Written by Wildrose Carolinas
With hunting season already here in some locations and fast approaching for others, we offer a few helpful tips and reminders for taking your young dog through its first hunting season. It is important to build on all of the time and effort that you have put into training up until this moment. While most of this is for younger dogs, many of these concepts apply to seasoned dogs as well.
Transitional training: A key step on the journey to developing a true Gentleman’s Gundog is the transitional training before the dog goes to the field for the first time. Try to closely simulate the environment your dog will encounter so that the first time your dog experiences something is not the day of the hunt. Training the way you intend to hunt is a crucial part of how your dog will perform. Build transitional training drills that utilize the tools you plan on using during hunts, such as dog hides and stands, duck blinds, guns, decoys, other dogs, etc. Also, consider how you get to your blind. Do you walk carrying all sorts of gear? Do you ride an ATV? Boat? Have you ever asked the dog to sit quietly while you load and unload and set up to hunt? As we all know, the excitement of real birds, more people, and gunfire are stimulating to say the least. Dogs get excited just as we do; the rush of stimulation can lead to bad behaviors, which usually leads to a bad interaction between you and your dog and nobody wants that. Working your dog with the purpose of transitioning to the real thing, “practicing” prior to the season, allows your dog to be more comfortable with the new environment, sounds, smells, and gear associated with a hunt. Since we know dogs are place oriented, this step in training will serve to make things go smoothly despite all of the action. Ideally, if you can expose your dog to the actual place you will be hunting before season begins, you should. This gives your dog a chance to learn the lay of the land and the particular location.
Game time: Go to the field with the objective of continuing to train your dog instead of shooting. Early on, let others shoot and focus on your dog. Depending on how things go, you may begin to shoot yourself. If your dog is steady, attentive, quiet, and focused, reward with a retrieve. If not, take note so that you can work on it later. While it is tempting to give the dog a lot of retrieves, it can be overwhelming and cause some undesirable behaviors later in the dog’s life. Finding and/or recovering game is natural to sporting dogs, but the behaviors we all aspire to shape, not so much! Focus here; use the first few hunts, and season for that matter, to continue and extend training rather than shooting and it will pay dividends in the long run. When you’re packing your hunting gear, include a couple bumpers to take with you. If you find yourself in the field on a slow day or have an unsuccessful retrieve, take the opportunity to give your dog a retrieve that will set it up for success. Never let a young dog fail; it is always important to “end on a win.” The “win” could be a simple trailing memory retrieve in front of the blind. Or, if you notice that your young partner is struggling to find a downed bird, place a bumper in the area of the fall so the dog finds something. This will build its confidence in itself as well as you. Remember, this is a marathon and not a sprint; begin with the end in mind and set yourself up for a great future.
Be realistic in your expectations. Your dog should never have its first hunt be with 10 shooters in close quarters with dozens of retrieves. That’s too much stimulus. The ideal first outing would include one to two shooters with selective retrieves. For example, if you were to shoot 20 birds during the hunt, your dog makes 3-5 retrieves. You want your dog to see you pick up birds as well. We refer to these as denials. Over the course of the first season, ideally, your dog will only pick up 25% of the birds shot. The combination of other dogs, yourself and your hunting partners should get the rest.
A few final thoughts: Before your dog ever goes on a hunt, he/she should be steady and have a firm grasp on all the basic gundog skills. The dog should be steady to gunfire and comfortable with multiple shots, quiet, stop to the whistle and take casts—back, right, and left. All of these are important. With these skills, you should be confident to work your dog to recover birds you or your partners shoot.
Be sure to pay attention to the weather forecast before you leave for your hunt. High winds, rain and snow, and temperature changes can affect the performance of your dog. Prepare for success and carry drinking water and a vest to help your dog perform to the best of its ability. Hunting a young and inexperienced dog in harsh elements such as ice and snow can also confuse, hinder, or possibly injure a dog if severe enough.
Taking your young dog on its first hunt is exciting and rewarding. This is particularly true if you view the hunt as an extension of training. Realistic expectations are paramount. Take your time and make haste slowly! Focus on your dog and look for areas to improve and enjoy the journey to developing a hunting companion that is a joy to work with for years to come.