It wasn’t that long ago that a good portion of the upland-hunting population focused solely on one species. Whether it was quail, pheasants, or grouse, hunters were less keen to travel, and more likely to stick with whatever opportunities they had close to home.
This just isn’t the case anymore.
Traveling to hunt has never been easier, and truthfully, we are more aware of hunting opportunities near and far than ever before. This means you don’t have to put 1,500 miles on your truck to step outside of your comfort zone, and instead might just have to drive a couple hours up north to go from pheasant sloughs to the grouse woods.
This is a good thing for all two- and four-legged hunters, but the latter will need a little help before you ask him to perform in a new environment, with birds he has little to no experience with. This is where I see a lot of hunters lose their cool with their retrievers, which is a shame, because it’s totally avoidable with the right training plan.
Many times, I’ve heard from folks who have trained and developed fantastic pheasant dogs, only to set them loose in the big woods for grouse and woodcock and watch them struggle. The expectation is that the skills will transfer, but that’s not how it works for most dogs, unfortunately.
For starters, at least with the pheasant-to-grouse example, the dog has likely spent its whole life hunting and training in grass. That’s where birds live (in his mind), and so when he is expected to hunt in the thick woods for the first time, he likely doesn’t understand what you’re even doing there.
You need to train him in the woods, preferably with some pigeons or chukars, if possible. This not only encourages him to hunt in a new environment, but also allows you to work him close, considering he might be used to ranging out at pheasant distances, which doesn’t cut it when it comes to grouse and woodcock flushes.
In a reverse situation, imagine asking an established grouse and woodcock dog to hunt roosters in a standing cornfield. The idea with any of this is that a dog needs an introduction to new birds and new environments, at least to the best of your ability. You might not be able to exactly match quail habitat if you live in Michigan, or prime pheasant habitat if you live in Texas, but you’ve got to try. This is one of the reasons I try to remind dog owners that new and varied training environments, and exposure to new challenges, is a good thing throughout the dog’s life.
Any retriever that has worked in vastly different environments from a young age, is going to be better off on a new type of hunt than a dog that has only ever trained in very specific habitats.
It’s also a good idea to work up a sweat on those adventure hunts and get in where the birds live, even if you believe that’s solely the dog’s job. If you’re walking a two-track for grouse, the dog is likely to stay on the easy path as well—and probably won’t find too many birds. But if you veer off the trail and work your way through the cover, the dog will follow suit. The same goes for pheasants in the cattails, quail in the mesquite, and on and on. Eventually, if you get the dog working where the birds live, the reason he is there will click into place quickly.
Dead Bird, Now What?
Another common complaint that comes out of the new-bird crowd is a dog that won’t pick up his first woodcock or grouse or whatever. At this point, after initial success in a new environment, I often try to get the dog excited and toss the dead bird a short ways. I want the dog to see we are going to have some retrieving fun, and that’s usually enough to get them over the hump.
You can, long before you the season starts, work with dummies that are covered in new game-bird scent as well. While I prefer to always try to get live (or dead) birds to run through some introduction work, that’s just not possible for everyone. A dummy with some wax-based scent is your next best option.
Worrying about whether your dog will hunt in new environments is one thing, but worrying that your dog will want to hunt too much is another. When it comes to taking an established upland dog and asking them to dove hunt, or duck hunt, you’re really asking a lot if you haven’t trained for it.
To go from seeking out scent and flushes by running across the landscape to sitting tight and watching all of the action unfold from one spot is very unnatural for dogs. And it simply won’t happen if you don’t train for it. It’s also not fair to ask a high-drive dog for steadiness when he hasn’t been trained to be steady, because that’s a sure recipe for failure.
I like to set up dove or duck hunts, complete with spinning wing decoys and calls and whatever the hunt will include, to introduce my dogs to the reality that we have two styles of hunting. One that requires them to go out and find birds, and one that requires them to sit tight (and quietly) and wait for me to send them for retrieves. There isn’t a dog out there that understands this difference without training, so you’ve got to anticipate what you plan to do with your dog and how they’ll react to the new tasks.
This might sound like a lot, and it can be if you try to cram it into a couple of weekend training sessions—so don’t. Take it slow and introduce your dog one new environment at a time. Think about all of the different places you’ll hunt with your dog and the styles best suited to each, and then build a long-term plan to prepare your dog for them. With enough time and effort, you’ll get your dog to the point where there isn’t anything you can’t ask of him hunting-wise, which is a beautiful thing.