First season: focus on the dog, not the birds, for better results.
Today I'm going to talk about what, in the real world, that actually entails. I'm going to dispense with what it is you've actually trained your dog to do, and get to the crux of this month's discussion: your behavior, and what you should do if, how and when.
Your pup's first season, as much as anything, is a mindset, not a physical discipline (it is a physical discipline, but we'll get to that in a moment). For at least the first few weeks, if not the entire season, you will be training your dog, not hunting. Shooting birds is secondary.
That's a tough sell for those who hunt only a half dozen days a year, but, unfortunately, a lack of field time makes it that much more important. The payoff is that, after several months of establishing acceptable parameters for your dog, he'll learn the ropes and be good to go (with occasional, inevitable lapses) for the rest of his life. And yes, if you do your due diligence, it really does work that way.
As I'm writing this, I've got a five-month-old English pointer in my kennel who will be cutting her teeth on blue grouse come September 1st. Let's walk through what I expect will happen during her first few days of hunting and how I plan to deal with the inevitable problems that will arise.
Within the next few months, she'll be collar conditioned and trained to whoa and come. She's still quite young, so she'll get the remainder of her training, the niceties that will turn her into a finished gun dog, either later in the year or next summer.
After hunting one of my other dogs on opening day to get a feel for how the bird numbers are holding up, I'll probably hunt her on day two or three. Just so I won't be tempted, I'll leave my shotgun at home or in my truck. And I'll bring one of my long-suffering friends to shoot, who, through no fault of his own, has been roped into puppy hunting/training sessions with me before and knows the drill.
My pup will be a happy little camper. She won't know exactly what she's about to do but she sure as shootin' will know it's going to be fun. After I walk her in on a leash a safe distance away from the road, I'll turn her loose. Out of the gamut of possibilities you might reasonably surmise, this is what she'll do: she'll run like a bat, out of hell in the wrong direction. I've been to this rodeo before.
But, Buddha like, I will be serene and prepared. When she's made a cast or two, I'll summon her back with the whistle she's been trained to obey, my e-collar transmitter in my hand. She'll ignore me because, well, everybody ignores me. So I'll give her a firm tap on her collar, a gentle reminder. And if that doesn't bring her in, I'll give her another, slightly stiff er one.
Let's backtrack a moment and touch on training. If your dog has been properly-acclimated to an e-collar--the way I train all my dogs--correcting her in the field at a stimulation level she's been trained to expect will not dampen her enthusiasm to hunt in any way. And she will get an instant reminder in real time that the training you've so laboriously instilled in her over the summer still matters. With some dogs, one or two corrections is all it takes to get their heads right. With others it may take more. It takes what it takes.
I think this litde exercise in obedience is important. Starting a hunt on the right foot will help you get through the next few days and possibly the next several weeks of confusing and sometimes frustrating behavior from your inexperienced pup.
All the yard work in the world won't teach your dog how to hunt and point wild birds. He has to figure that out on his own, and all you can do is follow along behind, hoping he eventually stumbles into a bird or two.
The younger a dog is, the longer that may take. A nine-month-old pup will likely take longer to learn to hunt and point wild birds than a two-year-old dog, even if both of them have spent the summer pointing planted pigeons or quail. What will keep you going--what keeps me going, anyway--is that I know that sooner or later they'll get it.
At times, you may wonder if your dog has a nose, brains, hunting drive or all three. You will put your dog into coyer you have seen a squadron of pheasants land in, only to have your pup run in the exact opposite direction. He will stumble into, around, and through coveys of perfectly good gamebirds, with seemingly no clue that there is avian life within a hundred miles.
These incidents will test your patience and sanity, and lo, you will cry out in anguish and rend your hair. But he will come around. Sooner or later, your pup mil figure it out. And when he does, you get to train again.
So now your pup is finding and pointing birds. You're so happy with his progress that you're tempted to cut him some slack when he deliberately disobeys you. Don't fall for that trap. If you let him get away with infractions that are within your power to correct, you're setting yourself up for a sucker punch. Corrections delivered when every nerve ending in your dog is tingling with excitement have an impact, and you want that impact to reinforce what he's been trained to do.
Has your pup just found a bird? Good. Let's get started. You're still not carrying a gun, but you're hunting with a buddy who is. Whether he can actually hit what he's shooting at is immaterial. Get directly behind him while he walks past your dog and flushes the bird. If he shoots it, great! If he misses, it doesn't matter. What you should be concentrating on is your dog's behavior.
Have you trained him to be steady to flush? Then enforce it with a tap on the collar (or a verbal reprimand, if that's how he's been trained) if he breaks before the gun goes off. Has he been allowed to break at the flush during training sessions? That's also fine, but if he gets anxious and breaks before the birds go up then give him a correction. Believe it or not, this is all pretty straight forward. Whatever you've trained your dog to do over the summer is what you have to enforce in the field.
Are there exceptions to this rule? Sure. Don't correct him for infractions he hasn't been trained to avoid. That may seem obvious, but you would be amazed--amazed--at how many people I've hunted with who scream "Whoa!" at their dogs when the dog has never had a day of structured whoa training in its entire footloose and carefree life. Ditto for every other command you can think of.
Then there will be days when everything is going as planned and the wheels fall off. You forgot to turn on the dog's collar. You were looking the other way when the bird went up. Your pup chased a covey over the horizon despite repeated commands to return. Stuff like this happens all the time, to me as much as anybody.
But it's okay. Take the long view. A few bad episodes aren't going to destroy your dog's progress. This is a marathon, not a sprint. You want him to make you proud, and he will--if you're patient.
By Dave Carty