A word to the wise: easy does it!
No matter how many pups you may have brought up, if you are not at least a little anxious about a gun dog's first hunt, you just don't realize how much harm can come of it. A small mistake can lead to irreversible consequences for many hunting seasons to follow and it is impossible to predict the damage that might result from a major miscue.
One evening, as I was preparing to camp on a point of land jutting into a lake full of ducks and geese, a young lad approached on the two-track leading to the beach. On my way to a prairie chicken hunt, I was tossing tennis balls into the lake for my pointing dogs, hoping they wouldn't opt to swim out to the nearest noisy geese, when the young man spotted me and started to turn around. I motioned him to stay and when he pulled up to the water's edge I saw that he had a golden retriever pup on the seat beside him.
While I put my biscuit-eaters back in their kennel, the lad explained that this was a "shooting tolerance" session for his nine-month old pup, which he had brought along using a 20-gauge and dummies on dry land. He said he wanted to accustom the pup to a real duck and a louder gun over water. The one he pulled from the bed of his pickup was a 10-gauge and there was a freshly-killed pintail back there too. He strode to the lakeshore with the golden in tow, then steadied her on "sit" and tossed the dead duck into the lake. What happened next will likely send chills up your spine. It did mine.
Crouching alongside the pup, who was intently focused on the floating pintail, the young retriever trainer loaded and fired the three-and-a-half-inch 10-gauge with the muzzle no more than three feet from her head and yelled, "Fetch!" It took both of us to prod the pup out from under the young man's pickup and the Chicago Bears could not have pried her tail from between her legs. She wouldn't look at the lake and I had to send my shorthair for the pintail.
Years ago, it was easy to curtail our opening day shooting over rookie pups when we knew there were always more ducks on the way.
"Looks like she may miss the first week or two of waterfowl season," the young lad lamented.
If she didn't miss several entire seasons I'd be surprised. You just can't expect a young gun dog to perform well with its ears still ringing. As previously noted, little errors can be costly. That's where patience and planning come in. By imagining himself in his pup's boots for a moment, the young retriever coach could have guessed how he might respond if a trusted chum unexpectedly touched off a .375 magnum three feet from his ear while he intently glassed a grizzly on a distant slope.
He might not crawl under his vehicle, but he would not be in any mood to drag the guy's grizzly back to it, either.
All it would have taken was to have had a helper fire the shotgun some distance down the shore as the pup saw the pintail for the first time splashing into the lake at the report. Not a perfect setup, but not as traumatic for the pup.
Rookies should be staunched and "whoa" trained before their first hunting season.
Now then, how do we celebrate a pointing or flushing dog's first hunt? Well, we show the pup off to five or six of our closest and dearest friends, each packing a self-loading 12-gauge (after all, it is Opening Day). All guns salute the first birds flushed and, before the first dead bird is all the way back to hand, everyone whose gun is not empty blazes away at late risers
While birds are still raining from the sky, Buster's handler is blowing his whistle and frantically yelling for the pup to "hunt dead." Seems as though we can resist anything but temptation when it comes to showing off and excessive shooting during the first month or two of a pup's first season. But once again, patience is what is really called for here, not the scenario just described.
You take one shot, drop one bird and there is no confusion on the pup's part. He's focused on point, flush, shot and hunt dead. His ears are not ringing and he is fired up to do it all again. Pick him up before he's had enough and he will turn inside out next time he sees you with a shotgun.
One gun and two people are all it takes to start a pup off right. One person handles the dog, which should have already been staunched and whoa trained, perhaps even steadied to wing and shot if that is the game plan. So, for a first field adventure little or no talking will be required. It is easy to remember this if you pretend the pup is on point 100 yards out in front of you. The gunner should flush and shoot (once) when you tell him the time is right and it is so much better if the pup can see the flight and mark the fall.
Obviously, the object of this entire exercise is for pup to associate the shot with the snootful of scent and getting a dead bird in his mouth as the grand finale. It is almost guaranteed to fail with a truckload of wingshooters in the act, along with a lot of shouting and whistle blowing.
Long before opening day most properly coached gun dogs have had obedience training and been exposed to point, flush, shoot, hunt dead or sit, mark, direction and fetch. But, if this pre-season experience has been sparse, it is all the more important to take it slow and easy on opening day and beyond.
Way back, when the world was still warm to the touch and I was a young bird hunter and waterfowler, our gun dogs were mostly trained under fire during the hunting season. It was comparatively easy to develop outstanding young bird dogs when you could kill several hundred wild birds over each of them in their first season. And waterfowl? Well, let's just say that the pups stayed wet all season long.
Pre-season training consisted of yard drills like come, whoa, heel, sit and stay. We might place a harnessed bird or two with dog on a cord and a helper with a 20-gauge some distance away. We force-fetch trained only the pups that didn't respond to tennis ball training and then we took them all hunting. Believe me, they learned their respective roles quickly and well and they were a joy to hunt with.
It's possible to turn out excellent hunt test and competition fetchers without waterfowl, but it takes ducks to make a good duck dog.
But even in that long-ago era, my associates and I had seen enough gunshys and blinkers to know that the only sure way to avoid trouble was to take no chances on opening day, or opening week for that matter. So even the most single-minded rookies got the same treatment — one or two shots, a bird to carry, praise, peace and quiet, then back to the kennel the rest of the day.
Sure, there were and are many young trainees capable of withstanding a lot more opening day pressure than that, but the only way to make certain which ones they are is to make the rest of them fail. It's like finding out how fast you can turn a corner without skidding out of control. There's only one way to know for sure.
With the advent of e-collars, fetch dummies with moving parts and automatic launchers, gun dogs are getting a whole lot more pre-season training than they might have received in the era of abundant wild game. Much of that tutoring includes pigeons, quail, ducks and other planted birds and fowl along with live or blank gunfire. And that is all good because the training bird can be tethered as needed and the trainee can too, allowing total control of the situation and the behavior of the pup and bird.
Moreover, the gunfire can be controlled to suit the sensitivity of the trainee by simply conforming the quantity, distance and, most of all, timing. Just try managing these factors on opening day while the gang's all there. It can be done, but it is not easy to discipline oneself when he doesn't know if he'll find another covey or flight of ducks that day or not.
Back in the old days we needed little willpower to curtail our shooting because we knew there would be another covey around the corner and more ducks coming in as soon as the last one down was in hand. We made up for our lack of control of the wingshooting elements by the quality and quantity of the field experience over a long season. In the same fashion, grouse hunters across much of the ruff's range have made up for the relative rarity of wild grouse finds by their pups-in-training by showing them the more abundant woodcock on the same hunting grounds.
They now say that you can turn out good waterfowl dogs without waterfowl but they have yet to devise plastic replicas that dive or swim off and hide. For that, you need a pup who can mark, take direction and use his nose. And I regret to report the old adage, "You can't make a great bird dog without birds," is still quite true to this day.