Working with bumpers and dummies is a year-round affair for most of our dogs, but actual contact with live (or recently alive) birds isn’t. In fact, by the time you get into the summer your dog will probably not have had contact with the real thing in several months.
This can be a problem when the season opens, which is why it’s best to start addressing the live-bird issue long before September or October. There are several considerations to be made when dealing with actual birds in a training scenario, not the least of which is access to the real thing.
Dead Ones, Live Ones
Just as a disclaimer, if anyone reading this is dealing with a young dog that hasn’t been introduced to feathers, don’t go looking for a good deal on live ducks just yet. A pup that hasn’t been started on a wing and then moved up to a frozen bird is not ready for a live bird. Getting your hands on some wings is easy enough.
For whole dead birds, I like to start with pigeons and quail. If you run into availability issues finding either, you might be able to find frozen chukar. Now, if you’re introducing a puppy to a frozen bird remember that you want it truly frozen. Mushy is no good because your pup will be tempted to chomp away.
Keep the bird in the freezer until you need it and then only use it for a few retrieves before putting it back in the freezer. If your dog, for whatever reason, is hesitant or not showing interest in the frozen bird, do not force it into the dog’s mouth. Figure out a new way to make it fun and encourage the dog to retrieve and bring it back to hand.
If you’re beyond that stage with your dog, run an internet search to see what live birds are available in your area. It may seem strange, but you’ll probably notice that it’s easier to purchase quail, pheasants, chukar or mallards, than it is to find live pigeons.
They usually have to be caught, which means they can be a scarcity in the trainer’s world. This is a shame because pigeons are an amazing bird to train with for both retrievers and pointing breeds. With the latter, homing pigeons are the best because the bird will get up and fly back to its home, allowing you to use it again and again, alleviating the need to shoot during every drill.
Currently, the going rate for live pigeons seems to be about $3-5 per bird. Game birds, while easier to come by, will cost more. Regardless, the price of live birds is always, always worth it.
Seasoned bird dogs can benefit greatly from live-bird work in the summer. They are ideal for pointing breeds in need of a little steadiness work. Some pointers slip into creeper mode if they aren’t corrected, and that can lead to bumping birds in the field. You can address those issues during training drills with live birds better than you can in any other highly controlled training scenario.
For retrievers that are tasked with flushing upland game throughout the season, live birds represent an opportunity to trail through the cover and recover cripples. I love using scented dummies for this lesson as well, but nothing really compares to an actual bird weaving its way through the grass and leaving a scent trail.
Upland birds of all varieties, but especially pheasants, are masters of covering ground and leading our dogs through the thick stuff while trying to get ahead. They do this while healthy and masterfully while wounded, so summer trailing work with the real deal is essential for a flusher that might spend its time in the CRP fields working up ringnecks.
Live birds, which can be shot after they’re flushed in a training drill, also allow for the chance to address your dog’s behavior when something close to real hunting is unfolding. Excited dogs are dogs that are hard to control. They are also dogs that will slip up, maybe forget how to deliver to hand, and generally make some mistakes that we’d all rather avoid.
The opportunity to know where a live bird is, let the dog hunt it up, and then to shoot it in a controlled situation (as opposed to actual hunting, which is not controlled) allows you as a handler to truly address your dog’s skills as they are displayed when it matters most.
This is also a great opportunity to address a dog’s willingness to get too far out, or in some cases, not far enough. With a planted bird, you can reset the dog or rein him in if he’s ranging too far, as much as you need to in order to get the lesson through. That becomes a huge benefit during the hunting season.
When it comes to a waterfowl retriever, mallards are the way to go. You can usually find live ducks without too much difficulty, and if you do, pick up a duck sock as well. This is simply a little duck straight jacket you can slide over the bird to keep it from flapping or flying off.
This allows for repeated water retrieves while you can add in shotguns, calls, decoys or whatever elements of the hunt you’d like in order to create a hunting scenario. What this does is just up the ante in the pre-season drills to get it as close as possible to what the dog will actually be doing when you creep into a blind or load up the boat in the predawn darkness during duck season.
You can also use ducks for trailing drills in the cover as well, which is an excellent way to remind your retriever that waterfowl can—and will—try to walk or run their way to safety if they’re wounded.
Pre-season training comes in many forms. We often think of it as the time to ease our dogs into peak physical shape but I also like to get my dogs in mental shape as well, and that’s only partially possible with dummy or bumper work.
To truly round out your dog, you’ve got to get your hands on some live birds and structure real-world training scenarios. If you do, you’ll head into the season with a dog that as ready to go as you’re going to get him, which is a very good thing.