Wild Pheasants and Field Trial Dogs - Good or Bad?? – Part Iby Tom Ness
Reprinted by permission of Spaniels in the Field Magazine, for information regarding obtaining a subscription please visit - http://www.sitf.com/subscribe.html
Here in North Dakota we have 3.5 million acres of CRP. CRP, for anyone unfamiliar, stands for Conservation Reserve Program. Through CRP, the Federal Agriculture Dept. contracts with farmers to place highly erodable cropland into a set aside program. CRP acres are planted to grass and left out of production for a minimum of ten years. This has created a boon to wildlife of all kinds, especially pheasants. Imagine hundreds of thousands of acres of knee to waist high grass-crawling with wild pheasant, sharp-tail grouse and Hungarian Partridge. Sounds like a dog trainer’s / field trialer’s / hunter’s dream? Well, it is, most of the time. Today is February 9, and it’s a balmy 20 F, this is the first time we’ve been above zero in 3 or 4 weeks. But winter weather aside, this is a great place to live, hunt and train dogs.
I’ve been involved in training and pheasant hunting with spaniels for 25 plus years, first as a hobby and for the past 9 years as a full time professional. I am mainly a gundog trainer but have always attended a few spaniel and retriever trials as my schedule permitted. Recently, I find myself more involved in the trial scene although all of my dogs are still basically hunting dogs.
There has always been a difference of opinion over whether pheasant hunting with trial dogs was a good or bad thing. There are very successful trainers on either side of this controversy so like with nearly all training there is no one right answer. Obviously, I think working my dogs on wild game is a good idea. The first thing our blue (or green in the case of cockers) book tells us is that the primary function of a spaniel is to find game. What better teacher is there than experience. The same holds true with dog trainers. Let me relate two tales of the same trainer (me) that happened 25 years apart. I showed up at my first or second trial (in Minnesota) fresh from about 4 days of pheasant hunting, I had a fabulous little springer that I would love to have back today. When I came to the line, the veteran judge greeted me and I informed him that I was new but did a lot of hunting with my dog. He raised his eyebrows but he continued his instructions and we got underway. My little bitch took off like a thoroughbred, made a couple of casts, slammed her nose down to the carpet and streaked off the course in hot pursuit of a running bird. I was more than a little nervous and by the time I reacted she was about 50 yards out, she hupped at the flush and the wing gun made an incredible shot. At the fall of the bird she looked over her shoulder and saw me and my judge hot footing in her direction and promptly broke and got her bird. 45 seconds into our trial we were on our way home. The judge later consoled me and told me no other dog had any finds that compared with hers, but that I should never hunt with a field trial dog, as they get out of control, no doubt that mine had. Fast forward to last spring. Training birds had been unusually hard to find so had I had been running my dogs on wild birds, after 6 or 8 finds, I’d pull out a couple of tough old wing clips and throw long retrieves until my arm got sore. I had a particularly powerful young springer who had just had his second birthday. We went to Canada for his first open stake. His third series could have been an instant replay of my Minnesota experience 25 years before. A couple of blistering casts, nose to the ground and petal to the metal, dog and bird at the edge of range, this time, however, I was quicker to respond and at 40 yards hit the hup whistle, after a half a second his butt was not quite on the ground , I growled, “SIT DOWN”. This, he knew, was serious business and planted himself. My judge and I closed the gap to 10 yards and I commanded him to get on. He took off again and in short order put up his bird, which was shot close and retrieved. End result, a blue ribbon. Two great bird finders, both made by lots of experience on wild game, the difference, one was not under control, the other was. Training on wild birds speeds the experience process. For the experience to be beneficial, the dogs must be kept under absolute control. I sometimes take young dogs into scent to fire them up, or work on some specific problem. Usually, however, I like to take a dog that is well schooled in the three basics; turn, come back and hup. I am then absolutely insistent on those three commands. I like to take at least 2 and often three or four dogs out on game. While one dog works the others are at heel, quietly. If I have to correct any of the dogs more than once he immediately goes on the lead and another takes his place. Should he give me any trouble at heel, correction is again doled out immediately.
In a coming article I will detail some specific situations and training problems where I find wild birds particularly useful.
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