Keeping Your Bird Dog in Range
By Ryan Eder
One of the best compliments I feel a bird hunter can get (other than comments about how great of a shot you are, which never happens to me) is “how did you get your dog to stay in range like that?” Having our dog hunt at a distance suitable for your preference and hunting style is likely one of the most common struggles among bird dog owners, but there are several ways to achieve a desirable range in your hunting dog.
I’d like to start by defining “range”. Simply put, “range” refers to the distance at which your dog quarters and searches for birds in relation to their handler. Preferences can vary based on type of dog (not only breed, but style such as Pointer or Flusher), terrain, and bird species being hunted. While we all may have different preferences, there are a few basic principles we must follow to be successful afield with our dogs. When hunting with flushing dogs, we are looking for a dog to produce birds for the gun, within shooting range and not to interfere with the hunter’s right to shoot the bird. With that in mind, flushing dogs will need to work fairly close to their handler, otherwise we find ourselves shooting at birds too far away, or worse yet, not shooting at all! With pointing breeds, there are several preferences depending on what the application is. Field trailers may have dogs ranging in excess of 300 yards. You can see this at a field trial where judges are on horseback and a dog is covering the country side in pursuit of birds. It is impressive to watch, but for a common foot hunter this is likely not your wish. How can we do our best to make sure our dog hunts within our desired and preferred range?
It all starts with genetics. While it is not guaranteed, buy your dog out of the best genetics you can afford and make sure that the parents exemplify traits you wish to see in your dog. Don’t get me wrong, it is possible that your pup isn’t quite like the parents, but it is the best you can do to line yourself up with the traits you desire. With hunting dogs, it is a good idea to look for puppies out of hunt test or field trial parents; this is a great way of seeing what level of field work they are capable of, as well as trainability. If you look at an English Pointer puppy that has parents who earned several blue ribbons in field trials, then you will likely have a big running dog. Do your research, and have discussions with breeders explaining exactly what you are looking for in a dog. Do not get trapped into thinking that titles mean everything on a pedigree. My best dog is out of untitled parents (his pedigree is loaded with titled dogs, however). I was able to watch both parents train on several occasions and really liked what I saw. Sometimes, that is all you need. Again, you are still looking for a pedigree that has proven lineage; whether that is titles or a long time breeder who consistently produces performers. Not all hunting dog owners run tests or trials; that does not mean their dog is not exceptional.
Whether you are hunting with a pointing or flushing dog, if you do not have a proper foundation of basic training you will struggle in the field. Regardless of what range preferences you have, it is critical that you can control your dog at any range. If you cannot call your dog to you, or have them comply with simple commands such as “here”, “sit” or “kennel” then how can we expect to keep them within a certain range? Prioritize your basic obedience training first and start on-lead. Once your dog complies with basic commands on lead you can progress to a check chord, which allows you to have the same control as a short lead, but also allows you to add distance between you and your dog. Remember, distance erodes control. This is why your dog may not listen as well in the field with distraction and often greater distance between you; you need control on-lead first to establish that your dog truly knows the commands. I assure you, whether you want a close working foot hunting dog, or a big running trial dog that a solid foundation of basic obedience and recall will never hurt!
Once your dog is fluent with obedience and they have been properly introduced to birds (usually wings, dead birds, clip wing birds, etc.) you will likely start working with your dog in the field. Depending on your training program, there are several options as to how to do this. A few key things to remember; we want to build confidence in our dog. This means take them for walks in a field similar to what you will hunt in and get them acclimated to cover, terrain and hunt-like conditions. I like to plant scented bumpers or dummies in the field before we walk, so that the dog can “find” them on the walk and begin to learn to use their nose, and feel confident searching through the cover. Do not be afraid to use dead birds for this either! We start with dummies or dead birds because it reduces the chances of startling the dog (a live bird may flutter or flush and startle the dog).
How you go about doing this will have significant impact on your dog’s style (“style” refers to how your dog hunts; their range, intensity and so forth). In the early stages, I want to build confidence but also excitement and drive. Even the most naturally driven dogs will have more fun if they are finding birds more often at first. That being said, I also like to keep my planting areas fairly close. I have noticed a closer working style when I train this way, and because I am training flushers most of the time, this is my preference. The first few sessions I do not like to use a check chord because I want the dog to develop a strong drive and sense of confidence. Once I see that, I like to introduce the check chord to focus more on range and keeping the dog at my preferred distance. I realize we want to establish range, but too much control put on the dog early in the process can be counterproductive. You’ll hear several trainers say “I’d rather have to bring the dog back in, than try to push them out”.
This concept applies to a pointing dog as well, and you can space out your birds over time once you see your dog developing to your liking (keep in mind most pointer trainers are using birds each time because they want the bird to fly or launch to help instill pointing behavior). Again, if you want a big running dog and have the right genetics behind it, you should see these tendencies even early in your training. Set your training up accordingly!
This article is a surface level look at how genetics, a great foundation of basic obedience and strategic field work tactics can help develop your hunting dog’s range and overall hunting style. So many people introduce their dog to birds and rely on instinct to take over as the dog hunts more and more. While this can work, we can sharpen our dog’s abilities by taking a more focused approach to our training; range is one of those tendencies we can influence early. Keep in mind there are several other steps not being discussed in this article. For more information please contact the Upland Gundog Association.