Out of Bounds

How to Train a Bird Dog

The most important reward we give our bird dogs is opening the door and setting them loose at the start of the hunt

By Rob Breeding

A reader sent me a note recently with a question. I’m thrilled with any feedback that doesn’t begin with the phrase “Hey, you talentless hack …” 

Since this began with a far more pleasant salutation, I was eager.

The reader, Nick, had a question about bird-dog training. Inquiries on this topic often give me pause. Why? Well, consider the first sentence of the book I’m writing about my life with bird dogs. 

“I want to be clear about this: I’m no bird dog trainer.”

So maybe I’m no trainer, but I’ve hunted for more than two decades over bird dogs I trained, though in reality, it was more a form of peer-to-peer training. My dogs have taught me as much as I them. 

Right now I’m hunting over Jade, a 2-year-old English setter in her third season afield. She has a great nose for birds and holds steady on point, to shot at least. Some prefer their dogs to be steady to release, but I’d rather my setters break quickly to get on wounded birds. 

While Jade is certain to improve with experience, she has one glaring flaw. She’s quick to get on wounded birds, but so far seems reluctant to pick them up. And sometimes she picks them up, then drops them.

This happened the other day. I shot a single quail out of a large covey, marked where the bird fell and headed for that spot. 

If Jade were a Labrador retriever, I’ve no doubt she would have beat me to the bird. But she’s a setter, so not surprisingly, her impulse was to follow the birds in the air. 

I called her back, overcoming her reluctance to leave the flying covey, pointed at the ground and urged her to “Find dead.”

The delay allowed the bird to scurry away, but Jade found it 15 feet away and picked it up. 

Then, she dropped it.

I saw the bird disappear into the grass. Jade then mostly lost interest so it was hard to get her back on task.

The not-dead quail had backtracked to where it had initially fallen. Jade found it, chased it a bit, then finally, at my urging, mouthed it and hung on.

I praised her as if she’d come up with a solution that satisfied all involved in that pesky Wyoming corner-crossing lawsuit making its way through the courts. 

She’s a work in progress when it comes to retrieving.

Nick’s problem wasn’t as difficult. He was worried about letting his German shorthair pointers leg it out after flushing hen pheasants or roosters he’d unfortunately missed. He sees it as a small reward for finding the birds in the first place. He’s concerned his dogs might be frustrated by too many pointless points. 

But he also doesn’t want to anthropomorphize their emotions.

I don’t think Nick’s doing a dang thing wrong. While his sprinting GSP’s might run over birds they might have otherwise pointed, if Nick can live with that outcome, he and his dogs will be fine.

A guide might need to keep pointing dogs on a shorter leash, but I don’t. And it doesn’t sound like Nick needs to either.

Still, the bird hunter who thinks dogs don’t have conscious awareness about hunting is missing a big part of what’s going on between their pup’s ears. Dogs are smarter and more aware of the act of hunting than some realize. They are forever processing the data they collect afield, learning from it and maturing.

I don’t think Nick should worry that his dogs need the reward of a sprint after a flushing hen, however. The most important reward we give our bird dogs is opening the door and setting them loose at the start of the hunt.

Everything after that is just a gravy train for a hard-working bird dog.

Rob Breeding’s website is www.mthookandbullet.com.