Seeking out the trail of a running bird and following it for a distance is a skill that grows with a dog’s experience. There’s no substitute for hunting time in the uplands with lots of bird contacts. However, you can do some work in the off-season to get a head start on this important trait.
I’m going to outline the basics of how I work with young dogs to unlock their enthusiasm and confidence for trailing—a system that is easiest to explain in four steps. This system could apply to either retrievers or pointing dogs and is a valuable ability to draw on when you’re trying to bring a wounded, running bird to bag.
Practicing trailing is different than every other command you teach a dog for one major reason: It’s something your dog wants to do instinctively, and you’re going to let it. This is quite different from requirements such as fetch and hold, remaining steady to shot, or walking at heel, to name a few. Therefore, I don’t introduce any formal trailing exercises until I’ve worked through obedience, force-fetching and the like.
Introducing your dog to trailing is simple, and I use the encouragement of “Find it” to help the dog link the task with the scent of feathers. Set up Step One of your drill on flat ground with very short grass. Take a freshly killed bird (a pigeon is fine) and pluck out a few feathers at your starting point. Tie a string to the bird and drag it beside you as you walk directly into the wind. Then, at the end of the trail, untie the bird and leave it. The length of the trail could be very short, say 25 yards, for a young dog or maybe a bit longer for a dog that already has some experience.
With your dog in front of you on a short rope, lead it to the start of the trail. As soon as the dog puts its nose down and shows interest in the bird scent, give an enthusiastic “Find it; find it!” You want to let the dog work out the trail on its own, but use the rope to guide the dog back to the trail if it gets wildly off course. Once the dog finds the dead bird, reward with lots of praise.
Be sure your dog has mastered each step before moving to the next one.
It shouldn’t take more than a few sessions to help your dog connect the dots between the action and your “Find it” command.
Step Two is similar to Step One, with one big difference: Now you’re going to run this drill with the wind at your back. Depending on your dog’s progress and ability, you’ll want to start lengthening the trail. But keep the drill simple enough that your dog can’t help but find the bird. Multiple successes will breed confidence; you can introduce more challenging drills later.
Again, keep the rope on your dog for control and guide the dog over to the start of the trail. This is going to be a bit tougher than Step One. Your dog might zigzag a bit more as it tries to figure out the trail. Some dogs will hold their heads high as they try to air-scent the trail, while others will keep their noses tight to the ground. That makes no difference, as long as the dog is focused on the task at hand and responding to your “Find it” cues.
When your dog is handling Step Two with confidence and you can see its skill developing, you can up the challenge a notch. So for Step Three it’s time to introduce a turn into the drill. After all, you can’t count on a bird trying to escape in a straight line. This is also the point where you could move to slightly heavier cover, to ensure that your dog keeps using its nose and not its eyes.
Set up your trail again, but this time start walking against a crosswind, and then make a turn into the wind. Keep a rope on your dog when you start out on this new trail just in case the dog blows past the turn and you need to guide it back into the area of the scent.
Step Four is similar to Step Three, but for this final act you’re going to make that turn so the wind is at your back. To be successful on Step Four, your dog will really need to focus on the ground scent, as there’s no chance a breeze will blow the scent toward it.
How long is this supposed to take? That depends on your dog. You might stay in Step One for several sessions, or you might have a quick learner who aces the concept and allows you to move to the next stage very quickly. Regardless of how quickly your dog picks up on the skill of trailing, be sure it has mastered each step before moving to the next.
Once your dog figures out how to be a great trailer, it only will get better season after season—and that’s one more valuable asset you’ll be able to count on in the uplands.
Charlie Jurney has been training performance and hunting breeds for more than 30 years, during which time he has produced hundreds of titled dogs. He and his wife, Cathy, own and operate Beaverdam Kennels, in Terrell, North Carolina.