Not all hunting dogs are born equal. Some are very bold, some are more reserved. Despite these differences, locked in their genetic code for survival I believe all dogs can be introduced to birds in a way that taps this primal coding and results in a gundog that loves birds.
And a bird dog must love birds. It is birds that will drive him, it will be birds that help get him through most future phases of bird dog training. To build a drive and love for birds is the bedrock foundation of a bird dog.
There are several ways to introduce birds to your gundog. Though early introduction is great, it isn’t absolutely necessary. We have introduced bird dogs to birds from 5 weeks of age to 9 years with success. Here are tips and methods we have successfully learned, developed or used in the nearly 40 years of working with gundogs.
The “litterbox” method. If you are the proud owner of a litter of future gundogs, this is a method that we feel is one of the most natural ways possible to tap into that genetic code.
When the litter is around 5 weeks of age, and they are early in one of their play cycles, drop a freshly “expired” bloodless quail into the middle of the box. Quickly, the natural curiosity of the pups will cause them to come and investigate this new addition to their environment.
They may bump it and run away – some may be shyer and show early fear to this new, feathery object dropping from heaven into their tiny, safe world. Not to worry. Invariably, one pup will be bold and grab a wing, leg or head and try to run off with it. As soon as he or she does, the rest will jump on the bandwagon
I’ve not had a pup, regardless of natural temperament, not try to grab the bird when a littermate is trotting away with it. When this moment happens, the smell, taste and texture of the bird is imprinted on the dog. They will always remember those senses.
In short order, the quail will be pulled in several directions and just as likely several pieces. Typically this session only lasts a few minutes. We’ll do this once a day for about three days.
We might increase the size of bird to a freshly killed, bloodless chuckar or pigeon. We use these types of birds because we don’t want to introduce fear which a flapping bird can have, and a warm, soft bird is easier for them to pick up.We also want them bloodless as the goal is not to actually teach them it’s food. Some folks might postulate this can lead to a hard mouthed dog later on.
We don’t generally let them chew the bird up or allow them to eat it – pick up, carry and getting possessive with the bird are all good things at this point.
We’ve not witnessed any pups we’ve reared this way develop a hard mouth. In our thought, this is as natural an introduction to game there could be, short of Mom bringing it in and dropping it in front of her pups. We don’t stop there with introductions, and though it is a fantastic way to get early introductions to birds for a gun dog it is not a requirement or the only way for a bird dog to develop a drive for birds.
We also want them bloodless as the goal is not to actually teach them it’s food. Some folks might postulate this can lead to a hard mouthed dog later on. We don’t generally let them chew the bird up or allow them to eat it – pick up, carry and getting possessive with the bird are all good things at this point.
We’ve not witnessed any pups we’ve reared this way develop a hard mouth. In our thought, this is as natural an introduction to game there could be, short of Mom bringing it in and dropping it in front of her pups.
We don’t stop there with introductions, and though it is a fantastic way to get early introductions to birds for a gun dog it is not a requirement or the only way for a bird dog to develop a drive for birds.
The next series of steps we use are the same, regardless of age.
Any gundog training must be done with forethought as to the ultimate end goal, and then broken into steps which help the dog achieve success in graduated levels. Some dogs have the ability to “jump ahead” and dive straight into a flapping, strong live bird.
The problem is that until they are faced with that level without a foundation building to it they may instead shy away or be frightened by a bird slapping them in the face. In order to offer the highest chance of success, try each step in succession. There are times when one just doesn’t fire the spark and the next one will.
But before moving to the next “option” – each option offering a greater opportunity for a potentially negative reaction, try the easier step first. Start small, be patient, celebrate tiny successes and go step by step.
Step One – The “Dead bird” Game.
As the name implies, this is done with Dead birds. Just as in the litterbox method, we want to start with a freshly killed, bloodless bird. Quail are great for dogs as they are small and easily carried. Dogs of all sizes can manage a quail. Type of quail doesn’t matter at this point.
Bobwhite, Coturnix or other is really of no particular importance. Generally birds can be purchased through online local classified listings such as Craigslist.
If not, often local hunting clubs will offer birds for sale. Most states also have a listing of game bird breeders through the fish and game departments.
We always use a short check cord or drag line when doing this work, as we want to be able to catch the dog if it runs by, or as we call them “fly-by’s”. A 5 foot “puppy check cord” is perfect for the smallest dogs, only weighs a few ounces and slides easily through grass and weeds. For an older dog, you will likely want to go to a longer cord 10-15 feet.
We want to play this game in an area that is safe for him to be off lead, preferably away from other dogs who can interfere or distract and in an area of relatively low cover.
The game is simple.
Our goal for this step is for him to “chase down”, pick up and carry a bird. The level we are shooting for is to carry by the body.
How to play. Hold the bird and entice the dog or pup with it. You need to be excited and happy too! Don’t be a stiff. PLAY! When the dog is reaching for the bird, gently draw the bird away from the dog. We are working to trigger a prey response.
If you push the bird at the dog he may back away from the bird. Never attempt to shove the bird into the dog’s mouth to teach them to like it. As his excitement builds, give the bird a short toss away from the dog. One to two feet is fine. We want him to travel a short distance to avoid potential other distractions. This next point is very important –
Pro tip – During the introduction to birds – he can do no wrong. Everything is acceptable.
At this point, he may do one of several things. He may go over and sniff it and/or bump it. He may pounce on it, grab it and start dragging it off. He may circle and bark at it. The last and most deflating for us as those wanting to develop a high drive bird dog – He may see it and slink away in fear. Remember, he can do no wrong.
If this happens do not project your disappointment! Dogs in this state can merely be going through a developmental fear phase, or not comfortable in a new place. In our experience, some dogs of lesser natural confidence also tend to be dogs of a temperament that pick up on OUR energy.
What are you projecting? Don’t despair, or more accurately – Hide your despair with a super boost of positive, uplifting Fun Energy! Remember, this is a game – it does not end with the first play.
Pro Tip – Keep it Short to Keep it Fun!
We always need the dog to want more when we end a session. It’s tempting to continue playing, but we don’t want to play to where it’s becoming more exciting to check out a blade of grass than a bird. Generally just a few minutes of quick, happy, focused play is what we’re after.
So Pup is picking up and carrying around proudly – GREAT! Because we’re always thinking of the end goal, you’ve got half the retrieve in the bag! Now you know why we have the check cord on. Gradually reel pup to you.
Pro Tip – Don’t Grab for the Bird.
We want to build confidence in our dogs and trust between us. We want to share in their glory and nothing is better than holding that bird. When you reel pup in to you, instead of reaching for the bird just hold them close to you, pet them and express your undying love and pride in their prize.
As they calm down, gently ask for the bird. Don’t play tug of war. Either PUSH the bird into their mouth, or use a diversionary touch point at the “tuck” – when they turn to the touch they generally open their mouth and you catch the bird.
Then – and very important – immediately toss it a short toss for them again. This helps reinforce that we are a partner and builds their trust which relates to developing a great “natural” retrieve.
If your Pup is more cautious and tentative in his approach, don’t fret. Most times simply repeated fun exposures and getting silly with your pup will build their confidence enough to eventually carry the bird. When he does, make sure he understands it is the best thing he has ever done in this world. Then stop for that session. He’ll recall that high point when you start again.
Pro Tip – Chase instinct builds drive
If you put a string on a foot and drag the bird away from the dog, the natural tendency is to chase. Chase then ends in “catch”. When the dog catches the bird, if he doesn’t pick it up, help it “escape”. Most times this will result in the dog trying different things ultimately using his mouth to grab and hold the bird. Reward profusely and stop for that session. He’ll recall that high point when you start again.
So Pup is running out, picking up and parading around with a quail! Awesome! Now it’s time to up your game a little. Repeating with progressively larger birds and of different varieties introduces Pup to the varying smell differences, weights and holds required to work different birds.
This can go very quickly once he’s picking up one type bird, and then we get to have a little more fun! Wing clips and flyaways.
Step Two – Live Wing Clipped Birds.
Wing Clipped birds. This is your dog’s first live bird. We’ll want to drop back down to the small size as the flapping and movement in the bird are all new. We want to have a bird that he can easily overcome, and as he’s had numerous dead birds already his confidence is high.
Coturnix and bobwhite quail are perfect for this.
We want to either pull or use scissors to trim the primary flight feather of BOTH wings initially. Though it is true that removing only one wing’s primary flight feathers results in a flightless bird, we want to remove both to reduce the amount of flap as this is his first exposure.
As we progress, we can then remove only one set, progressively increasing the power the bird has as pup has success to build upon. After quail, pigeons are a good next alternative, then chuckar.
I don’t recommend Pheasants at this point as they can also put up a fight which we don’t want your pup to have to deal with just yet – that’s down the road.
We repeat the game that Pup already knows using the wing clipped birds. Toss the bird, let pup chase then reel him in and let him know what a great dog he is.
He will also learn that if he drops these birds, they run away again which naturally encourages him to hold while we pet him and tell him what a great hunter he is.
The last step we do here is hide a few wing clips and let him start finding them. Don’t worry if he doesn’t point, and we won’t be doing this so many times that we set the habit of jumping in and catching birds.
We’re teaching him that sometimes these little rascals run into cover and he learns to hunt them out using his nose, rather than his eyes. This will Segway into flyaway birds.
Step Three– Fly Away Birds.
We want to build pups desire and chase instinct. True, eventually we don’t want him chasing birds over the horizon when hunting, but remember – Pup can do no wrong at this stage! We have plenty of time and opportunities to curb enthusiasm, the drive for birds will help us through all of them if we’ve done a good job building the foundation.
Depending on the age and size of the dog we select birds that are appropriate. For a younger pup that doesn’t have his legs yet, we will use quail, then graduate to pigeons as he grows up.
For older pups or adult dogs, we use homing pigeons nearly exclusively for this exercise.
We start the game the same as before, enticing the dog with the bird, generally holding down one wing to avoid a hard flap that may set the dog back. We toss the bird down to the ground AWAY from the dog and let him chase. Let him know it’s fantastic!
When he’s bold and reaching for the bird the final step is to toss a bird AT the dog. You know he’s a bird brained bird dog when he tries to catch birds you throw at him.
Pro tip – When working fly-aways don’t be in a hurry to recall your dog
We want the dog to learn as naturally as possible. When you immediately try to recall your dog after a bird has flown generally two things are happening. First, your dog will in all likelihood ignore you.
Congratulations, you’ve taught him he doesn’t need to listen to you. Second – you are working against your goal of getting your dog to want, above all else, birds. By telling him don’t get the bird you’re sending a mixed signal.
The ultimate goal is eventually most dogs (some prefer the chase to everything else) will start breaking off their chase after enough fruitless runs all on their own.
At this point, Pup will most likely be looking for you to be the provider of birds. And that’s all great – but now we need to transition him to understand he needs to find them. Building on the work we did with finding wing clipped quail in the grass, we now move to fully flighted quail or pigeons hidden in moderate cover.
Depth of cover is only important at this juncture to ensure pup starts using his NOSE instead of his eyes. He knows from experience what each of the birds smell like, as he’s carried them around, dead and alive. Checkcord work is great for this, but don’t snub off that forward drive just yet.
Let that checkcord drag freely behind him while he chases those birds. You’ll want it for the next step – introduction to Gunfire.