I was twelve years old the first time I ever shot a bird on the wing over a pointing dog, and it was by far the best thing that had ever happened in my life. I still remember standing there shaking because I was so excited to have shot a honest-to-god ruffed grouse in the rainy popple and cedar woods on a cold morning. The smell and taste of the gun smoke was in my nose and mouth, and my ears were still ringing from the sound of the shot, and a wet orange-and-white Brittany spaniel was handing me the dead bird, and I was thinking that heaven must be just like this.
— Bird dog trainer Preston Carter, from the novel Hunting Birds – The Lives and Legends of the Pine County Rod, Gun, Dog and Social Club
One good dog
A bird hunter only gets one good dog in his lifetime.
I’ve heard that old saw a hundred times. Not sure how it ever got started or why anyone thinks it’s true, but every now and then I’ll still meet another bird hunter in the field, ask him about his dog, and hear something like, “Oh, he’s not so good, but I had a really good dog about twenty years ago, and you know you only get one good bird dog in your lifetime.”
Really? Over the past forty years I’ve had four, and the sixteen-month-old puppy I started this season also promises to be a good one.
Admittedly, I have had three mediocre bird dogs and two poor ones. The mediocre ones had their good days and their bad days, contributing to my understanding of canine behavior, improving my whistle-blowing skills, and enriching my vocabulary. Neither of the poor ones was kept on the roster for a second season, but both made nice pets – for someone else.
Finding a good bird dog is not difficult. Training one, from a well-bred puppy, is only slightly more difficult. So where did this “one good dog in a lifetime” nonsense come from?
My best guess is that it has little to do with a shortage of good bird dogs and a lot to do with a shortage of bird hunters who are willing to invest the time, self-discipline, and money into acquiring, training and handling a hunting dog. Somewhere along the line, these hunters stumble into a dog that trains itself, more or less, to tag along in the field, find some birds, and perhaps even retrieve the ones knocked down. Hey! Presto! The old “one good dog” adage is validated, and the hunter can spend the rest of his life with bad ones, knowing that he has had his share of good fortune in canines.
That’s a shame for the hunter, of course, who does not get to enjoy the full richness of upland bird hunting. The epitome of a day afield is the opportunity to be part of that wonderful dog-hunter-gamebird choreography that culminates with the perfect find, perfect point, perfect shot, and perfect retrieve. It’s an even greater misfortune for the many upland bird dogs – pointing breeds and flushing breeds – that had the genetic traits and the drive to be good or even great in the field but never had the opportunity to achieve their potential.
I was enchanted the first time I ever saw this dog-hunter teamwork, almost forty-five years ago on a pheasant hunt among the shelterbelts and plum thickets of northeast Nebraska. I vowed I would find myself a fine Labrador retriever and we would become a fearsome pheasant hunting team. In fact, it took many a year to learn how to do this. I did finally mesh gears with a fine English springer spaniel, but I had to first overcome much canine misinformation foisted upon me in my youth.
Bird dogs were not common among my many uncles and older cousins, the men I admired as hunters when I was growing up in a rural community in Ohio. A few had coon dogs, and one had an ill-tempered cocker spaniel of dubious bird hunting ability, but for the most part their “bird dogs” were the same farm dogs that herded cows into the milking parlor and caught rats in the barn. They were all mixed-breed curs, big and smelly and dopey and out of control, and I loved them.
Consequently, I was slow in learning the Great Secret. To spare you much frustration and wasted time, I will share with you that Great Secret: GET A GOOD DOG.
That seems simple enough, doesn’t it? The Great Secret will not, by itself, produce a great upland bird dog, but it is the absolutely essential prerequisite. You will still have to be disciplined in spending the time and energy to teach the dog the eight basic obedience commands it must learn so that you can both live with it and hunt with it: Come, Sit (or Hup or Whoa), Hie On, Fetch, Give, Heel, Kennel, Be Quiet. You can add more, of course. One hunting buddy taught his Brittany to put the retrieved bird into the game pouch of his hunting vest, which I thought was a pretty nifty trick until the day the dog put a lightly wounded rooster pheasant in there, which resulted in much dancing, shouting, barking, running, and a nasty puncture wound from a spur.
Getting back to the Great Secret, I am going to assume you want to get a puppy and train it yourself, which is an enormously rewarding adventure that has the added benefit of making the dog the best teammate and companion it can be. You would be wise to read a few dog training books before you get the puppy. I still like the Richard Wolters “Gun Dog” book and its spin-offs (Water Dog, Game Dog, etc.) and the James Spencer Point! and Hup! books, but there are several good ones out there. There are several good DVDs, too, but I’m an old-school trainer who likes to have the book.
The choice of breed is up to you. I’ll suggest that you make a careful evaluation of the types of bird hunting you do, and then make the decision on whether you want a flushing breed or a pointing breed. If you are primarily a quail hunter, do not get a Chesapeake Bay retriever. If you are primarily a duck hunter, do not get an English setter. Beyond that simplistic advice, I’m not making any recommendations. There are excellent dogs in all the bird hunting breeds.
Do a lot of research on the Internet and make a lot of phone calls to find the breeder from whom you will buy your puppy. Personally, I like smaller operations where the dogs get a lot of love and attention from the kennel owners, and the puppies are in an environment that assures they will be mentally and emotionally sound as well as physically sound. On the other hand, I avoid backyard breeders because they usually have litters produced by “my good dog, Emma, and my buddy’s good dog, Sledge, so these will be good puppies.” Probably not. Pick a breeder that has been in business for a while and knows a lot about lineage and genetics. Don’t be shy about calling hunters who have previously purchased dogs from that breeder, and ask about their experiences.
You will pay somewhere between $800 and $1,500 for a good puppy. Maybe more. Does that make you choke? Well then, go spend your money on bowling or golf. If you buy a cheap dog, you are almost certainly getting a bad prospect. You’ll waste two or three years before you give up hope it will ever be a good bird dog – and then understand why it’s wise to spend $1,000 on a good one.
Three or four or five years from now, you will take that dog afield and experience that magical sequence: perfect find, perfect point (or flush), perfect retrieve. At that moment, you’ll realize you have a good bird dog, maybe a great bird dog. And it won’t be your last. You can have more than one. Many more.