One Man’s Flushers

Dog perched on some rocks
The author uses his Border collies as flushing dogs, although his older dog, Rusty (shown here with a limit of Mearns quail), will “point on command.”

A welcome breeze cooled me as I sat on the long-deceased carcass of an evergreen high in the mountains of Nevada. Tucker playfully rolled in a patch of melting snow while I contemplated his role in my routine. Tucker is my new pup.

I hunt with Border collies. Why? Intelligence, ease of training and the breed’s personality are a few reasons. Do my dogs point or flush? I suppose I could have gone the pointing route, since these dogs learn fast. I did train my older dog, Rusty, to “point on command.” More on that later. So why do I choose a flushing dog for upland birds?

I’ve had fun hunting over a wide variety of pointing breeds, but I prefer flushers. Some of the pointers have been amazing, but there are advantages with flushing dogs too.

Before I came along, my father spent his hunting career following pointing breeds in bobwhite country. Out West gamebirds are many things, but “Gentleman Bob” they are not. Devious track stars make up half the offerings. Yes, pointing breeds can learn to handle runners rather effectively, but it’s seldom a short or quick learning curve. I just wanted to go hunt birds; still do.

The flushing program is a different, simpler experience. I am shooting birds over my dog on the dog’s first opening day. Yeah, yeah, I know: It’s not all about pulling triggers; but darn it, I like to shoot and eat birds too. I enjoy every aspect of the hunt. I really don’t want to spend most of my dog’s first year “bird watching” because a bird wasn’t pointed. I respect those who do; it just isn’t my way. Only seven weeks into his first season, I considered Tucker an 80-percent-finished dog.

This came in spite of limited training time. Thankfully, the regimen was simple: Establish purpose (birds, scent and encourage prey drive), obedience and simple commands, and retrieving. Retrieving drills consisted of throwing a Frisbee with quail wings stitched to it. With this foundation, I concentrated on recall drills, so I could keep Tucker well within gun range. An e-collar came in handy. That recall beep was near his ear, so Tucker didn’t need to wonder if I was talking to him or my buddies.

Quartering came naturally, but Tucker didn’t cast back and forth systematically. It was more of a search for scent as he saw fit, and it worked. By December he’d learned to seek “birdy-looking” cover—no small feat, considering he hunted 15 species of upland birds his first season.

Steady to wing & shot is a personal preference. I’ll admit to being a little lax in this department, since I want Tucker on a winged pheasant as soon as possible. Also, he can’t mark what he can’t see, and chukar are notorious for falling far below terrain breaks. It’s a case-by-case judgment call whether I stop him. My friend Jim Sladky is at the other end of the spectrum with his cockers. They are exceptionally steady, as he desires. He prefers to release them rather than stop them.

Working air scent came naturally for my dogs. Ground trailing is a more complicated skill, but Tucker is learning it well. My 11-year-old, Rusty, is a tracking ace. There is an archaic notion that a dog should be “high-headed.” I expect my dogs to handle both airborne and ground scent. Birds are inconsiderate and will travel downwind.

This brings us to a worthy concept. Watching a dog point is really satisfying and allows a hunter to get in position. This all hinges on the steadiness of the dog along with the willingness of birds to choose the most favorable of three options: 1) hide, 2) make like Usain Bolt and run, and 3) give the middle finger and flush wild. Option one is great. Option two gets a tad frustrating. Option three usually results in unbiblical thoughts. Expecting birds to sit and wait to get shot at again does seem a tad optimistic. A flushing dog eliminates this issue. The birds are going to fly. It’s up to the hunter to be there when it happens.

This is even more reason a flushing dog is so enjoyable. I’m actually there with the dog. It’s athletic, and I get a front-row seat to the show. Of course, the dog is faster than I am, so that whole recall business is important. At day’s end “satisfied fatigue” is the byproduct of doing something worthwhile. Why should the dog have all the fun? I want to be a participant rather than a spectator.

Teamwork strengthens our bond, and it is critical when it comes to hunting. I’ve even taken the concept so far as to be a blocker for the dog while hunting pheasants in tall cover. What a riot! Yes, it does turn into a driven-bird shoot. Try that with a pointer.

Many people hunt birds because of the dogwork. It’s part of why I do it instead of hunt big game. I miss out on my dogs’ subtler nuances if I’m off in the distance. Following my flushers, I see everything: the shift of body posture, the change in ear profile, the dog searching with his eyes as he intensely tries to connect vision and hearing to what his nose is revealing. It is a crescendo of tiny little preludes to the covey rise. I feed off my dogs’ energy. It’s invigorating. Today GPS collars have nearly turned dogwork into a video game. I’d rather be there.

One valuable item to teach a flusher—or any dog—is hand signals. I keep things simple. Left, right and “here.” Adding a signal for “stop” or “sit” is valuable—something I learned a bit too late with Rusty.

Earlier I mentioned a “point on command” option. Midway into Rusty’s hunting career, I thought about how pointing would be an advantage in situations where I needed to get into better position or as an alternative to recall. Considering his willingness to please, I started commanding him to sit when body-posture changes indicated the inevitable, and then releasing him to flush. Of course, I would have to repeat the command when his furry butt would rise from the frozen ground. I compare this to the “Whoa” command with pointing breeds.

This option also allowed me to let Rusty range farther when search efforts turned desperate. When he did his part, suddenly the whole pointer-versus-flusher debate went out the window. It was teamwork at its best . . . until he started going deaf. Oh, the fly in the ointment. Had I taught Rusty to sit to hand signal also, the program would have continued, seeing as he visually checks in with me frequently. I suppose I still could try to add a hand signal to his training, but Tucker’s coming along rather well, so I’m investing efforts in him during his period of fastest learning. The biggest obstacle is that both dogs focus on the birds, not me, when hot scent is near. Rusty does recall to a hand signal, though, and I’ve been spotted waving an arm in the air to get his attention more than once. 

How about pairing a flusher with a pointer? Some folks won’t. They worry about the pointer learning bad habits. Flushing birds on their own really is a bad habit for pointing dogs. My take on this is that the pointer needs to be pretty solid first and the flusher needs to be under a fair amount of control, if they are to be worked as a team. I know people who keep a flusher at heel until there is a point, and then send in the flusher. Some folks train pointing dogs to flush on command.

One big advantage I’ve noticed lately with flushers is with quail—specifically Mearns and bobwhite. I can stand back from a tree for better shots as my dog rousts the Mearns from beneath it or stand outside an impenetrable (to me) thicket as my dog goes under the limbs and puts up a covey of bobs. I like that.

Yep, I’m the guy who bucks trends. That said, flushing dogs have been making inroads again, finding their way back into the hearts of serious hunters. Twenty years ago I doubted I’d ever see cocker spaniels on the American hunting scene again or that the average hunter would know what a Boykin is. Today I know people doing impressive things with both. Perhaps it’s just the pendulum of public desire swinging. Perhaps it’s the quest for something new. Or just maybe people are yearning for a simpler way in a complicated era. Me? A long time ago I figured out that flushing dogs are just good, plain fun. 


More from Garhart Stephenson
Outfoxing Pheasants
Vexation & vindication with wild ringnecks
Read More
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *