column By: Alec Sparks | October, 21
First and most important, don’t expect your young dog to perform as well in the field as it has done in training. If a dog is barely under control or staunch during training, it’s wildly unfair to expect him to do better while hunting. In fact, I usually expect dogs to perform at a reduced level hunting than they do training. That’s not to say I’m going to lower the bar in regards to trained behavior and that I’m very pleased if the dog does well or even better than expected. But I generally expect to encounter issues related to trained responses.
Why? Because dogs mostly only generalize things that are important to them. Clatter a food pan every time you feed your dog, and they’re likely to expect food when they hear that same noise at your friend’s home. It’s important to them. Things like following commands and trained behavior in new surroundings are much less important to them. That’s why you need to “generalize” those skills in many new places and around different distractions.
It’s really unfair to come down on a dog that has little or no experience in the hunting field just because they respond well in the training field. People frequently say the dog “should” know. Stop applying your human thought process to a dog: They don’t think the same way as we do! Go ahead and fairly enforce trained commands with a thoughtful eye to the dog’s temperament, age and experience. Many a nice young dog has been really set back, sometimes almost permanently, by overzealous actions of people demanding too much too soon.
If you actually expect mistakes and breaches of conduct, you won’t be surprised when they happen.
For the novice dog handler, there is a lot to consider. First, reread the above material several times! The next step is to plan a hunt that will be a great learning experience for a novice dog. That may mean adjusting where you hunt because if your youngster needs visual supervision, don’t run him in waist-high ferns or other cover that’s so heavy you literally can’t see him 15 yards away. But that’s where the birds are, you say? Yeah, I know, but really your main goal with a novice dog should be to transition it successfully from the training field to hunting, keeping its trained skills intact.
So many dogs quickly learn that the rules of training don’t apply when hunting because dad can’t keep track of what the dog is doing. (Or not doing!) To that end, it’s usually a great idea to let a trusted friend do the shooting on as many initial hunts as needed while you concentrate on handling the dog. I know, I know – you are probably as excited as the dog to be in the field. But think of the long game here and the downside of your dog learning it can get away with murder because you’re bust shooting at birds or in cover where you can’t keep track of your dog.
If you’re hunting wild birds and you’re new to it, do your best to research where to actually get your dogs on birds because you can’t make an omelet without eggs, and your novice dog needs bird contacts to become a bird dog. You need to learn to approach likely bird-holding areas in a way that’s helpful to your dog’s success. If you’re going to a shooting preserve, many field hands will be happy to accommodate a novice dog by marking the location where they’ve set birds out to help you position your dog for success. That’s not “hunting,” you say? Does your dog know that? Help them be successful; it will pay great dividends in the future.
One more thing. If a dog loses much of its hearing by middle age, that’s usually from shooting too close to the dog and is both inexcusable and preventable. Never shoot over a dog’s head or anywhere close to it unless the bird is almost directly overhead. I’ve been in front of a few muzzle blasts in my day, and the concussion literally knocked me to my knees. Besides the danger of shooting at a low-flying bird, it’s just crazy that someone would jeopardize their dog’s hearing for any bird.
If you are new to the field with a dog that is the same, finding a skilled hunting partner/mentor who understands these basics will add to your enjoyment and success.