Hunting dog development and training—we are the key

November 12, 2013

What makes a good bird dog? I mean apart from steadiness, strong nose, retrieving ability, and coat quality. To some, it's a question right up there with how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But to me it's clear as a Montana spring creek: we make a good bird dog.

I've unmade my share of bird dogs with poor training, lousy communication, crappy shooting, or not enough bird contact. I'm a slow learner, but after hunting with more than 200 dogs on my TV show, I've figured out we can make a dog as easily as unmake one. When we "think like a dog," pay attention and understand their needs, they become stronger hunting partners - and so do we.

First, think about his reason for being. (Hint: he's called a "bird dog.") Food treats, verbal and physical praise all work, but the ne plus ultra is a bird in his mouth. If we deliver on our end of the transaction he'll be enroute to "good dog."

Then, know that dogs think differently than we do. We understand abstract concepts, can program a DVR, talk/text/drive simultaneously (but shouldn't). Dogs think in arrow-straight lines, one reaction leading to the next with nothing getting in the way. Their actions, desires, and needs are right now, right here. This knowledge should inform all our training and communication.

I've learned the hard way that good dogs are easily bored. When we don't raise the bar high enough they "misbehave," forget lessons, bark, fight, dig, run away or worse. A challenged dog is eager for more, looks forward to working — and being — with you. So we must train ourselves as much as our dogs.

A good bird dog is bold and independent. Who was really in charge when you dropped the tailgate on your last hunt? Who possessed the genetics, equipment, athleticism and innate abilities to find birds? Once in the field, we're just gun bearers, rightfully putting our faith in a superior set of skills and instincts. Honor those traits, follow the hunter with the longest nose, and you'll both enjoy every hunt no matter the weight of your game vest.

So there you have it. A bird dog is made, not born. By you.

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