Time, Birds and Faith - The Making of a Great Bird Dog
I am no professional dog trainer. Hell, I am hardly an amateur trainer. And like many uplanders, I train my own dogs on limited time. Therefore, I am a man who expects results, and quickly. But upon receiving my first setter pup, I was promptly enlightened of the true meaning of “a long road ahead”.
I am a diehard Llewellin setter hunter and wouldn’t trade them for anything. I (presently) have three, ages six (Finn), four (Yuba), and nearly two (Zeta). Their sweet personalities, loyalty, and exquisite style in the field tug at my heartstrings. I have friends that hunt Drahthaars, golden retrievers, goldendoodles, vizslas, pudelpointers, and of course, setters. Maybe it's me, but in my experience, setters are the last bloomers. Bird exposure cannot be stressed enough for pups, but that aside, having a setter pup focused enough to hunt in her first year has been challenging for me.
Regardless of your breed of choice, patience is a critical virtue with a young pointing dog. Since training Yuba, I greatly relaxed my efforts in the first year with the exception of basic obedience and yard work. And at 20-months, Zeta, still acts like a four-month-old. Upon having her afield to back the older dogs, smell and watch the flush, and retrieve downed birds time and again, she still has no interest in pointing. She is presently a seeing-eye, flushing setter.
Comparing a pup to an older dog or different breed is not an apples-to-apples comparison. I have a good friend with a history of solid German wirehairs, and his training regimen includes exactly zero training. Zero. He walks his pups over his property and lets them do what they do, then shoots a few birds over them the following fall to “finish” them. During the fall of 2018, I hunted over his latest pup, Roscoe, who is Zeta’s age. Meanwhile, Zeta was home because I could not hunt her off a check-cord. Situations like this are disappointing. You may feel like you or your pup are failing. But we cannot expect our pups to behave or mature as quickly as the next, particularly across breeds.
Remember, regimented training can be important, but time afield, bird exposure, and opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them are critical. In My Alpha Brittany, published in the September/October 2018 issue of Pointing Dog Journal, upland legend Ben O. Williams wrote “You have to let a dog be a dog and allow it to work out its own mistakes”. Your pup (like Zeta) may have a long way to go, but give them the benefit of the doubt. Pups just need time and opportunity to work out mistakes.
Bird dogs learn, mature, and adapt their hunting strategies over time based on experiences afield as much as solid training. I have another friend with a pair of German wirehairs that, over time, learned to recognize a fleeing rooster and work together to cut him off before he can flush wild. This is not something you can easily (if at all) teach, but comes with repeated bird exposure, intelligence, and team work.
Natural backing is an example of a skill that can be taught, but also comes with experience. My two older Llewellins, Finn and Yuba, learned to back one another hunting the southeastern Washington Palouse. It was Finn’s third season and Yuba’s first, and my favorite covert was rich with birds. It was this hunt that really clicked for Finn, and kickstarted Yuba on the path to being my top dog. Across that season, Finn and Yuba learned each other’s body language and began backing on instinct, each understanding the other’s response to birds. A phenomenon that has since earned us more than a few wild birds as the girls have positioned themselves to block escape routes.
This past fall, Yuba backed my friend’s tricky-to-read Gordon setter, who she had never hunted with, on a tightly held rooster. The Gordon and the rooster broke cover while Yuba followed up immediately to lock down the accompanying hen. A stellar instinctual performance that only experience and wild bird exposure could provide.
As my girls age, Yuba still hunts full-tilt, regardless of weather and habitat. Finn, on the other hand, hunts much slower in higher wind, and now slows to a walk when the scent gets hot. Finding the confidence to adjust hunting strategy and becoming more efficient and effective simply requires time and birds.
And therein lies the keys to a fine bird dog, a proud and confident hunter, and more eventful hunts with a strong bond between dog and handler. Whether you’re a first-time bird dog owner or are simply having second thoughts about your new pup’s lackluster performance, remain positive. Give your pup the benefit of the doubt. He or she will certainly pick up on frustration, which can negatively impact training and hunting experiences. Having faith in your pup will encourage them to work harder and make and learn from their own mistakes, enjoying their time in the yard and field.
And by all means, don’t worry yourself with comparing your pup’s performance to that of other dogs. If the drive is there, the skills can be honed. By your pup’s ninth year afield, you will be experiencing similar worries about a new pup, while the old pup puts on a clinic. It just takes time, birds, and faith.
About the Author: Brad Trumbo
Brad Trumbo lives in southeast Washington State, serving the public as a fish and wildlife biologist. He also serves the Blue Mountain Pheasants Forever chapter in the positions of Secretary, Public Relations Officer, Newsletter Editor, Advisory Board member, and Habitat Committee member. When not working habitat projects, he can be found chasing his Llewellin setters across the grasslands and penning tales of outdoor pursuits.