Fundamentally, the end result of training a flushing dog is quite simple to understand: A trainer seeks to produce a dog that quarters in range, follows scent aggressively to induce a flush, and then sits/hups on the flush, the whistle, or the shot. Assuming the bird is killed, the trained flushing dog should make a straight line to the fallen bird upon being released, and should then return the bird directly to the trainer’s hand. Pretty simple stuff when you think about it.
The challenge for a flushing dog trainer is to create the shortest educational pathway possible for the dog to master each of these component skills, and then put them all into practice consecutively. Creating this pathway has been the lifework of many trainers and many dogs, and I can guarantee that those who got there most efficiently had a lot of live pigeons to thank. I have long believed that the single most valuable tool available to the flushing dog trainer is a live pigeon (or, even better, a crate-full). That said, it is remarkable to me how many trainers skimp on live birds and try to get away with a minimum of live-bird exposures over the journey of steadying a dog.
Now, I agree that dead/frozen birds and bumpers have their place, and that they can and should be used in establishing the foundational skills required by a flusher. But when it comes to developing the real-world skills required by a finished flushing dog in the hunting or trialing arena, that dog simply must have ample live-bird experience under his belt.
Think of it this way: Any flushing dog worth his salt has been selected from a bloodline proven to have a strong prey drive. Birds turn on something in the genetics of a flushing dog that no other stimulus can, and therefore birds can serve to stimulate or reinforce behavior far better than simple praise or manual corrections. But due to their potency, live birds can also create issues in training that are hard to correct. Their very potency can serve to counteract good training, which means they must be leveraged wisely. But how to do that in practice?
Build the Foundation First
It is my philosophy that birds should not be a significant part of the training equation as the foundational skills are built. Heel, hup, and recall/retrieve should be taught with consistency in a highly controlled environment. There should be a stairstep method in place that allows for drilling of these skills, with the environment growing marginally more challenging over time. For example, hup/sit on a lead with an associated voice command should progress to hup/sit on a check cord with the same voice command, which should progress into hup/sit on a check cord on a whistle blast, and so on. But when those foundational skills feel solid, and when the pup finds regular success in hup and recall on a remote cue (command, whistle, or shot), it is time to up the stimulation and enhance the environment to progress training.
I generally begin incorporating birds with frozen pigeons. While working a dog out in front, I will randomly throw the pigeon over the dog and fire a starter pistol (or sound the whistle), inducing a hup. Although the bird is inert, this represents a wild flush and a shot, necessitating of the dog a hup. Once I release the dog, he will generally be excited by the scent and feel of the dead bird. I enthusiastically call for a retrieve, and then take the frozen bird. I repeat this process over a period of sessions, ensuring regular success.
Moving away from the dead frozen bird, I do the same with a wing-clipped or hobbled pigeon. When the dog casts away from me, I throw the wing-clipped bird and shoot the gun or blast the whistle, commanding the dog to hup. The flapping pigeon should flutter down between 50-100 yards from the dog, inducing greater stimulation and desire on the dog’s part to chase. Assuming the foundation work is solid, the dog will stay at hup until released, and will then retrieve the bird to me. The wing-clipped bird, ostensibly flushing wild, is the second level of bird training.
We move from wing-clipped to live, intact pigeons, which we can shoot over a dog in such a way that they fall fairly close. These initial pigeons can be thrown from the trainer’s hand while the dog is quartering, again signifying a wild flush. The flapping of the bird, the shot from the gun, and the fall of the killed bird should represent an increased level of stimulation that should be offset by a good foundation. The dog again should retrieve the dead bird upon release.
Using Live Birds
Finally, the ultimate goal of live-bird training is to have the dog induce the flush on the ground. This is accomplished with rolled or dizzied birds that are spun and thrown out ahead of the handler while the dog is quartering. It is key here that the dog not see the bird as it gets rolled, because we want the dog to intersect scent on a cast, to go hard into the scent, and to induce a flush. This is the highest level of stimulation for a dog, as the bird materializes at the end of the scent cone in a ruckus of sound and motion. The dog, again, should hup on the shot, watching the bird fall, and then be released to retrieve. If this habit can be drilled and replicated with consistency, the dog is ready for final polishing, and certainly ready to hunt live, undizzied birds in the field.
Remember, however, that birds and bird scent are likely the single most motivating factor in the dog’s experience. With that, failure can, and likely will, occur. When the dog fails, or breaks on a bird, or runs off with a live bird rather than retrieving, it simply means that the foundation needs to be reinforced. Go back to bumpers, or to whatever the previous level of training entailed. Training with birds is simply part of the progression. Granted, it can enforce, reinforce, or test the finer finishing points of training a flushing dog, but it cannot be brought into the mix until the foundation work, and the steady drilling of controlled lessons, has taken place. Use birds wisely, and enjoy watching your dog reach hisfull potential.