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The First Season / What to Expect

In a previous post we detailed how we prepare our pups for their first hunting season. This year we decided to follow up by shooting video illustrating the development of two young dogs, Talus and Lily, from their first hunts through their first point. This was real hunting, entirely on wild birds. Released birds don’t provide the same learning experiences, so our comments and recommendations are relative to hunting wild birds. Both dogs progressed in a fairly typical fashion, so you can gain some insight into what to expect from your own pup by watching these videos.

First Season is for Learning

During the first hunts set your expectations appropriately. Take pups out whenever possible, get them into birds as often as you can, and just let them figure it out. If they bump birds or break point don’t worry about it. This is expected, and necessary, so never try to correct or punish them for it. They need these experiences to learn how to handle birds. This post details why it’s necessary to let dogs figure it out themselves and is definitely worth (re-)reading.

Always make sure they’re having fun. Try to be quiet and only talk to encourage or praise your pup. Don’t push it, just let them develop at their own pace. With a handful of hunts and some exposure to birds they’ll figure it out.

Preliminary “Training”

Talus and Lily are littermates born March 8, 2022. They were eight months old in November when we started hunting them and ten months old at season’s end. They both saw two training quail last summer, had a few play retrieve sessions, and were taught “Come” re-enforced with a shock collar. We were behind on introducing the gun with them, hence the blank pistol on these early hunts.

We exercised no control of these pups’ range or ground pattern – this is their natural hunting style. By no control we mean literally NO control. We never used the “Come” command during hunts with either dog during this entire season, but that’s the exception. Depending on the cover, the dog’s age and personality, dangerous situations, etc., there are many circumstances where you will need to use it. Talus got reprimanded for trying to chase deer (he probably won’t try it again) but that’s the extent of control we used. By all means, if your pup starts ranging too far go ahead and exert some control, but these two haven’t needed it. Yet.

No “Whoa”!

Although we recommend teaching pups the meaning of the “Whoa” command  it should NOT be used on these early hunts. Talus and Lily have never heard it. What you see is their natural genetic abilities being triggered by actual hunting experience. Using “whoa” during these experiences would interfere with their development.

Watching the Videos

We included comments below describing what is happening in the videos. It helps to pause the video and read the comments before playing each section so you know what to look for.

Lily


0:00 – November 24, 2022 – short 30 minute hunt. Lily is staying really close and acting like a puppy. She’s looking around but jumping over bushes and she looks more like she’s playing than hunting. She does lots of stopping to check out sticks, bushes, grass seeds, etc. It’s all new so they want to investigate everything.

1:14 – November 24, 2022 – towards the end of her first hunt. She’s still close but she already looks less like a puppy, running around more and checking things out. She still spends time playing and stopping to investigate new things but she spends more time hunting than at the beginning of the hunt.

November ??, 2022 – no video of this hunt. It was another short run, in the 30-45 minute range, and we didn’t find any birds.

2:23 – December 19, 2022 – You can see Lily is hunting more now and covering more ground. There was fresh sign along the rocks where she slows down and spends quite a bit of time investigating.

3:35 – December 19, 2022 – This is from later in the same hunt. Lily saw one covey flush wild off to the side, then she was working fresh sign when a second covey flushed, which she chased. After this she was aware there were birds around and in this clip she is carefully and thoroughly working an area with fresh tracks and droppings but we never located the birds. Slowing down to investigate fresh sign is typical. It indicates they know it’s associated with birds and they’re trying to locate them.

4:17 – December 24, 2022 – Although still hunting close, Lily has become more focused on searching for birds. Throughout this clip she’s working fresh sign. At 7:18 Lily smells the birds and works in until they flush. Notice she turns and heads straight to them once she gets a whiff of actual birds. Bumping a covey like this is a critical experience for young dogs. It’s how they learn how close they can get without flushing the birds. You can’t teach them this, they have to learn it for themselves and this is how they learn it. She also keeps circling back to check out where the birds flushed – typical puppy behavior.

8:54 – December 24, 2022 – This is about 16 minutes after Lily bumped the covey. Her whole attitude has changed. Notice she’s covering more ground now, running faster, and the look on her face has more determination. Finding and bumping that covey made her realize she can find birds and she’s now more driven and more focused on locating them.

10:24 – December 25, 2022 – In this clip you can see that Lily continues to hunt wider and remains more focused as a result of finding the covey on her last hunt. That was a pivotal experience for her. She’s covering more ground and running faster but she’s a completely different dog now. There’s an urgency or determination in her approach.

11:23 – January 14, 2023 – Even though she is hunting wider and faster now, Lily slows down to search carefully when she encounters fresh sign. She’s using the wind well and trying to locate the birds, which we never found, but they’d been there recently.

12:38 – January 18, 2023 – Lily gets more serious every time out. On this hunt we had one covey flush wild way out ahead, too far for her to see. Despite not finding birds she never stopped hunting for the entire two hours. She’s still kind of close, covering 35-50 yards to the side, but she’s very focused on searching for birds.

14:38 – January 21, 2023 – She really turned on here, hunting faster and about 20 yards wider than the last hunt, and with more determination. We didn’t find any birds but it is clear Lily is now a serious hunting dog and she’s not going to miss any birds. She looks like she knows what she’s doing. Despite not finding any birds on the last four hunts she made significant advances in her drive and ground coverage. It may take birds to make a bird dog but this is a good illustration of the importance of just getting young dogs out and giving them a chance to hunt.

16:11 – January 22, 2023 – Here Lily has slowed down to carefully check fresh sign. A more experienced dog wouldn’t spend so much time on it, but with young dogs we go slow and let them work it out. We followed running tracks through this area for around 200 yards but the birds had already flushed when they reached the road ahead of us. Earlier in this hunt Lily found a covey but didn’t make a point. She caught scent, went straight over a ridge out of sight and the birds flushed. We couldn’t see what happened but it’s safe to assume she bumped them just as she did on Dec 24. Another good learning experience for her.

18:16 – January 23, 2023 – Lily found a covey about an hour and a half into this hunt and again flushed them with no point. Showing confidence and ability to process scent, she again was out of sight over the top of a ridge when they flushed. This clip is about an hour later. When it begins Lily has just stopped after catching a whiff of a second covey. This time she goes straight to them and points. When she tries to relocate she has trouble getting through a barbed wire fence (the wires were tight and fairly close together) but when she makes it through she goes right to the birds and reestablishes her point. The birds ran off to the side a little before flushing but she held tight. A very nice find from 100+ yards away.

20:36- A few minutes after Lily’s first point she got a whiff of scent. Her behavior is totally different now. She’s being careful not to flush them and pointing when she hits strong scent. Prior to this she did not display this behavior but the switch has turned on and she’s now a pointing dog! If the genetics are there a few finds on wild birds will trigger the instincts and the goal ever after is to point the birds they find.

Talus


Talus’s first time out we saw a covey flush from the side of the road so we stopped and got him out to give him a chance. They flushed before we got anywhere near them and he never knew they were there. It wasn’t really a hunt and we didn’t get any video.

0:00 – November 25, 2022 – Talus’s first actual hunt. He is looking around but staying close.

0:51 – This clip is later in his first hunt. He’s a little more animated but still very close. During this hunt he found some “tweety” birds and chased them, then pointed where a Jackrabbit flushed from. He held that point for a long time – even though it was just a rabbit we were happy to see him point and hold. Towards the end of this hunt we found fresh sign. He noticed it and was checking it out but the birds flushed wild out ahead. He saw them and chased so he now knew there were birds to find.

December 17, 2022 – We didn’t get any video on this hunt. The conditions were bad with fresh snow sticking to his feet so Talus spent more time messing with the snowballs than hunting. He did get to see two coveys. The first flushed before he was aware of them, the second he was working fresh sign when they got up off to the side. He didn’t locate them but he knew they were there before they flushed.

1:48 – December 20, 2022 – You can see he’s a little more serious about hunting and not messing around as much. He is ranging out a bit farther. We didn’t find any birds on this hunt.

3:03 – December 24, 2022 – Talus is still staying pretty close but looking for birds. In this clip we again found fresh sign and he is working it out when they flush. Because he is inexperienced he is hunting too close to make a point on a covey that wasn’t going to let us walk up to it. Distance is hard to judge in the video but the birds were at the edge of gun range when they got up. Typical late season Huns. Firing the blank pistol while he’s chasing helps condition him to gunfire.

3:28 – This clip is right after the covey flush. Notice Talus is more animated, running faster and covering more ground. His whole attitude is different now and he’s got a better chance of making a point before we get too close to the birds.

4:34 – January 11, 2023 – Here Talus is thoroughly and cautiously checking an area with fresh sign where a covey had fed. Later in this hunt he located a small covey right before they flushed. He clearly smelled the birds and turned towards them but they got up before he really had them. Shortly after that he found another small covey. This time he knew he had them but moved in and flushed. This is the critical experience that teaches dogs how close they can get before bumping birds and is an important part of their development.

7:34 – January 18, 2023 – On his next hunt, at the first opportunity after bumping a covey he knew he had located, Talus made this point. Notice his tail drooping as Lisa walks in. He either loses the scent or loses confidence, or both, but he knows the bird is close so he doesn’t move. Also notice he looks at Lisa and wags his tail and this movement flushes the bird. He had a single that was separated from the main covey. The rest of the covey flushed a few seconds after the single. Later in this hunt Talus had a brief point on Sage Grouse, which are extremely wary during the winter in this area and difficult to get any points on. They didn’t sit long enough for a video but Talus’s instincts to be cautious in order to avoid accidental flushes had kicked in, and he was able to establish a point on birds that even some more experienced dogs would have trouble with. This is typical from young dogs – once they make a point and know how to do it, that’s what they do from then on.

On Their Way

Starting young dogs on tricky wild birds, especially if the contacts are few and far between, requires patience. We saved a few places for the pups where we knew there were birds, and that we could shoot video. To minimize the chances of the coveys changing their habits or becoming too spooky to approach we only hit those spots every few days, and we avoided shooting at the birds until near the end. Progress can happen much quicker in the right circumstances though. Get a young dog into a covey of chukars spread out feeding on a hillside, a flight of woodcock, a cover with a scattered brood of grouse, or just a lucky three coveys in a row that sit tight, and much of the progress shown in these videos can happen in one hunt.

So Talus and Lily are well on their way. Both are serious about hunting and showed their raw, unaltered genetic potential after only a few bird finds. They’ll continue to learn and develop next season but they’ve both demonstrated they have what it takes to become great hunting dogs. It’s our job as breeders to put those genetic abilities in them. The hunter’s job is to provide the opportunities that allow those abilities to flourish.

4 Comments

  1. David Larder

    Fantastic article and video!! You have a phenomenal understanding on how to bring a pup along!! How would you change your method if you were training the pup in the woods of Eastern Canada to hunt grouse and woodcock??

    • October Setters

      Hi David,

      Thanks for your comment. We’ve started a lot of pups in dense Grouse/Woodcock cover and it introduces challenges you don’t have in open country. Pups need to learn to keep track of you and you’ll probably have to talk more to let the pup know where you are. It often takes longer for them to move out where they can’t see you. Taking them for walks in dense cover before the season opens can be helpful but they have have to learn to keep track of you one way or the other. It’s also harder to see what’s going on when they encounter birds. If they point and the bird flushes you often can’t tell if they broke point before or after the flush.

      On the other hand you have a better chance of providing multiple bird contacts and Grouse/Woodcock are more straight forward to handle than Huns so pups can figure them out quicker. Either way we use the same approach – take them hunting and let them figure it out.

      Cliff

      • David Larder

        Thanks for getting back to me, much appreciated to hear your thoughts. I have a ten year old Griffon who I will unfortunately have to replace some terrible day and I have always wanted an English Setter but avoid purchasing one because I was worried it would range too far, then I discovered the Ryman line and it appears a Ryman would work well for me. I am well into my 60’s and have had a pointing dog since my 20’s. for me it is all about working with the dog, Which is a good thing since I am a terrible shot. Do you ship to Canada?

  2. Sue

    You managed to capture some very good video. Thank you for this post. It’s so neat to see pups figure out bird scent. Thank you for the commentary explaining what we are seeing. All it took was that first wild bird encounter to turn on their switches. Great work on late season birds from your two youngsters. Holly did some really nice work on a pair of partridge today. Last windy day she got too close. Today the wind was even stronger. She caught scent from 100 yards and held point at 50 yards. I managed to do my part. Keep quiet and flush the birds 🙂

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October Setters