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Trust Your Dog's Nose

Your dog's nose will always be a better tool for tracking birds than your eyes, nose, and pre-conceived notions.

Trust Your Dog's Nose

Some of the magic of bird dogs lies in letting them flex their natural ability, and trusting that when it comes to scenting game, they have you bested each and every time. (Photo By: Venee Gardner)

If you hunt or run dogs long enough, you are certain to have a similar story: A hunter kicks up a bird and takes a bad shot, resulting in wing-tipping or pulling feathers from a bird that sets its wings and glides nearly to the horizon. The dog, inconsiderate of whistle blasts, shouted commands, and the increasing frustration of the handler, takes off to chase. After a long enough period that the hunter/handler has grown convinced that both bird and dog are long gone and lost causes, the dog comes back, tired and battered, with a dead bird in its mouth. Had the dog obeyed a bit better, or had the demands of the handler held him off, there would be a bird out there still, possibly suffering, certainly resigning itself to the ravens and raccoons.

In this installment of the "Flush" column, we will look at this story, and what it must teach us. The takeaway, I will tell you up front, is to trust your dog, and specifically trust your dog’s nose. It sounds quite simple, but it is a rule that I regularly see people, even seasoned professionals, forgetting to follow. No matter how great you are as a hunter or guide, and no matter how bad your dog may have shown you he is, that nose on his face will always be a better tool for tracking and finding birds than your eyes, nose, or pre-conceived notions. Your dog has been bred for centuries to have a great nose, and the simple truth is that we humans have not. The battle that we as hunters and handlers face lies in getting over ourselves long enough to give credit where credit is due, and to follow our dogs even when we are convinced that we know better. As our dogs teach us over and over, they will always be better at finding birds than we are.

Relinquish Control

When you first begin training dogs, it is easy to get trapped in the mindset that you, the human, know more than your dog does. We come by this outlook naturally. After all, as a trainer your job is to set up repetitive drills and controllable situations in which you set the stage, and you steer the encounter in a certain direction with a clear idea of what the outcome should look like. In our field sessions training flushing dogs in the Hudson Valley each summer, my friend Dan Lussen and I rely heavily on the use of rolled and planted pigeons, and we create scenarios between birds and dogs numerous times each day.

In these training situations, we know before the dog does just where the bird will be, and we can manipulate the situation to get a dog to encounter the bird how and where we like, optimally resulting in the flush, shot, and fall that we intend. This is the nature of a highly controlled training environment, and it leads to successful lessons for the dog on the ground. The only problem is that this practice of thinking we control the environment, and the repeated conditioning of thinking we know better than the dog where the bird will be, easily slops over into the hunting environment. Unfortunately, it can be hard for trainers to make that step into becoming handlers and hunters, as it requires those trainers to relinquish a degree of control.

Bird hunter with dog
Upland birds like to run and can easily do so in thick cover. Trust your dog's nose—it is more powerful than your eyes. (Photo By: Gun Dog)

Believing in the Unseen

Time and again while guiding, I watched birds sneak across sorghum or milo strips a hundred yards out, disappearing into thick cover. I remember one specific instance wherein the hunters saw the same, and as we approached the area, they all went into the cover on the right side of the row, where we’d seen the bird. Having seen the bird myself, and bending a little to the wants of my clients, I hunted my dog in circles through that area, and watched as he never even got the slightest bit birdy. Finally, I backed the whole group up to where we’d seen the bird and re-set my dog on the trail. He dipped into the cover but quickly tracked back left, where the bird had of course doubled back without us seeing. He dove in on a hard flush, put up the bird, and the sports just stood there flatfooted without firing a shot. They were so convinced that the bird was in a different area, they had written off following my dog work as a fool’s errand.

In guiding preserve birds, I have become increasingly impressed with a dog’s natural scenting ability. Remember, most gun dogs have been bred and selected over numerous generations to have a great nose, and the sensitivity of their noses is refined to a degree we can barely understand. When guiding, I regularly saw birds, pheasants especially, running the cover up ahead. A wily cock bird will bob and weave in and out of cover, doubling back here and there, generally being erratic in its movements. It always amazed me, though, to watch a dog who had not seen the bird (as I had) cross the scent and trace that bird’s footsteps exactly, nose to the ground. Bird scent is like a trail of breadcrumbs to a dog; just because we can’t see it, the scent trail is absolutely real and concrete in the dog’s nose—sometimes as hunters we just have to believe in the things we can’t necessarily see.


As a final consideration, there is a conservation story here, one referenced in the story told in the opening passage. When you feel you may have a bird wing-tipped or crippled, or even if you have an inkling that you put a pellet in a bird, it is a good practice to follow up that bird with your dog. In the best case, you may find that you get a second flush, and even if the first shot was a miss, the second opportunity might prove itself to be a bit more successful. On occasion, if you give your dog the free rein to hunt and work an area where a cripple might have landed, that dog will conjure a bird out of the most unlikely places. And in the event that you did miss, and your follow-up comes up empty, you can at least move on knowing that you did your due diligence, and that the supposed miss was a miss indeed, and the bird will live to fly another day.

Spaniel jumping in air for a ring-necked pheasantIf your dog is working left when you think the bird is to the your dog for a few minutes. When it comes to scent, your dog has you bested. (Photo By: Venee Gardner)

The bottom line is this: As a flushing dog trainer you should retain control over the drilling and training environment, and you should create behavioral guardrails within which your dog should be held. But when that dog gets into bird-finding mode, and when he gets on the ground in likely cover, he is truly in his element. In those moments and environments, it is important to remember that there are skills you are not qualified to teach.

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