by Ben McClelland
The Wildrose Kennels Bird Program
In his work with clients and in his book, Sporting Dog and Retriever Training, Mike Stewart always emphasizes the importance of preparing the gundog for all aspects of the work it will do in the field. This policy applies to giving the dog first-hand knowledge of game birds. As Mike is fond of saying, “No birds, no bird dogs.” So, from its beginning days, Wildrose Kennels has used birds as a regular part of its gundog training.
As Mike recommends, training a young gundog by retrieving bumpers, feathered bumpers, cold birds, and live birds (both on land and in the water). In addition, besides becoming acclimated to gunfire, the gundog must learn to remain steady to the flush of a group of upland birds and/or an incoming flight of ducks.
So, how does Wildrose introduce birds to dogs in training? The short answer is, “In many ways.” The detailed answer involves looking at the variety of methods that the trainers use.
One of the simplest ways to train dogs to be steady with live bird action is to use a pigeon in a flight harness tethered by a line to a pole. The handler places the dog at sit and allows the pigeon to fly around and over the dog, all the while praising the dog for steadiness. If the dog breaks, the handler retracts the bird immediately, therefore preventing the dog from getting the reward of retrieving the bird.
In his training book Mike explains how to use a tethered bird as a distraction to train your dog to be steady.
With your bird at remote sit, fly the bird around to assess steadiness. At first, you can expect that a bit of gentle reinforcement with the lead will be necessary. Once steady, practice recalling your dog. Just as the dog approaches, toss the bird to duplicate a flush. The youngster should stop and sit to the flush or continue toward you, again your choice. After gunshot introduction, add popper shot to increase the stimulus. Also, make a few retrieves with the dog ignoring the flyer as a diversion. Often during a hunt a live bird will be flushed or land just as your dog completes a retrieve, so prepare for it (128-129).
Two other methods of training for steadiness in bird flight involve many more birds and much more active flight maneuvering. In a small recall house, located in the center of a field, Wildrose has a flock of Belgian homing pigeons. Placing the dog at sit, alongside its trainer, by the door of the recall house, a trainer flushes the pigeons out of the door. The sight and sound of dozens of flapping wings provides the dog with a lot of distraction, to which it must accommodate, in order to remain steady. The birds typically put on a colorful aerial show for the dog, as well, circling the field a couple of times before re-entering the house through rooftop entrances to roost once again.
Moreover, homing pigeons may be carried in the trainer’s bag to any location on the kennels’ 143 acres of the hunting fields. During a simulated hunting situation such as a walk up, the trainer occasionally tosses a bird in front of his dog as a diversion, urging the dog to stay steady to this unexpected flush. Because the recall birds return to their house, this is a cost-effective training activity since the birds can be used time and time again.
A second, much larger structure enables more versatile training, with steadiness as a main focus. The flight pen resembles the outdoor bird structures that you might see at a zoo aviary. It features large trees, bushes and other structures for roosting the several dozen resident birds of many varieties, including pigeons, chukar partridges, quail, and pheasants. A great advantage of using the flight pen is that the trainer and dog may work inside it. Typically, the trainer will heel the dog to the center of the pen, placing it at sit. The, the trainer will walk to the far end of the pen and flush the flock of birds over the steady dog at remote sit. Here again, this experience of the sight and sound of birds flying directly overhead provides the dog with a simulation of hunting field action. After the flyover, the trainer will return to the dog, heel it to the far end of the pen, drop a bumper, and heel the dog back toward the entrance of the pen. During this activity, the birds continue flying overhead. Then, the trainer sends the dog to retrieve the bumper, again while the birds continue to fly back and forth in all directions. Completing this activity requires a dog’s full focus on its job, ignoring the noisy, circling distractions of birds in flight. All gundogs must complete this exercise to achieve certification.
As mentioned earlier, Wildrose has always used birds for training, but as the kennel grew and diversified, it enlarged its bird program, both in raising more types of birds and in building facilities specifically for bird raising and training activities. Mike’s right hand man in the bird program is thirty-year-old Blake Henderson, an Oxford native, who has worked at Wildrose since 2007. Blake began as a kennel hand and started throwing and catching birds for various training purposes. Then, he saw a need for more birds and better coops for raising them. In 2012 Blake moved up to an apprentice trainer position and to a fulltime trainer in 2013, all the while still coordinating the kennel’s bird operations. Blake oversees acquiring, raising and training activities with Belgian homing pigeon, Chinese ring-neck Pheasants, Hungarian chukar partridges and Bobwhite Quail.
Routinely, Blake manages the kennel’s simulated quail hunts, handling Panzer, the kennel’s German shorthair pointer. After setting out live birds in the upland fields, Blake quarters Panzer, while the staff of trainers and their clients’ dogs-in-training conduct a walk-up. When Panzer points, the retrievers back, the bird is flushed and shot, as the dogs remain steady to flush and shot, until a dog is selected and sent to retrieve the downed bird. Oftentimes, of course, more than a single bird is flushed, as in a real hunt, so the dogs take turns retrieving the down game. This life-like training activity is extremely valuable in producing sound and reliable hunting companions for Wildrose’s wingshooting clients.
Because dogs need to hunt with their eyes, ears and noses, Wildrose trainers employ another training activity: using chukar as runners. Using a cloth sleeve over the wings to render the bird flightless, the trainer will release the bird in front of the dog, letting the elusive chuckar run into heavy cover and out of sight. The dog is sent to the to last point of visual contact and then follows the bird’s scent path, tracking down the bird by scent, and returning with it to the trainer. This is another realistic and cost-effective training method used to develop good hunting companions.
Mike Stewart’s Sporting Dog and Retriever Training (New York: Universe Publishing, 2012) is the definitive gundog training book. Not only does it offer a comprehensive training regimen, but it is also filled with little gems of wisdom, such as this tip on picking birds on the hunt:
Wildrose Tip: Wildrose has a simple rule for the order in which ducks are picked on the hunt. Pick runners first, longest bird second, first bird down last. There are fewer chances for a lost bird with this approach. Remember, the Wildrose Way is to train as you will hunt and hunt as you have trained (166).