Tips for Your Gun Dog's First Day Afield
Over the last year or so, this column has enabled me to discuss some of the fundamentals of picking a pup, developing boundaries, building a strong foundation and cultivating enthusiasm in the maturing flushing dog. It occurs to me, however, that the process of training and building a range of behavior in a young dog can easily become the entire focus of our efforts.
What I mean is that for many amateur and professional trainers alike, the training journey is the sole motivation, whereas many individual dog owners pursue a training progression with an eye toward a clear and defined outcome. For some this “destination” is a field trial or hunt test opportunity, or getting a title on a dog. For most gun dog owners, however, I’d say that the ultimate goal is to venture out into the field to hunt over one’s own self-trained flushing dog.
During my professional training career I spent years as a seasonal upland guide at hunt clubs in New York’s Hudson Valley. Most notably, I spent many fine days in the corn stubble and milo fields of Orvis Sandanona and Mashomack Preserve, guiding hunters into pheasants and chukars with the help of my own personal dogs as well as client dogs in need of bird contacts and repetitions. That said, I also regularly took out hunters who were looking to handle their own dogs into the field for the first time, albeit with some guidance.
These sessions served as an opportunity for owners to join their dogs in the real hunting scenario that had been the ultimate goal all along, but in a controlled environment. It was often a pleasure to just be along for the ride, to watch both gun dog and hunter move into the next phase of their relationship, and I came to believe that this progression into the field posed an interesting opportunity for both the dog and the owner/handler.
I also found that the opportunity was most beneficial when the experience and the environment were finessed a bit for maximum benefit. With that in mind, I’d like to discuss how hunters can thoughtfully plan their first hunting experiences with a young dog.
Most folks who are training a flushing dog are forced to do the bulk of early training either in the yard or in parks or public spaces near home. Though live birds such as pigeons may be available for field training, most folks have not been afforded the opportunity to have multiple training birds shot over their dogs. Thus, a venture out into the hunting field is often the first time that a hunter may have the opportunity to shoot live birds over his or her own dog.
hat shift in roles creates a dynamic that is quite different than the true training opportunity presents. Specifically, the hunting experience requires that the hunter be focused on his or her task (letting the dog work, shooting the bird, maintaining a safe environment), while relinquishing some of the control over the dog. As such, it is vital that the hunter enter into the hunting experience with managed expectations, and sufficient foundation and training time into the dog to ensure some semblance of enjoyment. It is therefore also important that the hunter understand what variables can and should be controlled, and what variables cannot.
The first consideration for the hunter is to ensure that no irreparable harm will be done to the dog when the hunting scenario unravels. Perhaps most critical at this point is to ensure that sufficient shot conditioning has taken place. As I have discussed previously, gunshyness is a huge obstacle to overcome, but proper gunshot conditioning should enable a dog to be comfortable in the field.
Once this has been established, the hunter is tasked with picking a location/destination that will be fruitful in achieving both his/her desires and be of maximum benefit to the dog. The hunter should look for a scenario where there will be sufficient shooting opportunities to make him or her feel that they have actually burned some powder and cut some feathers, while also ensuring that the dog has ample opportunity to contact birds. The best context for these needs to be met is a vetted and recommended preserve.
The beauty of hunting a preserve is that the cover should be maintained in a manner that replicates natural bird habitat (either woodland, grassland, or ag), but the birds are stocked and therefore somewhat guaranteed. The circumstance of birds being present is somewhat critical in ensuring a positive experience for dog and hunter.
Just as anyone who has ever taken a child fishing will attest, if the fish aren’t biting, the child quickly loses interest and the parent quickly loses patience. So too if the dog has bird contacts often and early, it will have a positive association, and if the hunter sees his or her dog on birds with some frequency, the experience will feel worthwhile.
Furthermore, the game preserve nearly always provides an opportunity for a guide, which can and should prove invaluable. A hired guide will know the terrain, any potential hazards and where the birds might hold. He or she can also be a second set of hands in handling the dog if need be. It is often somewhat alarming to hunters when they discover how challenging it is to balance handling a dog while also focusing on the flush and the shot. With so much at play, a guide can serve to mark downed birds, hold a lead, or simply steer the physical direction of the hunt.
Locating a quality game preserve can prove a bit of a challenge, and there are certain considerations with regard to picking a good destination. Game preserves and hunt clubs are fairly common throughout North America, but not all are created equal. Most gun shops or sporting goods stores will have a recommendation, but as an advocate for Orvis I would highly recommend leaning on the network of Orvis Endorsed Hunting Grounds.
When looking into a preserve opportunity it is vital that the preserve be contacted and asked whether it is okay for a hunter to work his or her own dog. This should not be a problem, though it is worth asking. Also, there should be some clarity around how birds are priced (i.e., per bird shot or per bird stocked), as well as what guide fees will be. It is key that a hunter always ask for references and get questions answered up front.
When taking a young dog on a first hunt, it is first necessary to remember that there are opportunities for both the hunter and the dog. In the case of the hunter, there is likely a desire to see what the dog has learned through early training, and to apply that learning with some hope of success. It is critical, however, as a hunter to remember that expectations need to be managed.
When first setting out to handle a dog in a hunting context, the focus of the hunter typically shifts toward the dog and away from the quarry. At first, this can feel like a lot for a hunter to manage, and even if the hunter is a stellar wingshot, a few misses should be assumed. The hunter must remember too that the dog will likely not handle perfectly. The goal should be that the dog have ample bird contacts and that the prey drive and enthusiasm in the dog be elevated and celebrated.
Basically, this should be a fun day, full of birds, and possibly full of shooting. When I followed these early hunts I rarely encouraged my hunters to make corrections in the field. Conversely, I encouraged them to use these hunts as a chance to see where the dog was at in its development, to identify what skills or behaviors needed some additional focus and to pump up the dog’s enthusiasm. It was quite rare that the dog performed flawlessly even when sufficient foundation had been laid, but these early hunts always served to tease out the weaknesses in early training.
I suppose that the most important message here is that eventually a hunter with a gun dog will want to take that dog hunting. Certainly there is foundation work to do leading up to that moment, but eventually that entry into the field is both appropriate and quite special. When venturing out, however, I would highly recommend that the situation be structured for maximum benefit and enjoyment.
By picking a destination that is safe, controlled, and with birds present in number, and by hiring a guide who can help a hunter and his or her dog get to those birds safely and effectively, those elements that can be managed will be taken care of. From there, both dog and hunter should enjoy the day, noting that both will make some mistakes, which can and will be smoothed out in the training which lies ahead. In that respect, the hunt is not ultimately the destination, but rather a stopping place on the journey.