Since I started researching bird dog breeds and training techniques in the fall of 2013, if there has been one piece of advice that I have heard or read more often than any other, it’s that wild birds will teach your dog how to hunt wild birds. Essentially, the more contacts you can get your dog on wild birds, the better that dog will be able to hunt and handle wild birds. As far as I understand the things I’ve read and the people I’ve talked to, this is not at all to say that there isn’t a place for working pigeons or other pen-raised birds into your training scenarios. It’s simply to say that if all other factors are equal and you could spend an hour running your dog in wild bird cover with no guarantee of bird contacts, or spend an hour working your dog on pigeons where you know there will be bird contacts, I think most would agree that the hour in the wild bird cover is going to be the better use of your time. This of course depends on what stage of training you’re in with your dog and what your goals are, but for the sake of this article I’m talking about young dogs, specifically my 10 month old English setter. After spending the last few weeks running my dog in wild bird cover I can now see for myself that there is definitely some validity to this theory.
We were fortunate this year in Minnesota to have an unusually early snow melt which offered us the chance to extend our spring training season. As many others are out shed hunting for antlers and jumping on early fishing opportunities in the Duluth area, I’ve had one thing on my mind and that has been to get my setter pup on as many wild birds as possible before the spring season is over and the birds begin to nest. I’m also fortunate to live in an area where I can access wild bird cover fairly easily. This offers me the chance to take the pup out not only on weekends but also on weekdays after work. I know not everyone has that luxury, but that being said, it’s good to check around your local area for potential covers. Often you don’t have to go as far as you think to locate wild birds, especially woodcock. If you live near a dog park or public park area with the right type of cover it might be worth investigating to see if it holds birds even it’s a small amount. At the end of the day, if you can run your dog for 30 minutes three times a week and the dog gets 1 bird contact each time out, that’s no different from running the dog for an hour and a half on Saturday where the dogs nails 3 contacts. In fact, some would likely argue that the 3 times for 30 minutes approach with only 1 contact is better in terms of consistency of training. One thing is for sure, our bird dogs learn quickly, and with repeated exposure you should see noticeable improvement in your dog’s ability to hunt and handle birds.
As I write this today, I am quite simply amazed at the progress my setter has made over the last few weeks. When we started out in March, the bird contacts were few and far between and when they happened the result was always a question mark. Last fall my setter experienced his first hunting season in which he was very young. He exhibited some good behaviors throughout the season and even pointed a few birds, but in the end it was his first season and the bar was set very low, right in line with my expectations. After all, my only goal last fall was to get him in the woods as much as possible as long as he enjoyed it which was always the case. The spring season had me very excited as I could see the physical and mental growth of my pup over the winter. I knew he was ready to show me something more in the woods and I couldn’t wait to get him out. As I was saying, we started out slow and bumped a few grouse on the first couple runs. Then one evening Hartley was covering some ground out to my right and I noticed his bell had stopped, that was promptly followed by an alert on my Garmin Alpha handset notifying me he was on point. I excitedly made my way towards him and heard a grouse flush, his first point of the season! The next couple times out were fairly slow with maybe a wild flush or a bump or two, the woodcock had still not yet arrived. Then early last week, everything changed.
Hartley and I hit the cover on a beautiful Tuesday evening. I was prepared for a “typical” day but I was in for a surprise. Early on in our walk, Hartley had made his way out to my left in some thick alders. I heard his bell stop and the Garmin confirmed his point. As I made my way into the alders I spotted a great looking pup pointing with intensity and facing my direction. With all of my attention focused on the dog I nearly stepped on the grouse he had pinned between us. The bird exploded out from under me and I watched as Hartley took off in excitement. This early bird contact definitely lit a fire under Hartley and he began to stretch out and cover ground better than I’d ever seen him before. Part of that was purely physical ability as he is a much better runner now than he was last fall, and part of it was also an intense drive that I could tell had been awakened within him. Hartley’s first encounter with a woodcock that evening consisted of me hearing the bird get up in the distance, seeing the bird rise above the tree tops and then noticing Hartley’s bell ringing in that direction. His next few contacts played out a little differently. With each contact his handling seemed to improve. He scented the birds farther out and initiated and held point longer each time. It was obvious that he was learning with each contact he made. By the end of the night, Hartley had contacted 8 birds consisting of 2 grouse and 6 woodcock . It was the best performance I had ever seen from him and I was again amazed at what these dogs can do simply by offering them the opportunity to exhibit and express their natural ability.
Naturally, I was so excited by Hartley’s progress, I couldn’t wait to get him out again. We hit the woods twice more during the week and both outings consisted of more of the same. Hartley contacted 5 to 10 birds each time and continued to show a natural progression in his aptitude for handling the birds. Our final outing during the week came on Easter Sunday. After a nice brunch with my family I decided to invite my Dad along so he could see Hartley work the cover as he’s never had the chance to hunt behind a pointing dog. I chose to strictly abide by the policy of never bragging about your dog before the hunt and tempered my Dad’s expectations a bit, “I sure hope we find a bird or two…” The decision paid off but ultimately was unnecessary. The next hour and a half consisted of another top performance from Hartley. Within the first 10 minutes he had pointed and held three woodies, each time allowing my dad and I to walk in and flush them. I can’t think of a better way to introduce someone to the joys of hunting behind a pointing dog. Put another way, my Dad is VERY excited to get out with Hartley and I this fall. At the end of the day Hartley had pointed another 6 woodcock and a grouse to boot, all of which were handled very well. It was a great way to spend an afternoon with my Dad and I’m glad he was able to see what a good bird dog adds to the hunting experience.
To make a long story short, if I wasn’t aware of the value of wild bird contacts to training a pointing dog before last week, I surely am now! The amount of progress and improvement I saw in my dog in such a short period of time was truly impressive to me, especially considering that all I had to do was strap a bell on the dog, put him on the ground and follow him through the cover. In all of these outings I rarely said more than “good boy” or “here” to my dog and that’s the way it should be. Bird dogs today, with the proper breeding, are packed with so much intelligence and natural ability that simply providing them the opportunity to learn on wild birds should go a long way towards the overall goal of a “finished” bird dog. After all, if your dog can’t hunt and handle wild birds, all of the hands-on training in the world isn’t going to do very much for you is it?
There’s still time left this spring to get those dogs out in wild bird cover so my advice to you is to do so! I know some of you are still waiting for the snow to melt, I hope that happens soon! Let us know how your dogs are doing this spring! Send us your pictures on Instagram and Facebook, we love to hear about your dogs! And don’t forget to subscribe to Northwoods’R via email on the sidebar so you can be notified of all our future blog posts and offerings. Have a great weekend everyone!