As a pro trainer, I travel to train as well as to hunt. In the winter and spring you’ll find me at my kennel in Kentucky. Those cool temperatures and the light snowfall—if there’s any at all—make for productive work for my clients’ dogs as well as for my personal string. But come summer, Kentucky gets hot. When the temperatures climb, I head north to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The cooler climate makes it easy to build on the training foundation I established in the South.
Helping a bird dog adjust to terrain changes is important. In my guiding business, I see excellent quail and pheasant dogs get confused when they are introduced to the grouse woods. Similarly, excellent grouse dogs can come unglued when they see wide open fields and covey birds that behave differently from the singles they are used to working. If you’re traveling this season or are planning next year’s trips, here are some thoughts to increase your bird dog’s production.
Work on your dog’s handle.
Big-running dogs that are used to soft grasses or running edges get stumped when they are introduced to the challenges of the thick grouse woods. Many dogs shy away from entering thick covers, and prefer to remain on the edges of logging roads. Introduce them to the terrain by walking through it yourself. Start in loose areas, move to moderate areas, and when your dog has a feel for the new space, take them to advanced places. Ease them into the area, which is best done by handlers who get into fields or covers.
The more contacts the better.
Dogs learn by association, so find birdy areas. If they make grouse contacts in multiflora rose, for instance, then they will work multiflora rose. If they locate pheasants in shelterbelts, then they’ll focus their attention in those zones. Dogs need direction, so provide it for them and you’ll engage their instincts. Preseason scouting, going with a guide, or working with a buddy familiar with the new area are all excellent ways to help your dog transition successfully.
Match dog range styles to the terrain.
You can help your dog adjust to the new area by matching his breed and running style to the terrain. If you have a big-running pointer used to quail fields, then put him into looser, more open grouse covers. As he adjusts, move him into progressively thicker covers until he’s figured out how to run. The same holds true with closer-working grouse dogs. Cutting them loose in an enormous field will exhaust them before they pick up scent. Work them in draws, coulees, hedgerows, and field edges to start. After a few days, increase their workload in medium-sized fields, and then continue on to bigger fields.
Figuring out the birds.
Even good dogs can be stumped by the behaviors of different gamebird species. I know some guys who won’t work a good grouse dog on running birds such as pheasants, and vice-versa. Having a dog with good bird smarts is important, but know that your dog will make mistakes. Be patient, give him opportunities, and correct his mistakes when they are made. Patience is the key, for every contact gets dogs closer to figuring out what to do. They’ll learn how close they can get, how to reposition, and the like. It’s easy to over-handle dogs in new areas, so take a deep breath and go easy until your dog figures out the birds.
Enlist the help of a pro.
These days, we’re all tight on time. If you’re planning a three- or four-day trip to a specific area, the odds are you want to maximize your time there. One way to do that is to send your dog to a trainer in the area where you’ll be hunting. He’ll expose your dog to all the conditions you’ll encounter, and the dog will be ready prior to your arrival. Sometimes DIY trainers can approximate conditions close to home. Headed to South Dakota for pheasants? Try training your grouse dog in fields on liberated birds. If you have enough free time, simply spend a preseason week or two scouting and running your dog in the new area. When you return in the fall, you both will have some experience on which to build.
Traveling to new areas with your dog is a lot of fun. As you plan your trip, remember to prepare for any health issues, and ensure that your dog is properly fed, conditioned, and hydrated. It’s a learning experience for you both, and one that is best enjoyed together.