Game Recovery

by Mike Stewart


Hunting dogs are gamefinders.  That’s their passion, job, purpose.  To locate and recover game that otherwise would be lost.  Also, it really goes without mentioning that they complement the entire sporting experience afield.  How does one acclimate a young dog to drive deep into the thickest of cover without hesitation?  To search out scent and locate our bird promptly?  Let’s explore five tips to produce a splendid gamefinder.

First, remember that a properly-bred hunting dog’s nose knows.  All that is required is to awaken the instincts bred into the animal.  Insure balance in training affording ample opportunity for the young dog’s scent discrimination abilities to evolve:

  • Use of eyes – marking and lining
  • Use of ears – marking by sound
  • Use of nose – scent work



Secondly, we all understand that dogs are creatures of habit.  Therefore, dog training is consistent repetition of desirable skills and behaviors to the point of predictable habit formation.  Therefore, it’s imperative that one exposes young hunting dogs early to working in cover and relying on their scenting abilities if success is to be achieved.  Not overdone, mind you, just in balance with other lessons.

For instance, in basic waterfowl retriever training every recovery should not be made on open water.  What about short marsh grass, flooded crops, timber, muddy plow… a variety of exposures is the key to developing a balanced waterfowl retriever.  Same concept is true for the upland gundog.  Variety in training matters, not only in lessons experience, but also the cover in which we train.

Third, to instill steadiness, avoid employing too many thrown bumpers/birds (marks).  Rather, train cover penetration with the use of memories.  There are four:

  1. Site
  2. Trailing
  3. Circle
  4. Loops (See Sporting Dogs and Retriever Training, the Wildrose Way)

Memories reinforce patience, focus and steadiness in every lesson.

Finally, develop a hunt command.  One would be quite surprised that we often discover at our seminars across the country that many participants do not have a conditioned hunt command for their sporting pal.  Our cue is “high/loss.”  Others may use “dead” when the dog is in the correct area of the fall.  No matter the selected voice or whistle cue is needed to instruct the dog to stop and hunt closely.  A hunt signal indicated when the dog is in proximity to the area of the fall.

5 Lessons for Development

  1. Get them in cover at an early age and continue to do so throughout basic training. Revisit hunting in thick cover periodically throughout the dog’s life as a refresher.
  2. Develop the nose. Dogs must learn how to properly “scent” and use their noses for success.  Use small puppy bumpers with a fresh wing feather attached or tennis balls scented by placing in a bag of game bird feathers or by the use of our roll-on sent stick which has proven to be a wonderful product. (See
  3. Expose the dog to all types of cover, land and water including off-the-ground finds. With a young prospect we want to develop a bold entry into cover so it is advisable to avoid cover featuring sharp-stemmed grasses, briars, thistle or thorny undergrowth.  Over time such uncomfortable conditions could inhibit entry.
  4. If you encounter a young dog reluctant to enter cover directly, invert the situation. The handler and dog take up a position in the cover and run trailing memories out onto open ground.  The dog learns direct penetration by re-entering the cover to locate the handler.  Wildrose refers to this approach as an inversion.  More on this technique and its valuable uses in a future article.
  5. Use memory applications to teach the gundog how to drive deep into row crop, timber, or shallow marshes. Circle memory hubs are perfect for this effort.  Scatter a few feather-laced bumpers in a stand of woodlands or marsh that can be walked around.  After the dog sees the placement, exit onto open ground and begin circling the cover.  The actual appearance of the pattern would resemble a wagon wheel with the dog and handler walking the rim making retrieves back to the core of the hub.  The technique teaches a dog to drive straight into cover and to maintain forward progression until scent is located.


Building a Hunting Pattern

In early stages of training we want, not only to develop the command to hunt, but also help the youngster’s abilities to hold a specific area while hunting closely for scent detection, not just running aimlessly.  Remember dogs are extremely place oriented.  To develop a hunting pattern of a specific, desirable size, simply mow an area of grass or bramble.  The desirable size you prefer the dog to search dictates the size of the mowed square or circle.  The contrast between shorter and taller cover conditions the dog to a defined search pattern.  Use place orientation to your advantage.

Another great scent development exercise is to use scented tennis balls rolled along the ground thrown by a chuck-it without the dog’s observation.  Simply cover the dog’s eyes, give him a sniff of the object and scoot it across light cover into heavier cover.  Follow up by giving the dog its hunt cue and watch for indications that the dog has “scented” the line.  Obviously wind direction will greatly effect this experience.

As a final suggestion, I highly recommend conditioning any gundog to mark a fall’s location by sound in addition to sight.  In realistic hunting situations, many if not most birds will fall in locations that the dog cannot see, but their hearing is keen.  Train a dog to pinpoint a location by sound, the crash or splash along initially then follow up with nose work.  You will recover more game when working in tall cane, CRP, standing row crop or when the dog is confined in a small blind or boat.

Begin by using larger feathered bumpers so the impact will be enhanced and scent will be available.  Cover the dog’s eyes and toss the bumper into water or cover.  As success is achieved, launcher bumpers may be used so the bumper will fall through limbs or splash on impact.  For keen listening skills, use scented tennis balls tossed high as the dog’s eyes are covered or they are in tall cover or a hide preventing observation.  This skill will pay off in the field and marsh if properly developed.

Developing a properly bred hunting dogs’ scenting ability is entertaining for both the handler and the gundog.  Doing so will enable you to recover more game especially birds that may otherwise have been lost.  At the end of the day, that’s the real name of the game, “Retriever.”

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