Watching a good bird dog and handler team successfully hunt prey is an awe-inspiring performance. The dog looks as though it was born to hunt birds, and the handler looks as if he’s hardly even signaling to tell the dog what to do. If only success was that easy! Bird dog training takes a great deal of time, patience, and commitment. While an experienced trainer may achieve quicker results, nothing will make a successful team like a true, solid partnership between dog and handler.
Bird dog training begins before the dog is a year of age. In fact, bird dog training begins with the basics of obedience. Most dogs learn to sit, stay, and come – bird dogs are no different, but they will eventually use these commands in the field, so they must learn to sharply follow them at all times. Once the basics are covered, commands such as whoa and heel are added. The command of whoa teaches your dog to stop moving, so that if he gets too far ahead of you while tracking an area you can command him to stop moving until you release him. Heel will teach your animal to walk directly by your side without a leash so that you can have your hands free to carry your gun or birds that he has helped you to catch.
To have a good bird dog, you must select a breed that has a natural affinity for pointing and hunting, like a German Short Haired Pointer or Labrador retriever. You must then allow his birdiness to flourish. To first introduce your dog to birds, make sure that you have a controlled environment with little distraction. Use a bird with clipped or taped wings, and toss it out for the dog to investigate. Hopefully, the pup will run after the bird and grab it. If not, it is ok; you are introducing the dog to the bird, and your primary interest should be that the dog is not intimidated by the bird. Make sure to be in an enclosed area so that the dog does not run away with the bird should he pick it up. Toss the bird a few more times for the dog to chase and investigate, and reward the dog for interest in the bird. Do not use a check cord at this time, as it offers too much distraction. Once your dog is comfortable going after the bird, you can move on to pointing.
While pointing is not necessarily taught, it can be encouraged and rewarded so that your dog knows to point at the right time. To introduce pointing, use a harnessed bird on a pole and five or six foot string. This way, the bird can fly but will not fly away. Toss the bird, wait for the dog to rush at it, and then pull up so that the bird is out of reach. At this point (hopefully!) your dog should begin to point. The length of the held point will increase with the length of time the bird stays out of reach. Reward pointing with praise.
Once the dog is confident chasing birds, you may begin to introduce gun fire. Although dogs do not have a natural fear of guns, fear can be taught inadvertently by a negative reaction to gunfire from a handler. Be sure that when you introduce your dog to gunfire you remain calm and positive. It may be a good idea to employ the help of an assistant to do the shooting from a distance at first. Toss a rubber banded pigeon for your dog to chase. As the bird is about to reach the ground, and the dog is locked in, signal the shooter to fire. This will help your dog to associate the sound of a shot with the reward of grabbing the bird. Repeat from a distance, and slowly work closer.
A dog that is started young will usually become a polished bird dog by the age of three. Because a strong, trusting bond is needed for a good bird dog and handler relationship, you must become the benevolent but firm alpha leader from day one. Be consistent with communication and commands, and understand that there are no shortcuts to successful bird dog training.