Birds and Bird Plantingby Kenneth Roebuck
From Gun-Dog Training Spaniels and Retrievers, By Kenneth C. Roebuck
Reprinted by permission of Stackpole Books
It is usually necessary to resort to artificial means to give a young dog experience on bird work. Property licensed as a "Shooting Preserve" affords the trainer the opportunity (in many states) to shoot game birds over dogs for seven months of the year (September through March), which is of course a considerable advantage. The amateur trainer however probably has no access to such facilities other than as a paying customer, and the professional finds that the time of year when game birds may not be shot is the very time when his training schedule is at its busiest.
Gun-dog trainers in Britain do much of their early training in large fenced enclosures known as "rabbit pens," in which wild or semi-tame rabbits and often wing-clipped birds live freely amid natural cover and piles of brush or pine branches. In Britain rabbits were always hunted with springers, at least up to 1954, when a disease known as myxamatosis appeared on the scene (introduced from Australia) and almost completely wiped the rabbit out. The rabbit is a hardy species however, and has managed to survive in isolated pockets, even developing a certain amount of natural immunity to the disease. But the rabbit no longer populates Britain in vast numbers, and the spaniel’s role has become more that of full-time bird hunter, with rabbit retrieves more the exception than the rule. As a true all-’rounder though the spaniel is expected to cope with any retrieve whether fur or feather, as is the retriever. And in Britain, days out hunting or field-trialling regularly result in a variety of retrieves (pheasant, partridge, woodcock, snipe, woodpigeon, duck, rabbit, hare, and so on). We are concerned here, however, with using spaniels and retrievers for upland hunting, with pheasants and grouse and woodcock being the main quarry. The occasions on which a rabbit is flushed during bird hunting are few and far between, so specific training for steadiness to rabbits is really of minor importance.
Bird planting: the correct way to hold a pigeon.
Photo by: Author
In training with live birds, birds have to be used which are not affected by the game laws, and the answer-especially for the flushing breeds-is pigeons. They are a relatively easy bird to obtain and sources include breeders who are reducing their stock or dealers who buy and sell in large quantities. Pigeons can also be trapped in farm silos and barns, where the nuisance they cause usually makes the owner more than willing to let you trap.
I prefer not to use quail from a call-back pen as they often tend not to fly far enough, and they are inclined to flush in groups of two or three-hardly suitable during initial steadiness training for the breeds we are concerned with. I do of course use quail for the pointing breeds, for which they are ideal. Chukar partridge, which like pigeons tend to fly hard, can be good for the flushing dogs but are difficult to obtain during spring and summer.
In addition to being strong fliers, piegons are a suitable size for a young dog to carry, and, normally, if he will retrieve pigeons, little or no difficulty will be experienced when he gets into retrieving game birds later. As I have already mentioned, pigeons also present no danger to the inexperienced dog, whereas the spurs of a wounded cock pheasant can be quite formidable.
Dizzying the bird by swinging it. Only a few seconds of swinging are required.
Photo by: Author
The use of pigeons as an aid in training your dog is essential, especially in the early stages of teaching steadiness-to-flush (after steadiness-to-thrown-dummies has been accomplished). Two or three pre-dizzied birds will be planted well apart from each other. (I’ll explain "pre-dizzied" in a moment.) The dog can then be hunted towards them and on getting their scent be allowed to run in and flush. This artificial method simulates what will happen when you are hunting your dog later on real game. Pigeons therefore are the trainer’s answer, not only during initial training but also in the off season, when a little bird work by way of a refresher will help keep your dog fit and up to standard. A small stock of pigeons, say ten or fifteen, can be quite easily kept. All that is required is a small roosting box secured to the end of a building with room for a corn tray and water pan. Birds kept in a roosting box for a couple of weeks will invariably fly right back to it when released or flushed, enabling you to use them repeatedly. (Not all birds by any means need be shot.) If a light metal swinging gate is incorporated, the birds will quickly learn to land on a wooden platform in front of it and push their way back in.