A hunting retriever’s primary job is game recovery. That is a dog that can bring back birds that would otherwise be lost. In field trials held in England, there is one skill that may well separate a single retriever from other outstanding contenders… picking runners. A well-trained retriever is one of the best game conservation tools out there. Ducks Unlimited, American’s premiere waterfowl conservation organization, recognized this a decade ago when they chose Drake to be their official mascot. A well-trained duck dog doesn’t lose ducks! This was one of the great messages Drake shared during his tenure. Of course, the retrieve of both waterfowl and upland birds alike puts the hunter back on the shoot faster by locating birds quickly which is very nice, but the real benefit of the game dog is to locate those difficult birds that sail long into timber, thick crops, or at a distance far from the hunting party. Of course, the most challenging of all is the wounded bird that hits the ground or water on the move. We call these runners and at Wildrose this becomes the supreme test for any game dog. The runner is a bird that has lost its capacity to fly, relying instead on his legs to make an escape whether on land or water. Ducks flatten themselves on the surface of the water in a low profile, steadily swimming to cover. The pricked pheasant glides to the ground with running gear extended ready to dash to safety. The alert, yet unaware, retriever goes to the fall area to make a pick and… no bird. Even quail have acquired the skill, especially the wild birds of the West… they do run!
The effective game dog must learn to pick runners. Skills that the successful retriever will need to locate birds on the move include:
- A keen scenting ability
- Bird knowledge. How they move, where they hide, etc. (hunting experience)
- Ability to hunt cover effectively
- Ability to follow a scent trail
- Experience retrieving live game
Then the hunter must have confidence in the dog allowing it time to do the work and resist over handling the dog. If the bird is down and the dog has the correct area, perhaps even acquiring the scent trail, let the dog do the work. Elements of patience and trust are needed.
When to Start
It is best not to start tracking birds until the young dog has completed the basic gundog training curriculum and has one season’s experience afield. I prefer the young dog to be more interdependent—team work with me— the first season. Tracking runners is an independent activity better saved for finishing work.
Prior to the dog’s first season it is best to focus on developing the youngster’s handling skills and ability to holding a tight hunting pattern in cover on both land and at the water’s edge. The starter should not be running wide initially, rather, staying in close and hunting an area thoroughly. Here we develop the dog’s scenting abilities with feather-laced puppy bumpers and scented tennis balls.
There are two additional training scenarios that should be addressed at this point:
- Off-the-ground finds
- Tennis ball rolls
Feather-soaked tennis balls are great to lay out a short scent line for young dogs. A chuck-it is perfect for the job. Just take the ball and roll it downhill over leaf cover or short grasses. On the first toss, allow the dog to watch. Follow up by covering the dog’s eyes as you shoot the ball downhill in a different area. Always remember to move locations between lines so the scent line will not be corrupted.
Give the dog a hunt command and encourage the pup’s movement forward by slowly walking behind as the dog progresses.
Remember to factor in the direction of the wind. For unseens, place the first tracks into the wind if possible. Then advance to working in crosswinds. When the youngster takes the correct line, the prize to retrieve becomes an immediate reward. Very exciting!
After a dog’s first season on game and we are confident that our partner is well under control, steady to flush and working easily on hand signals, the dog may well be ready to learn the independent skill of tracking runners. We begin with single cold game drags followed up quickly by the double drag. (See p. 212, Sporting Dogs and Retriever Training, the Wildrose Way and our upland DVD for details.) Be sure to vary the types of birds exposed… duck, pheasant, quail, etc. Change the cover and terrain as well. Drag birds through the type cover a wounded bird may steal away to when making an escape. In other words, train in realistic conditions (cold, rain, heat, etc.). Scent conditions vary by the types of ground cover and weather conditions.
Now, the process gets even more interesting… tracking live game birds. It is necessary to demobilize the bird ability to fly but not run. Several types of birds will do:
- Domestic ducks
- Chucker partridge
My favorite is a mature chucker. Ducks do run okay on land but don’t usually tuck into cover as quickly as the partridge. The pheasant is good but this bird is a fast, long distance runner, better matched to the experienced tracker. The chucker runs fast, then usually tucks into dense cover making for a challenging pick which is great for early starts.
Method to Keep Birds on the Ground
- Pull flight feathers – the feathers will re-grow within several weeks.
- Trim flight feathers – The birds can’t fly but this is a longer term fix than Option 1. Feather replacement is slow.
- Bird socks. The wings are bound by a wide elastic band or a sock of lightweight material that may be acquired in the retail market. It works like a snug jacket. A homemade version that works just as well can be made using the foot of ladies hosiery. Trim out a hole in the toe for the head. Secure the material around the duck’s body with vet wrap (won’t stick to the surface) or an elastic band. Each of these options allows the bird to run and hide but not fly. This approach works well for ducks on the water as well. Wing-bound ducks can put on a challenging chase on water for dogs and the experience dog learns to follow scent on water just as well as they do on land.
As with the tennis ball rolls, first let the dog watch the bird being released and running out of sight in light cover or woodland. If the cover is too thick the bird will merely stop and hide. Follow this attempt by covering the dog’s eyes as the bird makes a run for it. Indicate the fall area (starting point) by giving the hunt command. Allow the dog time to work out the line—don’t over handle. Obviously you will need a dog that hunts cover aggressively on command. Then just encourage movement to carry the line to the point where the bird is likely tucked in thick cover. The dog gets its reward, a retrieve.
Waiting until the hunting dog has benefited from one year’s experience afield has several benefits:
- Runners can unsteady a dog
- The dog should deliver to hand an undamaged bird – soft mouth. An over-excited youngster can develop some bad habits picking live birds or may be put off by the bird’s movement and not make the pick at all… “blinking” the bird.
- The dog may become unresponsive to commands and hand signals when self-hunting out on an independent frolic.
The runner is a great exercise for group work. One dog is the picker and others in the group must remain steady, quiet observers……… great conditioning for any gamefinder.