Strong drive, athletic, willing to please, loyal, easily trained…these are just a few traits every dogman and woman hopes to see in his or her bird dog. Yes, most of these attributes begin with a breeding program, bloodlines, and good genetics, but how do playful, energetic bird dog puppies transform into magnificent partners? The foundation the puppy receives is key.
Like all puppies, bird dog puppies learn through play from a very young age. The dam has taught her pups social cues and behavioral norms through play and nips early on. Once weaned, the siblings continue to learn dominance, socialization, and manners through play and exploration. Instinctively, its dam and littermates begin building the bird dog pup’s foundation in the form of confidence and respect before the owner even meets it.
Most professional trainers will not accept a puppy until it is 6-7 months or has all of its adult teeth, so there will be a period of several months in which socialization and exposure to different environments should continue. If the puppy is not sent to a professional trainer, it should continue learning through socialization and other experiences as well until it is old enough to begin formal training at home. Still considered puppies until 2 years old, there is plenty of time in these formative years to establish cooperation and trust with the puppy.
Differentiating between breeds, certain bird dogs will need to be exposed to specific things as they grow older and trained differently than other bird dog breeds. For example, a Labrador Retriever needs to learn how to be steady. Essentially, this means the dog will not break, or retrieve, until the hunter sends him. Specifically in bird hunting, being steady is a safety issue. Other dogs may be sent out and other hunters may be shooting, but the retriever has to remain sitting by the hunter, listening and waiting, until he is sent. Not only is breaking an undesirable behavior in a lab, it can be dangerous as well.
To begin teaching the foundation of steadiness (among other things), Heather Vazquez of DuckHill Kennels in Somerville, TN, teaches a Head Start Program for the kennel’s British labrador puppies. This program starts at just eight weeks of age and begins with placeboarding to learn the “sit” command. A placeboard is a tool used in achieving certain training behaviors, such as “sit/stay” and “wait,” going to a specific area on command, recall, and more. It allows appropriate behaviors to be reinforced until a consistent response is reached and helps keep the retriever puppies (and other gun dogs) focused and calm while training.
As far as the setters and pointers go, these dogs will silently search for game by scent. Methodically and systematically hunting until prey is encountered, these canines are expected to go motionless, rather than chase game, to alert the hunter. As the name suggests, setters will take on a distinct stance, similar to a crouch, or “set” upon locating its quarry. A pointer will freeze in place, straightening its nose, lifting its tail, and staring intently in one direction; almost robotically, it lifts its front foot slightly off the ground and bends in a point. A hunter needs his or her setter or pointer to remain calm, smoothly relocate, and navigate through the woods stealthily as it searches to pick up the scent.
Using ground scent to catch wind of air scent to find birds is the hallmark of hunting with a setter or a pointer; therefore, trainers and handlers specifically work on scent tracking with these two breeds of puppies. To develop and hone in on this skill, trainers will create a scent trail for the puppies to practice with. This can be done by rubbing training scents on a dummy or using the actual bird itself to create a trail. Soaking the bird in water before dragging it on the trail will intensify the scent. Making the trail as pungent as possible encourages the puppy to rely on its nose and build up its confidence. On the hunt, other game, the environment, and humans get mixed in with the scent being tracked, potentially causing confusion for the setter or pointer. However, if a strong foundation in scent tracking is developed as a puppy, the setter and pointer will be able to keep its nose on the desired scent, thus creating a successful hunt.
A flushing dog is a bird dog trained to locate and flush game birds by provoking them into flight so the hunter can take a shot. These dogs differ from setters and pointers in that they do not keep still after locating the bird. They work cover close to the hunter- within shotgun range. Therefore, beginning to establish range with a flushing breed is an essential component of a solid foundation in a flushing puppy.
Understanding an established range that requires the dog to stay quite close to the handler is paramount with flushers. Trainers must begin drilling puppies with those fundamentals in obedience, “heel,” “place,” “hup,” etc., before range work can be established in flushing breeds. Going hand-in-hand with the obedience training, whistle training is also a precursor to establishing range. To establish this foundation, the handler teaches the flushing puppy a voice command (i.e. “sit”), then overlays the whistle with the voice command, and then finally uses the whistle by itself. Ultimately, the whistle will be used to establish the flusher’s range as an adult dog.
With each of these breeds, it is imperative to remember training should be fun for the pup. Developmental, age-appropriate exercises working towards simple commands are the basis for a strong hunting foundation, regardless of breed. The goal in this stage of training is to ignite the puppy’s instincts it was bred for. The amount of desire in the pup achieved in this early training will better prepare it for the difficult task of finding, retrieving, and flushing birds in the wild. Setting a good foundation with a bird dog puppy will not only expedite the development of reaching its full potential, but it will begin the process of creating an invaluable hunting partner as well.