Training your Dog to Find Dead Birds
One of the most frustrating scenarios in pheasant hunting is crippling a bird, then not being able to locate it for the retrieve. Who among us hasn’t spent an hour beating the grass where we “know it went down?” I have a pretty solid retrieving German shorthair, but there is room for improving her ability to hunt “dead” birds without a mark. It’s with this training focus in mind that I called Purina’s Bob West, a professional trainer, for some off-season guidance.
“Finding a dead bird employs the same principles as tracking, so that’s where I focus my training,” West explained. To teach a dog tracking, he enlists a partner’s assistance. While West handles the dog on a check cord, his partner drags a dummy through the grass into thick cover to establish a scent trail. After his partner completes the trail, he leaves the dummy in the grass and moves away. Meanwhile, West moves into the trail with the pup under the control of a check cord wrapped around the dog’s haunches, which affords control of the dog without pulling the dog’s nose off the target. This drill helps reinforce the dog’s use of its nose in tracking the dummy through the cover, mimicking a crippled bird. (NOTE: West believes there is enough scent on a dummy and adding manufactured pheasant or quail liquid is not necessary)
During the first few runs, West allows the dog to watch the dummy and his partner establish the trail till the pup understands the drill. During this drill, West encourages the dog with the “track” command and attempts to amp the dog’s excitement level during the search. (It’s worth noting that West suggests associating a word with every behavior you set out to teach a dog). Bob ups the ante using a pigeon (dead first, then a living one) to increase the dog’s enthusiasm for tracking after the dog successfully establishes a foundation with a dummy. Once this tracking ability is established, the dog’s ability to hunt a dead bird without a mark utilizes the same instinct of relying upon searching with its’ nose.
“What most hunters don’t realize is tracking is 90 percent about a dog’s mental capabilities and only 10 percent about its’ nose,” West explained. “A dog’s nose is incredibly powerful; it’s up to the trainer/hunter to help the dog know how we want the dog to use its’ nose through tracking training.”
In addition, West said hunters make two common mistakes when trying to find dead birds that hinder a dog’s tracking skills. First, he said to avoid tramping down vegetation in the area where the bird went down. “If you go in there knocking over the cover and disturbing the scent left by the bird you are making tracking more difficult on your pup.”
Secondly, West reminded me the dog knows more than I do about where that bird is after I lost sight of it. “We’ve all brought our dog right to the spot that bird went down and watched the dog veer off in a different direction. The smart hunters will let that dog use their nose, because they are likely tracking that bird as it’s running away from the crash site. Too often, I see hunters correct their dog and bring it back to the landing spot muttering “I know its right here somewhere. You’ve gotta let the dog follow its nose.”
Lastly, West reminds hunters to know how to read your dog. “I know instantly when my dog is hunting for scent versus tracking an injured bird,” added West, “tracking dogs typically drop their tails a little, their back arches and you can hear them breathing through their nose as they focus on that scent. Knowing what your dog is doing in the context of the situation is invaluable to being able to adapt to situations on the move.”
I admit to being guilty of bringing my dog to a spot where I last saw a bird go down. Only after being exasperated by her unwillingness to search that area “thoroughly” did I let her follow her nose. Typically, she’ll bring the bird back to me from a direction I completely didn’t expect.
Is your dog’s nose better than your eyes at finding downed birds?
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