Playing the Pigeon Wild Card!


The plain and simple truth is that YOU cannot teach your pup to hunt and point birds. Those behaviors have to be talents the dog is born with. (and the more, the better. See: "Why Field Trials?") Moreover, only THE BIRDS can teach your new hunting partner to perfect those talents.

Ok, so we need birds to do this. Well, too bad most of us live is suburbia with our dogs. Most of us don't have access or the means to get our young charges on enough wild birds during the off-season to properly bring the dog's skill level up to a usable point to put birds in the bag once hunting season gets here. Once we have started to work the pup on a few planted birds in summer trainig we rapidly reach a treacherous point in the dog's development where training this way will not continue to improve our hunting dog and in fact, may do harm and create bad habits that will taking longer to undo than properly training the dog would've taken in the first place. So, what are we left with?

You do NOT want to wait all summer and then be training during hunting season. You don't get to shoot too many pheasants that way. So most of us resort to some sort of a "captive bird substitute" to insure that our young dog gets enough bird contact in training.

The problem is that captive birds, even the very best, are a barely passable substitute for the real deal. As trainers, we compound the problem with our neat little bag of tricks that we think will help the dog learn to hunt and point, but that really just teach bad habits and counter-productive behavior on real, wild birds.

We sleep the birds into cover, clip wing feathers, hide them in launchers, tie them to fishing poles and any number of other things that are designed to make sure that when Buster goes afield there will be a bird there for him to find. Most of things things will accomplish that goal, however, the situation that we are thus teaching the dog to hunt, find and point is not the type of thing that leads to productive, stylish bird work once the fall hunting season opens.

The fact simply is this: Dogs hunt birds better when the birds act like they are wild birds, i.e. the birds are strong healthy specimens capable of hard flushes and escape flight, there is no human scent on the birds or the surrounding area to be hunted and finally and maybe most important; the birds must act like they know they are being hunted at all times.

So, if we don't have access to alot of wild birds for training, what then?

All of the things we usually do to "plant birds" for training render the bird pretty much unaware of it's surroundings and leave man-scent all over the place to confuse the dog. We bring our dog in, it scents the bird, wanders over, picks it up and brings it to us with a look of "Uh, hey, knothead, here's the sick bird you dropped over there...!!"

And then we are left wondering "what is wrong with our dog...???"

It's not the dog...it's YOU!!

In these piece I will give you a method that I have seen described in writing and video that will enable those of us that can't regularly get our dogs on wild birds to more accurately simulate wild birds in training. I have used this method with much sucess on a number of young dogs over the last 15 years.

Make no mistake, planted birds, launchers, pigeon poles etc. all have a useful place in bird dog training when used properly. However, when you reach the point in the dog's development when you are really ready to let go of the reigns a bit and have the dog start to learn to hunt, find and point birds on his own for you, your stumbling about hiding sleeping pigeons in the bushes out in the back yard is not going to get it done.

So, onward;

I have seen this method called "carding" or "kiting" your birds. It is simply a method of handing the birds that allows you to put birds into the field pretty much where you want them, that are aware of their surroundings and can sense when they are being hunted and in such a way that the extra man-scent is eliminated from your training set-ups as much as possible.

You will need some good, healthy barn pigeons for this. If you keep your own, provide them with lots of room, water and feed. I like to train on pigeons because they keep well, they are cheap to obtain, they stink alot, they are strong flyers and they will exhibit a proper prey response if you do things correctly in your training. PLUS any mistakes you make with the dog will not be as easily associated by the dog with any game bird, like quail, that you may eventually hunt.
Stephanie and her tethered pigeon, ready to be released to fly off into the training field. Note the cotton gloves to help reduce human scent on the set-up.

You will also need some cardboard, cut into rectangles that measure about 15 x 8 inches with a small hole poked through about 1 inch in from one corner. Will will also need a spool of twine, yard or other thin cord that is easily cut and tied.

You start by doubling a length of your twine to about 20 inches in length and knotting the two free ends together. You then poke this knotted end of the twine through the hole you punched in the corner of the cardboard and bring the opposite end of the twine through this knotted end and pull it tight to cinch the twine to the card board.

Then you form a loop in the free end of the doubled twine and pass this loop over one leg of the pigeon, pulling this half-hitch you have formed down (but not too tightly) just above the pigeon's ankle. (Pigeons have ankles??)

Always, always wear clean cotton gloves when handling your training birds or any other piece of gear you will put out with the birds. Try not to walk over the ground you will later bring the dog in on to hunt. All of this will eliminate confusing man-scent from your set-ups.

Ok, now you have one big, fat pigeon that is attached to a cardboard tether. The idea being that anytime the bird flies, it will struggle in the air against the cardboard tether, fly off and eventually land back in the cover for you and your dog to work again. The tether also makes it easy to catch the birds and take them home when you are done so you can use them over and over again.

Please note: You must have a certain degree of control over the dog for this system to work well. I generally recommend working with a checkcord so that you can keep the dog from catching birds on the ground. Generally, tethered birds will flush hard and fly well, but if the dog just gets to chasing them, the bird will tire and be caught. This is not what you want.

Ok, here is how this drill works;

You take your tethered birds to your training field, keeping in mind that birds like to fly into the wind, and you simply give the bird a good toss towards the cover that you would like to have the dog work in.
Stephanie chucks the bird towards cover. The bird will not fly far and will land in the cover and be alert and ready to flush from any approaching bird dog. Editors note: Stephanie participated in this piece on the condition that I point out to the readers that she does not throw like a girl.

Pigeons so restrained will still fly 50 to 100 yards or more before landing in cover. You can vary the size of your cardboard and length of twine a bit to suit your situation. Training fields of short to medium grass with sporadiac medium and heavier brush cover work best for this. Try to stay away from tall trees as much as possible as pigeons love trees.

You MUST wait at least 5 or 10 minutes after you let the bird fly and land in the field before you bring your dog in to hunt the bird. This gives the bird a chance to catch it's breath for a strong flush and it also enables the wind to get a good scent cone going from the bird for the dog to work and point. One disadvantage of alot of "planted bird" set-ups is that the birds don't stay planted unless you work them quickly. When you do this, the bird usually has not been sitting there long enought to put out enough scent for the dog to hunt and point it properly.

I like to take the time to release several birds over a large area and then come back, get the dog and start to hunt the first bird and then hunting the others in turn. The larger your training field, the better, obviously. Having a partner helps and a checkcord is a must with an inexperience dog. With a dog that will reliably point, I just carry the checkcord and clip it to them once they have pointed and have my partner flush. If I have no partner along, I just tie the checkcord to a nearby bush to limit having the pointing dog chasing after the flush. If I am training a dog to be steady to wing and shot, I also use a training collar as appropriate and eventually do away with the checkcord altogether.

I like this method because it allows you to release birds that can be worked any way you wish; down-wind, up-wind, cross-wind, whatever, with little fear that the dog will just stumble upon the bird and catch it on the ground. You can also let the birds sit out just about as long as you want. What's the worst that can happen if you take too long to get back to a bird released like this? They get up and fly about 100 yds and set down again, that's about it.
This method allows you to release birds into a large piece of ground where they can fly out a long distance before landing for even more realistic bird work.
The birds move around a bit in the cover after they land and act much more naturally than with other methods. They also will have their head up and be very alert to the dogs approach. I believe that birds worked like this smell very different to a dog than rocked birds or birds in a launcher. A dog's nose can tell the difference between a bird that knows it is being hunted and a bird that is just lying there in the bushes. The dog's nose can certainly differentiate this situation from a set-up bathed in man-scent with a bird sleeping in the middle of it. The difference in the way the dog will behave on tethered birds can be startling.

The pigeons will usually flush if the dog gets too close. Birds that have been used in this training for months start to act very much like pheasants and so you had better have several rigged up and released at once because your dog will need lots of practice to get them pointed once the pigeons catch on to things. They will fly a good distance and settle back into the cover again, even more wary than before.

After just a few sessions, your dog will learn to hunt very carefully and will develop a staunch stylish pointing style that you just cannot achieve with "planted birds". With a good partner and some planning and practice you can use this method to set up all kinds of training scenarios on backing and retrieving shot birds as well. With careful planning of how and where you release multiple birds you can easily teach the dog to hunt and handle better for you while you incorporate some obedience training as you go along.

With this method of handling your training birds, you can just flush the birds and rework them until you choose to catch them and take them back home. You can, course, shoot a bird for the dog if you wish to. One of my partners says he like working tethered birds because the birds fly just a bit slower and it makes them easier to shoot. I'll not comment on that.

Once the dog gets good at hunting these tethered birds, you can then start flying pen raised quail out on your training grounds..
This dog has hunted and is now pointing for her the bird Stephanie released in the previous photo. Note the nice distance that the dog has pointed the bird from (you can just make out the cardboard in the grass ahead of Stephanie) and the good style the dog shows here. This dog is not distracted by human scent or thinking about anything but keeping that bird pinned for the handler.
You can get good results training for field trials or hunting season with quail once your dog is hunting and pointing pigens very well. Quail can be tethered like this, but the cardboard must be a lot smaller. I don't recommend tethering quail. Work your tethered pigeons correctly until the dog is reliable and then start on released quail.

Pigeons are much better suited to this type of work as they are stronger and don't air wash as badly as pen-raised quail. The advantage of using this system is that you get to put your dog on a more realistic situation over and over again in a good morning's training.

Amateur bird dog trainers face two problems; we don't have the time to train our dogs and we can't get our dog enough repititions in training on wild birds to bring the dog along properly.

This method of using tethered birds maximizes the time you do have by getting the dog into multiple quality simulations every time you get the dog out. It is a good method to sort of make a stepping stone progression to releasing pen raised quail for your dog to hunt in training.

Pen raised quail really won't fly too far and they generally will drop into the first available cover. But they are expensive and they air-wash badly in flight making it hard for a young dog to find them. Plus, liberated quail love to walk alot and will cover amazing distances once you fly them out sometimes.
Quail that are not shot in training are hard to recover, even in a good recall set-up at times. Unless the dog has learned to hunt effectively, most of the libbies you turn out will just wonder off into the bush (along with your money!!). I find quail much harder to keep healthy and strong in captivity as well.

Once you have the dog going well on tethered pigeons, training on released (not planted) hard flying liberated quail is an economical and effective way to take your dog to the next level of performance where you can make very good use of liberated quail and a recall pen, the use of which we will cover later this summer.

-The Bird Dog Bookshelf-
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