April 13, 2015
Overlooked areas in training are one of the reasons guys like me are so busy. Of those blind spots, easily one of the most prominent involves wounded birds. Sporting dog owners devote serious time to drills that cover putting birds in the air and then bringing them to hand; however, most of those training sessions miss the key element of what to do when a bird is crippled and capable of covering some ground.
This scenario is extremely common, especially on pheasant hunts. It's also something many dog owners consider the prime time for on-the-job training. It would be impossible for me to stress this point any more than I already do but I'll reiterate: on-the-job training is bad. At least in this case it is.
This is simply because you don't have total control of the situation, which makes it much harder for your dog to be successful. Because of this, I teach every dog that comes into my care the "hunt dead" command. This is different than any other command because it tells the dog that not only is a bird down, but that he and I will work together to find it.
First, though, you must make sure your dog is fully obedient and ready for some next-level training, because if he doesn't have the basics down you're in trouble. Provided your dog has all of his 101 training credits, then it's time move on to those that will ensure his ability to ferret out all wounded birds.
As the handler of a sporting dog, one of the things you should always be cognizant of is wind direction. This is because your dog will have to use his nose to track down a wounded bird and how the wind is blowing will dictate the difficulty of the retrieve.
Give your dog the best chance to never lose a bird again by starting off training in light cover. This can be grass as short as six or eight inches in height.
Before you begin these drills, take your dummy and apply a liberal amount of wax-based scent. This is very important to the overall process and so simple. If you're a dove hunter, use dove scent. Quail hunter? Quail scent. Pheasants...you get it. Whatever you opt for, try to find wax-based scent versus other options because it will last longer and withstand wet conditions better.
With your freshly waxed dummy, put your leashed dog in the heel position at your side. Toss the dummy into the light cover and then turn 180 degrees and walk away. After 15 yards, pull another about-face and release him using the "hunt dead" command. The idea behind this is that your dog will lose the exact spot of the dummy and have to actually search it out instead of marking the bird and making a beeline to it.
If your dog gets too far upwind, call him back and direct him with the wind in his favor. Keep repeating the "hunt dead" command until he finds the dummy. I'll repeat this drill for at least a couple of weeks, but will increase the distance I walk the dog away from the initial spot. I'll also add a few zigs and zags in the routine to challenge him further.
Eventually there will be times when I intentionally release him upwind of the bird. During those, after I give the "hunt dead" command I will start walking to the downwind side. This develops trust in your dog that you know the best place to start looking.
This is crucial because your dog's point of view in the field is going to be much different than yours. He can't see what you can, so when a bird gets up and is hit, you'll have a much better idea of the starting point than he will. If he learns that you're going to start him off correctly, he will trust your lead every time. This is huge.
If your dog seems to clearly understand how to find the short-cover dummy via your lead, it's time to dive into thicker cover. This may be a grass field that is two feet tall, or if you plan to hunt cattails or have some other area that actually has bird cover in it, go there. There is nothing more valuable than training in the same cover you'll hunt through.
Start off with the drill in which you began the initial training. Keep track of the dummy and continually apply scent. If your dog has no problems going through the stages of this "hunt dead" drill in the thicker cover, he is definitely on his way to finding more birds in the field.
Change It Up
To keep things interesting and your dog on his toes, add another level of training by walking with him through a CRP field or other patch of cover. Keep a dummy or two in your vest and carry a blank gun. As he quarters his way through the cover pay attention and make sure he isn't looking. Toss the dummy so that he doesn't see you do it and then touch off a blank.
When he hears the gun go off he is going to get excited (or he should, anyway). Immediately collect your dog and start working him from downwind of the dummy. This closely mimics what happens 90 percent of the time in the field where he doesn't see the bird that is shot but instead works off the report of your shotgun.
It's important to keep a high level of randomness in this drill so that your dog doesn't learn that you are the source of the dummy and the excitement. If he keeps looking back at you to see when you're going to throw the dummy then he is on to you.
An advancement of this stage involves actual live birds that are planted and then flushed. I like to plant a few birds (marked, of course) and then keep one in my jacket to toss and then shoot when the dog is not looking.
Once the bird is down, it's the same get-downwind-and-send-him-in routine. Eventually your dog will associate you and your position with the recovery and he will look to your guidance with every downed bird that he doesn't see fall from the sky.
Everyone knows that a wounded pheasant can eat up serious ground when it wants to. Ditto for ruffed grouse, sharptails, quail and even woodcock in the right situation.
Most of these birds are pretty slow compared to a rooster, but that doesn't mean they can't put 40 or 50 yards between themselves and you fairly quickly. That might make all of the difference between recovery and frustration.
To train my dogs for this inevitable reality, I like to use clipped-wing pigeons in light cover. Just like with the dummy, I toss the bird into the grass; however, this time I'll give the bird about a minute to move around. He won't go far, but that's the point. I want my dog to have success, but also to realize that this is something different than the other drills.
Pigeons are great for the initial stages of this training, but another bird that shines is a duck. Tape his wings so he can't fly and he'll waddle you a great scent trail through the cover.
When working with ducks, I'll usually give the bird about five minutes to create a good scent trail.
Since this drill is primarily designed for dogs in the upland arena, I also like to get my hands on some pen-raised pheasants. To ensure they don't bolt out of the county, tie a string around their legs to reduce their stride by about half. This will create a realistic and challenging trail to follow, which is a great learning experience for any dog that has worked his way through the earlier drills.
An important note on any of these live bird drills is that they should be conducted in the morning when the grass has plenty of moisture on it. Dry conditions make things much more difficult and the key is to develop your dog's confidence, not beat his abilities. If you have to train when things are dry, consider wetting the birds down so that they leave a better scent trail.
After your dog can successfully trail birds up to about 75 yards, go back to the drill where you use the blanks but toss out a shackled bird or clipped-wing bird so that it can still move. This is about as realistic as you can make the training and should round out your dog's lessons nicely.
If you've carefully led your dog through these drills and he has found success along every step of the way, you've got a dog that is going to be a true asset in the field. There is nothing more disheartening than knocking a bird down and then not being able to find it. It happens, of course, but a lot of the time it is avoidable.
Some of my favorite memories are those that vividly bring forth retrieves that were not about how far my dog had to run, but how hard he had to work.
There is nothing more rewarding than seeing your dog search and search to find a wounded bird and then come bounding through the cover to your side with the prize held proudly between his teeth.
Every Retrieve Has Value...
While I rail against on-the-job training, I must clarify one point — your dog should retrieve every single bird that is shot. No exceptions. This seems simple, but I can't count the number of times I've hunted with someone who has knocked a rooster or grouse out of the sky and then walked over and picked it up.
Whether the bird lands in a wide-open field, the middle of a logging road, or wherever, make sure everyone in your hunting party knows that all retrieves belong to the dogs.
This goes for dogs that are 10 months old or have 10 hunting seasons under their belt. Every retrieve is valuable whether it is nothing more than a backyard drill or a quail that tumbles from the sky and lands at your feet. Holler "hunt dead" and let the dog do his thing — every single time.