Wild Pheasants and Field Trial Dogs - Good or Bad? - Part IIby Tom Ness
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Last issue I promised to detail some of the situations where I find wild birds particularly helpful. Hunting and training on wild birds speeds up the experience process, no doubt, but it is definitely a two edged sword. A famous field trial trainer told me of the electronic dog training collar, “it won’t make a good trainer out of a bad one”. Certainly this is the case with wild birds-in fact; a half trained dog that might sneak through a field trial will be a raving lunatic after 30 seconds in a CRP field full of wild birds and the wrong handler. A veteran trialer once made a statement at a trial banquet that hunting dogs had to be trained better than the average trial dog. At the time, I knew little and thought he was full of it. Today, I realize how wise he was. Wild birds are a source of RED HOT scent. As are rabbit pens, quail johnny houses and a number of other man-made training devices that supply similar stimulations to gundogs and their trainers.
Wild birds behave differently than their pen raised brethren. They must become very adapt at avoiding predators, they have to, something invariably tries to kill them every day of their lives. As bird hunting season goes on it becomes increasing difficult to get “bird off the end of the dogs nose” type contact as once the birds sense danger they start escape maneuvers. In our area where we have “oceans” of CRP most birds will run a ways and then fly off to safety. There may be a few that duck in and hide, particularly when we are working diverse covers, such as brush, cattail or creek bottoms, but mostly they flush well ahead of the dog. I’ve often been puzzled when I saw a dog penalized at a trial for doing a great job on a runner but failing to produce. Although, it certainly can be the right call, I’ve seen many a rooster sprint a hundred yards then fly off just above the grass.
Late summer/early fall is the best time of year for strictly gathering experience on finding and flushing birds. The young of the year are less educated and it is not unusual to get many, many finds and flushes. This really teaches a dog how to find game. It is also a great way to reinforce the steadiness of young dogs. It’s not difficult to get a dozen or more flushes for each dog, depending on how many we take out. The dogs really learn the sequence; the bird gets up, my butt goes to the ground, the blank gun fires, then the boss will tell me what to do. When we get into a brood of young birds they may be dispersed over a fairly large area and some will fly without being closely pressured by the dog. I insist on the dog hupping every time it sees a bird in the air. So, they also become very reliable on honoring, as they see many birds get up and fly that they are not allowed to retrieve. I try to mix wild bird training with more traditional field trial type training where I plant and shoot pigeon, least the dog quit watching his birds fly off and his marking suffers.
In addition to filling my dog’s memory with bird finding data, wild birds also allow me to work on specific dog problems. I take gun nervous prospects into a field crawling with birds. When they are right in the thick of things, I fire the blank gun. If the dog falls apart, I needn’t waste any more of my client’s money or my time. This is a great opportunity to evaluate a dog with a weak flush. If they don’t go at the wild game like a guided missile, chances are great that they never will blow out a bird that is covered with human scent.
I’ve also found wild birds to be very helpful in dealing with “trial wise” dogs. I believe that most of these dogs are not really “trial wise”, although some surely are. Many dogs just get very excited when they get to a field trial. They have learned that when they are very excited they don’t necessarily have to listen to the whistle commands. I take these dogs to a spot that is full of birds. I try to keep the dog absolutely screwed down while I work on the three basic whistles. If I blow that whistle to turn, come back or stop, then, by thunder he had better do it now. Should the dog ignore me I say nothing, but in the next millisecond I am bearing down on him to apply an appropriate correction. Certainly, some dogs require a more vigorous correction than others but I try never to be harsh or cruel, just insistent. In this situation; the ground covered with dog training scent, birds coming up everywhere and absolute control being enforced, most dogs soon settle down and learn to go about their work. Should they not, I’d turn up the heat on the correction and at some point decide that this dog does not belong in the gene pool, at least around here. There is NOTHING that they will find at a field trial that will be anything like this excitement wise. I try to do this kind of training well in advance of any trials, then switch to traditional training on planted pigeons just before the trial. This settles my charge back down and a field trial is as easy as a walk in the park.
One situation where I find wild birds absolutely perfect is teaching a dog to deal with running game. This works better on older birds-- lots of dog training scent but not red hot, as the birds have already exited. As a dog hits scent and begins to work it out, I move up and give the hup command. Should he comply, I go to him and give him a pat and tell him what a good boy he is and command him to get on. Should he ignore me, I go right to him and make him mind. As with any training this must be governed by common sense and not overdone.
I find wild birds to be a wonderful tool to train spaniels on. Is it for you, who knows? It might just be worth a trip to the prairie to find out.