A little more than 25 years ago I stepped into the bird dog world about as green as an avocado. I’d hunted over dogs enough to know I wanted one and had read some magazines and a book or two, but in terms of really knowing what I was doing, I was guided mostly by hope and a shot of ignorance.
Unbelievably, both the dog and I escaped any lasting damage. He’s long gone, but I’m still in it, neck deep, and hopefully will be for the rest of my days. Believably, mistakes in those early years were frequent and plentiful. Like any pursuit, there’s knowledge that comes only with experience, yet in a cruel twist of fate the experience itself is better if you have the knowledge beforehand. In that spirit I’ll share a half-dozen things I wish I’d known before I took the plunge.
Bloodlines Make a Difference
Few things have as much to do with a dog’s success in the field as its family tree. If mom and dad were good hunters, you’ve won half the battle. If your pup is from a long line of couch-dwellers, the battle may be over before it’s fought.
Sometimes your first bird dog comes along because a friend has an extra pup or two from a litter that may not have been planned, and that’s fine. If this is what gets you started in a lifetime of passion, it can’t be all bad. Just understand that some of the dog’s shortcomings won’t be your fault, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up over it. This is your first dog, not your only dog ever.
If you have the luxury of doing research, though, take advantage of it. Go see the sire and dam hunt, and look for field champions in the pedigree. Either of these options shows that, genetically, these dogs have the desire to hunt and are trainable, both of which are vital. Stack the deck in your favor by getting a dog with good hunting bloodlines.
Your Circumstances May Limit Things
Reality for most of us is that we fit dogs into our lives, not the other way around. We carve out time to spend with them, and there’s a limit to how much we can give without compromising things like employment, marriage and kids. Like it or not, the time we realistically can spend with our dogs is a major factor in how they turn out.
To some extent, money can offset time. If you have one but not the other or even modest amounts of both, you can put the pieces in place to make a good bird dog. Forced to choose, though, I would rather have time. You can shell out a lot of money and buy a Ferrari, and even if you drive it only twice a year, it’s still gonna be scary fast and handle like a dream. Not so with a bird dog.
None of this is to say you can’t enjoy your dog if you don’t have a lot of free time and are on a tight budget. Just know that the dog’s upside may be limited.
Temper Your Expectations With Reality
If I had to guess, more unhappiness results from expectations not aligning with reality than just about any other factor in the bird dog world. Coming into this as green as I was, expecting my first dog to be a field-trial champion might have been setting the bar a bit high. Such success certainly is not impossible but, as mentioned, your circumstances might prevent it.
For the average first-time dog owner, looking at this experience as your primary-school education is a good perspective. You’re building a foundation for the rest of your bird dog days, and if you take it seriously, do your homework and don’t cut class, each dog will be a little better than the last. You’ll make mistakes, but you don’t need straight A’s to graduate.
There’s no reason not to tap into the know-how of others.
If you still have your sights set on ribbons and trophies, don’t let me crush that dream. Do you have a good support system of veteran dog owners and a pro trainer or two, lots of free time to spend training and hunting, and equal doses of patience and humility? It could happen.
Be realistic about your situation, set your expectations accordingly and you’ll end up happier in the end.
Don’t Think of It as a Race
There probably hasn’t been a first-time dog owner in history who hasn’t wanted his pup to be fully broke by opening day. You have a dog; you’re ready to be a real bird hunter, right? Visions of solid points and retrieves to hand peppered with flashes of honoring your buddy’s seasoned setter are a siren call to new dog owners.
Put your hands over your ears and stay off the rocks.
Trying to move a dog forward too quickly in training is like force-feeding. At some point the body will get all the food it can hold, and if you keep putting more in, you’ll end up with a big mess that smells. Take your time. There are no points or prizes for getting there first, but there can be long-lasting consequences for trying.
Nobody Expects You to be an Expert in the Beginning
Nobody except maybe yourself. People who are really good with dogs have been where you are and know how much they didn’t know in the beginning. They know it takes time to grow the skills and knowledge, and they’ll be more impressed with your curiosity and humility than your expertise. If you want to get the skills of a good dog handler, avoid pretending you already have them.
People Will Help if You Ask
The bird dog community is one of the most generous, sharing environments I have experienced. People want to help and want to see you succeed. The secret to tapping into this wealth of know-how? Ask. Yes, it really is that simple.
NAVHDA chapters; nonprofits like Quail Forever, Pheasants Forever and the Ruffed Grouse Society; and Facebook groups are good places to seek advice. Even in the competitive world of field trials you can find people who will show you the ropes. The mentality is one of abundance, not scarcity, and there’s more than enough knowledge for everyone. Reach out to one of these groups or even an individual and say, “I’m new to this and really don’t know much about training a bird dog, but I want to learn,” and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much help you get.
Humans are built for learning. It’s what we do. No machine has come close to matching our ability to absorb, interpret and apply. There’s a huge gap, however, between figuring out something on your own and benefitting from existing knowledge; and unless you love figuring out things all by your lonesome, there’s no reason not to tap into the know-how of others.
While not every situation is exactly the same, most new dog owners (or aspiring new dog owners—it’s never too early to start the process) will find these thoughts helpful in jump-starting that learning curve, especially if they’re coming into this without a mentor or role model. The only prerequisite is a little self-discipline.
Mark Coleman has owned bird dogs for 25 years and is still learning. Between lessons, he volunteers for The South Carolina Bobwhite Initiative, working to restore wild-quail populations in his home state.