Basic and Early Season Bird Dog Training From Brandon Moss

The difference between a bird dog that’s been worked with and one that hasn’t can make or break your day in the field chasing birds. Nothing ruins a day faster than walking miles upon miles just to have your dog bump some birds slightly out of gun range. Or spending the day worrying where your dog went after it raced with the second-fastest land animal, the antelope.

You can greatly reduce the odds of these situations by doing a little training before the season starts. We have all heard the term, “champions are made in the offseason.” That applies to bird dogs, too.

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I use the word “training” loosely as I don’t think it’s what we do with a bird dog, per se. We’re helping the dog build upon its natural instincts while mixing in some obedience work.

When I think of training, what comes to mind is teaching dogs a skill they don’t know or is unnatural. To be a bird dog, they have to be born with natural instinct. For example, a pointing dog should have some natural ability to point, the ability to smell a bird and not rush in. Likewise, I want the same dog to have a desire to want the bird. So a point is just a hesitation that we can build upon.

Over time, with opportunities, we allow the dog to learn when it is OK to go after the bird and when it is not.

When working with a dog, I like to start them off on a check cord, a long, stiff rope connected to the dog that is controlled by the handler. The length of the cord doesn’t really matter, but I like two sizes: a shorter one, around 10 feet, and a longer one, somewhere around 25 feet.

I start with the shorter one. Basic commands, such as “Come,” “Whoa,” and “Sit” work well when using the short check cord. Whatever command you use simply say the command, then pull your dog to you.

Over time, the dog will associate the word and the pulling gesture, then move in your direction. The same goes with “Whoa” and “Sit.” Say the command, then either pull up if teaching “Whoa,” or pull back if teaching “Sit.” If you are teaching “Whoa” in this manner, expect the dog to sit. This can be easily corrected by taking the tip of your boot and tap it on the opposite rear knee of the dog until it stands.

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This is also the time when I introduce the E-collar, or electronic collar. On the short cord, I will give the desired command to come, and if the dog becomes defiant, I pull on the cord and stimulate them at the same time. 

I strongly advise not putting an E-collar on when you take your dog to the field for the first time. Let the dog learn in the yard first.

It’s a good idea to introduce your dog to birds on the short cord as well. You want to have a fair amount of control when they start working birds. The last thing you want is a pointing dog catching a bird. If they do they’ll think they can catch any bird, and a lot more work will follow.

Once a bird flushes, allow your dog to take chase for a distance. Chasing a bird will help them develop the desire to find more birds.

With a flushing dog, basic commands are the same, but when introducing a flushing dog to birds, you will want them to catch some. At the start, they will need to chase and catch about half the birds they come in contact with.

Along with introducing them to birds comes introducing the gunshot. 

I suggested letting the dog chase birds after they are flushed. Once the dog is in full pursuit of a bird, fire one blank shot with a starter gun and see what the dog’s reaction is.

Ideally you don’t want your dog to keep chasing and pay no attention to the shot. If this is the case, continue the process and start shooting a little closer to the dog each time, before advancing to a shotgun and killing birds over your them.

If the dog does pays attention to the first shot, don’t shoot anymore and allow the dog to chase without the gunshot. After it gets comfortable chasing again, reintroduce the shot a little farther away. Slowly continue this process until you get the desired results explained earlier.

Once you feel comfortable with the short cord, move to the long one and follow the same steps. When you are totally comfortable, you can let your dog run without the check cord in hand.I still like to let the dog drag the long cord around as it slows the dog enough to make sure it uses its brain and everything it just learned. You can also step on the cord when necessary. Still leave the E-collar on. I always have the E-collar on my dogs when they are in the field even if they don’t need it.

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Having multiple pointing dogs in the field will require them to “honor” or “back”other dogs. This is when a dog goes on point and the other dogs stop when seeing the first dog on point.

Some would say honoring is more important than pointing, but they are equally important. Having a dog that doesn’t back is a good way to lose a hunting partner.

To work on backing, simply follow another handler with his dog as it searches for a bird to point. Once that dog goes on point, use the same technique as teaching the “Whoa” command. If you feel the need to use the command, go ahead, but I tend not to. I want my dog to stop on its own.

These are the main things I would work on in the off-season to give your dog a good start and improve your chances of having better days in the field.

Something often overlooked is allowing your dog to practice in the environment they will be hunting in. It’s important to take your dog to the field and let them run on wild birds.

Conditioning your dog is also vitally important. Remember, they are athletes and will perform their best when they are in their best shape. Having a poorly conditioned dog will shorten your day and the quality of it. Serious health conditions are reduced with they are conditioned to their environment. Feeding a high-quality food will improve your dog’s ability to perform in the field, so find one that is tailored to your dog.

Every time you work with your dog, you are teaching it something – whether good or bad. Make the best of the time you spend with them, and don’t lose your temper.

Take some time out of your season to brush up on preseason training. At the beginning of the season, your dog will perform better then it will at the end of a season. Most of the time this is because the owner is worried about shooting birds and not dog work.

Last, have fun with your dog and enjoy your season and hard work. You both deserve it.