How to Train Your Older Dog to Bird Hunt

Hard
10-12 Months
Work

Introduction

We all know the joy a dog can bring into our lives. During our time spent together, memories are created and cherished. When pet owners find that one of their hobbies align with that of their pet’s, the bond between man and beast becomes stronger.

Some future pet-owners search for a dog that loves to run if they are avid marathoners. Others, who prefer to describe themselves as film-buffs, may look for a smaller dog who loves to cuddle in front of the television. Likewise, hunters may search for the perfect hunting companion.

Bird hunting specifically is a popular sport for dogs and has been for hundreds of years. When training bird hunting to a dog, there are three key concepts for them to learn: tracking, flushing and retrieving.

Tracking calls for a bird dog to silently follow the scent of birds, while flushing involves scaring a flock out of its hiding for you to aim and shoot. Retrieving, the final moment of a dog’s hunting tasks, requires them to retrieve any fallen birds and bring them to you. 

Defining Tasks

There are a few scenarios in which you may be considering training an older dog to bird hunt. You could have just recently gotten into the sport yourself and want to train your long-time furry friend to join you or maybe you’re in the market for a new pet and hoping to adopt an older dog.

In either regard, your end goal is to experience some memory-making in the great outdoors with your dog. Don’t feel discouraged by popular bird hunting blogs that say training a puppy is the only way to obtain a “real” bird-hunting dog. In fact, in some ways training an older dog, you will find, is easier than gaining the trust and attention of an excitable puppy. 

Getting Started

Taking on training a dog, no matter the age, is always a process and sometimes a few tools are needed to help you. Before getting started, consider purchasing one or more items to aid you:

  • Treats: Ideal training treats are small and easily chewable, allowing for quick eating, less distraction, and more time spent listening to commands.
  • Dummies: Dummies are typically in the shape of a bird, helping your dog make the connection between training and the real thing once you decide he or she is ready to join you on the hunt. Some are designed to float, which is important if you intend to hunt waterfowl like duck or geese.
  • Check cord: Check cords are essential for bird hunters and their dogs. This training tool is inexpensive and helps teach your dog the concept of distance. During the thrill of a hunt, you don’t want to lose track of your pet, as he is typically your guide to potential game. Other times, you may want him or her to not shadow too closely. Check cords help find the happy medium by acting as an adjustable, strong leash.
  • Launcher: Launchers can be used two-fold. They help you with aim when loaded with skeets, bright orange disks which take the place of birds during practice. They can also be loaded with dummies to help your dog learn when to fetch a fallen bird.

While bird hunting breeds, such as the spaniels and pointers, may have innate abilities and talents when it comes to sniffing out and retrieving birds, it’s not necessary for every bird-hunting canine to come from these revered breeds.

A lot of what hunters look for in their bird-hunting companions is restraint and obedience, which every dog can gain. However, to instill these traits, as a trainer, you will need to be both patient and consistent.

Inconsistency while training an animal will only confuse them and lead to adverse results. This means keeping to a schedule, routine and the task of punishment and reward is beneficial to both you and your dog. 

The Training Tools Method

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1
Exposure
Since bird hunting will most likely take place in wide open spaces, it’s important to introduce your dog to these areas. Visiting new places can be a very overwhelming experience to an animal with such a hyperactive sense of smell. The more they’re exposed to areas you intend to hunt, the more focused they will be when it’s time to hunt.
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2
Check Cord
The check cord will teach the concept of distance to your dog. Since you have an older dog, their puppy-like instinct to run and bark wildly should be less a part of their personality. This is lucky for you since bird hunting requires the ability to be both quiet and patient. Even still it may not be that your canine companion is familiar with the proper amount of distance between the two of you while hunting in a wooded area or open field, especially since they will not be on a leash. Take your dog to a flat, open area and walk with them, allowing them to lead while wearing their check cord.
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3
Add commands
Adjust the cord’s length to your liking and utilize verbal commands – such as “whoa” or “stop” - that help your dog notice when he’s tugging or getting too far ahead. Soon, he’ll be able to sense the proper distance without the check cord, an indication to you that he’s one step closer to being a fully rounded bird dog.
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4
Introduce dummies
Dummies are needed when you are ready to teach your bird dog about retrieving. Once you have a duck or pheasant shot, you dog will act as your retriever, much like he or she may have been trained to retrieve other simple household items for you. Practice throwing or launching dummies into the air and commanding your dog to ‘hold steady’ or ‘retrieve’ at your command. Any dummy that ends up in your hand deserves positive reinforcement.
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5
Reward and punishment
Rewarding good behavior is an essential part of training any trick or skill to a dog. Be consistent with rewarding, whether these are in the form of treats or lots of belly rubs. Typically a more difficult task for pet-owners, punishment can come in the form of a light pat on the butt or nose as well as simply refraining from giving a treat or saying, “bad dog” or “no”.
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6
Practice
The final step is to practice. You’ll know your dog is ready to be a bird dog when he can spend a Saturday morning with you outdoors and happily follow each command you give.
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The Utilize the Basics Method

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Teach basic commands
A pre-trained, obedient dog is one that’s prepped to learn the skills involved in bird hunting. If he or she doesn’t know them already, teach your dog the ‘sit’ and ‘heel’ commands. These will be especially important once they are off leash and hunting with you.
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2
Introduce a crate
Crates are a great obedience training tool for dog owners. Crates can be used as a form of punishment as well, much like a “time out” for toddlers. You may also find it works well for expressing boundaries to your dog if every time you leave your home you command, “Go to your crate” and they follow.
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3
Boundaries
Boundaries can be created without a crate, as well. Give your home structure with rules that make boundaries between you and your pet. Perhaps this rule is that they aren’t allowed on the couch, on your bed, or in a certain room or corner of the home. Creating these boundaries at home helps your dog understand that you’re boss and may even help them carry the concept when you are both in the field hunting together.
Step
4
Meal Plan
You are what you eat, and so is your dog. Ensuring your furry friend has all the nutritional resources he or she needs is an important step in keeping him healthy, happy and ready for the hunt. It may also help add structure to both of your lives to feed him at a certain time every day. If he is taking on a more active lifestyle while training to hunt or hunting, be sure to feed him more often as they’ll be burning more energy than previously.
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5
Reward and punishment
When teaching basic commands and adding boundaries to your lifestyle, be sure to reward your dog for good behavior. This is incentive for them to continue the good work. Punishment, while no one’s favorite task, is just as important as reward. You’ll know your dog understands they didn’t achieve a goal you set for them if they bow their heads and avoid eye contact, all signs of guilt.
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The Use Innate Skills Method

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Know your breed
If you own or intend on owning a bird-hunting breed, such as a Brittany Spaniel or a Vizsla, this may be the method for you as it relies on their built-in capabilities.
Step
2
Socialize
Proper socialization makes for a more well-behaved pet. Even though your dog isn’t a puppy anymore, be sure that they play well with others, whether those others walk on two legs or four.
Step
3
Observe
A natural bird dog is likely to have a built-in set of skills, such as a keen nose and the ability to point. Take your dog out with you on a hike where you may intend to hunt and observe their behavior. This will help you ascertain just how much they will need training on.
Step
4
Reign
Once you have a feel for their natural abilities, reign them in. Help make those skills even better by training them to restrain themselves. A dog with the ability to abstain from running off, caught up in the promise of a scent, will make for an obedient hunting partner. Do so by utilizing training tools and verbal commands, and practice, practice, practice. You may find that he or she isn’t ready for the real hunt anytime soon, but patience on both your part and theirs will lead to a big pay-off.
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5
Repeat
Repeat these processes throughout their training. All dogs are different, so you may find your bird dog has difficulty minding commands when retrieving, tracking or flushing. Many hunters note that flushing can be the more difficult task to reign in for their bird dogs, as it’s the cause for much excitement. If this is the case, rely on the ‘whoa’ command, as well as create a signal for your dog to know when to begin scaring the birds from their hiding for you to shoot. A whistle or simply “Go!” is good enough. Always stay consistent with whatever signal or commands you choose, or you may run the risk of confusing your furry companion.
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6
Reward and punishment
Because we can’t communicate with dogs the way we wish we could, reward and punishment are our means of communicating to them when we’re happy with their performance or reaction as well as when we’re less than happy. Dogs respond well to this approach as treats and head scratches are well worth performing for.
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Success Stories and Training Questions

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