I love the moments when a young bird dog proves she’s getting it.
Jade is two years old and starting her third season in the field. English setters are often described as late bloomers, bird dogs that don’t really get their hunting legs under them until they’re 4ish.
My experience, based on three setters, is that the late-bloomer label is more a suggestion than a rule.
That’s what Jade will tell you.
She’s an early bloomer who was making good decisions in the field when she was just 5 months old. We didn’t go on any day-long epic hunts that first year, as it can damage a pup’s still-growing joints and lead to trouble later in life. Instead, we hunted in short bursts, an hour or two, with breaks to rest her developing bones.
But even in those short hunts, it was clear she was a hunter. She shadowed Doll all season, always tailing the big dog, who was still in her prime.
My favorite memory from two years ago was watching Doll get birdy and turn into the wind on a grass-covered rise. Jade was on her heels, watching and surveying the wind as Doll pinned down the birds and pointed.
Jade stopped as well, though she wasn’t quite as statuesque. She gave me a little sideways glance over her shoulder, as if to ask, “Am I doing this right?”
The girls held point until I flushed the birds. They were pheasants, all female, so I yelled, “Hen!” I do that even when hunting alone, figuring the dogs will learn that, “Hen!” means I’m not shooting. It also keeps me in the habit when I’m hunting with friends.
Wild hen pheasants may be the best pointing dog trainer in the known universe. Not quite as big as roosters, they still create a considerable scent trail for dogs. And unlike their male counterparts, hen pheasant don’t run from pointing dogs like wild banshees. I suppose that’s because when they do flush, the only thing that happens is hunters shout about their gender.
I’ve written about her early backing before. A more recent example came last weekend. We hunted Saturday with the Long Walker and his Brittanys, two experienced dogs so Jade deferred a bit.
That was fine as I confirmed Jade understands backing, whether it’s Doll pointing in front of her or some other dog. And she ran out and found a few birds herself, independently from the Long Walker’s wider-ranging dogs.
Still, I was pleased to get some one-on-one time with her on Sunday, the better to evaluate her burgeoning skills.
The perfect moment came in the afternoon as we walked along a dike road in a waterfowl production area packed with pheasant. I watched her get birdy about 50 yards ahead, then lock up on point facing a thicket of reed and cane just off the dry side of the road.
She was still on point when I caught up, and stayed so as I stepped out in front of her, stomping on the tall cover to flush the bird.
Finally, I turned to Jade and gave her the “Find birds!” command. That’s my signal she can break point to relocate the bird.
She broke point, but only to cock her head two inches to the right and freeze again.
That’s dog talk for, “It hasn’t budged!”
“OK,” I said, stomping closer to her fixed snout.
Then the bird flushed from under my boot, less than a foot from Jade. I raised my gun and yelled “Hen!” and watched it fly.
Jade bolted after the pheasant for a moment — a trait that will serve us well with wounded birds — then came back for a scratch behind the ears while I purred, “Good girl. What a good girl.”
Yes, my young bird dog will be just fine.
Rob Breeding’s website is www.mthookandbullet.com.
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