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Intro to Bird and Gun

Intro text

By: Mark Staloch - Norse Retrievers
UGUIDE South Dakota Pheasant Hunting

Introducing Your New Puppy to Birds and Guns

An introduction to birds is the most important thing to getting a puppy or young dog on the road to being a gun dog. Every year just after the hunting season starts I have someone call me about their perfect dog that wouldn't pick up the birds on opening day. My question to them is always the same,"has the dog ever had live birds before last weekend?" The answer always goes something like this, "No, but he is great at retrieving tennis balls in the yard and at the lake." My state must be one of the few that does not have a tennis ball season in the fall, because a lot of guys seem to train for the great tennis ball hunt. I am less sarcastic on the phone, but do tell them that if you want the dog to find and retrieve birds, the dog should know what one looks like. BIRDS, not bird scent, not feathers, not wings, but BIRDS. LIVE BIRDS are important to the development of a bird dog; no matter what breed of dog. I read an article in a retriever magazine some time ago that was titled something like, "What the pros won't tell you". The article was about using live birds in the training of gun dogs. Well I don't know any professional trainer that will not tell you that live birds are critical to a pup's development. I am a professional trainer and I am telling you LIVE BIRDS.

First let's introduce the dog to birds. Pigeons are the gold standard in birds for young dog work. They are a good size, they are not aggressive, and they are durable enough to be used over and over. Another good option is quail. They are less durable but a good size and are passive. With either one, the flight feathers on one wing need to be pulled out so the bird can't fly or can only fly a very short way. Start with the pup on a long thin rope. Tease the pup with the live bird, then toss the bird a few feet away from him. Hopefully the pup pounces on the bird and drags it around. Don't be too concerned if the pup doesn't do this right away. It may take a few sessions to get the pup to pick up the bird. A good reaction for the first time is something as simple as the pup barking at the bird. Any reaction is a positive one. When the pup does grab the bird, don't rip the bird out of his mouth. Get down on the ground and call the pup over to you. Just let the pup have the bird while you pet and praise him until he drops it. This lets the dog know that he can keep his prize (for now) and that the boss is really happy when I take it to him to see. Continue to repeat this throwing the bird farther and farther away each time. This should all be done in mowed grass keeping it as easy as possible. You want the pup to be successful every time.

Now that your pup has been introduced to birds and is running out every time to grab them, it is time to introduce him to the gun. This should be a fun thing that links the sound of the gunshot to the excitement of chasing live birds. Many people take the pup trap shooting or something like that to get the dog used to the gun. This is a bad idea because we don't want the dog to get used to the gun; we want the dog to get excited about the gun. That noise to him should mean that he gets to go get a bird or something else fun. Your dog's ears should perk up when he hears a car back fire or the first few pops from a roofer's nail gun a block away.

Here is the right way to introduce the gun. Still using an area that has mowed grass, have a helper take the live bird about 30-40 yards away and have the helper throw the bird for the pup at a right angle so the dog sees the arc of the fall. Just after the bird leaves the helper's hand let the dog go. Being steady can be worked on later. Do this once without noise. The second time have the helper yell pup pup pup to get the dog's attention, then shoot a starter pistol, then throw the bird. Once again let the pup go shortly after the bird leaves the helper's hand. As long as the pup seems unaffected or is excited by the shot continue to have the bird thrown for him. On the second or third throw have the helper add a second shot as the bird is in the air. If the dog seems excited by the shot, add more shots including having the dog handler shoot the pistol instead of the helper. After a few successful sessions it is time to shoot a bird for the pup. Have the helper throw the bird up and shoot the bird. Be careful of the dog and where the bird flies to; safety first. Also it is not all that easy to throw a bird up and shoot it so have at least two shots ready. Also use small loads so that you don't blow up the bird. I do like to use my 20 gauge for this.

Your pup is now introduced to birds and the gun. I give pups as young as 5 weeks old live birds. For the whole training with the gun though, I would wait until at least 3 months old so the pup can better physically chase down the bird that is thrown for him 30+ yards away. Remember, now is not the time to worry about the perfect retrieve. If the dog kind of brings it back to you, that is just fine. Also, if the dog is not birdie when you are just tossing the bird in front of it without the shot, adding the shot will not help. It may create more problems. If the pup doesn't seem birdie or won't pick up the bird, don't get too worried but you should give a call to a professional trainer. It could be something that is simple to fix at this stage of the game. Introduction to birds and guns training may be a good thing to look to a pro for because of access to birds and a good place to do it.

Whether you do the training yourself or have a pro do it, it is a must (unless you plan to hunt tennis balls). This boring training will make your pup into a working gun dog. The fun and exciting stuff will come later.

Mark Staloch Norse Retrievers Eau Claire, WI 715 533-2339