If you want your hunting dog to be ready for pheasant hunting this fall, now is the time to be in the field.
Training dogs and having them be physically fit takes time and practice.
On-Point Outfitters of Addison, Somerset County, has been helping sportsmen and dog owners make the most of their time afield for 22 years.
Co-owners Mike Hartman and Eric Hoover cater to all aspects of bird hunting. Hartman said his father Mitch Hartman, Vince Smith and Chuck Groff are the original owners of the facility that started out as more of a hobby.
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“It turned out to be more than that,” Mike Hartman said about the growth of the operation.
They offer dog training, upland bird hunting or pheasants, chukars and quail and they provide dog boarding services.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission’s statewide season for pheasant begins Oct. 22. At On-Point’s regulated facility, they are able to offer bird hunting from September through April, six days a week. Dogs are trained all year.
“We train everything. Flushing dogs, pointing dogs. Anything from a cocker spaniel to English setter, English pointers. If it hunts a bird, we train it.”
Hartman, 35, has been involved in the operation since he was a boy. “I like the companionship with the dog. I like to see them starting out with a young pup and watching them develop into a bird dog. It’s really interesting to watch the development, it’s rewarding to watch them not knowing a thing to becoming a great dog.”
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May I see your papers?
“German shorthairs, English Pointers, labs, setters, Brittanys are the gold standard of bird dogs. And you can get some obscure breeds,” he said about the many options hunters have in purchasing a bird dog.
“The biggest thing — no matter if you’re buying a poodle or whatever — is to look at its parents to make sure it comes from a hunting background.”
Just because a dog has registration papers, doesn’t mean it’s a good hunting dog.
The dog needs to have the genetics for hunting, he said comparing it to basketball players who are 6-foot, 5-inches tall having an advantage over shorter players. “You want the right genetics.”
He said genetics are not everything, but it helps get the process started.
If you are thinking about buying a dog, he reminds people to remember it’s a 10- to 15-year commitment. “Bird hunting is definitely a family sport. A lot of people’s dogs are 95% of the time their family dogs. Not only do you get to enjoy it as a pet but you can also get use out of it in the field as well.
Having a bond with your dog is important. “The best dogs are made in the kitchen not the kennel.”
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Pointer or a flusher?
If you don’t know which type of dog to consider, you need to think about your style of hunting.
With flushers, like Labradors, you don’t have to walk into the brush to get the bird to fly. “They stay close and flush the bird for you,” Hartman said.
Pointers, like German shorthairs or setters, cover more ground and hold their point until the hunter arrives. “The beauty of a pointing dog is you can let them range farther and they are going to stop and not flush the bird. It will hold point until you walk up so you can flush the bird and shoot.” Another advantage of pointers is that they help the shooters — including young or new hunters — prepare for the opportunity. When the dog is on point, you know there’s a bird there to flush and you can get your stance ready.
The training process
“Whenever you start with a puppy you should take them to the grocery store, short walks, expose them to people and new things and it helps the puppy to become bold. You want a bold, confident puppy. You don’t want a backwards, scared puppy. Get them around kids, people, shopping malls, out in the field, take them for walks and that gets them confident. The more confident a dog is the more trainable they are,” Hartman said.
To develop a dog for bird hunting, Hartman advises against immediately shooting over the dog since you don’t know how it will react to the loud noise.
A common hunters’ mistake is that they shoot their shotguns too soon around a young dog and they shoot around a new dog when birds aren’t present.
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In the beginning of the training process, his team places homing pigeons and quail in the fields for the dogs to flush. He stands at a distance of about 100 yards away with a pistol shooting blanks/caps and watches for the dog’s reaction.
He repeats the process, getting closer to the dog until he’s standing near it. He then starts the process over with lighter gauge shotguns.
He suggests training early or late in the day because you don’t want to overheat your dog where it can become sick. He said if the dog becomes too hot, the heat can damage the dog’s nose and ability to pick up scents. Dogs cool down through their mouth, nose and feet.
Another training tip is going to an area that has plenty of birds for your dog to discover. “It takes birds to be a bird dog. There’s no magic to it. The more birds you can get your dogs in, the better off they are.”
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Hartman’s trainers place quail and homing pigeons in the fields for the dogs to pursue and flush during the summer months. “The homing pigeons work great because they fly straight back to the coop… It doesn’t cost me or the customer anything because they fly right back” and can be part of the training as often as needed.
If you don’t have the time or place to train your dog, facilities like On-Point provide training opportunities. “We train a lot of dogs for people,” he said about owners leaving their dogs for a week or month at a time. When people go on vacation, they can leave their dog and the trainers work with their pet on flushing birds.
With 400 acres, they can do six hunts at one time on the mostly flat terrain. “We’re right on top of a hill,” he said.
He said it’s important that people start preparing for fall pheasant season in the summer. Dogs need to be exercised and conditioned to hunt to fulfill the hunter’s expectations.
Type of shotguns for bird hunting
Most any type of shotgun like a pump, semi-automatic or double barrel options works fine for bird hunting and it’s more of the individual’s preference. He said semi-automatics have less recoil but cost more than some other actions. He said pump action shotguns are affordable and reliable.
“As long you get a gun that you are comfortable with and fits you is the main thing.”
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They offer guided and unguided hunts. They also partner with sportsmen groups on youth hunts where the kids normally don’t have to pay. “If we don’t get the next generation hunting, there won’t be hunting.”
The facility also has a sporting clays range with five stands for hunters to practice.
Have patience, develop a great dog
“Don’t be in a big hurry to have a young dog hunting. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was a bird dog. Be patient and have realistic expectations. Put the time in the first couple years and you’ll have a bird dog for the rest of its life,” Hartman said.
“You’ll get out of your dog what you put into it,” he said about investing time with your pet in the field.
“You can’t buy a dog and wait until the first day of pheasant season and expect it to be able to hunt hard for you and be productive. The guys that put the time in definitely get more out of it,” he said comparing it to shooting a foul shot in basketball or throwing a baseball. “The more practice you do, the better off you’ll be.”
Brian Whipkey is the outdoors columnist for USA TODAY Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter email on your website’s homepage under your login name. Follow him on social media @whipkeyoutdoors.