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When Is It Okay to Train Your Dog on Wild Birds?

A deep dive into the laws and ethics of training gun dogs using wild birds.

When Is It Okay to Train Your Dog on Wild Birds?

Wild birds help educate and refine gun dogs—but it's important not to run your dog during nesting or brood-rearing periods. (Photo courtesy of Dean Pearson)

It was the end of a long day in the field. Our morning started in rolling sharp-tailed grouse covers. In the afternoon, we transitioned to the partridge hills. After returning to our truck, we noticed a pair of pointers running the sage flats several hundred yards ahead. Driving out to the main road, we encountered a hunter. We exchanged pleasantries.

“No, we are from out of state but heard the sage grouse numbers are good this year,” he stated.

“Well, sage grouse closed a week ago,” I noted.

“Yeah, we’re just training.”

We parted ways, and on the drive home, I started thinking. Is training on wild birds out of season legal? If it is legal, is it ethical? After all, the area we had been hunting only has pockets of remaining sage grouse. Their numbers are sparse, so the hunting season for them is only three days long.

Why Train Dogs Using Wild Birds?

Many trainers keep homing pigeons, a handy resource that allows dogs to be regularly exposed to bird contacts. Others train their dogs with pen-raised chukar and pheasants that will hold tight for excited young noses. Most novice and professional trainers also like to put their dogs on wild birds before hunting season.

This practice is commonplace, especially in western states that have more extensive wild bird populations. Some trainers work local covers, while others travel for pre-season training.

“I think it’s widely believed among trainers that wild birds are irreplaceable when it comes to developing a bird dog in certain facets of the game.” says Todd Lehner, a professional gun dog trainer who lives in eastern Montana.”

“Hunter Payne, a professional trainer from Tennessee agrees. “Basic training starts with pigeons and pen-raised birds, but the polish and savviness comes from exposure to wild birds. Many old bird hunters will say they never trained their dogs, they just hunted them. They had wild birds, and that’s what makes a real bird dog.”

To help preserve solid bird numbers come fall, don't pressuring birds during nesting seasons this spring.

What Effect Does Dog Training Have on Wild Birds?

Wild birds are good for training dogs, but is dog training bad for wild birds? Just like every other aspect of game management, out of season dog training should be informed by sound science.

Travis Runia is the state of South Dakota’s senior upland game biologist. He explained the state’s approach to managing dog training.

“Research in South Dakota has shown dog training has very little influence on prairie grouse behavior or survival and is not expected to detrimentally impact hunting opportunities or the population.”

However, he also pointed out that other research has shown detrimental effects on recruitment, or juvenile bird survival. Research on the impacts of flushing hens off nests or flushing broods is limited. Starting in 1967, scientists began looking at whether these disturbances hurt bird numbers. Since then, sporadic research has considered the effects on multiple species, including prairie chickens, sharp-tailed grouse, pheasants, sage grouse, and sooty grouse.

Some studies showed that the earlier a hen was disturbed during the nesting period, the more likely she was to abandon the nest. Multiple studies demonstrated that flushing hens off of nests had a detrimental effect on nesting success, albeit a statistically insignificant impact.

At least that’s the case in healthy bird populations. Researchers have stressed the need for additional study. The impacts might be more significant in fragmented or declining game bird populations.

Family groups are very important to the development of juvenile birds. Researchers have mentioned probable negative effects to flushing broods, but the few studies that attempted to measure brood survival related to brood disturbance had small samples. Despite the limited research, it is likely that flushing broods increases mortality, with impacts being inversely related to brood age.

This consideration pertains not only to training our dogs before bird season, but to hunting during the season itself. Many bird species are still in family groups at the start of the season. Young of the year are more likely to hold tight for a dog, but they may also be less likely to survive if separated from their family group. 
In years with especially wet late spring and summer conditions, game birds attempt to re-nest if their first nest fails. This can lead to very young broods, even during the prime hunting season. This phenomenon can be observed in all upland birds from blue grouse to Mearns quail.

When to Train on Wild Birds and When to Wait

Experienced trainers agree that wild birds are a critical component of gun dog development. However, they also agree that there’s a right time and a wrong time to train on them.

“An ethical trainer will avoid training during the nesting season,” Payne explains. “This means from the time the birds begin to pair until the new hatch has good flight abilities.”

Jared Wiklund, Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever’s public relations manager, explains why. “If a nest is abandoned due to dog pressure during the laying or early incubation stage, this is concerning because a hen lays fewer eggs during each subsequent nesting attempt, and chicks hatched late in the season have a lower chance at survival.”

The nesting and brood-rearing period varies depending on the location and species, but usually lasts from mid to late spring through early summer. During that time period, birds are going through complex reproduction cycles. Human and dog disturbance at any point in this process can reduce survival.

That doesn't mean that you can't keep your dog sharp at this critical time.

“Taking a three-month hiatus from wild birds is not going to make or break a bird dog,” Wiklund says. “There are lots of alternatives, from training clubs—NAVHDA for example—and game farms to open training grounds in your local community that are designed for year-round hunting dog use.”

Trainer kneels down with English setter to style it up
Spring and early summer is a good time to take a break from wild birds and touch up on other training areas. (Photo courtesy of Robert Jones)

State Dog Training Regulations

Many states enforce a ‘quiet period’ in order to give the birds a break at this critical time. Consult your state regulations before heading into the field to train.

These rules aren’t always listed in general hunting regulations, so a phone call to your state game agency could be the best way to ensure that you are complying with current laws. Although these rules may require some work to find, it is your responsibility as a sportsman or woman to comply with them.

When asking Runia why dog training is regulated in South Dakota, he explained that these rules are in place as an effort to reduce flushing of young broods, which could reduce survival. He recommends following the rule to minimize impacts to the wild bird population. South Dakota also has stipulations in place that limit conflict between recreational users and commercial users.

Some states regulate when you can train your dog, but also who can train, where, and how many dogs. For example, North Dakota prohibits “professional trainers” from running dogs on wild birds between mid-April and mid-July.

In Iowa, hunting license holders can train on wild birds out of season, but state game management areas are closed from mid-March to mid-July. Montana prohibits wild bird training within a mile of “bird nesting areas,” unless the trainer holds a special permit. Wyoming prohibits training on sage grouse, but allows handlers to run their dogs on other species.

“It’s important for dog trainers to respect those quiet periods,” says Wiklund. “The population of birds, which is the ultimate reason those dogs are being trained, depend on those hens’ ability to nest, hatch, and raise chicks—particularly for a short-lived species like pheasants that are almost exclusively reliant on annual reproduction for population success.”

a pheasant in the grass
Nesting and brood-rearing periods vary depending on the location and species, but usually last from mid spring to early summer. (Bahadir Yeniceri |

The Ethics of Dog Training and Wild Birds

Do we need stricter regulation of dog training? It depends on who you ask.

“Blocked out quiet seasons aren’t inherently out of line,” says Lerner. “But I don’t know anybody who works dogs on wild birds during or shortly after nesting anyway, so if it’s true that the problem doesn’t exist, I don’t think we need a rule for it.”

Payne doesn’t like needless regulations either, but he sees more potential issues where he trains dogs.

“I am increasingly appalled by the new internet hunter and what I see going on with woodcock. Many use the internet to track the migrating birds, never giving these birds a break.”

Most professional trainers choose to exercise caution even when it isn’t required, but there is no financial incentive for them to do so. In fact, a trainer could conceivably make more money if they over-work birds. Recreational hunters also usually choose to be cautious even when laws don’t require it.

“There is some evidence that flushing broods, especially young broods, can cause reduced survival,” says Runia.

“Dog trainers could keep that in mind as they consider how ethics guide their actions.”

Looking at the science, it is probable that casual dog trainers won’t have a negative impact on game bird recruitment if they follow state regulations. States regulate the practice with an abundance of caution. The laws are there to safeguard against trainers with wanton disregard for the well-being of the birds.

In 2017, Montana FWP considered tightening regulations after complaints about some trainers pummeling covers repeatedly with dozens of dogs.

Todd thinks these people are outliers. “As it pertains to protecting the God-given resource that is wild birds, I personally don’t know any trainers that are reckless or are abusing what’s out there. That’s not to say those folks don’t exist, but I just don’t know any.”

Assuming out-of-season dog training is within legal limits, we must recognize the right of the individual to choose their own course. However, we also have a responsibility to hold our community accountable. If we see the actions of sportsmen and women damaging game populations and their habitats, we should be leading the call for an ethical standard, and in some cases, stricter regulations.

“We as hunters, conservationists, and bird dog owners should be doing everything in our power to help wildlife thrive on the landscape, this includes leaving our favorite quarry undisturbed during the most critical time of the year,” says Wiklund. “Pressuring upland gamebirds with bird dogs during the nesting and brood-rearing season is simply biting the hand that feeds you.”

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