Back to School

By Beacon Staff

I’ll be crating up my young English setter in a few weeks and she’ll be leaving on a jet plane. Doll’s headed for bird dog school.

I like to say I trained my first setter, but I know that overstates my role. Jack trained himself, with minimal contributions from me. In his early puppy days we had a lot of fun with a quail wing on a string tied to the tip of an old fly rod. Even as a pup, Jack catwalked behind that mysterious, sweet-smelling clump of feathers, slowing to a point when I stopped dragging the wing around the yard.

As he got older I put him on wild birds as much as possible — especially at the critical time when he was about 2 years old. But Jack never required that much work. He responded to those wild birds the same way he did to the fly rod wing: he got his nose on scent, followed it deliberatively, and when he was sure there was a bird on the ground in front of him, Jack held steady on point.

To this day he rarely gets it wrong.

Bird dog training for Jack consisted largely of me not screwing him up. There were a few minor goofs along the way, but by the time he was 5 or 6 he was a skilled bird dog with a sharp nose and a point so solid I scoffed at the idea of “whoa” training.

I’d heard all the horror stories about dogs that ran wild and busted coveys well out of range. But I never really took those stories seriously. It was so easy with Jack once he worked the puppy out. Doll, however, has given me reason to rethink this whole training-is-easy philosophy. At 4 years old, she isn’t a bad dog in the field. In fact Doll’s shown a great love for hunting, and, at least as far as setters go, a great desire to retrieve.

In her first real season in the field the girl made it clear she took this retrieval business seriously. We were hunting sharptails in the Sweet Grass Hills. I knocked down a bird with what I figured was a hard, killing shot as the sharpie dropped like a rock just over the ridgeline.

Doll set out after the bird at a brisk pace. I expected a quick retrieve but the pup was gone for a few minutes. I grew concerned, thinking she’d picked up the dead bird and was sitting under a tree somewhere, helping herself to fresh sharptail breast.

I stood at the spot where I thought I’d seen the dead bird fall out of the sky and called for my dog. I started to curse her name under my breath. There were more birds on the ridgeline to hunt. I was just about to leave birds to search for my “bad” dog when she came sprinting back up the ridge with a sharpie clamped in her jaw.

Doll ran up and reluctantly released the dead bird, which immediately flapped a broken wing. The sharpie wasn’t dead at all, but had instead hit the ground running. The pup hadn’t been off doing about the worse thing a bird dog can do after all. She’d instead been doing what some of even the best settlers never do, retrieving a difficult wounded bird like a champ.

I’ve seen enough of Doll to believe she’s got what it takes in the field. But overall, the record is a little spotty. Sometimes she points like a champ. But when she screws up I can’t tell if she’s busting birds for the heck of it, or just hasn’t mastered the subtleties of scenting birds the way Jack has. She may just be running over the top of them because she still hunts too much with her feet, and not enough with her nose.

So my girl’s heading back to school, where she’ll get a few months of concentrated training from an old friend who’s done this a few hundred times before.

I’m too busy teaching to help her take that final step. Another teacher will get her there.

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