The glory time has arrived…hunting season. How sweet it is. And the good news is that the grouse and woodcock numbers are very promising from Minnesota to Maine. Several professional trainers who began training dogs on wild birds in late July have reported two or three times the flushes compared to the same time last year.
The season is here; however, is that young pup ready for birds? I’ve had dozens of folks email me in the past several months with news of a new puppy in the household. They’re all excited about hunting over their pup. From setters to pointers to versatile breeds, everyone feels they have the next grouse or woodcock field champion.
Depending upon the age and level of training, don’t expect too much from your pup. Although I know professional guides, who live in the woods and that have never shown their dog a pen raised bird, most of us don’t have that exposure to wild birds. Therefore, a few steps should be taken to help the pup through their first season of hunting birds. Let’s assume your pup is six months or younger. Even if you’re heading to bird camp in just a few weeks, there is still time to prepare your pup for maximum benefit from their first season.
Your author is a firm believer in puppy obedience classes. They offer the pup an opportunity to socialize with other pups and they’ll learn basic obedience. Almost every town, small or large, has someone teaching puppy obedience. This will make the experience in the field more enjoyable for everyone; owner and pup.
Steps should be taken to help develop natural abilities. This includes the predator drive. Expose the pup to a couple of pen-raised birds. I like to put a bird in a small cage and then have the pup approach the cage without a lead or check cord. The cage prevents the bird from flapping their wings in the pup’s face which could cause bird shyness. Pups typically run around the cage and sniff the bird several times. This is good.
A pup should also be run in the woods several times before heading to camp. Any woods are good…just make sure they’ve had contact with brush and different topography. If you’ve got a fast-moving, high-energy pup (like most pointing breeds), you may consider a chest protector for the youngster as they learn to move quickly through the woods. And then there is shooting. Do not take a pup to a shooting range to “break them in.” This could cause a permanent gun shy pup. Do it slowly. Begin with a .22 caliber pistol at fifty yards and then a .410 shotgun at 100 yards and then slowly decrease the distance. It’s best if the pup is pre-occupied with something…like sniffing a pen raised bird in a cage.
Another very important issue is introduction to bells or beepers…or both. For bells, begin with something very small like something you might find on a Christmas toy. Without the bell being on the dog, shake the bell while walking around the house while the dog is playing or pre-occupied; like eating their dinner. After a week of making bell noise, affix the bell to the collar of your pup. After a couple of days, attach a larger hunting bell. You should be ready to go. For a beeper, diminish the volume by putting duct tape over the beeper. Then, while beeping put it on a carpeted floor and, with a towel covering the beeper, allow it to beep for two or three minutes. Your pup will probably walk around the beeping noise and be curious. Expose the pup three of four times to the beeper while on the floor. Then, with the beeper still muffled with duct tape, place the collar on your pup. There may be a mild reaction; however, if introduced properly, the pup will soon ignore the beep. On my own dogs, I use a bell for continuous contact and an on-point only beeper function.
Be sure the pup has been introduced to riding in the truck for more than a quick trip to the grocery store. Bird camp could be a day or two drive and you don’t want a pup that is continuously sick or overly nervous about riding in a vehicle.
Finally, don’t expect too much from your pup while in the field. After all, it’s just a pup. It takes three years minimum to develop a good bird dog. The first hunting season should be all about having puppy fun. If you get a bird find or even a flash point, be happy.
Paul Fuller is host of the Bird Dogs Afield TV program. Paul’s website is www.birddogsafield.com.