Introducing Your Pointer Pup to Game Birds; Introduction:
How and how often you work your young pointing pup on live birds is arguably the most important area of training a pointing dog. Unfortunately for many of us who train our own birddogs, it is not always easy to get access to the birds needed. In Iowa, where I train, the past couple of years have seen a steep drop in both the quail and the pheasant populations. The wild birds just haven’t been there to exploit during the training months. Even pen raised game birds can be hard to find when you need them and are increasingly expensive. Far too often when you do find pen raised game birds they are of poor quality, and weak flyers. A trainer needs a bird that can flush and fly off, not drop practically under the dog’s nose.
Fortunately, one of the best and easiest birds to train with is the common pigeon. I have used both the common pigeon and homing pigeon to introduce my pups to birds. This explanation of how to introduce your pup to birds is geared to the person who wants to train their own dog but has limited or no access to wild birds. And limited access or resources to pen raised birds.
I usually try to get my pups started on birds around 12 weeks of age. I find that is a good age to start German Shorthaired puppies on pigeons. Twelve weeks may be too soon for some breeds. (Ask your breeder what they think would be a good age to start.) At 12 weeks the typical GSP pup is able to navigate cover and showing some hunting instinct. Twelve weeks is an ideal age to introduce most GSP pups to birds. However, waiting a few weeks should you have a bird shortage isn’t catastrophic.
Experience has taught me that introducing a pointing puppy to birds, by letting it catch the bird, is a mistake. I know that professional trainers teach differently. They say to let the young pup build hunt desire by catching locked wing pigeons on the ground. Or clipping the wing of a pigeon so it can’t fly very far, and letting the pup catch it.
I do my best to discourage my trainees from chasing birds. I would argue that all you are really doing is allowing your pup to form positive associations with bird chasing. Associations that you will have to break later if you want a steady dog on point, and a dog steady to flush and shot. In other words, traditional methods teach a pup that it is fun to catch or chase live birds, in order to build hunt drive. Then you have to break the pup from doing what you let it do. This isn’t very easy if the dog is a high drive dog and not much fun for the trainer either.
How It’s Done:
You need two to four pigeons for the first time out. Two the bare minimum and four the maximum for a young pup. Why no more than four? I find that too many and you get a puppy that gets over excited and out of control. Or you risk making bird finding too routine to keep the pup’s interest.
You also need a 20 ft check cord and a helper. A 10 to 15 mph breeze to move the scent is ideal. Grass or some cover that is six inches deep is ideal as well. Taller cover will work if it is not so tall that you can’t see your pup.
Dizzy up a pigeon by flipping the pigeon’s back and forth quickly for 20 seconds or so. Then tuck its head under the wing and hold it still. Plant the bird in the grass so it’s hidden. Bring the pup into the field down wind, but to the side of the scent cone. As the wind blows past the bird it takes the scent and spreads it out in a sort of snow cone shape and rises into the air. You want the pup to catch the scent suddenly. The wrong thing to do is send the pup towards the bird directly downwind. Think of a catfish that smells bait in the water. The fish is downstream of the scent, it picks up the faint scent and swims in the direction that makes the scent stronger. The closer to the scent the fish gets, the more the scent lures the fish in. Hunting dog pups are the same, the closer the pup gets to the bird, the stronger the scent. The stronger the scent, the more wound up they get, and most likely, will follow the scent right up to the bird without pointing. Then they will catch the bird. This becomes important later when you do steadiness training.
This can be easily avoided by using the following method. Have your helper stand on far side of the opposite of the direction the pup will come from, near but not on top of the bird. You have two options at this point. Check cord on or check cord off. For the young 12-week-old pup, I take the pup off the check cord when it has been led to where I want it to start going into the field. It is a good training habit to start the dog where it will have a good chance of finding the side of the scent cone.
Send the pup into the field using the same command you will use later to start your dog into a field. I use the simple “hunt” command. No time like the present to start forming associations between commands and actions. You probably will have to follow and encourage the pup to work in the correct direction. Watch closely for signs the pup has found the scent. It will start to move in a zig-zag pattern as it finds and follows the scent cone to the bird.
One of two things will happen at this point, The pup will zero in on the pigeon right away, or it will pause in a pointing position and then pounce. This is where your helper comes in. His job is to use his foot or a fishing pole (for more reach) to get the pigeon airborne before the pup catches it. Make sure to praise it as its zeros in on the pigeon before the flush. Don’t praise it after it has begun to chase the bird. Remember we are working with very young pups, earlier I said don’t let pups chase birds, however during the 1st lesson it’s too soon to discourage chasing. Just don’t encourage it. Do this bird planting exercise two to four times putting the bird in a different place in the same general area.
If the pup is older (say 6 Mo’s or older), and hasn’t had an opportunity to find birds, I would leave the check cord on and restrain the pup from chasing from the start. Hold back the pup until the bird is out of sight. They usually give up the chase fairly quickly once the bird is out of sight.
Most pups I have worked with catch on right away, they are eager to hunt even if they don’t get to chase or catch birds. When the occasional screw up occurs and the pup catches the bird, I take the bird way without punishment or consequence. If the pup wants to hang on to its prize, give your release command, and blow into its ear. It will release and some praise from you will be in order.
If your pup doesn’t show much interest in the, there are a few of things that you can do. One, take care that you don’t have your scent on the bird, that might confuse the pup. Two, if it is a slow maturing pup wait till it is more mature and try again. Pups can really vary as to what age the prey drive kicks in. Three, get a pigeon training harness, put a Pidgeon in the harness, attach harness to a light cord connected to a long pole. Use the setup to tease the pup by swinging the bird past the pup, setting the bird down briefly and pulling it away as the pup tries to catch it. You have to move quick and try your best to make sure the pup doesn’t catch it. This drives pup’s crazy with desire, and the next time you plant a bird it will be a whole different pup. Four, maybe the hardest to do, find a place with wild game birds and train there.
It usually doesn’t take but a couple of sessions for the introduction of birds, part of bird training to be successfully completed. Remember to keep the training positive and fun. This is especially important when working with young pups and birds.
That is all there is to it!