January 15, 2016
Without a doubt, my favorite part of puppy training is the first few days I take it into the field on an actual hunt. That's when all my hopes and their future potential converge to produce the animal I'll be hunting over the rest of its life. After all these years, it's still a thrill I never tire of.
But there's a lot more to introducing a puppy to hunting than turning it loose just to see what it will do. As any good boy scout will tell you, there's no substitute for being prepared.
Any time you get more than two dog trainers in the same room (or drinking the same whiskey), there's bound to be disagreement on just about, well, everything. One of the longer running arguments goes something like this: Should you train your dog exclusively on wild birds, or should you use planted pigeons or quail?
Professionals — men and women who train dogs for a living — reached a consensus on this decades ago. I've interviewed dozens of dog trainers of all breeds over the years, and can't remember a single one who didn't use planted birds at least some of the time.
But there are plenty of amateur trainers who don't buy into that approach. They have their reasons, and while I may not agree, I respect them. That said, I start every one of the puppies I train on planted pigeons. To a puppy, a bird is a bird is a bird, and starting it early on planted birds gives you the opportunity to develop two essential behaviors: the pup's prey drive and its acclimatization to gunfire.
To do the first, you simply truss up a pigeon, plant it in light cover, and lead in your puppy from downwind. To do the second, you wait until the dog is 5 or 6 months old, then fire a starting pistol while the dog is 40 or 50 yards away and chasing a flushed bird. There are nuances involved with both, of course, but that's the gist of it.
Hunting the Arc
Developing a pup's focus on birds cuts down the time he'll spend examining flowers and bugs and other extraneous diversions in the field. Although it's not common, I've seen puppies that, following an early introduction to pigeons or penned quail (two or three months of age) are doing a credible job of hunting at four or five months. Once they learn how to use their noses, it's one less hurdle they'll have to get over on their first hunt.
The next thing I want a pup to understand is the recall command. He doesn't have to have it locked in — it's unlikely any youngster will be — but he should at least know what it means. You don't want your puppy running off if you have no way of calling him back. I once had a 5-month-old pup run away for an hour, and believe me, it was no fun.
How you train your dog to do that is up to you. I was able to introduce my current pup to collar conditioning at a very young age, but she was and still is quite precocious.
Most pointing breeds aren't ready for collar conditioning at five or six months, and if they're not, that's fine. Attach a lead to their collar, tug them to you, and reward them with a treat and lavish praise. Reinforcement with a collar can come later.
The last thing I like to do is teach the dog to hunt in the pocket, or in an arc roughly from nine o'clock to three o'clock. As soon as my pup is three or four months old I put them on a lead and take them for a walk several days a week.
When they lag behind, I give my whistle a couple quick toots and tug them forward. I'm always surprised at how quickly most dogs learn to quarter to the front, but once the dog has been collar conditioned, those that don't can be given a mild nick as a reminder.
The Big Day
Before you take your pup on its first hunt, try to the best of your ability to find someplace that has birds. That can be tough sledding in some parts of the U.S., and if you have access to a shooting preserve and the scratch to foot the bill, that's an excellent alternative. I have neither, so, for better or worse, I start all my young dogs on whatever the hunting gods deign to present me with.
Now for the bad news: Bring your starting pistol but leave your shotgun at home. If your dog is completely acclimated to gunfire, bring a buddy along and let him shoot. You want to be able to focus all your attention on your pup.
Put your dog down in the best cover you can find and let him go. Don't over handle him; just let him hunt. He's going to make lots of mistakes. He's going to roll in cow flop and chase meadowlarks, bark at grasshoppers and examine every snippet of scent he crosses. But while he's exploring those things, he's also gaining precious experience.
This isn't a process you can rush. You may get lucky and get him into birds on his very first hunt€¦but I wouldn't bet the ranch on it. I recently returned from a two-week trip to Wisconsin, where I hunted my 6-month-old pointer, Suki, every day. On the last two days of our hunt she finally pointed her first birds, a grouse and woodcock. I was happy as could be — but it took us 12 days to get there.
Let your pup work things out at her own pace. Although you can and should try to keep her working in the pocket, if she lags behind to sniff some enticing bit of scent, let her work it out before sending her forward again. If she points, flushes, and chases a real live gamebird, fire your starting pistol.
If you have a buddy, he can shoot the bird. This will excite her even more and she'll redouble her efforts to find birds. If he misses, that's fine. Killing a bird isn't critical.
Don't correct her with a collar for any reason if she's working or chasing a bird. There's simply too much risk that a young dog will get the wrong idea about what the correction means. Collar corrections on bird work will come much later.
If you need to use the collar to reinforce your recall command, that's fine, but do so sparingly and with a light touch — and again, only if she's not working a bird.
At what point does a puppy graduate from supervised introductory hunts to the real thing? That depends on the maturity of the dog and the amount of time you're able to get her into the field. There's no formula for determining that, since it varies so much from dog to dog. But here are some of the things I want to see.
First, I want to see a pup that, at least most of the time, is hunting and using its nose, even if it doesn't know exactly what it's hunting for. I want it to be completely and thoroughly conditioned to gunfire, and to reliably return on both whistle and verbal commands.
The other commands — whoa, heel, fetch, and so on — will come in due time, when the dog has gained a bit more maturity.
Right now, it's all about the fascinating world that lies beyond your pup's ever inquisitive nose. The foundation you lay down during those first few months of a young puppy's hunting career will stay with it the rest of its life.
Puppy training should be enjoyable for the both you. Make those hunts fun, make them productive€¦and your pup will remember.