For many non-dog owners, pigeons are seen mostly as a problem. Sure, a few people feed them in the park, but otherwise they smell up warehouses, poop on vehicles, and make nuisances of themselves for business and homeowners who grow weary of cleaning up after these uninvited guests.
For bird dog owners and trainers, however, pigeons are a valuable asset. The variety of ways they can be used to train and work pointing dogs—from young puppies up through finished dogs—is truly incredible. Sure, they’re not as good as wild birds for many training occasions, but wild birds aren’t always available or plentiful. Pigeons are, however, a good substitute—or supplement—that are cheap to acquire and easy to raise.
Pigeons are found just about everywhere in the United States, and in most areas are quite abundant. They especially like to live around urban areas, and they are very prolific birds.
Pigeons can start reproducing by the time they reach about seven months of age. A week or two after fertilization by the male of the monogamous pair, the female usually lays two eggs a day apart, although sometimes she’ll lay just one, and occasionally three.
Eggs hatch in 17 to 18 days. Young birds grow quickly and are nearly fully feathered by a month old. Not long after that, they’re ready to fly.
The reproductive cycle is ongoing throughout the year. The female often lays another pair of eggs before the chicks fledge.
One of the most incredible things about pigeons is their natural homing instinct. Most pigeons have the innate ability to find their way back to their home even over vast distances. That’s one of the reasons they were frequently used to carry important military messages back from the battlefronts in World Wars I and II.
Live Bird Training
That instinct to return home is also one of the things that makes pigeons so useful to dog trainers. Once you have pigeons homed to your loft or pen, that homing instinct makes them a reusable resource that doesn’t have to be replaced. In fact, when I work my dogs on pigeons at my training grounds about 10 miles from home, the pigeons are usually already back in their pen when I return after training.
The old saying that the best way to make a good bird dog is hunting it on wild birds is, I believe, quite accurate. But with wild birds not always an option for a number of reasons, live birds that are hearty, strong fliers, and easy to acquire, are the next best thing.
Pigeons fit those criteria quite well. A quick look at Craigslist will likely reveal ready sources, as will asking about availability on dog-related Facebook forums.
Raising your own pigeons is actually quite easy, and it doesn’t take a lot of space. Since four square feet per bird is the recommended space requirement, many people raise a couple of pairs in backyard pens in urban areas. Note that you can’t just buy a handful of pigeons, put them in your loft or pen at home, and start training with them next week. They’ll certainly go back where they came from.
Training pigeons to return home to your loft or pen is doable, it just takes a bit of time and patience. I’ve kept birds in my pen for three or four months before using them to train, and they’ve flown back to their previous home the minute I flushed them. However, if you’re patient enough to wait until they mate and raise young, the parent birds will usually consider your loft their new home. And the young raised there will, too. Consequently, after a few generations, you can have a penful of pigeons that return each time you use them.
When first working young dogs on finding and pointing birds, pigeons are ideal. Place a pigeon in the cover you want your dog to hunt, then lead the pup in on a check cord crosswind where the scent will hit him and he’ll stop and point. You can then flush the pigeon, or have an assistant do it.
Pigeons are also ideal when working dogs on steady to wing or steady to wing and shot. However, older dogs often get “sticky” when you put out a pigeon, let them out of the truck, and expect them to go hunt for it. Instead of hunting, they’ll creep around and “ugly point,” expecting the bird to be right there.
Fortunately, it’s not hard to put a pigeon “to sleep.” To do this, take a pigeon, place its head under one wing, and then lay it down on that wing. While you hold on to it with one hand, pull the legs out with the other. Hold the legs back for several seconds until the bird relaxes. Once you release the legs, the bird will typically stay there for 10 minutes or longer, although sometimes he’ll wake up sooner. This will allow you to put out a bird, and then start your dog hunting some distance away. The dog can then get up a full head of steam before finding and pointing the bird, which should still be where you placed it. To wake it up, nudge it with your foot until it pulls its head out from under its wing.
Pigeons are also ideal for those who like to use bird launchers. For a dog that is creeping while on point, launching a pigeon after he takes that first step will eventually help him learn that taking steps scares birds away—an important lesson.
Want to teach your dog to remain staunch after a flush? Carry a pigeon along with you in a bird bag, and toss it when the dog begins to relax. Doing that a time or two will keep a dog expecting the possibility of another bird flushing, keeping him tall and staunch.
A bird bag full of pigeons is also useful for teaching stop to flush. When the dog is passing by, just grab a bird from the bag and toss it where the dog will see it fly.
Many older dogs prefer real game birds, but I often work my five-year-old female on pigeons when refreshing her on steady to wing and shot, because doing so is handy. I plant a pigeon, let her find and point it, and then I flush the bird and shoot. It’s not as much fun for her as quail, but the repetitions get the point across.
The Pigeon Pole
While there are many methods that can be effective if used correctly, one of the very best is with a simple tool called the “pigeon pole.” Trena Cardwell of Chukarhill Kennels in Kittitas, Washington, has been a professional dog trainer for 35 years. Over that time, dogs she has trained have won more than two-dozen English, Irish, and Gordon setter National Field Championships. Every one of those champions spent some time on the pole.
“The pigeon pole is fantastic, but it’s an acquired skill,” Cardwell said. “For a guy who’s trying to break a dog himself, it’s a terrific tool.”
Building a pigeon pole is easy. You need a 10-foot piece of Schedule 40 PVC pipe, a three to four-foot piece of rebar, a hammer, and some kind of line. Cardwell uses decoy line—a heavy, black, rubberized line that has some stretch to it and doesn’t tangle as easily as string. But just about any kind of line will work fairly well.
To construct the pigeon pole, tie the line (about 20-feet long or so) to the end of the pigeon pole. Drilling a hole through the PVC pipe will allow you to attach your line more securely, so it won’t slip off over the top.
Next, choose the location you plan to use it the first time, drive the rebar a foot or so into the ground, then slide the PVC pipe down over the rebar. Tie a pigeon to the other end of the line, and you’re ready to go.
The pigeon pole is simple to use. You can tie the pigeon by one or both feet with a slip-type knot. Since the limber pole bends, or gives, when the pigeon hits the end of the string, it lets the bird down easy and won’t injure the pigeon like an abrupt stop would. Some dog-training supply companies sell harnesses that attach to the pigeon but still allow it to fly, and those can be used also.
One of the true beauties of the pigeon pole is once the bird is flushed, you don’t lose the bird like you do with game birds or untethered pigeons. That means you can use it for multiple repetitions, whether using it to work on steadying a dog to flush or even steadying to wing and shot. Lead the dog away, bring it back, let it point and flush the bird. Dogs learn by repetition, and this makes repeating a situation quite easy.
Controlling the Situation
Cardwell says the key benefit of the pigeon pole is the control it gives the trainer. “When you’re training dogs, you need to have control of all the factors you can,” she said. “You have to have control of both the dog and the birds. With the pigeon pole, you can do that very readily.”
With this apparatus, Cardwell works dogs from young pups to much older dogs needing a steadiness refresher. When training dogs to be steady to wing—her most frequent use of the pigeon pole—she uses a series of poles.
“I never use just one pigeon pole; the least I’ll have out is two,” she said. “I’ve had out as many as six. I want a dog to learn that when he’s doing it correctly, if he comes with me he’s going to have another opportunity at birds.”
Cardwell tries to stay mostly quiet when working dogs on the pigeon pole, not using frequent “Whoas” or other commands. And she has an interesting reason for that.
“That’s because I want them to have their attention on the bird, not on my mouth,” she said. “I want them to learn how to stand their game with composure, without a lot of chatter. And when I bark a ‘Whoa’ at them if I need to, they need to know I mean it.”
Practice Makes Perfect
While it might sound like the pigeon pole is all positive with no drawbacks, Cardwell cautions that problems can occur, and that it takes practice to get really good at using the training tool.
“The trick is to not overdo it,” she said. They’ll get a little lax with it. It helps to move the pole around. People have a tendency to get in the habit of putting the birds in the same spots, and dogs can get bored with that.”
If you’ve never used pigeons for training, it’s likely you’ll at least look at pigeons a little differently the next time you see some roosting under a bridge or feeding in a park. Don’t overlook their potential. Get some pigeons, and then get to work. Your upcoming hunting or field-trial season will be more successful because of it.