Preparing Your Puppy For The First Hunting Season
One of the most common questions we receive is some variation of “How should I train my puppy for hunting?” That’s an important question and our answer often surprises owners. Basically, teach them “Come” so you have control, condition them to the gun, then take them hunting and let them figure it out. Throw in a little play retrieving so you have a basis to encourage them to retrieve birds and some fun walks in field or woods so they get used to keeping track of you and you’re on your way. Most important, don’t do too much training. The best way to ruin puppies is by putting too much pressure on them when they’re young. This doesn’t necessarily mean being hard on them – too much training will take some enthusiasm out of a pup so be sure to keep it to a minimum so they’re still having fun. You’ll want to teach other things at home to make them good citizens (No, Kennel, No Chewing, etc) but don’t overdo that either. Just enough to teach them good behavior and what’s expected of them.
In this post we lay out our basic approach to developing puppies and getting them ready to be hunted. This past season we raised three pups, Lock, Thistle, and Misty, all born in February 2018. Here’s a summary of the training we did to get them ready for hunting season.
You can start play retrieving lessons right away. This is a fun game, not serious training. You are trying to encourage this behavior, not train it and insist on obedience. We use a leather work glove or folded sock and throw it for them in a hallway or other place they can’t run past you. If they try running by catch them and praise them for fetching. If they don’t come right to you they’ll probably head for the dog bed or crate, some place they are comfortable – position yourself so they have to pass within reach to get there. Don’t grab the dummy right away and take it from them. Allow them to hold onto it while you praise them. Otherwise they may try to avoid you so you can’t take it from them. Use whatever command you like; Fetch, Bring It Here; etc. Here are a few videos of last summer’s play retrieving.
May 12, 2018 / First Retrieve Lessons
Limit sessions to two or three successful retrieves. A couple sessions per week will suffice. You can try more frequently but back off if they start to lose enthusiasm. Keep it exciting for them by limiting frequency so it’s something special. The clips below were shot on 2 August 2018. They’ve had a handful of lessons since May, probably less than ten total during the entire summer. Note their enthusiasm for this game – they’re obviously having fun.
August 2, 2018 / Continuing Retrieve Lessons
Occasionally you run into a situation where things don’t go as planned. Stay positive and keep it fun. In the following video the pup is hesitant to pick up the sock. After being teased with it for a short time she decides it’s OK and runs off with it. Teasing them in this way works very well. Hold the dummy out to them and pull it away when they reach for it. That makes them want it even more. This also works very well with birds. Pups are sometimes hesitant to pick up a dead bird at first so we tease them until they are really trying to get it, then throw it and command “Fetch”, the same as with the sock in the video.
We feel these basic lessons help bring out their inherent desire to retrieve and are essential for encouraging retrieving in the field if they hesitate to pick up or bring dead birds to you. This short video of Gen illustrates how this works in the field.
Gen is eight months old here and this is the first bird she’s had shot for her. It flew off out of sight hanging a leg and Gen later found and pointed it dead. Once she realized it was dead she was unsure what to do but responded immediately when told to “Fetch It Up”.
Come / Shock Collar Reinforced
We start with the usual positive reinforcement techniques. Clap your hands and call them (Come, Here, whistle signal, etc) then praise them when they come to you. Soon they know what you want and will do it fairly reliably. Eventually they will decide not to obey and you’ll need to correct that. Every time. Come is the one command we never tolerate disobedience on, for their own safety as well as our sanity. Don’t give the command if you can’t make sure they obey.
When puppies are young you can run them down and bring them to where you called them. Once they can out run you (it gets earlier every year 😉 ) we introduce the shock collar to reinforce Come so we maintain control of the pup. Our dogs wear a shock collar on every hunt, though we use it rarely after they understand they have to obey. There are two main reasons for this. One is to be able to reliably call them away from dangerous situations; roads, cliffs, traps, animals, etc. The other is because we don’t tolerate deer chasing for obvious reasons. We nip that in the bud with a jolt on the highest setting if they chase deer. It’s not common in our dogs but we do see occasional interest in deer and it’s best not to let them get in the habit of running them, by sight or scent. On road trips pups wear it every time out of the truck so even bathroom stops become a training session and we’re soon able to call them back reliably.
You can find any number of videos detailing how to introduce a shock collar correctly so we’re not going to try to explain that here. If you’re not comfortable doing it yourself pay a trainer to do it for you, and to teach you how to properly use the collar in the field.
Conditioning To Gun
This is the most important step in getting a pup ready for hunting. Everything else you can fix but a gun shy dog is a big problem and will probably never be a hunting companion for the typical owner. Correction is difficult if not impossible so it’s best to avoid the problem in the first place. Do this by gradually getting your pup used to loud noises. Clapping hands loudly, slapping boards together, rolled up newspaper slapped against a hand, etc can all help get pup used to noise. Cap guns/starter pistols are also a great tool – we use one that shoots #209 (shotgun) primers. Whatever you use make sure you stay at a distance until the pup ignores the sound. Gradually get closer/louder and make sure pup is not bothered by the noise. If you see any signs of worry back off and go slower. Try to do this conditioning while distracted by something interesting or exciting, like food at feeding time.
For the past few years we’ve been doing a group session with pigeons and a blank pistol, graduating to a shotgun fired from a short distance. We throw pigeons for a group of pups/young dogs and they key off each other’s excitement about the birds. After they ignore the pistol at close range we fire a shotgun with light loads during the same pigeon drills. Then we work them on a few training Quail and eventually shoot a bird or two over them. After that we take them hunting and don’t shoot close and/or directly over their heads. If all goes well they have no problem with gun fire.
Here are some videos we shot of the group pigeon sessions last summer.
September 8 2018 / First Pigeon Session
This is their first time seeing pigeons so we just flew some birds to familiarize them with the birds. No gun fire yet.
September 17, 2018 / Introduction to Blank Pistol
First time we shot the pistol for them. They’ve had pigeons thrown for them most days since Sept. 8th and are very excited about the birds.
September 29. 2018 / Blank Pistol at Close Range
We gradually got closer with the pistol over the past week or so and can now shoot it close to them with no reaction.
October 8. 2018 / Introduction to Shotgun
First time firing shotgun during pigeon session. We did this during the next few sessions to make sure they all ignored it.
They’re now ready to have a bird shot over them. Note that we avoid throwing multiple new experiences at them in the same session. First get them used to pigeons. Their wings are loud and can spook a young pup. They sound very different than game bird wings. Once they’re comfortable with the birds you can advance to using the blank pistol but don’t try introducing both together. Take it one step at a time.
Training Quail / Shooting Birds For Pups
After pups are comfortable with gunfire on pigeons we like to shoot a training Quail or two for them. They learn a lot from this step. It kick starts their hunting/pointing instinct, they discover birds and how to locate them by scent, and have their first opportunity to retrieve a freshly shot bird. They can learn all this in actual hunting situations but this gives them a head start. Near the end of gunfire conditioning we introduced the pups to Quail.
October 7, 2018 / First Time On Training Quail
We make sure they’re excited and chasing the bird when we shoot the blank gun. We had no points this time out but they got introduced to game birds and had the blank pistol fired for them.
October 8, 2018 / Second Time On Training Quail
Note that both Lock and Misty actually establish points this time. What a difference a day makes.
October 13, 2018 / Shooting Training Quail
Because it’s difficult to control the situation we’ve taken to throwing birds the first time we shoot them for pups. That way we have a better chance of getting the bird to fly where we want it – away from the dog and towards the gun. It’s not perfect but it saves time and gets the job done. They’re already used to having birds thrown for them from the pigeon drills so there’s nothing new except actually shooting the birds.
Unfortunately I missed the bird and it reflushed without being seen by Lock but we accomplished our goal of getting the gun fired over him on game birds. It went better for Thistle.
At this point they would have benefited from one more session with training Quail in which we shot a few birds they pointed. However we don’t recommend much more use of training birds with pups at this stage of the game. Excessive use of training birds doesn’t teach them anything useful and could actually retard their development on wild birds.
They’re now ready for the real thing. We can take them hunting and shoot birds with caution. Don’t shoot from close to the dog, limit the number of shots, and don’t shoot right over their head. Don’t shoot at the first bird that flushes – make sure your pup is comfortable with, and excited about, the birds before firing a shot. One new thing at a time. We’ve seen large birds (like Sage Grouse) scare young dogs the first time they see one flush – shooting at it in this situation would be asking for trouble. Pick your shot. Make sure pup sees the bird, you are far enough away and not shooting directly towards the dog, then take one shot (it’s a good idea to put only one shell in your gun for this). Watch for any negative reaction. If there’s no problem take another shot the next chance you get. Take it slow and gradually take shots closer to your pup and put that second shell in the gun for follow up shots.
If a pup shows any concern, acts worried or scared or nervous, or shows less enthusiasm after you shoot, DO NOT shoot again. You’ll need to back up and do more conditioning in non-hunting situations. Continue to hunt but don’t shoot at another bird until you are sure your pup is ready for it.
During these first hunts you should take your pup hunting alone. No other dogs and only take a friend if it’s someone you’re sure will not shoot in the wrong situation. Do not, EVER, take a pup out with a bunch of friends who are going to blaze away at the first bird that flushes until thoroughly conditioned to the gun in hunting situations. This is the most common reason we hear for gun shy, even with youngsters that have been shot over quite a bit. It’s a new experience – a bunch of people and their dogs, commands being yelled, etc and it can be very intimidating for a young dog. Then a bird flushes, six or eight shots are fired, and you now have a gun shy dog.
We took the three pups to Wisconsin in October and all saw a (very) few Grouse and Woodcock and had a few shots fired but had no actual points. We did manage to kill a Grouse for Lock which he retrieved after making a nice find on the wing-tipped bird that ran 30 yards from where we marked it. He went straight to it and pointed it dead, impressive for a young dog’s first experience.
We headed to SW Idaho in December for Chukars and again all had some exposure to birds. Chukars were spooky this year. Lock had several opportunities to follow running coveys. Although he didn’t make points he roaded them to where they flushed, showing he knew they were there and was following along where they’d run (We had snow so we could tell what was going on). Thistle and Misty had a couple opportunities, following running birds and making a few finds, albeit with no solid points. They all showed they had what it takes and were beginning to figure it out.
January brought us to central Kansas for Quail and Pheasant. Bird numbers were up this year giving all three pups the opportunity to put it all together. And they did. On her second hunt Misty had a couple of nice finds and solid points on single Quail. On Thistle’s first hunt she retrieved a single Quail then followed a running rooster more than 100 yards. Again snow told the story – the tracks revealed where the bird had run but Thistle roaded the bird by scent, stopping to point several times before locating it hiding in snow covered brush at the head of a draw and pointing it. She also made a nice find and retrieve on her prize.
Lock also had his first birds killed over a point. Here he is pointing the first covey of Quail he encountered.
Both Bob and Lisa shot birds on the covey rise and Lock made retrieves on all three. Here’s Lock’s first retrieve:
Notice he had to be coaxed to bring it to Lisa. Once he got the idea he did better on the second bird:
That’s it. What we have detailed above is all the training we did with these pups and you can see the result. They are by no means finished but they’re well on their way to becoming bird dogs. We’ve laid the foundation and for now all we have to do is take them hunting. There are many ways to accomplish the same things and you’ll have to adapt your methods to your situation and what you have available to you. However you get it done, do some play retrieving, teach them come (and make sure they will obey reliably), condition them to the gun, then take them hunting.
A very high percentage of our dogs never get any more formal training than this. We continue to encourage retrieving, work on control, and teach a turn signal, all while hunting. They learn on the fly. There may be some fine tuning later (staunching up, etc) but they will figure most of it out on their own. In fact they have to figure it out on their own. You can’t teach them the finer points of handling birds – how close they can get or how to follow running birds for example – they have to learn that themselves and they’ll learn it really fast. Even with limited bird contacts Lock, Thistle, and Misty all showed they were looking for birds, followed where they’d run, located them, and made points on wild birds in just a handful of actual hunts. They have the instincts and intelligence necessary to handle birds. If puppies don’t have what it takes you can’t teach them these skills. If they do have what it takes you might “train” it out of them if you insist on making decisions for them rather than allowing them to take the initiative and learn for themselves. No amount of experience on training birds with you “whoaing” them when YOU think they should stop will teach them how close is too close to a cagey old Grouse. You will only teach them to rely on YOU to decide when they should stop which will suppress the development of their natural ability to figure out how to pin that bird.
Whether or not your pup will need further training depends on the individual dog and your personal expectations (degree of staunchness, steady to wing/shot, etc.). To give you an idea what to expect, here’s how our dogs progress moving forward. They typically do well in their first season, usually holding point and retrieving shot birds. During the second season most will go through a teenage or terrible twos stage, breaking point and flushing birds, racing through cover not even trying to locate and point birds, ranging out further, being disobedient, etc. Some hold point reliably through this stage but still do the other things associated with the second season. Over the next season or two they mature and settle down, holding point, obeying commands, being less rambunctious and more serious about finding and pointing birds.
We’ll leave you with one final word of caution.
Take your time and don’t try to do too much. Keep training sessions short and make sure your pup is having fun. Excessive drilling risks taking some of the enthusiasm out of your pup and it can be very hard to put it back once you’ve pushed too hard. We can’t emphasize this enough. Pushing too hard now can do damage you can’t undo later. Err on the side of caution – you can pull on the rope later if you need to, but you won’t be able to push on it. Keep it simple and make sure it’s fun for your pup. If you notice a decrease in enjoyment back off for a while. You’ll get there soon enough.