We can control alot of what comes into play in factor #3. In the beginning, try to train into a light, steady wind on days that are not too hot and dry. Try to eliminate as much confusing "man-scent" on the birds you use for training, beginning by always handling the birds with clean, cotton gloves and employing some of the techniques I will describe later with the help of some diagrams. (Humor an old USAF guy, will you?)
If we are going to undertake training pup under artificial conditions with "planted birds" then we must pay close attention to how we set up the training field situation so as to give pup a fair shot and hunting and pointing a bird that smells and acts as close to wild game as possible.
This is a very tall order, given that a dogs nose is so very sensitive to all smells and can detect his trainer's scent in the field and on the birds that have been released. This is very unlike what he will encounter when hunting and in fact, if you are not careful about how you plant your birds for him, he will come to associate bird scent with being
"set-up" by you in a training session and will not act as enthusiastic about hunting as we would like.
What we are going for is for the pup to have to hunt and point the birds in a natural state as possible. Meaning, he must actually have to hunt for them without just simply tracking the handler back to the planted bird. Once he finds the bird, the bird should be alert enough and in good enough physical shape to realize that the dog is hunting it and escape and fly off if it feels too much pressure from the dog.
I prefer to use a lot of pigeons in bringing on a pup in the beginning as they are cheaper and easier to keep than game birds. If you can get ahold of homing pigeons, you can cut you costs and raise your success even more.
Let's first off, give you a scenario of doing this all wrong.
First, the handler grabs a pigeon that hasn't been fed or watered enough since he caught it in a barn somewhere and without wearing gloves, dizzys the bird and in the time honored tradition, stomps out into a CRP field and carefully tucking the birds head under it's wing, "plants" it under a nice tussock and returns back to his trainee.
Our handler brings the pup in downwind on a check cord, right over the same track he walked when setting out the bird (so he won't forget where he put the bird). As the dog gets close enough to smell the bird, it slows and creeps in from about 10 yards out until the handler stops him with check cord when the bird is right under the dogs nose (still asleep, of course). The trainer, repeatedly styles up the dog with his hands as the dog keeps diving in on the bird. After about a minute of this,the handler tries to flush the bird with his foot as he continues to restrain the dog by it's collar. The bird flops about in a stupor as the dog rushes in and catches it and runs off, followed by our intrepid dog trainer and a symphony of verbal oaths.
Ok, let's look at this done a better way.
Keep your pigeons fat and sassy. If you can't use them right away, be sure to give them plenty of flying room and keep them wormed and medicated. Homing pigeons make excellent training birds as you can give them exercise everyday even when you are not training your dog. A well conditioned pigeon will flush as hard and fast as a game bird if it is in good shape. I believe a dog can tell from a bird's scent it's general health and ascertain the bird's "flight risk" as it were, in the bird's scent. This brings me to my second point. DO NOT put the pigeon to sleep when you put it out in the grass for the dog. I am sure the dog can tell if the bird is asleep by it's scent and if so, why should he point it? A solid point is based on interplay between the dog and bird. Your points will be much better if the dog is hunting birds that are aware that they are being hunted and are of a mind and condition to get out of there and escape. The bird, I am thinking, on a chemical level that the dog can detect, puts out a different scent when it knows it is being pursued and nervously contemplating it's escape. The dog can pick up on this and will be much more stylish on point and more thorough and careful in it's hunting technique if worked on an alert bird that can escape as opposed to a sleeping one. If you do this right, you will have at least half your birds escape unpointed in the first few weeks.
Another thing we must be careful of is where and how to put the bird down for the dog.
I like to wear clean cotton gloves and dizzy the birds just a bit before I toss them into the grass. This enables me to wait a bit longer before bringing the dog in to work the area. The bird will come to it's senses as I leave the area, stumbling about until it finds a place to hide and figure out what is going to happen next in it's new surroundings. This results in more bird scent and less man-scent in the area. When planting a bird field for training, I like to come into a field from a different direction than I will come in with the dog and just give the birds a good toss out into grass that is about 9 inches high. With practice you will soon be able to chuck a pigeon a good 15 yards with accuracy. The bird will stay there for quite a while, up to half an hour or better if you do this right. This eliminates your scent as much as possible from the bird and immediate area where it will be found by the dog. The bird can also stumble around a bit in the grass before the dog gets back. In this way the dog will not get into the habit of just tracking you back to the bird and if employed correctly, can actually help train the dog to pattern effectively when hunting in the field. You should plant the birds so that the dog finds them off to one side or the other of the track YOU are going to take when handling him back through the field. Be sure to come straight into the wind at first. This will allow a young dog to work into his birds as God intended, nose to the wind, and help teach him to use the wind to advantage. Knowing that you as I, probably almost never find the wind in our faces as we hunt our favorite spots, you can practice hunting with and at right angles to the wind once the dog is doing very well on quartering into the wind and finding and pointing birds for several weeks.
In this way the dog will learn that by quartering from one side of you to the other as you walk a field, it will find birds. If you just come back and walk straight to the birds you have put out everytime, the dog will learn that the birds are out in front of you and will just line out to them along your track without any search pattern. If you plant your birds as described, your dog will have to hunt carefully for them and when he finds them will have to handle them alot more like he would a wild bird or else they will escape.
I have included 3 drawings which depict a bird field and the path one should take when you put the birds out and then how you and the dog should come through the field in the training session. Keep in mind that the drawing are not meant to be to scale and that you should be planting birds 50-100 yards out to either side of the path you are going to take when you walk back through the field with the dog.
Diagram one - the training field
Diagram two -planting the birds
Diagram three - working the planted field with your dog.
Make sure that when you approach a dog that is on point, do so slowly and from the side so the dog can see you coming and won't grow nervous and it hears you approach unseen from the rear. I like to get out about 15 yards from the dogs nose and then approach toward where the dog is pointing. At first, when the birds flush just fire off a blank pistol as the dog chases the bird off. Gradually you can move up to firing a shotgun in the air as the dog leaves with the bird to condition to dog to gunfire. It is helpful to keep a short check cord on the dog as you work him so you can correct him if needed.
I cannot stress enough the importance of having the dog "whoa" trained before you start this work. You must be able to stop the dog's hunt in the field from a considerable distance with just a voice command. If you cannot stop your dog and have it stand and wait for you to come up with just a voice command, you are just asking for trouble to begin on birdwork.
If the dog does bust a bird, go catch him and bring him back to where he should have stopped and pointed and put him on "whoa" and simulate a flushing attempt, go back and praise the dog, even if you have put him there on six birds in a row. Then just send the dog on to the next bird and try again. About 3 birds a day is plenty whether the dog points them or not. It is so much easier to just try it again tomorrow when both you and the dog are in a fresh state of mind. If the dog insists on moving up with you to flush, you need to do some more work on "whoa" before you continue. You are just wasting pigeon money on a dog that will not stand still for you to flush it.
Once the dog is finding birds consistently and holding them well AND allowing you to flush, all you need to do is flush and shoot one of these birds for him. The dog will probably be right under the bird as it falls and will likely scoop it right up. If you have done your yard work right, all you will need to do is call the dog in and take the bird from him. At that point you now have a usable bird dog.
Be careful not to overdue this training as dogs can go sour, especially if you train over and over in the same place. Keep this to about twice a week maximum and try to move to different places to keep the dog's interest up.
A good rule that I adhere to, even during hunting season is that if a bird flies that I don't flush from a solid point, I don't shoot it. That includes even wild flushes on pheasants during a dog's first year, at least. The dog must learn that the only way that it gets a bird in it's mouth is to point it and allow you to flush and shoot it.
In future issues we will cover the finer points of retrieving, backing or honoring another dog on point and breaking your dog steady to wing and shot.