Once the dog will hold in place once the dummy hits the ground with no further input from you, about every third toss, let her go get it and bring it to you as a reward. Also about one out of every three, YOU should go get it yoursself and make her stand there so she doesn't get the idea that every retrieve is hers. Think about it, every retrieve is NOT the dog's, is it, really?. What if you are hunting with a friend and his dog? What if you want to hunt with him...AGAIN...? No one that can't keep their dog off of my dog's retrieve hunts with me more than about twice, that's for sure. What if you are hunting in South Dakota and someone shoots a pheasant that floats a half-mile out to plunge dead into the middle of I-90? What if you shoot a rabid skunk while hunting? This is good training for a complete bird dog to retrieve only on command, trust me. There are many ways to incorporate this training into other aspects of field training, such as retrieving. Also practice just heeling the dog off without a lead or having it come to you instead retrieving as well. I will also cover a complete "trained retrieve" course sometime in the summer in thses pages.
If you get really good at this, take your gun out with some live pigeons in your coat, "whoa" the dog, toss the bird, let it fly off and kill it. Make the dog stand steady to shot and practice retrieving, heeling off etc. this way too. Be sure to make the dog stand and go get about every third shot bird yourself. At this point,a partner can make things go very easy.
All that is left is to move into the bird field and extend what the dog has learned to dovetail with his instinct to hunt, find and point birds. There are three things that you must remember here and they are equally important. They must be upheld lest you just defeat all of your hard work up until now.
Get yourself a good supply of pigeons, homing or otherwise and be prepared to just watch the $$'s you spend on them fly off for a week. If nothing else, I am the voice of experience here and the cost of 2 dozen birds is much cheaper than having to correct problems later on.
Ok, take a big, strong pigeon and first say goodbye to it. Then dizzy it a bit by holding it in one hand, head up and twirl it so that it's head spins in a gentle circle for about 30 seconds then give the bird a good hard toss into medium grass that is just more than head high ("head high" to the pigeon...ok?....yeah....someone had to explain it me a few times to me at first too...). It will stay there for the few minutes that it takes you to get back with the dog. This is better than "planting" them for a number of reasons. The two biggest being that the bird will be alert when you get back and can escape the dog much easier this way, thus avoiding breaking rule #1. Secondly, a bird that is alert, standing upright and pottering about when the dog comes in actually gives of a better scent for the dog to point than a bird lying sleeping, down in the grass, unaware that it is being hunted.
The best thing that can happen at this point is that you or your partner goes in and flushes the bird. I like to let the dog chase once the bird is flying off so I can pop a blank in the air to help condition the pup to gunfire. Let the dog get aways off so it is not too loud at first, most dogs will just ignore the pop of the pistol at this point. The second best thing that can happen is that the bird will flush wild as you are coming up, again let the dog chase and pop the pistol, as long as we don't break any of the three rule's above, we are ok and on our way to success. If the dog stands staunch and allows you to flush, fine, give lot's of praise. If he wants to lunge in and torpedo the bird after locking up, fine. Just hold him back and say nothing, let him thrash at the end of the lead right where he stopped, eventually all of his commotion will pop that bird out of the grass and fly off and we will still not have violated "the rules". Just stand him back up, command "whoa", hold him in position once the bird has flushed, praise him and if he can still see the bird in the air, let him chase it and again, fire a blank in the air. The third best thing that can happen is that the bird flushes wild as the dog is roading in on him, this looks bad but actually teaches the dog a great deal. Don't yell, don't pull the dog back with the lead, just let him blunder in and flush your money...uh..pigeons that is, into the sky. Try to think of the birds as very inexpensive pheasants. Short of a month at "summer camp" on wild birds, a few wild flushing pigeons will do more for your dog than any amount of hard planted birds that he can get way too close to with impunity. I actually prefer to see alot of birds get away at first. Of course, I am lucky enough to train on homing pigeons, so the impact on the wallet is greatly reduced, as the same bird is used over many times each week. Pigeons used this way actually become very dog-wise and it is remarkable how close to game birds they can behave once they learn the game.
Soon the dog will allow you or your partner to flush the bird while he stands with no pressure from you. Stroke the dog and press him towards the bird with your knee as you lean into his rump or with your hand between his shoulder blades. He should start to push back to avoid busting the bird, it is at this point that you know you have the battle won. After he performs this way about six times, holding that bird for at least 30 seconds on his own it is time to get a gun and kill a bird for him. Refresh yourself with the "rules" and proceed. It helps to have a partner so that of you can flush and kill the bird while the other holds the dog back once the bird is in the air for safety. A young dog may leap at a weak flying pigeon and get shot in the process.
Come up on the dog, use a bit of pressure on the lead to reassure him, say "whoa" ONE TIME to the dog as you move in.Try to come in from off to the side to flush and kill so he can see you. Also give him the silent hand signal as you approach his point. Dog don't like things sneaking up behind them, so if you can remember to circle out a bit from his point and come in when you are just ahead of his nose, it will help. If he stands by himself through all of this and allows you to flush the bird, let it fly a ways off and kill it. Alway keep in mind and follow "the rules".
A word about your training battery here. 12 gauge Heavy target or Trap loads (1 1/8 oz.) in 7 1/2 or 8 shot with an improved cylinder or skeet choke are good for this work for us average shots. Pigeons can be tough to hit and bring down cleanly. This combination hits hard and gives good margin for error. The 1 1/4 ounce premium pigeon loads are even better but they are hard to find and it is just as well as I will have to wait for some inheritence before I can buy boxes of those regularly anyway. Let pro's shoot those pretty little 20 gauges and steer clear of anyone who wants to help you train and shoot a .410. I am a big believer that in training,the more birds that get away from your dog, the better, but when it comes time to put them down, more boom is more better.
Hang on to the dog's lead until after the bird is down, command "whoa" and position the dog properly and stroke him and then release her to go get the reward, the dead bird.The dog will likely run out and scoop the bird right up now leaving you with the oppurtunity to work on his retrieving, which we will cover next month, I think... Anyway, you now have a dog that will find and point and hold birds for you to shoot. She will have begun to learn what her role is in the bird huntin' game and you will be well on your way to really putting more birds in your bag and enjoying having the dog help you do it. You can now move to liberating pen-raised game birds for this work. Just keep "the rules" in mind and remember that escaped birds are cheaper than fixing other problems later.
This series of articles on Come, Heel and Whoa are just the beginning steps in training your pointing dog for the field. Passing this course is the bare minimum to having a dog that will do what you want it to for you in the field. It has been alot of fun putting them together and I hope it gives you lot's to think about and work on over the summer, I know it does me....now where is my whistle....?This is what we want our end result to be; a dog that will hunt through nasty weather and cover to find and point birds for you to come and shoot for her. She will stand there all day for you if need be.
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