All sporting-dog owners have high expectations for their dogs. Social media is flooded with beautiful images of dogs on point in the grouse woods or in front of rolling Western landscapes. Hunters smile proudly for pictures with their dogs and then write captions describing memorable days afield.
For first-time sporting-dog owners, this paints an unrealistic picture. A young dog hitting the field for the first time will be less than perfect, and that’s to be expected. But for first-timers, this may not be understood. What should you really expect from your young dog during his first season?
Before ever hitting the field with your young dog, it’s important that you start with the basics. Your dog should understand basic obedience—it’s vital for safety while afield.
“A dog has to come when I tell him to, stop when I tell him to, and be able to keep up with me in the woods,” says Eukanuba Pro Trainer Stephen Faust of Stoneybrook Outfitters & Gordon Setters. “If he can do all three of those things, I’ll take him hunting.”
Your dog should also have been started on hunt training through exposure to birds, introduction to gunfire, and by training in the type of cover you expect him to hunt. From there, your young dog is ready to experience a first season with you.
“Do your homework at home,” says Eukanuba Pro Trainer Jared Moss with Best Gun Dogs. “You don’t want to spend your season correcting and critiquing. It all starts at the training grounds in the off season.”
Set Realistic Expectations
Don’t expect perfection from your pup in his first season. He may have been a rockstar in the training fields, but when he’s placed in a real hunting environment, there are a lot of new and exciting smells and sights for a young dog. This can cause him to completely forget his training and run buck wild.
However, the best place to reinforce training is on a hunt. Why? It sets up your dog to learn in real-life scenarios. The best thing for a young dog is to fail in the field and learn from it.
“Your dog will learn all he needs to just by hunting,” says Faust. “I like a young dog to make mistakes. That way I can teach him the right way to do it.”
According to Faust, all young dogs make mistakes in their first season—and learn from them as well. If a dog is running wild through cover and ignoring his nose and bumps a bird, that reward flying away entices a dog to slow down on the next run and stop when he hits that scent cone. A couple of bumped birds teach your dog how wild birds work and that he can’t get too close.
“Your dog will fail, and if you correct him, then he’ll learn from it,” explains Faust. “Continue to put him in the situation until he learns to do correctly what you ask of him. It might take a few . . . or several . . . or a dozen repetitions to get it right, so be patient. You’re in this for the long haul.”
The first five trips to the field during the season are about your dog and learning to read him, says Jared Moss. He recommends keeping your first few hunts basic and minimal. Your focus should be on handling your young dog, while just one hunter carries a shotgun to shoot if the moment arises.
“You’re setting up your dog for the next 10 years, so you want the first few hunts focused on the dog,” says Moss. “Set a precedent of what you expect from your dog. For me, my dogs’ jobs are to handle in front, to point and hold birds, to retrieve, and to follow commands. Excitement causes them to forget their lessons, so I give them plenty of opportunities to get it right.”
The reality is that your first season with your dog will be filled with frustrations. As exciting as it is for the season to start—and you want to come home with a full vest—your focus should be on handling your dog. The hunt field is the perfect training ground. Practice where you play, and fully expect your dog to learn and improve as the season progresses.
Your dog is going to make mistakes in his first season, says Moss. Don’t expect perfection from your pup. Instead, focus on having fun.
“Maybe your dog completely misses a bird or can’t seem to smell that day,” says Moss. “Don’t just focus on correcting and critiquing all day. Instead, use it as a learning experience . . . relax and have fun.”
No matter how well your dog does leading up to Opening Day, you can’t expect a young dog to be perfect during his first season. Just as with any young mind, practice in real-life situations makes perfect. Young gun dogs are bred to hunt. Their natural instincts will help guide them. Still, they’ll make mistakes now and then, so be patient as they learn. Set realistic expectations for your dog, and enjoy watching him put the pieces together through the season.
Photos courtesy of Eukanuba Sporting Dog.