Introducing Guns and Birds

Helping You Get the Most From Your Hunting Dogs

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Introducing Guns and Birds

by George Hickox

Properly introducing a dog to guns and birds is of paramount importance. A dog that blinks birds, turns off at the flush or heads for the truck at the first shot is not worth a tinker's damn in the field. Purposeful avoidance of birds, flush problems and gun-shyness are environmental or trainer-induced problems. Dogs are not born gun-shy; they are made that way.

Because a gun or bird problem is often extremely difficult to fix - if it even can be fixed - I handle the introductions of such elements with extreme care. I go into it assuming the dog will have a problem with the raucous flush of a rooster and the sharp report of a gun. By approaching the task with caution, I try not react negatively to either the sound of a gun or the sound, smell and sight of a flushing gamebird.

Granted, there are many stories of owners simply taking young dogs that have never been exposed to birds or guns on hunting trips and having positive experiences. A bird flies, the dog chases, the bird is shot, no problem. The dog is jazzed up by all the excitement and takes off hunting for another bird. Great! Keep in mind, however, that there are many more examples of this approach resulting in a dog that will never quest for game or that flees at the mere sight of a gun. Some dogs simply are predisposed to gun-shyness and flush problems by virtue of their temperament and/or lack of field experience in their bloodline. By the same token, just because a pedigree reads like a Who's Who of bird dogs, there's no guarantee that a pup won't develop a problem with guns and/or birds if it is improperly introduced to them. (Of course, I'm a firm believer in the importance of genetics, and a dog with sound genetics will train more easily in every way.)

The birdier the dog-the stronger its desire to hunt and chase-the less likely it will be to blink birds or become gun- shy. Therefore, I introduce the dog to birds prior to and separately from the gun. It is very important that this initial experience be a positive one, as dogs learn by association, and a negative encounter is readily imprinted.

It is for this reason that the first step in introducing a dog to birds does not involve a flush at all. In my building-block approach to training, the process has been broken down to a series of subparts: first a bird that does not flap, then a bird that does, then a less-innocuous flush (guaranteeing the dog won't be caught unaware) and finally the flush of a pheasant.

In this approach, the dog's first bird is a locked-wing or harnessed pigeon. To lock the wings of a pigeon, spread the wings out, with the bird facing you, by holding the right wing in your left hand and the left wing in your right. Fold the left wing behind the right wing. Lock the elbow joint of the left wing over the elbow joint of the right wing. Now the bird cannot fly or flap. This does not harm the bird, and you can simply unlock the wings and have a flyer.

Begin by teasing the dog in an upbeat manner and toss the lockwing about 10 feet from the dog in an area where the dog can see the bird the entire time. A mowed lawn is preferable to an overgrown weed patch. Start the introductory session in an area free of other distractions. You want the dog to be focused on the bird. I certainly wouldn't take the chance of a truck backfiring or a mother shouting, "No!" to a child while this is going on. Remember, dogs learn by association.
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