My daughter put a check cord on her Brittany pup and directed her downwind of the pigeon that was in a release trap hidden in some tall grass. The pup bumbled her way toward the trap and stopped—just as she was supposed to. She stood on puppy point for a few seconds as we marveled at the marriage of scent and instinct. When the pup started to get twitchy, I pushed the button to release the bird, which vaulted out of the grass and flew directly to the most available and appealing perch: my shoulder. It landed, fluttered, settled and began cooing softly. The dog charged, jumping and scratching at my leg to get at the bird. This, sports fans, is not how it’s supposed to work. But thankfully neither is it the norm.
It’s often said that no pen-raised birds are substitutes for wild birds, and it’s true. But all trainers—even we amateurs—know when our dogs need a bird contact to reinforce some training or intensify instinct. Sadly, few of us can provide that experience “on demand” with wild birds.
There are a number of captive birds that dog folks use for training both pointing and flushing dogs. Bobwhites, other species of quail, chukars and pheasants all work well. The best way to use but not lose training birds is to have them return to their home in captivity after being worked by the dog. This often means bobwhites, and lots of Southern and Midwestern trainers have recall pens for this purpose. But bobwhites don’t do well in cold climates in the winter, and the other birds don’t call back as well. Enter the lowly pigeon.
Pigeons that either hatch or mature in a coop with water, food and nesting boxes will become “homers” that return to the coop whenever they’re released for training. The coop has a one-way door, so they can enter but not exit. This is a great setup, as the birds are always available when needed and five or six will do one person with a couple of dogs.
The first thing you’ll need is either a friend who will build a coop for you or a set of plans so you can build one yourself. Gun Dog Supply, Lion Country Supply and other retailers sell plans. You can get advice online about what to feed the birds. My local dog-training expert suggests a commercially available seed mix. And, of course, you’ll need a place for the coop. Somewhere out of town is preferred, but I know people who have small coops in their urban backyards.
Pigeons can be obtained a number of different ways. If you’re a DIY sort and like climbing ladders into abandoned buildings and underneath city bridges in the pitch black with a flashlight between your teeth and a landing net under your arm, knock yourself out. When I was 30 and had just picked up my first pup, I thought this was fun. Now, not so much.
Farmers dislike what pigeons do to their barns and buildings and often are happy to have the herd thinned—and their kids may be willing to catch and sell some to those strange bird-dog people. You might also find birds by putting out a social-media post to a bird hunting group.
If you want to turn pigeons into homers, get young birds, as they’ll adopt your coop as home more quickly than older birds will and aren’t likely to fly back to their original home the first time they’re released. If you get really young birds—aka “squeakers”—by the time they’re fully feathered and capable of flight they’ll return to your coop when released. Adult birds will return to the coop most reliably after they’ve hatched some chicks; otherwise they’ll need to be kept in the coop for a month to six weeks before being released. If you don’t plan to use the birds more than once, there’s no need to habituate them to your coop. In this case get mature birds that fly well.
Be prepared for a few unexpected and occasionally comedic twists.
If you’re planning to have the pigeons recall, you’ll need to train them to get into the coop from the outside. Take each bird and push it gently through the one-way door a few times. After a few sessions you can take them a short distance away and release them, leaving a couple of birds in the coop to encourage them to return.
Once you have this organized, you’ll probably need some other gear. Although there are several ways to “dizzy” a bird to keep it from flying away when planted in the grass, it’s easier and more reliable to use a release trap that holds the bird and keeps it from flying until you want it to. I started with a simple trap with a manual/mechanical release mechanism, to which I attached a string or piece of fishing line. This was a decided failure. The dog often got tangled in the string and flushed the bird itself and also quickly learned to simply follow the string to the bird.
The best release traps are radio-controlled with a receiver you carry with you. When it’s time to flush the pigeon, you push the button and launch the bird. These traps are relatively expensive—but so are the training collars, beeper collars and GPS units most of us own.
It’s important to introduce a pup to the trap before using the trap with birds. The trap springs open suddenly and can startle a pup if it’s too close. I start in the backyard, putting an empty plastic drink bottle in the trap and springing it when the pup is some distance away. The pup usually chases the bottle. I repeat this a few times, watching for any negative reaction from the dog and gradually decreasing the distance from the dog to the trap.
There are good books and training videos available that provide information on training dogs with pigeons, so I’ll simply say that most of the time the objective is this: Make the pigeon behave like a wild bird. If your dog doesn’t point when it gets scent or points but then creeps or breaks point, flush the bird. Let the pigeon teach the dog exactly what a wild bird would teach it.
As well as helping reinforce a dog’s pointing and holding point, pigeons can be used for stop-to-flush training. Carry a few in a ventilated bag when the dog is running and dragging a check cord. Periodically throw out a bird where the dog will see it fly, and restrain the dog from chasing. To work on steady-to-wing or steady-to-wing-and-shot training, have the dog stand at “Whoa,” and then release birds in front of it one by one, restraining the dog from breaking until you want it to.
Don’t worry if your high-test pointer is a little indifferent about pigeons. Some dogs point them softly, especially if they see them too often. This doesn’t transfer to wild birds.
If you use pigeons for training, be prepared for a few unexpected and occasionally comedic twists. Birds of prey are enthusiastic supporters of the whole enterprise. They get tuned in to the presence of pigeons when training sessions are in progress and occasionally make off with one. I once found a great horned owl stuck inside my coop with the birds, half of which were dead and half of which were cowering in the corner. On another occasion I saw a goshawk sitting on the chicken-wire roof of the coop, staring down intently, realizing he’d found the motherlode but couldn’t get at it.
So even having said all this, I know that pigeons aren’t perfect for training. But they’ll have to do until I get the bugs worked out of my new, improved system that I’m happy to reveal here. It’s so obvious that I’m surprised no one has suggested it before. The best training bird, you see, is a high-vocabulary parrot. Think of it as the ultimate in teamwork. The parrot, placed in the release trap, simply takes over with voice commands when the dog can’t hear you: “Whoa, Sparky. Good, Sparky. Hold it right there you spotted SOB. Whoa, Sparky! SPARKY, WHOA!” It’s best if the parrot is a strong flier.
Jim McLennan is an old pigeon chaser from way back. These days he follows his two setters across the Alberta prairie in search of Huns and sharptails.