by Mike Stewart
Hunters of waterfowl and upland birds alike are well familiar with “runners,” that is a bird pricked, wounded and has dropped from flight, yet retains enough steam to steal away by leg power… running, swimming or diving. Many times the bird only moves a short distance from the point of loss to hide or expire. Other times the bird travels some distance requiring the gundog to make a track if a “pick” is to be made. These situations are the real tests for an effective retriever of game. Retrievers are agents of game recovery making them one of the best conservations tools out there. No one wants to lose a bird! Our topic for this issue is how to improve the chances of recovering a bird that moves a short distance from the point of fall then tucks into cover. In most cases we are talking about handling a dog off the area where the bird fell but has not been found to another location that the handler has good reason to believe holds the escaped bird. We will be handling the dog from one location, after an unsuccessful hunt has been made, to another to continue the search.
The well-rounded retriever requires several skills to recover wounded birds:
- Ability to accurately mark a fall or line for an unseen – getting the retriever to the precise location of the bird fast greatly increases chances of recovery.
- Scenting ability – a dog with a great nose and a passion to hunt cover will recover game.
- Handling ability – a dog that will willingly take directions from his hunting partner.
- Experience – nothing replaces hunting experience. Bird sense takes exposure and lots of it.
At Wildrose we have developed a few exercises designed to improve a dog’s abilities in these crucial areas. We call them “drops.” Drops or throw downs, as we often refer to the exercises, are designed to improve a dog’s hunting of cover skills and handling ability while fostering an improved relationship between hunter and gundog… trust then respect. Drops are one of many “bridges” we use in the Wildrose Way model to perfect previously learned behaviors or skills while moving the dog to the next level in performance. The effects of drop exercises will be realized in several areas:
- Improve handling – reinforcing whistle stops, short casting and hunting cover thoroughly for the young dog. Another purpose is to improve the responsiveness of the experienced retriever that has developed a tendency to invoke his opinions rather than take direction from the handler.
- Improving scent discrimination in all types of environments. Nose work.
- Interdependence between dog and handler. A gundog can willingly be moved from one area being hunted to another area of cover to resume the hunt. Confidence in the handler is established. Teamwork. The dog comes to realize that the handler will help in locating the bird if attention is paid.
- The retriever establishes an effective search pattern and learns to hold the area searching the cover thoroughly versus running about.
Hunt-Stop-Hunt – An assistant tosses a small bird, feathered bumper or scented tennis ball into heavy cover. As you turn the youngster away, creating a trailing memory, the assistant picks up the mark (object) but remains close to the area in order that they may toss the “bird” back to the cover precisely in the area being searched.
Send the dog which, by the way, should be well schooled on the whistles and casting commands at this point, for the memory. After the dog displays a spirited yet unsuccessful hunt of the area, whistle stop the dog. Hold him motionless for about five seconds, gain his focus, then cast to the area to be hunted.
The objective is to keep the dog in the area of the fall hunting enthusiastically while achieving three stops and casts. Only then does the assistant toss the bird back into the cover for the dog to make the find. The gundog is only successful when responding to the handler’s commands and displaying proper hunting skills. Out-of-control and running about results in no reward. This is an effective tool to improve the handle of young retrievers and flushers, but it is a great tune-up drill to polish the experienced gundog that tends to ignore the handler when on birds.
An assistant places a fresh duck (cold game) as an unseen along the bank of a water source hidden in cover. The dog and handler take a position across the water from the assistant who is ready with a sizeable rock in hand. The rock is the mark, thrown high to be seen and to create a splash at the water’s edge, parallel to the bird some 10 to 15 yards down wind. The water dog which has made his mark from across the water is released. You will want to see the dog make a decent hunting effort in the area first. Follow up by stopping the dog a couple of times with the whistle as mentioned in the previous drill and command to continue to hunt the area. After a couple of stops, cast the dog off the fall toward the planted bird. If the cast is taken… success! You come out in the dog’s opinion as “the smartest guy in the marsh!” The exercise really creates an interdependent relationship between you and your gundog. The dog comes to trust that you will put them on the bird.
The Upland Drop
We all know quail, partridge, grouse, and pheasant run when only pricked. They simply do not remain where they fall if at all possible unlike bumpers or cold game do in training.
Using a variation of the lessons discussed previously, the assistant plucks out a few feathers from a game bird and even smears the bird around a bit in heavy cover where the feathers are scattered. Now we have a scented fall area which may cause the dog to stick in the area reluctant to leave. Next, the assistant places the bird at a distance from the scented area. Upwind our down depending upon the difficultly you wish to present. This will not be a track of a runner using a drag as discussed in previous articles, rather it is a lesson in handling from one area that is being hunted to another that requires hunting. Plant the bird; don’t drag it to the location.
Collect the dog. Have the assistant toss in a dirt clod (something natural that will break apart on impact) for a mark or have a bird tossed in then walk away establishing a trailing memory. In either of these scenarios put some distance between the dog and the area to be hunted. If utilizing a trailing memory, the assistant quickly picks up the bird while your dog is walking away not looking. Either way works.
The objective again is for the dog to hunt cover holding the area, achieve three stops then cast to the area holding the bird. Your cast away from the strongly scented area results in a find… a BIRD… and again you appear in the mind of your dog as “the smartest guy in the field.” The difference in this approach is that we added distance between the dog and the handler and, obviously, the type of cover and terrain has changed from water for the duck work to an upland environment. Versatility!
A Trained Dog’s Nose Knows
Afield, trust your dog when attempting to locate a down bird. You may think you know the location of the bird but a well-trained gundog with an experienced nose may be communicating something quite different. Give your dog time to work out the scent before intervening. Don’t over handle. Remember your hunting pal now thinks that you are “the smartest guy afield.” Don’t disappoint.
The Gentleman’s Gundog is a hunting companion bred and trained to bring back birds that otherwise would be lost. That is what makes us so proud of our hunting companions at fireside… Game Recovery!