Skip to main content Skip to main content



A well-bred spaniel will learn tracking fairly quickly, but it is not automatic.

It's quiet and you're sitting in front of the fireplace reminiscing about the recently closed bird seasons. Perhaps some ice tinkles against the side of your glass or maybe the smell of hot chocolate tickles your nostrils. It's been a good year because of the time you spent training and playing with your spaniel during the off season.

Maybe you did especially well on one species of game bird or, like me, enjoyed hunting several species. My most memorable day this season was taking two pheasants one morning and then traveling a bit north and taking a grouse along an Appalachian ridge in the late afternoon; rarely has a sunset been so enjoyable.

Recalling the season, only one thing stands out as needing an appreciable amount of work--tracking runners. My two-year-old dog does well with birds that choose to hunker down but if a cock bird puts on his track shoes, we have some trouble.

Tracking runners is not an easy task for any dog; if it were we could just use a Pekinese and save on dog food. Young or inexperienced dogs, especially, need more bird contact to learn their trade. When asked how to get a good grouse dog, Burton Spiller, grouse hunting's Poet Laureate, once said, "Work him on about 500 grouse and you'll have a pretty good one."

We will examine several ways to improve our gun dog's tracking ability. First we need to get our young dogs using their noses rather than their eyes. We must also provide more tracking experience and perhaps use a different wrinkle or two when doing so.

First we must get young dogs to use their nose and then to trust their nose. We have all seen hunters/handlers who did not trust their dog's nose but it is also common for young dogs to distrust their own nose. When that happens they often break off tracking before they find the bird because of a lack of confidence.

I have never been a big believer or user of game bird scent but I think there are times it is worthwhile. I like to use scent on a dummy when tossing the dummy into heavy cover to get pup into heavy cover and then to use his nose searching for the dummy rather than just with his eyes. The game bird scent, in addition to our human scent and his scent from mouthing the dummy, helps him find the dummy easier and motivates him to enter the heavy cover.

The second situation when I use a scented dummy is working on retrieving at night. Night retrieve training does two things: it forces the pup to use his nose rather than his eyes to locate the dummy and it builds confidence in his nose because repetitive retrieving drills allow him to have success over and over in a short period of time.

Regular readers might remember that the April/May "Flush" column discussed building confidence. Providing positive learning experiences on a regular basis is a primary method of building confidence.

Another way to get pup to gain confidence in his nose is to drag a dead game bird (preferred) or heavily scented dummy and allow pup to follow the track you laid. Have a friend help you with the drag rope to ensure that your young dog does not just track your foot scent. Use a long rope with the bird or dummy attached in the middle. With each holding one end of the rope, you and the friend drag the bird between you far enough away that pup cannot get your foot scent. You will easily be able to see if pup follows the correct line.

Another way to do this exercise is to use a long, light rope (parachute cord works well) with the bird attached and toss it far from you, then pull the bird toward you to lay a scent trail. After laying the scent trail work pup to the bird from a different direction so he does not pick up your scent.


  1. Add game bird scent to a dummy for night retrieving or use in heavy cover.
  2. Spray water on game birds to enhance their scent, especially in dry conditions.
  3. Use a rope drag to lay a track for young dogs.
  4. A tame duck is a great tracking tool.
  5. Hobble pheasants for greater tracking success with young dogs.
  6. Provide lots of experience so your gun dog learns the twists and turns of tracking.


How you lay the scent trail is less important than doing it repeatedly to give your dog experience. Professional dog trainer Jim Keller from Knox, Maine, taught me to spray water on the bird with a plastic bottle to ensure that it leaves adequate scent. It's a good idea to spray water on live birds when scenting conditions are poor because of weather, dryness or other conditions; spray them on their underside so that the scent will be transferred to cover and the ground when they move.

Two professional spaniel trainers, Jim Keller and Ben Martin of Franklin, Ohio, shared the next exercise with me. Martin explained the method as we took a break at a field trial and Keller utilized the technique with a client at a dog training session I attended in Maine.

Obtain a tame or flightless duck or tape or clip a duck's primary feathers so that it can not fly and use it to teach your dog to track. It's usually quite entertaining and the good part is that the duck lives to train dogs another day.

Ducks are strongly scented but putting some water on their belly will not hurt the exercise. Unseen by the dog, release the duck in a field and give it a several minute head start. Release your spaniel and watch the fun develop as he attempts to follow the duck's twists and turns. Ducks are certainly not as fast as pheasants and that is exactly the point--you want to ensure that the young dog catches the duck so he gains confidence in his nose.

Even tame ducks tend to get a bit defensive when approached rapidly by a vacuum-nosed spaniel intent on giving them an unwanted ride. Though the book on duct (not duck) tape did not list this usage, it certainly works well. Use a piece of duct tape and tape the duck's bill closed so that the duck cannot bite

the young dog and make it bird shy.

Another way to teach tracking is by releasing a flightless hen pheasant (tape its wings or pull some primaries) for your young dog in moderate cover. To give the young dog a chance, use a piece of yarn to tie the bird's legs together, just not so tight that it cannot run.

Some folks feel that shackling a bird is inhumane, and The American Kennel Club does not allow birds to be shackled in any of its events. I feel it is a legitimate and sometimes necessary training method for gun dogs. The practice is widespread among serious (and successful) dog trainers.

Once the dog is regularly successful tracking tame ducks and shackled pheasants, move him to healthy, unshackled pheasants. It is still a good idea to use flightless birds sometimes, depending on where you are in your training regime. You may not want your dog flushing or chasing birds at this point or having birds shot over him at this time.

A well-bred spaniel will learn tracking fairly quickly, but remember, it is not automatic. Gun dogs need a lot of exposure to live, moving birds to develop into good trackers. It is up to the trainer to provide adequate opportunities to learn tracking and to provide opportunities favorable to their dog while training. Using a tame duck, shackled pheasant and then a healthy pheasant provides a good training progression to build both confidence and tracking ability in your gun dog.

To Continue Reading

Go Premium Today.

Get everything Gun Dog has to offer. What's Included

  • Receive (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers

  • Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

  • Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

  • Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

  • Ad-free experience at

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or start your online account

Get the Newletter Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Gun Dog articles delivered right to your inbox.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Gun Dog subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now