By Mike Stewart
Tis the season. Hunting season that is. Pheasant, dove, preserve quail and in some northern locations, waterfowl. We gundog enthusiasts are back in happy times.
My opening this year was in late August at Wildrose Teton Valley with Blixt & Co., Driven Shooting in America (Follow Wildrose Teton Valley on Instagram and Facebook). The two weeks picking up were a great indicator of how well our dogs were prepared for game recovery. In the retriever world this is high value: no bird left behind. The dogs were running hot and exposed to dry, dusty terrain, not the best for scenting conditions. The retrievers effectively marked and lined well for unseens despite the distractions of massive gunfire and hundreds of birds in flight but these were not the real challenges. It was recovery of birds in difficult cover. The pickers did a fantastic job of recovery based on percentages of birds downed but the work was tough stuff. Once the gundog gets to the area of the fall or is called upon to sweep or quarter to flush birds, the true measurement of the sporting dog’s worth becomes apparent: nose work – their nose must know.
Runners in heavy cover, a swimmer that steals away into reeds, ducks that drop into cattails or timber breaks… here is where the well-trained dog really earns a reputation as a game dog. Often, sporting dog enthusiasts of all breeds – Pointers, Flushers or Retrievers do not spend enough training and preparation time in the development or tune-up of their dogs for hunting cover. Our suggestion? The Wildrose “six pack,” six steps to improve game recovery this season.
Number 1: Get the dog in top physical condition. Heat tolerance, body weight, and the amount of pre-season exercise for endurance all effect the dog’s abilities to scent.
- Overheated dogs are breathing hard which reduces scenting ability.
- Overweight dogs are not in physical shape, overheat and tire quickly.
- Dogs lacking hydration rapidly lose stamina and, in turn, scenting abilities.
Obviously get your gundog in great physical shape slowly pre-season gradually increasing
duration and strength-building activities to enhance endurance. Work often in hot weather to improve acclimation while being ever watchful for signs of heat exhaustion. Float the dog’s food with water at feeding to improve water intake. Do not feed prior to training or hunting. Carry a dog water bottle to the field to provide a drink on hot days while working and between retrieves. Have fresh water sources available for the dogs during hunting breaks.
Number 2: Practice with scented bumpers retrieved from thick cover.
- Feather-laced bumpers or scent them with Bird Down
- Re-visit the exercises for off-the-ground finds.
- Scented tennis balls or small puppy bumpers require
more effort to locate in cover than larger bumpers.
- Occasionally use cold game in training hidden in obscure, difficult locations.
Number 3: Practice marking by sound instead of marking by sight.
Use a large Wildrose feather-laced bumper. With the dog at sit, cover the dog’s eyes and toss the bumper high to create a noisy fall into thick cover. The sound will be “marked” by the dog, then release for the hunt.
Number 4: Handling off the mark.
Have two distinct areas of cover in close proximity. In one, hide an unseen. Next, collect the dog and have a helper toss a mark into the second bit of cover which is further away. Send the dog for the mark, stop on the way out and cast into the cover holding the unseen. It’s best to make this ”find” a high value target such as a cold game bird rather than simply a bumper. Big reward for the doing the correct thing.
Number 5: The Throw Down
In cover or shallow water, toss in a memory. Turn and heel your dog away. Have a helper move in and pick up the memory. Send your dog back for the pick. The objective is to hold the dog in the area as you make three successful stops to the whistle. Then, your crafty helper tosses the “find” back into the same area being hunted without the dog noticing, likely distracted by the hunting effort. Then, success! The dog’s persistency is rewarded for hunting holding the area. Do not replace the bumper or bird if the dog is reluctant on the whistle or shows poor use of nose.
Number 6: The runner or swimmer. A wounded bird on the move.
Two things should be practiced for this likely event.
- Using a cold game bird, lay out a scent line using a long check cord dragging a bird. Detach the bird, circle wide not walking over the scent line to collect the dog. Identify the line to be tracked for the dog by tossing in an object that will break apart on impact like a dirt clod. This identifies the starting point, then let the dog learn to trust his nose. Don’t over-handle.
- Splash Down- handling of a fall. Hide a bird at water’s edge. Collect the dog. Have a helper toss a large rock into the water a distance from the unseen bird. Send the dog for the mark. After an unsuccessful hunt, handle the dog to the unseen. Often, the dog hangs in the fall area convinced of the bird’s location, reluctant to cast off. In an actual hunting situation you watch in frustration as the runner sneaks further away as the dog continues to ignore your cast. Game over!
The gundog mission is simple:
The Wildrose Way training methodology is specifically designed to develop sporting dogs that excel in both departments. But, continuous practice is required as well as pre-season conditioning if success is to be had afield recovering birds from difficult cover.