There are few things more gratifying for the hunting dog owner than all of the “firsts” — first hunt, first point, first flush, first fetch. All of those individual moments when the little rascal puts everything together make the housebreaking accidents, the training headaches, and the late nights with a yapping pup worth it. “Lightbulb moments,” we like to call them — the switch is flipped, and the two of you begin the journey of a hunting partnership you hope lasts forever but know, painfully, will not.
There’s the tendency, in order to accumulate as many “whatevers” as possible – points, fetches, etc. – to toss a pup into the deep end right from the get-go during his first hunting season. But if you’re after that lifelong hunting partnership, this isn’t necessarily the smartest option. The short-term sacrifice of a more training- and experience-focused first season will pay off in a richer relationship and, in the end, simply a better dog.
So if you’re staring at that hunting dog pup you brought home this past winter or spring tearing apart your sock, now’s the time to prep for the first hunting season in three ways: bird exposure, gunfire, and staying with you. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll say the pup is around 4-6 months old right now, and less than a year old come fall. The space in this column isn’t adequate to go into training detail; those thorough explanations are best given in magazines (including some published right here in Traverse City), books, videos, and in-person seminars. What follows is simply a basic overview.
It’s difficult to have a productive partnership with a bird dog if he’s afraid of birds. Like most training skills, exposure to birds is a progression, building on controlled and short experiences and working toward the chaos of a hunt. From frozen, dead birds to live yet small game birds or pigeons in controlled training situations, each step should be a positive experience for the pup. You are hoping to develop absolute bird craziness – the one thing, even more than food, the dog wants.
Be cautious when you reach the stage of simulating hunting experiences. Raucous flushes in the pup’s face – coupled with gunfire – is the quickest way to undo all of your training victories and develop a bird-shy dog. Again, control the situation to ensure success. In all instances, start working your dog closer and closer to the finished skills his breed should display – be that a point, flush, and/or retrieve.
Just as a dog afraid of birds won’t be much help while hunting, neither will the gun-shy pup. He needs to be getting used to loud noises right from the get-go, which is best accomplished, at first, around his food from him. Clap your hands or bang a cupboard door shut while he has his face buried in his food bowl around all those good smells and tastes.
Then, again, it’s a progression – and this is where the pup’s obsession with birds pays off, as you want to introduce the gunfire while he’s fixed on his heart’s desire: birds. Have a helper start far away with a blank .22 pistol, firing it a couple of times when the pup is in the throes of chasing or messing with a bird. As he gets older, the helper can move closer until you can fire the blank pistol right over the dog while he’s occupied.
Next, it’s more gradual, progressive steps – first with expanding the distance again and increasing the sound of the gun (a blank or “popper” load in a shotgun), and steadily working closer; then backing up again and increasing the gun again (a light hunting gauge and a live round) before moving closer. It might take a month or more, but eventually, you should be shooting right over your pup well before opening day, putting an entire mock hunting situation together.
In my position as an editor of dog magazines for 20-plus years, I can’t tell you the number of sorrowful letters I’ve received about dogs that run off, usually in the pursuit of other animals, whether during a hunt or around the home. Sadly, it’s often because the owner thought the dog was trained well enough and “would just stick around.”
Do not dismiss the allure of a game bird or mammal to another predator like a dog during a hunt, when our dog’s slumbering wolf genes rear up and howl at the moon: If you’re not paying attention, in a blink, he’ll forget all of his training. The development of that partnership in the field and relationship with your dog begins right from those early puppy walks, first on a leash and then on a longer checkcord.
The dog should always “go with you”; yes, he will usually lead the way on a hunt, but the key is that he must be hunting for and with you, not for himself. If you want to turn and go a different direction, again, the dog must go with you. Thus, the importance of mastering the recall commands, so take the time to develop that bonding and connection in the field so that no matter the temptation, the dog always remembers he is part of a team that must stick together.
In the end, the memories of a pup’s first hunt, first flush, first point, or first fetch are rivaled only by their last, which happens in an agonizing blink of an eye. So manage your expectations upon entering that first season. More pups are ruined on their very first hunt because of the owner’s excitement to, sure, get the dog into birds but also themselves into birds, tossing everything out the window they’ve been working on because it’s hunting season.
To develop a lifelong partnership – and, most importantly, to be fair and caring toward this animal you’ve bonded with – you have to know and be okay with passing up opportunities at birds so that you can train in a hunting situation. Pass up those offers to hunt in a group of six guns all firing at once so as to minimize the risk of developing gun-shyness, and instead hunt alone or with one other person in a controlled environment. Pass up the expectations of perfection from the pup, which can only lead to frustration because he won’t be perfect. Use your new pup’s memorable first season to develop your love of all aspects of the hunt, made so clear by that dog in front of you having the time of his life from him.
I do miss those fresh puppy experiences with my Lab. But there’s nothing better right now than seeing and laughing at a happy Ginny, at 11 years old, panting and smiling and jumping circles around me as we strike off through the ferns toward an aspen clearcut . Sure, we hope to find a grouse or a woodcock, but I know neither of us really care. We’re just thrilled to be spending a few more moments in the field together.