COL A sidewalk is no place for a bird dog
Rosie, my yellow lab, was born March 10, 2003, and we took her home 50 days later.
I knew almost nothing about how to turn an unruly pup, full of raw instinct, into an obedient, methodical hunting partner. Bird-hunting friends, guys who had been in my boots before, warned me that our first season would likely be a frustrating one. Others warned me to expect the worst -- that our inaugural season might be a dud.
Despite the warnings, maybe out of bull-headedness, but probably because I'd waited longer than most avid bird hunters to get my first pup, I remained blithely unconvinced that our first season together couldn't be a good one.
The several volumes of conventional dog-training wisdom I'd picked up over the years continued to collect dust on my shelves, and most of the well-intentioned advice I received went unheeded.
As I began Rosie's training, I was certain of one thing: All I could really do for her was help develop her obedience skills at home and in the field, then step aside and let her hunt. The rest would be up to her sire and dam, her bloodlines, the hunting instincts that had been bred into her.
The results of my efforts weren't perfect, and Rosie did make mistakes that required prompt corrective action, but I firmly believe that one thing I did had a positive impact far greater than any of the dozen or so dog-training faux pas I might have committed: I didn't wait until fall to get her into the field. I took her into the field early and often.
We were in the woods in the spring, and, perhaps more importantly, we took full advantage of the quietest hunting-related opener of the year –; the dog-training season that begins on Minnesota's WMAs in mid-July, when young-of-the-year game can safely elude a dog.
Spring found us up north, at the cabin where we'd be hunting grouse in the fall. I'd lead her toward drumming grouse and, after they flushed, take her up to drumming logs for some momentous whiffs.
I'd repeat: "Grouse, Rosie. Grouse, grouse, grouse; good dog, good girl, find the grouse!" Early on, Rosie knew the scent of grouse, up close and personal. I repeated this trick often, whenever I went north. Three-month old Rosie learned that when she scented grouse, it pleased me very much.
My biggest focus with Rosie in the grouse forest has always been that she hunts close. That is an Everyman worry when hunting with a flushing dog: that as you maneuver and clamber through thick cover, your dog will range too far ahead and flush birds out of range.
Every early morning walk down state forest trails back home became a dry run toward getting Rose to learn to work within 30 yards of me. Whenever she would wander beyond an acceptable distance, I would "Yep!" her to a stop. If she didn't turn and wait for me, I'd give her a mild tap on the shock collar.
Soon, she was self-monitoring her distance from me with frequent glances back over her shoulder, waiting for me to close the gap and catch up. Four-month old Rosie learned that it pleased me to no end when she stayed close.
The skills she'd acquired on grouse also proved effective in finding late-summer pheasants. By mid-October, seven-month-old Rosie had already flushed close to 300 birds: young coveys, scores of hens and plenty of wilier single roosters.
A backyard dummy with bottled scent on it is a decent method, but I'm convinced that putting a young pup on wild birds, out in the field, is exponentially better. With high praise, and plenty of rolling, down-on-the-ground hugs and kisses, Rosie learned in a heartbeat: this is what we're after.
Suffice it to say that Rosie's first season afield was far from a dud; our summer forays into the fields and forests paid unexpected dividends. Rosie hunted more like a seasoned veteran than a hapless rookie.
Not just for puppies
Rosie and I already are making what I've come to think of as our "circuit," alternating our early morning walks between state forest lands and WMAs, forest and grassland, grouse and pheasant country.
Just as we did that first summer when Rose was a pup, we put in an hour or two at dawn, walking field or forest before the heat index rises, two or three times per week. We help each other get in shape, work on her handoffs with dummy tosses, enjoy each other's company and deepen our partnership.
It doesn't take much: an alarm clock, some bottled water for me, a creek or river to wander toward so the dog can eventually cool off.
A sidewalk is no place for a bird dog.
Dan Butterfass is a freelance writer from Rochester