No birds means no bird dog, so using live birds is a critical part of any training plan. Used properly, pen-raised birds and pigeons give you far more predictable reactions and results than wild birds.
By George Hickox
Simply owning a fine custom-fitted shotgun doesn’t necessarily make someone a good shooter. It takes practice, which requires shotshells. No shells + No practice = Lack of success. The same type of thing applies to gundogs. You can buy the best-looking pup from the “winningest” line of pointing, flushing or retrieving dogs there ever was, but if that pup doesn’t see birds and receive proper training, it will never become an excellent partner in the field. No birds + No training = Lack of success.
When it comes to effective dog training, guaranteeing the outcome is always a good goal. Choosing which species of birds to use and planning when and how to use them are important factors in formulating a sound training program. It is not simply a case of tossing out any old bird in any old location. It takes no more time to train effectively than to train ineffectively.
Wild birds are fantastic in helping develop integrity and honesty in a pointing dog and in teaching any breed how to be a more successful hunter. However, even if an owner lives in a wild-bird-rich environment—as I do in North Dakota in the summer/early fall and in Kansas in the late fall/winter—it is necessary to incorporate pen-raised birds and pigeons into the training routine. There is a right time and a wrong time to incorporate wild birds into a viable program.
In the early stages of introducing a dog to birds, it is important to guarantee success. If a dog, no matter what age, has not been exposed to birds and has not learned to continue questing, the dog likely will not be very successful at finding wild birds. Any wild bird you encounter has managed to beat foxes, coyotes, hawks and bobcats and to avoid becoming table fare. Such a bird is a survivor and is a tough adversary for the inexperienced dog. The inexperienced dog likely will be unable to beat this bird one on one. It is possible that a dog that continually fails in the early stages of learning will become a quitter and give up trying to produce birds. Additionally, a dog that is not finding feathered quarry may become interested in “trash scent,” such as that of squirrels, chipmunks, rats, rabbits, deer and so on. If every time the dog is in the hunting arena (in a training situation) it finds gamebirds, the dog is much less likely to focus on trailing trash scent.
This is why in the beginning I use pen-raised birds and put out enough birds to ensure that the dog will have bird contacts. The dog does not have to find every bird. It just has to find some. This way the dog begins expecting to find birds every time it is cut loose in the field. It believes that there are birds out there somewhere and makes an effort to find them. The dog will be rewarded for its effort and will be motivated to repeat what works.
Before exposing a dog to the flush, however, I try to ensure the outcome through preparation. I begin with a locked-wing pigeon. You can place a piece of Velcro around a pigeon’s body and wings or lock the wings together behind the bird’s body so the pigeon will not be able to fly. A pigeon is the best bird to use if the wings are to be locked, as the wings of quail and chukar do not stay locked as readily because of their shape.
I first tease the dog with the lockwing, and then I toss the pigeon a short distance. This is not a retrieving game. I simply want to ensure that the dog has no apprehension with a bird that cannot flap or flush as well as to develop prey drive. I break the bird introduction into steps in order to prevent a possible bird or flush problem. If the dog is not comfortable with birds and shows any apprehension, the training will be difficult if not impossible. I don’t like throwing the dog into a situation where a flush may scare it and give me something to fix. (And everything cannot always be fixed to the degree that more advanced training can be accomplished.)
Once I have determined that the dog has no apprehension with a lockwing pigeon, I introduce it to the flush. I like to dizzy a pigeon and toss the bird in full view of the dog. I restrain the dog until the pigeon is up and able to fly. This takes only a few seconds. I then release the dog. The dog should charge to the bird, and when the pigeon flushes, I want to see that the dog has no apprehension and eagerly chases the bird flying away. I do not restrain the dog from chasing at this point, as I want to develop intensity and bird drive.
Once the dog has demonstrated absolute confidence with the flush, I start doing quail walks. Initially I release enough quail (eight to 12) to guarantee that the dog will be successful in finding “some.” I want to use good-flying quail for this training. I will toss one bird for the dog to see into the area where I have released the other quail. Grass about six to eight inches high is ideal for this type of training. The cover is not so high that the dog can’t find the birds, but it is high enough that the dog has to learn to use its nose. In a very short time I begin releasing the quail where the dog does not see me putting them out. By this time the dog should be anxious to be released and go hunting. Pointing breeds hopefully will be demonstrating genetic point, and flushing breeds will be diving in like heat-seeking missiles to flush the birds.
Once a pointing breed is questing and demonstrating flash points, I stop doing the quail walks. I don’t want the dog to catch birds before they flush or to run them down after they flush. It does not take many caught birds for the desire to point to radically deteriorate. I prefer that flushing breeds catch some birds, as I want to encourage an aggressive flush. Chukar can be used for these walks, but quail are normally cheaper and recall better, allowing them to be used repeatedly. I prefer bobwhite quail over other species, as bobwhites normally flush better. Pheasants are too big and too expensive to use for this type of training. And the pheasant is a track star and will run out of the country—not what I want at this time. I want the dog to succeed in finding birds.
For a flushing dog, I plant a field with enough birds to guarantee the dog is successful. I plant the birds to the left and right in the direction I will be walking. The dog will alternately find a bird on one side of me, and then on the subsequent cast on the other side. With birds planted in this manner, the dog will develop a quartering pattern, running in a windshield-wiper fashion. I use a combination of dizzied and lockwing pigeons for this exercise. Some birds will fly, and some will be caught. That way the dog will continue to develop a strong flush, because it thinks that the next time it may catch the bird. (Which is why this is not a drill for pointing breeds.) Pigeons are absolutely the best birds to use for this training.
Once pointing breeds are enthusiastically searching for birds, I do controlled drills to develop staunchness on point. I plant a scent bird (one that the dog will smell and point) and bring in the dog with a check cord downwind of the scent. I use a lockwing pigeon for my scent bird—and placing two or three together creates a stronger scent cone. Once the dog has established a point, even if briefly, I either have a helper in front release a fly-away pigeon from behind his back, or I launch a bird from a remote launcher. The thrower or remote launcher are about 10 yards away from the scent bird. I never place the scent bird (the bird the dog is pointing) in a launcher. It is more exciting for the dog if the bird comes up at a distance from the scent bird, so the dog does not anticipate where the bird will be coming from or when. There are also potential apprehension issues with a launcher being sprung directly in front of the dog. The dog is prevented from chasing with a check cord, and the scent bird remains in place, which helps the dog continue pointing. There is no e-collar or harsh corrections used at this stage; we are showing the dog that if it points, it gets to see birds. The command “Whoa” is not given at this time. The word “Whoa” is not incorporated until the dog has been generalized on the “Whoa” command and is standing fairly reliably on the scent bird.
Eventually I will launch pheasants and a covey of quail from multiple launchers. Once the dog is reliable and I have completed e-collar conditioning, I will take the dog into a hunting environment with released, good-flying quail. When the dog is on point, I walk in front and flush the bird or throw one from my bird bag in the same fashion that I did on the point drills. The next step is to cement the process in the wild-bird environment.
If I could use only one type of bird for training, it would be pigeons. All of the yard training and developing bird manners can be accomplished with pigeons before generalizing and proofing the dog in the hunting arena on wild birds.
For more training articles or information on the George Hickox School of Dog Training, visit www.georgehickox.com.