It’s not like training a pointing dog isn’t hard enough already. First, there’s the question of finding good training grounds. Then, finding penned birds. Then, finding the time. And finally, there’s the question of how the dog should behave on an actual hunt and, most importantly, how we should respond to that behavior. Case in point: Shooting non-pointed birds.
The easy answer to that is, well, easy—don’t. If you’re worried about corrupting your dog’s training, turning him into a flusher, or any of a number of other reasons, then save yourself the aggravation and don’t shoot any bird your dog doesn’t first point and hold.
But, I’m here to tell you that in most cases, the above potential problems rarely, if ever, manifest themselves when a bird is shot over a pointing dog which, for whatever reason, accidentally bumped a bird. There are situations where it’s probably best if you don’t, and I’ll cover those presently. For now, let’s dive into the issue more deeply.
Focus on Good Training
The assumption is that a dog that bumps a covey or a single bird that is then shot at, is rewarded for bad behavior—this is essentially true. But that premise also rests on the assumption that pointing dogs don’t want to point, and that given their druthers, they’d revert to their inner flushing dog in two shakes. I have never found that to be the case. Good pointing dogs want to point; it’s everything about who they are. At some level, at least to most pointing dogs, pointing must feel good. Really good. That’s why they do it every chance they get. So, a pretty good way to use those genetics in your favor is to buy good dogs from the best breeder you can find.
But that doesn’t mean that your well-bred, pricey little pup won’t point, and then a few moments later, yield to temptation and bust the covey it’s pointing. For what it’s worth, I’ve never seen a dog that didn’t do that at some point in its development. But remember, you’re in control here. If you do the training you need to do, you can either a) correct the dog and nip the problem in the bud, or b) deal with it quickly after the infraction, which works almost as well.
Good training means repetition. Your dog is already a strong, natural pointer. But, you have to cultivate that instinct and develop it. That means whoa training with increasing levels of distraction that tempt the dog to break, so that you can then administer a mild punishment in the form of a correction (I use an e-collar), further reinforcing the dog’s desire to obey your whoa command. Eventually, that progress should include whoa work with penned birds. It’s possible to skip the bird stage and segue directly into hunting, but if you have access to birds, by all means, use them.
So, now you have a well-bred dog with a strong natural desire to point, which you have further developed and trained via whoa training. Will that dog bust or bump wild birds? (Busting is deliberate, bumping is accidental.)
He might. My youngest pointer, Skylark, did just that. She checked all the boxes for a good dog: breeding, training, and work on penned birds. She pointed pigeons like a pro, but her excitement got the better of her in the field, and in her attempts to get too close to the birds she was working, she inadvertently flushed them. Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet that will make that problem magically go away. About all I could do was continue to hunt her until she settled down and remembered her training. So that’s what I did. And, as I had hoped, in a couple of months she began pointing and holding birds just fine.
The relevant issue here is that even when she bumped birds, I still shot (at) most of them. I can’t say one way or another if that helped. But I can say that I doubt very much if it hurt. Most of the time she was making simple, inexperienced mistakes. The birds I killed over her gave her the incentive to hunt that much harder. And finally, and most importantly, I corrected her in the field each time she broke, even if it took me a minute or two to catch up with her.
Let’s say, like Skylark, your dog flash points and then bumps a bird. Since you probably don’t get to hunt as much as the guy writing this column, you want that bird badly, so you shoot it. Your dog will race over to examine the dead bird, or if you missed, try to chase it.
But, you’re not going to let him get away with compounding a mistake with bad behavior. Call him back to you (or go get him, if you have to), lead him back to where he broke point, set him up, and tell him “whoa.” Make him stay there for a minute or two to think things over. Then release him and go on with your hunt. Repeat the process whenever he busts or accidentally bumps a bird. If he continues in his misdirected ways, it’s okay to come down on him a little harder. Get in his face. Shake him by the scruff of his neck. Tell him “whoa” in no uncertain terms. You want to make an impression. Remember, he knows he’s supposed to hold his point. Now he just needs to override his excitement and remember his training.
Are there times when you shouldn’t shoot a non-pointed bird? Sure. If your dog, for whatever reason, doesn’t have a strong pointing instinct, then shooting a bird it busts may be counterproductive. I haven’t seen this often, but I have seen it, particularly among some of the boutique breeds that are starting to make inroads in this country. Likewise, if you’re hunting over a very young pup, say six to 10 months, then it’s probably a good idea not to shoot a bird it busts (although I admit I have). At that age, some puppies still have undeveloped prey drives. In most cases, when they mature, they’ll become stauncher. Finally, if your dog sees a covey on the ground and then deliberately takes it out, without even the pretense of a flash point, don’t shoot. When the fracas is over, call him back, set him up, and tell him “whoa.”
When all is said and done, shooting the occasional bumped or busted bird isn’t going to ruin your dog. He’s got the drive and the training, and he knows what his instinct is telling him to do. Give him time to come around while you keep fine-tuning his behavior and eventually, when you say “whoa”…he will.