You've heard it before: it takes birds to make a bird dog.
Sure, you can train - at least to a functional level - virtually any hunting dog without using live birds, and thousands of amateur trainers do so ever year. But why would you? It's not efficient and it's certainly not easy.
So let's talk about training dogs the efficient way.
Wild birds are not inherently better for your dog than pen-raised birds. There was a time, perhaps, when that wasn't true, when wild birds were abundant and access to the land they lived on was given freely. Even so, I have my doubts. As far back into the 20th century as you care to explore, professional bird dog trainers have always used penned birds to train dogs, mostly quail, pheasants and pigeons.
The problem with wild birds - even if you have access to scads of them - is that you can't control where your dog is going to find them, or when and where they flush, all things that are crucial to the training process. Teaching a dog to whoa, remain steady to flush (and/or shot) requires birds that are under your control.
The wild vs. penned bird debate has been going on for decades, and my two cents' worth isn't going to change that. Like most of you, I've hunted over dogs who have never been near a penned bird. Some of them were pretty good dogs, too. Still, that debate, in my opinion, misinterprets the definition of "training."
To many, a trained dog is a dog that hunts hard and finds birds. I beg to differ. Hunting is not something you can train, it's something a dog has to learn on his own, and there is no better way to get a hunting dog to hunt then to take him hunting - on wild birds. Many people who disdain training with penned birds take this route. And honestly? That's fine. The point is to enjoy the time you spend with your dog, regardless of what I think.
But some of you - probably most of you, or you wouldn't be reading this - want a bit more out of your dog. You want him to back, you want him to whoa on command, and you want him to remain steady after the birds flush. For all practical purposes, those goals are, if not impossible, very, very difficult without using some kind of penned birds.
Certainly there are trade-offs, and penned birds do have minor disadvantages. One is that they can, and often do, tempt young dogs to crowd them. Of the dogs I've had in my kennel over the last dozen years, nearly all crowded planted birds at least a few times. Once a dog learns he can put his nose under a pigeon's tail feather - he will.
Placing the bird in a trap and popping it when the dog gets too close will usually solve that problem, but even if it doesn't, it almost never carries over into the field. Most wild birds simply won't allow a dog to get that close, and of those that do - Mearns quail and woodcock come to mind - so what? Dogs quickly learn just how close they can get to a wild bird, and adjust their approach accordingly.
Wild Vs. Domestic
Perhaps the biggest objection I hear, however, is that penned birds aren't, well, like wild birds. No argument from me there. But extrapolating that wild birds are therefore better to train with is not a conclusion supported by my experience, nor the experience of any pro trainer I've ever met. Again, if you had access to lots of wild birds, and you could control where they held and how they flushed, maybe. But that's a really big "maybe," so the answer is still no.
In the last 30 years, I've worked with a couple different species of quail and a handful of chukars, but I now train with pigeons exclusively. That means any young dog I train goes through a transition period at the start of his first hunting season, during which he's learning to hunt at the same time he's learning what he's hunting for. How long that transition takes depends upon how often I hunt him, but in my experience it's usually not long, typically a matter of a few weeks. And once a dog figures out how to hunt, he retains that knowledge for life.
Another cited advantage of wild birds is that your dog will never trap one, and therefore won't be tempted to flush rather than point. The first part of this assertion is true. If you use planted birds, especially if they're not confined in a manual or automatic trap, sooner or later your dog is going to catch one (and probably kill it). This is never good, but it's not the end of the world, either. Trapping a bird won't turn a well-bred pointing dog into a flusher, period. It just doesn't work that way.
So let's take this a bit further. If penned birds are good, wouldn't quail, pheasant, chukars or some other type of domesticated wild bird be more realistic, and therefore better, than plain old pigeons? Seems like they would be, wouldn't it? After all, a pen-raised chukar has to smell something like a wild chukar, right? Back in the day, I considered that a plausible argument.
But all the penned "wild" birds I used had a similar problem: weak flushes, short flights and a pronounced lack of durability. When I began using pigeons, all those problems vanished. Pigeons always fly no matter how long they've been confined in a coop (unlike quail), flush reasonably well even when dizzied and planted on the ground, and are tough as nails.
I've had pigeons which have been roughed up pretty badly by my dogs shake it off like a running back who has just had his bell rung and then live to play the game again. That never happened when I was using quail. And pigeons, which I must assume smell nothing like gamebirds, are pointed with plenty of intensity by nearly all young pointing dogs. I've only had a couple dogs over the years who didn't love them.
Okay. All of this is good and well if you have a callback pen, a pigeon coop, or access to one or the other. But some of you don't. Is there any way to train a dog without using penned birds?
Yes, but it's not easy, and your results can be inconsistent. Bearing that in mind, however, here goes.
Happy time your dog. A dog-training mentor of mine coined that phrase years ago, which I have shamelessly stolen and used ever since. "Happy timing" simply means running your dog in cover that holds birds. Remember, your dog will teach himself how to hunt. Your job is to (a) teach him to whoa on command in a controlled situation first, and then (b) reinforce that command on wild birds. It's not easy, nor is it particularly efficient, but over time it will work, if you hang in there.
A better option is to spend the coin for a preserve. Rather than turn birds loose at random, get the handlers to plant several birds at a time in pre-arranged locations, and then work your dog on as many of them as you can find. The big drawback to this is that most preserves aren't open year around, which will limit a dog's training on birds when it needs it most, during the summer. But it's a much better alternative than nothing. Again, teach your dog the fundamentals first - whoa" and "come" - then reinforce them on preserve birds.
Either way, you're going to need birds. If you want to bring your dog to a high level of training, the benefit to your pooch will be many times over the minor expense and occasional hassle of keeping a small flock of pigeons or quail. Working with penned birds is easy, efficient, and best of all, your dogs will love them. You can bet the ranch on it.