Pup Catching Birds
A common question I’m asked is whether there is harm in a puppy catching a bird. The theory is that if a puppy catches a bird it will be much harder to get the puppy to remain steady on point during future training. For the puppy, busting, chasing and catching a bird is much more fun than standing on-point. I should mention that the issue of catching birds is almost exclusively with pen-raised birds. It very seldom happens with wild birds. In today’s modern world, very few gun dog owners have the opportunity to train exclusively on wild birds.
As we’ve discussed many times in this column, all dogs are different. There are very few rules that apply uniformly to all dogs. Some dogs become steady on-point naturally and others require more time and training. Let’s look carefully at this question of catching a bird.
As we discussed in last month’s column on steadiness, the natural instinct of the predator (our puppy) is to chase and catch their prey (the bird). However, for the pointing dog, this doesn’t provide the hunter with an opportunity to harvest game. Instead, if chasing and busting takes place, we have a very helter-skelter situation in the field.
Some trainers feel that once your pup catches a bird, you’ll spend the remainder of the pup’s career afield trying to correct the chase. If it only happens once or twice during training, I don’t feel that’s true for the majority of pointing dogs with reasonable genetics and proper training. Another philosophy is that a pup needs to chase and catch birds to develop the prey instinct. For most dogs, remove the “catch” from the sentence and I’m fine with that statement.
Another factor in this equation is the quality of the pen-raised birds being used. The best birds are those that have been flight conditioned in their confinement. Large scale bird propagators use large fenced areas to force the birds to fly and, therefore, strengthen the wings. Try to get flight-conditioned birds. Also, I’ve found that chukar are harder for a puppy to catch. We allow our puppies to chase chukar around the yard; they never catch them. Once the pup learns they’re not going to catch the bird, they’ll start flash-pointing and then elongating their point. The bird is teaching the puppy to point. And, it’s all been done without the pup every tasting a bird.
If the pup does catch the bird, don’t make a big issue out of the transgression. If you scold the pup, he’ll think birds are a bad thing and to avoid them. That’s not good. If you teach the pup that birds are bad, you’ll have a blinker on your hands. A blinking dog, once it scents a bird, will avoid it by pretending it doesn’t exist. Simply and gently, take the bird from the pup without praise or condemnation.
Having said all of the above, having a bird in a pup’s mouth is the ultimate reward for their work and pushes the prey drive even more. However, we control this through the retrieve training process. First, however, we need to get our pup conditioned to the gunfire. After carefully conditioning your pup to gun fire, begin shooting birds that have been handled properly by the pup. Send the pup for the retrieve. They’ll eagerly mouth the bird and taste the feathers. Unless you have a natural retriever, you may not get a complete retrieve. A proper retrieve is a completely different subject and needs a separate column. At this point, you simply want the pup to taste the bird that has been shot.
In summary, if the pup runs down one or two birds and resulting in a catch, it will take a little more work to steady-up the dog but it’s not a disaster. Continuous catching will provide a greater challenge in steadying your pointing dog.
Copyright 2017 Paul Fuller
Paul Fuller is a life-long sportsman. He’s been an outdoor writer since 1971. He’s the host and producer of the award winning Bird Dogs Afield TV show (www.birddogsafield.com) and produced the epic video Grouse, Guns & Dogs. Paul shot over his first German shorthaired pointer in 1961. Paul may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.