It’s been a while since we picked up our English Setter pup, Dottie. Last August she was small enough for me to hold in one hand. She’s eight months old now and weighed 35 lbs. last time she was weighed on the vet’s office scale. Her predicted final weight is 45-50.
She has turned out looking like a classic field-style Setter in build and coat. While it appeared she would be mostly white with some orange ticking, I would say she is now 50-50 white and what is officially called orange belton. The tail is very bushy. Her face is orange with white dots and cute as I could ever imagine. We would not consider having any other breed of dog. They make excellent house dogs (she is finally house-broken) that crave love and attention but once out in the field they become bird obsessed and totally focused on the task at hand. Their coat is extremely thick and soft and they don't grow too big, a 60 lb. field Setter is considered very large while the bench variety you see at AKC dog shows can grow up to 65+ lbs. It amazes me how anyone can keep a large dog such as 90 lb. black lab in the house without incurring major damage and headache. Not to mention the hefty food tab and subsequent lawn turdage. I digress.
Typical development of a bird dog first requires simple obedience training such as sit, stay and come. The first few months of owning ANY DOG requires bonding, socializing and simple obedience training. And yes, house-breaking, the hardest part.
Two weeks ago I had little Dot on live birds for the very first time. Since my hands were quite full I was unable to snap any photos during the two hour exercise. Bob, the English Setter breeder and field trials enthusiast, invited us out to his ranch to get Dot “jacked on birds” as he called it. It was something to see and he is a real bird dog lover to be so kind as to have us since he refused any compensation.
Having trained my last two bird dogs alone I am confident it’s a task I can handle but there’s nothing like training with a real pro to pick his brain and get solid advice. It’s better than watching videos and reading books. Besides, it’s been eleven years since I had to gun break a bird dog.
Bob’s ranch is twenty miles south of our country bunker. Sitting on a few hundred acres of hills, woods and natural fields this ranch just screams Texas without the cactus, snakes and tumbleweeds. The house sits well off the two lane county road with neat, clean barns on both sides. The frontage and driveway are lined with white horse fencing as he also raises, trains and breeds horses for use in his field trials.
Bob's plan was to release a few quail (he also raises his own game birds) just to see how Dottie would react on her first time out. Bob is a dedicated breeder, hunter and competitor and explained to me that he loves seeing young pups on live birds for the first time. Me too.
To train my dogs in the past I would hide a bird in a device specifically made for this exercise. It has a small sling that folds holding the bird in a square cage with a compressed spring. A rope laid upwind leading to the cage would be laid out about twenty feet away from the cage. A slight pull of the the rope and the bird will launch about ten feet into the sky. I would hide the cage across the street in the woods and then take the pup on a lead downwind of the cage. In the case with both of my last two setters they immediately went on solid point once they smelled the bird in the cage hidden in some tall thick weeds without visually pinpointing the bird. This is what any serious bird dog trainer looks for, natural ability and instinct. And nose. Once the pup was on solid point I would reach down and pull the string launching the bird up into the air to fly. A young pup wants to chase the bird and that’s just fine at this stage of development. This exercise would be repeated another time or two. at this point it's all about the nose.
The next level of development would be to repeat the same exercise only this time I would carry a small .22 starter pistol. The dog points, I release and then shoot the blank .22. This is called gun breaking the pup. If not done properly the dog will become gun-shy and ruined as a field quality bird dog. Here’s the trick, when a purebred bird dog smells that bird nothing else in the world matters, absolutely nothing. It makes the pup associate the sound of the shot with that fun flying ball of feathers they want to catch so badly. After repeating this a time or two with the .22 blanks I would haul out the .410 shotgun a few days later only this time the bird comes down (hopefully) and pup gets a mouth full of feathers, the ultimate reward for any purebred bird dog. Progressing on to 12 ga. is the next step to gun breaking.
Back to Bob’s exercise. Since he has a pen full of quail, chukkar and pheasant we would plant a bird or two in his field. He has a retention rate of 90% of the birds returning to the pen (before coyotes or hawks get to them) since they know that’s where their food is. He calls it recycling game birds. I like the idea.
Bob would hold the bird, fold the quail’s head under one wing and then spin his arm in a windmill motion making birdie a bit dizzy before placing it deep into a thick cover of tall weeds where it would stay. We walked back to the truck to release Dot and let her go nuts tearing up the field. She did. Eventually we were able to lead her downwind of the bird. She didn’t point but was interested in the scent. The bird suddenly flushed as she got close and it startled her. She then gave chase before returning to the spot looking for another.
Soon she smelled the second bird but again, did not point. It flushed and she gave chase a second time. Bob smiled, turned to me and said she was finally getting “jacked up on birds”. This was somewhat consoling since I wanted to see something resembling a solid point.
We led Dot back to the truck for water. This time Bob took a small cage of a dozen quail or so into the field and planted them cage and all into the tall weeds. He brought out his main stud dog (and Dottie’s dad), Buddy and let Buddy find and point the cage. The cage had a rubber flap on it and the quail had walked out but hunkered down in the weeds nearby. This simulated a covey of wild quail. Buddy pointed, we walked in close and all the birds took flight. Breathtaking if I must say so. I shot his starter pistol at his instruction. The birds flew in all directions but most went to the wooded hill nearby.
Buddy then worked the individual birds with Bob and I following. Point, shoot, move on to the next point. This is how Bob trains his dogs for sanctioned field trials on horseback in Texas, but down there the quail are wild, reproduce naturally and act unpredictably.
Buddy went back into the truck and we brought out Dottie. This time was different. Dot had not seen what Buddy had done. This time, she pointed a solid point. We got near, the bird flushed and she chased it into the wooded hill. She followed and made points on a few more. Whew!
Dottie was now officially jacked on birds and pointing! We did not shoot the blank gun on purpose. This was an exercise for nothing more than pup having fun in the field on live birds. She did not want to quit. It was a good day and a very good indication that she will be a fine bird dog.
In another week or so we will do the same and toward the end of the exercise when she is totally jacked we will shoot the pistol and see what happens. I predict nothing. And that’s the way we want it.
There’s so much more involved in training Dottie for the next few months. She will be ready to hunt next fall but patience will still be required on my part. If she breaks point, runs away or fails to return there are techniques and exercises that will get her back on track.
How well she turns out will be entirely up to me and my patience, and I have plenty of that..