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When and How to Introduce Birds to Your Gun Dog

A successful introduction to birds relies upon an individualized approach.

When and How to Introduce Birds to Your Gun Dog

A proper bird introduciton builds prey drive and lights the fire that will keep a bird dog hunting their entire life. (Susanna Love photo)

It goes without saying that a successful bird dog is passionate about hunting birds. The desire that fuels their passion is known as prey drive. A strong prey drive is what keeps dogs pursuing game even in the toughest of conditions. The development of prey drive requires that a dog be introduced to live birds in a positive way that encourages his innate, genetic desire for game to develop. As the process of developing prey drive is critical in a bird dog’s success, we receive a lot of questions about how to introduce birds. When is the appropriate age? How do you introduce a dog to birds in a way that ensures success?

Here at Ronnie Smith Kennels, we believe that a puppy benefits from gentle introductions early in life. As is so often the case with animals, there is no universal date in a dog’s life when the important introduction to birds should take place. To the contrary, it is critical to look at behavioral markers that will help determine when an individual dog is ready to meet his first bird.

When is the Right Time?

A young dog is ready to be introduced to birds when he exhibits the following behaviors: he must be bold and confident in new situations, comfortable in the field, and physically big enough to navigate the cover he will be working in. These markers will ensure a bird dog can be successfully introduced in a controlled environment and that the introduction will move the dog in a positive forward direction in the development of a great bird dog. At this point it is our goal to simply build prey drive and light the fire that will keep the dog hunting birds for a lifetime.

We have certainly introduced litters of young pups to birds, but we have also received fully grown dogs for training that were not yet ready for bird introduction. Again, each dog is an individual and has to be treated accordingly. When you are dealing with animals there are few hard and fast rules that apply to all dogs; developing and training dogs successfully, simply put, means addressing the needs of each dog at the appropriate time to build desired behaviors. It is the job of the trainer to assess the dog’s confidence, boldness, and comfort in the environments where bird introduction will take place.

English pointer puppy with handler and pigeon
A young dog is ready for bird introduction when they are bold and confident in new situations and comfortable in the field. (Susanna Love photo)

The First Introduction

We typically begin by placing a restrained bird in short grass where it is easy for the dog to approach, and we quietly allow the dog time to investigate and gain confidence around the bird. Upon first encountering the restrained bird the puppy will often move in and dart back as it builds confidence. This is normal investigatory behavior for a dog that is curious, but uncertain about a new situation/scent. It is key during this stage (and in many of our training interactions with dogs) that we refrain from intruding in the process of investigation. We do not speak much, if at all; we move slowly and methodically. We do not want, at any time, to become the focus of the dog’s attention. Rather, we want his full attention to be focused on the bird. Human talk is a distraction and makes it hard for the dog to fully focus on this new animal they are genetically programmed to feel attraction to. Silence is golden. Trust the process, and let the dog explore the bird on his own terms. If the dog loses interest in the bird, it is possible to refocus him by moving the bird a little. This movement triggers the instinctive “prey chase” response (the reason a puppy will also chase a leaf blowing by him) and should re-engage the dog with the bird.

There is very little that a dog can do wrong during this initial bird introduction. Take things at the dog’s pace. If the investigation is short-lived, don’t force the issue; take a break and repeat the scenario the next day. Upon meeting a bird for the first time a dog may lay down, bark, or run in circles. These are simply responses of an inquisitive dog that is working through the stress of determining if this new stimulus, namely a bird, is good or bad. It is okay if your dog does not show much interest or does not point the bird at this stage. Keep presenting them with the opportunity to discover a passion for game. If your dog has the genetics, the drive will kick in with time and opportunity.

English pointer puppy with a pigeon
There is very little a dog can do wrong during an initial bird introduction; allow things to happen at their own pace. (Susanna Love photo)

It is absolutely fine if the dog chooses to pick up and carry the bird. When this happens, immediately begin moving. Take a little walk, encouraging the dog to bring its prized possession and go with you. This is a great opportunity to begin building a good hold and a good retrieve in a young dog. We intervene in a bird introduction only if the dog gets hard-mouthed with the pigeon, or goes in too aggressively on a restrained bird. When this happens, we will simply pick up the bird and move on to the next stage of development. At no time in any dog’s training do we want to build those undesired behaviors.

Next Steps

Once we have determined the dog is excited about encountering a restrained bird in short grass and will go in without hesitation to pick up the bird, we move into the next stage. The second stage requires us to hide a bird in thicker vegetation so that the dog must use his nose to locate that intoxicating scent, rather than search with his eyes. In this stage we usually use a “tip-up,” or a small wire cage with an arm that can be stepped on to “tip-up” the cage and free the bird whenever desired. The tip-up not only offers a degree of protection, keeping an aggressive dog from jumping in and maiming our valuable training bird, but it also allows us to add a controlled flush into the scenario when our dog is ready.

While we typically start with a restrained pigeon for the initial bird introduction, we often cross over to a quail when we transition to the tip-up scenario. Either pigeons or game birds are fine, many times what is used is simply determined by what is available and works well in a particular environment. When we transition to birds in tip-ups, we make sure that we have our dog on a check cord, which allows us to effectively control the dog’s behavior and response to game. It is in this second stage that we begin to shape behavior, developing the habit of holding a staunch point as soon as scent is encountered.

There is a lot more to presenting your dog with scent than would outwardly seem apparent. In setting your dog up for a “perfect point” it is imperative that you bring your dog across the scent cone (downwind of where the bird is planted) and stop him with the cord the moment he recognizes scent. We think it is key here to allow your dog plenty of time to stand on point. This allows the dog sufficient time to process and understand scent, and it begins to cultivate the pointing mindset. When the dog crosses the scent and it grabs his attention, we work our way up the rope in a quiet manner until we are able to kneel beside the dog. We hold him gently in a standing position while the bird is flushed by an assistant.

English pointer puppy with a pigeon
A check cord is a valuable tool to control a young dog and guide his bird work. (Susanna Love photo)

Remember, the goal with bird introduction is to ignite the prey-drive that has been bred into your bird dog for generations. The process requires you to eliminate distraction and to allow that innate desire to come through. If you are able to introduce birds in a positive way that begins to build a strong prey drive you are taking the right steps in developing your bird dog. In the end, bird dog training is simply about structuring and encouraging behavior in such a way that the dogs have an incredible desire to find, point, and, ideally, retrieve game birds.

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