"I introduce a puppy to birds," Tony said, "with a dead quail, dove, or small pigeon. I excite the youngster by teasing him with it and then I toss it a few feet. With puppies I breed, I start this at five to seven weeks, before they go to their new homes."
Tony cautioned against one well-known technique, that is, dropping a dead bird into a pen full of puppies. That encourages tug-of-war games and various expressions of dominance. Instead, he introduces each puppy individually, in a quiet place, without distractions.
Later, when he starts planting birds in the field for a puppy, he relies mostly on two breeds of pigeons: Chinese Owls, which flush straight up and then fly in low circles around the field; and Modenas, which flush vigorously but fly low and land again within 40 yards. Both awaken a pup's prey drive and encourage hard flushes.
Thereafter, Tony uses a variety of birds in training: common pigeons, quail, chukars, and pheasants. To a great extent the time of year determines which he uses. In early spring he uses mostly gamebirds. But they become scarce through late spring and early summer, when he uses common pigeons. In late summer young gamebirds become available, so Tony uses them as an exciting change for the dogs after two or three months of pigeons.
"Pigeons are difficult to plant," he said, "because they vary so much in strength and stamina. Wild pigeons are quite strong and require much more dizzying than do the various show breeds that are sometimes available. Dizzying each bird so it will stay put until the dog makes contact and yet will wake up and fly as the dog approaches takes experience."
Tony said that chukars are easy to plant. Dizzied slightly and dropped into a clump of cover, a chukar will stay put and flush strongly when the dog approaches. They aren't as jumpy as pigeons, nor as inclined to run as pheasants. He plants quail the same way, but they don't always flush and fly as well as chukars.
"Planting pheasants can frustrate an inexperienced trainer," Tony said. "He'll either plant them so hard the dog catches them on the ground or so lightly that they run off before the dog arrives on the scene."
Tony recommends that you should experiment with various techniques for planting pheasants. Sometimes dizzying them works; sometimes just tucking the head under a wing and laying the bird down on that wing works; sometimes holding the bird on the ground until it relaxes and then whistling to simulate a predator bird works. You have to be versatile, and perhaps a little lucky.
Tony usually carries clip-wing pigeons in his pocket. They are good for encouraging a hard flush, for an impromptu retrieve to bring a chasing dog back to you, and for happy-time retrieves.
Tony uses release traps only for "distraction" birds, never for birds the dog should find and flush. He feels the risk of injury is too great for a flushing dog.
As a final thought, Tony added, "Any bird, even a pigeon, is a good bird. But there's nothing like a strong cock pheasant, one that hits the ground running after it's shot. That's what turns a spaniel into a hunting dog."
This tip is from Tony Roettger of Roettger Ridge Kennels, 7104 360th Street, North Branch, MN 55056; (651) 674-0431; cell (651) 214-8300; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Tony has been training all sporting breeds professionally for nine years, but he trains mostly English springer and cocker spaniels for hunting, for AKC field trials and hunting tests. He judges spaniel field trials and hunting tests. He breeds field-bred English cocker and English springer spaniels.