Paul Fuller is the gun dog columnist for Northwoods Sporting Journal. The Journal has granted permission to re-print Paul’s articles. Thank you Northwoods Sporting Journal
A recent email from a reader who acquired a six-month old English setter: Wanting to know exactly what he had, he took the dog to a preserve, ordered a few pheasants and went off to the field. The new pointing dog owner reported that she “ran like the dickens”; in fact, ran so hard that she tripped over a bird. The bird flushed right under her chin. For seasoned pointing dog owners, you know the rest of the story…and it’s not pretty. The wild flush of a pheasant under the chin was traumatic for the dog. The emailer said that the dog now “turns away from a planted bird” and asks, “what’s wrong”? This dog has a problem and it’s referred to as “blinking” or “bird shy.”
I’ve mentioned in this column many times that it is easier to train a dog properly than to cure a problem. Never allow a dog’s first bird experience to be negative. As with most dog training problems, you must go back to the beginning of the training schedule. Start fresh! The only difference in this case is that I would wait a month before I expose this dog again to a planted bird.
Here are the steps for introducing a dog to birds. For a puppy (12 weeks or older), let the pup run freely in the yard or a field…no planted birds. The pup should be allowed to chase songbirds and butterflies. Everything should be fun…and then even more fun. The pup is developing its natural predator instinct. The pup will often point and then break point and chase. Not a problem…everything outside is fun at this age. While chasing everything with wings, the pup should also be enrolled in a puppy class. Puppy class provides a delightful opportunity for socialization and a head start on obedience training.
At about four months, lock-wing a quail or pigeon. Dog training retailers sell a wing strap for birds or simply buy a wide piece of Velcro and wrap around the body to immobilize the wings. You don’t want flapping wings to scare the pup. Simply put the bird on the ground and let the pup approach the bird at its own speed. Don’t push or pull the pup toward the bird. If the pup has not had a bad experience earlier, most pups will eagerly approach and sniff the bird…and that’s all you want. You may even get a point but that’s not required at this stage. The purpose of this exercise is to develop the predator instinct. Continue this exercise three or four times to instill confidence in your pup.
At this point (four to five months), introduce a clipped wing quail or pigeon. The clipped wings allow the bird to flap its wings but not fly. The wing movement will really excite the pup. Do this exercise three or four times over two or three weeks.
Caution! Move along slowly with these exercises to achieve a natural predatory instinct for birds. Don’t overdue them, however. You want your dog to learn to point and all pointing is from scent…not from sight. Regarding pointing, your pup will point throughout these exercises. It may only be a flash point or, if solid, you may need to pick up the pup and walk away from the bird, but you’ll see the pointing instinct develop. Pointing is a whole new column however.
Around five to six months, introduce the pup to a flushing bird. This can be simply pulling a pigeon or quail from your bird bag and releasing it to fly. Many of the Er Shelley (1920s) or Delmar Smith (1960s) students of bird dog training would tell you to allow your dog to chase the bird. Under their system, serious bird dog field training doesn’t begin until the dog is one year old. Many trainers today, however, feel that there is no harm in beginning earlier. That means if releasing birds by hand, you can begin “stop to flush” training. A helper should release the birds and you should have a check cord on your dog. If each step in the process was completed successfully, your dog should be very excited when seeing and hearing a flushing bird. If you began teaching “whoa” during yard training, then you’ll use the “whoa” command when the bird flushes. If required, you’ll enforce the command with the check cord.
If this process for introducing a dog to birds is followed carefully, you should have no problem with blinking. As with all training, there are no shortcuts. You begin with a single building block and continue building from that first block.
For beginning trainers, there are a plethora of training days offered by both AKC and NAVHDA during spring and summer. Google both organizations to find a chapter near you. You’ll find dedicated members ready to assist and answer your questions.