I always enjoy having puppies on my dog truck. It’s just fun watching them learn about life’s mysteries as each day goes by. Because everything is new to them, it gives a trainer like me a wonderful opportunity to see to it that they learn about their calling in life in a mannerly way.
ZACK RETRIEVING a bird.
For example, I believe that properly introducing a puppy to birds is one of the most significant undertakings in the training of any hunting dog. I like to begin introducing my pups to dead birds when they are as young as seven weeks old: I just throw a dead pigeon out there and let them have fun with it for a short while. Most pups at seven weeks of age have very little fear, if any at all, which makes it very easy to introduce birds in a controlled, nonthreatening way.
That way, birds become a familiar part of their everyday lives, and picking up feathers becomes second nature to them. To play it safe, I do not introduce live birds to a puppy until he is very secure with retrieving dead ones.
A flapping pigeon can hit a pup right in the face and make a timid puppy become even more cautious. So using a clipped wing bird is just not worth the risk. Training should be a systematic process where learning is achieved through patient teachings and followed by many repetitions to make all the commands and actions become solid in the dog’s mind.
Still, introducing a young dog to live birds is necessary after he is more mature and already picking up a dead bird. In most cases there will be no problem no matter how you introduce live birds, but a controlled stress-free environment is still essential.
At some point early on, a hunting dog should become crazy for birds because that desire to get the bird is the motivation behind every good hunting dog’s actions.
Novice trainers run into problems when they believe that it’s a dog’s nature to override his caution and they will aggressively pursue birds, no matter what.
I know you’ve heard stories about hunters taking their pups out to the field and hunting them over ducks, dove or pheasants without prior introduction to birds. Unfortunately, when these hunters are lucky and no problems arise they encourage others to follow in their footsteps because they got away with no permanent damage to their dog.
That’s not the road you want to walk down fellow trainers; play it safe and train step by careful step. Trust me; you never want to have to handle the side effects that fear of birds creates.
Figure 1 is an example of training by the numbers. It shows my hunting dog, Zack, picking up a snow goose before he was old enough to be force fetched. Zack had been brought up through a proper progression from dead bird to live bird, and was ready to progress to larger birds. That’s why I had no fear of anything going wrong by throwing such a large bird for him to retrieve and, as you can see, he had no problem picking up the goose.
It’s really not a good idea to take unnecessary chances in the training of your hunting dog. If you play it safe and stay out of trouble you’ll be much happier when you and your dog go to the field.
Have fun hunting, and training!
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Grady Istre’s column appears every other week in WON, and he can be reached at reibar.com