Odin, the bright-eyed, shaggy German wirehair, broke through the edge of sun-glinted wiregrass and snapped on point. His littermate River accelerated toward him from the patch of short magnolia she’d been investigating, and then put on the brakes when she spotted him, his front paw up and head thrust into the tantalizing scent cone of a bobwhite covey.
“Yes!” the four of us cheered under our breath before moving in to flush and shoot.
For two days in late March, Terry Wilson, River’s owner, had worked the 11-month-old through a variety of commands and corrections, laying the foundation for teaching her to honor a bracemate’s point. River was headed to the NAVHDA Invitational, and although her water work, retrieving and other skills were good to go, she hadn’t had an opportunity to learn backing. Terry’s classroom ticket to Honor 101 was time at Georgia’s SouthWind Plantation, where we could request birds released in areas with grass just the right height and long-distance visibility, to see what the dogs were doing at all times. Given that timing and repetition are critical to successful training, quail-plantation work was perfect.
North Woods grouse hunters like us relish seeing a pointing dog slam to a stop at the scent of a covey of quail. Similarly, watching a bird-happy retriever’s tail windmill as the dog approaches the edge of prime pheasant cover is bliss. Most days afield, however, we see only flashes of our dogs as they sprint through the thick trees of an industrial forest or navigate dense aspens. Aesthetics aside, it’s also nearly impossible to train in the grouse woods. We rely on backyard drills, nearby ball fields and training clinics held on farms and state management areas to get the job done. Pen-raised birds are essential for training, but most often the work is limited to a few birds per dog. And mowed grass next to a peony patch isn’t exactly a doppelganger for wild-bird habitat.
The most effective bird dog training maximizes your time by combining as realistic a hunting scenario as possible with as many birds as possible. Whether it’s starting a new pup, “proofing” the training that has been done, prepping for an upcoming hunting season or fixing bad habits from the last one, training at regulated shooting grounds such as released-quail plantations and local preserves is undeniably worth the investment.
Months before our trip to SouthWind, Odin’s owner, Heather Place, had topped off her ruffed grouse season with a few trips to Peaceable Hill, a pheasant preserve in Shoreham, Vermont. Although Odin had had lots of grouse contacts during the season, Heather hadn’t had many shooting opportunities to follow through with his steadiness and retrieving skills.
Taking advantage of a sunny January day with only a couple of inches of snow underfoot, Heather and I asked Peaceable Hill owners Glenn and Judy Symon for some tactical help to recoup Odin’s steadiness before heading to Georgia. They let us pick the fields we preferred—south end, no trees, with the most clearly defined sections to pattern—obliging our need to see exactly how Odin would move after establishing point. The birds were well hidden but not too deep in the cover patches. Heather had time to reinforce Odin’s steadiness, and I had plenty of time to get in position to shoot. We’d like to report that every bird was properly handled and Odin’s talents shined, but, hey, this was post-season training. If he hadn’t made mistakes (e.g., chasing a running bird, dropping his retrieve halfway back to search for a new live bird, and so on), we wouldn’t have needed to be there.
Unless, of course, we simply had wanted to keep Odin’s nose tuned to bird scent and his mind on cooperative hunting. Extending the season, keeping hunters and dogs in shape, and having a pile of fun during a long off-season is nothing to sneeze at. Again, shooting grounds and hunting destinations with released birds are ideal.
Options for training at preserves and shooting grounds vary by season, region and cost. Assuming most hunters want to be hunting—not training—during hunting season, the “shoulder” months before and after are prime time to prepare for the real deal or fix problems that arose during it. Properties range from high-end destination lodges and plantations with preserve licenses to local preserves and shooting clubs. Local preserves usually charge by the bird. Wingshooting destinations charge by the type of hunt, be it whole or half-day and with or without overnight accommodations. Those can be pricey, but as Kyle Richards, owner of Dream Ranch, in Guntersville, Alabama, explained, “Our dog training package is all-inclusive. One rate covers lodging, meals, kennel, birds and access to fields for training. All services—birds, shells, drinks, etcetera—are included in a flat package rate.”
Hunters and their dogs can see dozens of quail in two hours here.
Wherever you choose, keep in mind that your reason for going is to train, not to fill your game bag. That probably means paying for some birds you must let fly away without taking a shot. If—or, let’s be honest, when—the dog does not handle a bird properly, it often is best not to shoot, thus denying a reward for bad behavior. Think of the investment in “training birds” as one that will fill your game bag with more wild birds during hunting season.
New England Upland Preserve, in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, is open for hunts from September through April, even though ruffed grouse season there runs only from October through December. The preserve also provides pheasants and chukars for training from May through August. According to owner Scott Rouleau, “The biggest advantages with us would be gamebirds year-round and access to training equipment and training fields.”
Scott provides launchers, remote traps, training pistols and other equipment—all especially helpful to hunters who own just one dog and don’t want to spend a lot on major training gear. Having access to a variety of habitats is another benefit. “We also have fields with mixed cover,” Scott said. “True upland cover with young deciduous and evergreen trees. Also wetlands, a pond and a river for water work.” He pointed out that beyond having variety for variety’s sake, being able to train in different cover types is a great way to prepare for hunting trips to different regions.
Variety plays into the types of training as well. “For pointing dogs it would be the typical obedience work, search, steadiness to wing and shot, backing and retrieving on land and in the water,” Scott said. “For flushing breeds it would be casting; hunting in range; sitting on the flush, or Hup; and retrieving on land and in the water. We also have a lot of people training for tests like NAVHDA, AKC and DK, so they will work on the test components like tracking a pheasant or following a rabbit drag.”
Cody Alford, head guide and hunting coordinator at Dream Ranch, enjoys watching guests’ dogs ramp up their learning as much as training his own. “There is nothing as effective in creating a bird dog as training at a place like ours,” Cody said. “You can maximize your time with as many bird contacts as possible in a controlled environment.” Dream Ranch’s 2,000 acres have been managed for quality bobwhite quail habitat using sorghum, millet, Egyptian wheat, partridge pea and winter greens. Trails and cuts throughout the courses make it easy to handle dogs in a natural landscape.
When he’s guiding, Cody uses at least six dogs a day and rests them a day or two in between. He currently has 20 of his own dogs—setters, cockers and Labs—and oversees the training for Dream Ranch’s kennel too. In recent years Cody has noticed a shift in the breeds guests have been bringing: from a good mix of pointers and flushers to more flushers. As with preserves up North, though, Dream Ranch attracts hunters working on all phases of training. Although many hunters don’t want to run their dogs in the October heat, the numbers build right through February and March after Northern bird seasons end and Southern deer and duck seasons have concluded.
According to Cody: “Hunters and their dogs can see dozens of quail in two hours here, whereas at a state management area they might not find even one bird. Dogs can pick up bad habits on wild hunts too. Here we can fix them.”
One short video replays in my mind when I think about working my dogs at Dream Ranch. Just two years old, German shorthair Scratch knew his game but still ran big with the grace of an oversize plywood whirligig. Around noon the first day we were approaching a long strip of brush with a trail between it and the treeline. Scratch tore out of his loop in the pines and ripped into the tall grass. His littermate Tiza came crashing in from the other direction. All of a sudden the sound of pounding paws and smashing brush stopped. Scratch tiptoed out; Tiza followed. Together they stalked 15 yards, and then froze in tandem. The covey of quail flushed wild, and together—after a demanding morning of constant bird contacts—the two young shorthairs stood as staunch and elegant as the finest bird hunting veterans, just doing the job they were bred to do.
Nancy Anisfield and her husband live in northern Vermont, where their lives are governed by her two German shorthairs and his two German wirehairs. More of her writing and photography can be seen at anisfieldphotography.com.