeping an eye out for training opportunities in the field. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

Range Issues

Another behavior issue that will get you shunned from a party hunt is a dog that has no range control. This is so common it’s almost cliché, but we’ve all hunted with someone who’s dog just won’t stay close and will push the birds out well beyond shotgun range.

Joos advises hunters who own a dog that has range issues to avoid group hunts at first, and to consider some hunts as training sessions. “The last thing you want is for your dog to be 80 yards out and bumping birds, which ruins the hunt for everyone. This behavior means it’s time to skip the group hunts and work on ranging.”

Golden retriever hunting
Range is a big issue with all bird dogs, and can be an absolute disaster when hunting with others. Keep your dog close and stay on everyone's good side. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

Joos also recommends checking your ego at the truck before you head into the field and bringing along a lead. If your dog gets out too far, recall him and put him at heel to keep walking on lead. Give him another shot, and if the ranging issues persist, keep working on it in the field and at home.

Now, proper range is something that can be trained in, but also needs to be solidified in the field. There’s no way around it, and that means you’ve got to have a solid recall built in and the control to keep your dog around during the hunt.

Dog Distractions

When dogs meet other dogs, bad behavior tends to result. The degree to which things go south, according to Joos, depends on the maturity and familiarity of the dogs. To ensure that this goes as smoothly as possible, Joos said he goes the neutral-location route for introductions.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s the gas station, a hayfield en route to your hunting spot, or wherever, it’s always better to have the dogs meet someplace where you won’t be hunting. This allows the owners to control the situation without worrying about spooking birds or having distracted dogs during the early part of the hunt.”

Upland bird hunter with two Labrador retrievers
Well-developed older dogs handle distractions well, unseasoned young dogs don’t. Be honest about where your dog is at training-wise and hunt-behavior-wise, and then respond appropriately when you are hunting with others. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

Of course, this won’t relieve your hunts of all distractions, which come from environmental factors and all of the people in the hunting party, too. This is why all good bird dog trainers recommend training dogs in all kinds of different habitats and around a pile of different distractions.

This is also why a lot of them only hunt solo, or with one or two close friends. The reality of our dog’s etiquette on hunts is really dependent on how few chances we give them to display bad behavior. Through training we can curb some of the more undesirable traits, but we’ve also got to be honest and prepared in the field.

Proper Expectations

If getting our dog on the most birds is important, it’s best to split up or put some distance between you and your hunting partners. If working through training issues or control issues is a part of the plan, the same rules apply. Since that is almost always happening with us, because our dogs are never really finished, it’s often prudent to not put our dogs in a situation where they are bound to slip.

This advice doesn’t apply solely to retriever owners either. Pointing dog owners who have never trained their dogs to honor another’s point will soon find out how quickly their hunting buddies can redline. This might be the biggest no-no in the pointer world, because not only does it screw up the best part of a hunt, but it can also cause a rock-solid dog to start creeping or breaking.

American Brittany honoring point
Etiquette issues aren’t solely the domain of retriever owners. A pointer that won’t honor another dog’s point is going to cause some serious friction on an upland outing. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

Now you’ve got a ruined hunt on your hands, and the mission to go back to the training grounds and rewire your dog to do what your dog is supposed to do. Again, an ounce of prevention goes a long way here.

The basics of hunting around others are simple: be careful and honest. Be careful with aggression and be honest about your dog’s control and range issues. Pay attention to your dog’s behavior and remedy accordingly. If necessary, split off from the group to work on your own thing. The best dogs are those that learn first how to hunt the way you want them to, and then learn to hunt around others in a manner that won’t bring shame. That’s a process that requires work and diligence, but it’s worth it.

Two upland bird hunter with two Labrador retrievers and ring-necked pheasants
A little planning and coordination goes a long way to ensure a safe and successful group hunt with multiple hunters and dogs. (Tony J. Peterson photo)
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