Gun dogs, bred and trained to locate game birds, alert hunters to quarry location, and retrieve fallen game, are an important part of outdoor sport for many hunters and dog owners. Many dogs we have come to think of as companion animals or pets were originally bred to aid their owners in hunting. Retrievers, Spaniels, Setters, Pointers and even Poodles are hunting or sport dogs. They were originally bred to aid their owners in locating game birds, flushing them out, pointing to direct and alert their owners to the presence of a target, and/or retrieve harvested game birds, often from water or heavy brush.
These dogs have unique talents bred into them, but in order to be effective, a bird dog, or gun dog, needs extensive training to instill obedience, patience, and harness their talents, in order to be useful hunting companions and tools. One of the most challenging things to teach a bird dog is not to range too far from their owner, but to stay close at hand as they search for quarry. A dog that goes too far may locate game, but by the time their owner locates them and the game, the game may have left the vicinity! Or worse, the owner may not find the dog at all. Hunting dogs can become lost, tangled in fences or brush, have unfortunate encounters with other animals such as porcupine or skunks, or run afoul of predators. A gun dog that ranges too far is not effective at aiding their owner and could be in danger of injury or even death.
Keeping a bird dog close at hand, where they can hear commands from their owners and be an effective hunting tool, is not only critical to the success of their task, aiding in taking game, but critical to the dog's safety. A successful bird dog stays close enough to its owner to hear and obey commands, and also cover a designated area or range to locate game. Usually, this entails your dog ranging in an area of about 50 to 200 yards from their owner, depending on the terrain.
Training a successful bird dog is a balancing act of teaching your dog to range far enough to locate game, and still stay in control and hearing range to obey commands and communicate with their owner. Making a useful bird dog is a process that occurs over a significant length of time and requires the development of a working relationship between owner and dog. Although training to develop a working relationship and obedience starts young as puppy, a dog will not usually master this type of work until they are mature. A dog, especially a fast, athletic, high energy dog, has a natural inclination to run, and if excited they can run pretty far, pretty fast!
Teaching your dog to control this natural tendency and respond to your commands and focus on the task takes time and expertise. Hunters, trainers, and owners of bird dogs use several methods to help develop control off leash and teach their dogs to stay close.
Many trainers start teaching sporting dogs to stay in range using long leads and treats. Whistles and other means of signaling, as well as voice commands, may be used to signal the dog to work a range. GPS collars that allow hunters to track their dogs, in case they become separated, are common with this type of activity to ensure the dog's safety and the owner's ability to locate them.
Besides the above equipment and tools, a thorough understanding of the type of dog you have is necessary. Sport dogs have been specifically bred for generations to act and react in a certain way to game, and knowing what your dog's natural skills and limitations are as far as physical ability and attention span is important. A strong relationship and obedience to verbal commands are necessary before taking your bird dog out into an open area to work with game, as a dog that does not have sufficient control and attachment to their owner will not be responsive to commands in an outdoor environment full of distractions and excitement. Once you have the tools, understanding of your dog and basic training established, the following methods are used to teach bird dogs to stay close.
How can I communicate with my dog that I want him to stay close to me? We just moved from the US to the UK, and now live in a national park. Dill has always been good off-leash, but in this new open environment is now roaming as far as the eye can see. I tried doing the about-turn yesterday, I did it for three hours but he isn't clingy enough for that to work, he just wants to run and find birds. I don't want a dog that has to live on a leash, but ranging this far isn't safe. Can you help?
Hello Rachel, I suggest a couple of things. First, go back to the basics for a little while with come. Take him out into the park on a long training leash, 30', 40', or 50'. Sporadically tell him to come, and if he doesn't come, reel him in with the leash, have him sit, then tell him "Okay" and let him run to the end of the leash again. If he chooses to come without being told, reward with a treat. Also reward him if he chooses to walk beside you without being told to. You want to build a habit of him checking in with you often, wanting to stay close because good things happen near you, and to learn that the only way to get to what he wants is to come to you first. When you come across something he wants to investigate like a treed squirrel, when he starts to go toward it while on the long leash, quickly tell him to "Come". If he comes, reward him and tell him Okay, then give him enough slack in the leash to let him get to the tree and investigate when it's safe to do so - the distraction is his reward. If he doesn't come when you tell him to, he will hit the end of the leash, then reel him in to you and have him sit. After he sits, tell him "Okay" and when he starts to go toward the squirrel again, repeat calling him to you and he will either come and get to go to the squirrel after or not come and have to repeat the exercise. Practice this until he comes willingly, then let him investigate as a reward - the goal is to convince him that the quickest way to get to a distraction he wants to see is by checking in with you first. I suggest working on the above for the next two months. If he is still too distracted, then contact a qualified trainer who uses working level e-collar training, and both positive reinforcement and fair corrections to teach boundaries, come, off leash heeling, and generally staying close-by. The above reward based training will still need to be taught also though, the e-collar aspect just allows you to be more consistent from further away to teach long distance reliability, so start with the positive, long leash training first - that is enough for some dogs. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden
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I have had a couple of dogs before and they have all been good for basics. I have a young pup and I would like to train her as a bird dog. I have absolutely no experience with bird dogs or where to start with her. Are there things I can be doing now to help her learn?
Hello Ariel, Depending on what type of bird dog - duck, upland, both, ect... I would focus a lot on socialization and obedience at this age. Work on teaching all the normal puppy things like crate training (important for travel later), potty training, ect...You will want to get started early on obedience, especially things like Sit, Heel, and Come. While socializing, be sure to socialize well with other dogs and lots of different people, especially if you expect to pursue hunting trials - around a lot of people later, but in addition to getting pup used to the car, new places, people, dogs, ect...Also, introduce water early, fields, wooded areas, bird's wings (don't allow chewing, but encourage picking up, investigating, and carrying around at this age). You can desensitize pup to sounds by making noise and tossing out treats when you do - always make sound fun. Don't make loud sounds without making it fun or it can create fear instead of prevent it. Reserve bumpers for training times, instead of leaving them lying around - to keep them fun and interesting and to avoid creating chewing habits on the bumpers and ducks. Commands like Drop It, Take It, Hold, and Leave It are also useful to teach when pup has mastered a couple of basics like Sit too. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden
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