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Teaching Your Gun Dog Field Awareness

Thinking about, and training for, the most common dangers found in upland environments.

Teaching Your Gun Dog Field Awareness
One of the most common injuries in the field is caused by bird dogs hitting barbed-wire fences. Field awareness and a good first-aid kit can go a long way toward keeping these encounters from spiraling into serious danger. (Photo by Tony J. Peterson)

Back in the early 1980s, I was hunting pheasants in Iowa when my dog flushed a rooster. When that ringneck hit the ground, he did so on the opposite side of a barbed-wire fence. Hot on the trail, my Lab tried to jump the fence to get to the downed bird. She didn’t make it.

Not only did she get hung up on the topmost strand, but as soon as she realized she was stuck, she panicked and essentially ripped her groin wide open. It was not pretty. It was also one of those moments as a bird-dog owner that changed how I look at the world.

From then on, I’ve tried to be more cognizant of the dangers that are out there, and how to not only prepare myself to look for them, but to also train my dogs to safely navigate and encounter. Not coincidentally, this involves fence training.

Under or Through

It’s pretty much a certainty that upland dogs are going to encounter fences, whether you set them loose on public or private land. This means they’ve got to understand how to go through or under them, and that’s where you come in.

I start out with fence introduction by leashing the dog and then slowly approaching a fence. Once there, I’ll step on the lower strand and slowly encourage the dog through. You don’t want to push a dog or try to make things happen too quickly, because that’s when mistakes happen. Slow the dog down, and then let him work through the safe opening that you create.

This is pretty easy stuff, and it’s a good start. But it’s not really applicable to the pheasant field in many situations. You might have a leash on the dog when you enter a field, which allows you to help them through, or you might spot a five-strander up ahead and have the time to call in the dog and leash him for a safe crossing. But there will be other fences out there in the wild that you won’t realize you are approaching—until it’s too late.

This is why it’s a good idea to have a first-aid kit that contains some surgical-scrub solution and a skin stapler. Small lacerations happen in the field, and if you’re prepared to treat them properly, you can eliminate the chance they’ll turn into a hunt-ender, or necessitate an emergency trip to the vet.

When it comes to fences, it’s simply a good idea to pay attention. If you see one coming up and can rein in your dog, that’s good. If your dog zips under one that you didn’t know was coming but you hear a little twang, recall your dog and give him a good once-over.

In fact, it’s a good idea to give your dog a quick checkup in the field every couple of hours, just to make sure he didn’t get cut. A driven dog isn’t going to let you know he’s injured unless it’s severe, so it’s a wise decision to take a minute or two to make sure your dog hasn’t suffered any minor lacerations that could get worse if he keeps hunting.

It’s important to say that even if you conduct five once-overs throughout the day, you should still do a thorough tailgate exam at the end of the hunt. You should also make sure, from puppyhood on, that your dog is okay with an exam of this nature. This is not something that you should first try to attempt while neck-deep in the cattails with roosters flushing on all sides, but instead should train in from early on.

Situational Awareness

While fences are a biggie, there are plenty of other dangers that might get your dog in trouble. The most common are fights with critters like raccoons or even other dogs, but the reality is, you won’t be able to predict those encounters until it’s too late.

You should give your dog a once-over in the field every couple of hours and also a tailgate exam at the end of the day. This is a necessity after training and hunting to make sure he hasn’t suffered a small injury that could turn into something bigger if left unaddressed.

You can, however, eyeball a good-looking quail spot and take note of old homesteads. While there might be a covey in the overgrown brush next to the broken-down barn, there might also be a partially covered well. Or there might be an old farm implement slowly being reclaimed by the earth that has sharp edges or tines poking through the grass that could make a pleasant afternoon hunt go south in an instant.

The same goes for fresh beaver activity near a promising woodcock spot. More than one dog has been impaled by a chewed-off sapling, and if you find your dog going full bore through fresh cuttings, you might want to back off and not hunt so close to the oversized rodent’s feeding grounds.

You might be hunting public-land grouse and notice a small surveyor’s flag up ahead on the trail. It might mean nothing, or it might mean there is a leghold trap beneath it, or a snare set up on a log over a flooded ditch. I’ve got a buddy whose Lab stepped into a coyote trap while they were grouse hunting a few years ago, and even though he freed the dog quickly, it was a bad deal. Understand, at least the basics, of how traps and snares work, so that if your dog does get caught, you can save him. This is one of the reasons I always carry wire snips in my hunting vest.

While there are some dangers you can prepare a dog for, there are many others that you can’t. It’s up to you to pay attention to the environments in which you train and hunt, and do your best to keep your dog out of trouble. And if trouble finds him, it’s up to you to negotiate the situation so that your dog ends up as safe as possible.

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