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Thick Cover Considerations

Train your dog in the tall stuff during the off-season to promote a good late-season, gnarly cover work ethic.

Thick Cover Considerations

The process of working dummies and live birds in high, nasty cover takes time but is worth it to devleop a solid all-season gun dog. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

Anyone who has spent some time hunting upland birds, especially pheasants, knows that the late season can be magical. They also probably know that there are dogs that excel in the early season, and even the middle part of the season, but just can’t hack it during the last few weeks. 

This isn’t uncommon and is almost always due to inexperience training and hunting in thick, nasty cover. A dog that isn’t accustomed to high cover, whether it’s cattails, plum thickets, or something else gnarly and nearly impenetrable, is not going to understand where the birds are or how to get to them. 

As a midwestern trainer, this is something that is always on my mind because we can experience unreal action when the snow is on the ground and the birds are congregated in winter cover. And because of that reality, we train our retrievers to embrace the thick stuff, which takes a plan.

Light to Heavy Training

A lot of people with good early-season dogs don’t understand why they can’t get it going in the late-season, and they’ll get frustrated. What they should do, instead, is to think about it from a confidence aspect as far as the dog is concerned. If your retriever doesn’t know that good things happen when he goes into the thick stuff, why would he wrestle his way into it? 

To address this before it’s an issue, start with dummies in light cover first, before eventually moving into taller cover. This, like all good training, is a process that only ratchets up when the dog demonstrates rock-solid ability at the current stage. If your dog does consistently well in short grass, then it’s time to move to taller, thicker grass. 

Eventually, you’ll want to get your dog to the edge of something really thick, like cattails. I love cattail training for many reasons, but mostly because they represent a real challenge and also the actual places my dogs will find birds during the late season. 

Throughout summer and fall training, I’ll work dogs along the edges of the cattails and then just barely into the cover. At both stages, the wind has to be blowing from the cover out to the dog, and the dummy is always scented up. After enough of this drilling, the dog should start to understand that the reward is in the thick cover, and he’ll start to work it more efficiently and confidently. 

Over time, you can add in planted birds if you have access to them, or plant scented dummies deeper into the cover when the wind is right. It’s important to note that as you work through high-cover training, you realize it’s not a one-and-done proposition. Dogs need to build up to a good gnarly cover work ethic, which might take a few seasons. This isn’t something that a Saturday afternoon will cover, but the good news is that your time and commitment to this process will pay off, especially when a lot of other hunters have given up on the season or are putting in minimal effort since they believe the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. 

Catching On

One of my favorite light-bulb moments as a dog trainer is when retrievers demonstrate cover recognition. You’ll see a dog running through low grass or snow-flattened cover straight toward willows, cattails, or some other next-level bird habitat and know that the dog understands where the pheasants are most likely to be. This is a sure sign that not only was the training effective, but that the dog has had enough success on flushes to grasp the concept of where the best concentration of birds is likely to be. 

Labrador retrieving a pheasant
After enough wild bird contacts, your gun dog may begin to seek out the taller cover when he has found birds before. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

This is a beautiful thing that relies on proper training, as mentioned, but also from in-field experience. The latter is a tough one, because not everyone has access to the type of land that will produce a lot of birds. This is reality, and it can be dangerous ground for all dogs, but particularly young dogs. You don’t want your retriever to burn out on heavy cover because of boredom and a lack of rewards, so it’s important to work to find the best hunting opportunities possible and time them correctly. 

That might mean watching a slough until the last half-hour of the day so that the birds are back to roost and at least some action is guaranteed. It might also mean hunting for two hours instead of eight, while you walk through the thick stuff at a slow, deliberate pace. This does two things. First, it takes your dog to where the birds are likely to be and secondly, it allows him to figure them out without the pressure of having to move on before he is ready. This strategy for limited hunting should produce maximum results. Dialing down the pace is a great way to complement pre-and mid-season training drills that are focused on high-cover confidence. 

Everyone wants an all-season dog, but many of us end up with an early-season rock star that sputters out once the snow comes and the birds go into winter survival mode. With weeks of the season left and some of the best hunting still to come, this is the time when a good dog can really become something else. You’ll just have to work with him to understand where the birds are and how they’ll be most effectively hunted—and then get him into the cover where he can rack up some experience and start to understand what’s expected when the pheasant habitat not only towers over his head, but possibly yours as well.

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