Helping You Get the Most From Your Hunting Dogs
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Hunting In Rangeby George Hickox
At the top of my most frequently asked questions list is: "How can I get my dog to hunt in range?" A close second comes from aspiring puppy owners: "How big do your dogs run?"
Here I'll impart some "tricks of the trade" for getting your dog to hunt for you rather than you having to hunt for it. I'll also explore a few myths regarding big-running dogs.
In my training schools, workshops and previous columns I have stressed the importance of genetics. Genetics plus training and nutrition equal a bragging-rights shooting dog. I encourage everyone to buy a dog with the best genetics they can find (or afford). For me, one indication of good genetics is an untrained dog that hunts with wild abandon, running with an almost maniacal purpose of finding birds. It's easier to reel in a dog than cast it out, and a dog that doesn't venture too far may actually lack hunting desire and drive.
For the walking hunter, I also advise looking for certain characteristics in a pup's family tree. Just as a shotgun should fit the individual, so should a dog's genes complement the hunter's objective. Look for a puppy from parents that are biddable and demonstrate a strong desire to please. I advocate buying a pup from a line with strong field-trial credentials but from the type of field trial compatible with your style of hunting. Accordingly, I would advise walking gunners to stay away from a pointing dog with a blue-ribbon background in endurance or free-for-all trialing. These dogs are no doubt great animals but may have more independence and game seeking desire than you want to try harnessing. I've had tremendous success with pups from the shooting-dog trial circuit as well as from the grouse and woodcock wildbird field trial game. A pup from shooting-dog or grouse/woodcock trial stock will normally have the genes to be a good hunting companion.
Of course, keep in mind that there is no such thing as a self-trained dog that will meet the high standards of a gentleman's shooting dog. You must add the proper dash of training spices to the stock. The English springer spaniel trial circuit is an effective proving ground for superior hunting genetics and trainability. In the springer game, in order to attain field champion status, a dog must hunt in gun range, prove to be a superior marker of downed game, be steady to flush and retrieve to hand.
Choosing one of the retrieving breeds from field trial or hunt test ancestry (North American Hunting Retriever Association) will also reduce your chances of acquiring a dud. If versatile dogs are your passion, you would do well to buy a pup from parents that have earned their titles.
Once you have the pup, be sure to spend a lot of time with it, particularly during the first few months. Get to know the youngster and let it get to know and trust you. Without this one-on-one time, your pup may become independent, caring not where you are once you get afield. If you prefer a close-working dog, don't turn the pup loose for solo adventures, as aggressive dogs allowed to run free often become too bold and feel they no longer need their masters.
Assuming you start with good genetics, range is mostly a product of training or lack thereof. In the beginning, when you are developing the hunting instinct and introducing the pup to birds, letting the dog find lots of birds in a small area will produce a close-worker. I like to start pups, no matter what breed, on good-flying pen-raised quail. If I'm trying to develop a closer-working gundog, I'll release a bunch of quail from the recall pen in a small hedgerow, apple orchard or grass patch about half the size of a football field. The pup will find lots of birds and continue hunting the relatively confined area because it's enjoying success. When a young dog does not find birds it starts questing farther and farther out. If your objective is to create a big-running dog, plant fewer birds at greater distances. The young dog will soon learn it has to strike out if it's going to find anything.
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