“Hunter,” my English springer spaniel, has ramped up it up as the weather changes here in Minnesota. Our cool weather has him sniffing around more intently, moving faster when off-lead, looking around more, keying in on sounds and movement.
At over six-years-old, Hunter is entering that period in a dog’s life that is prime time. He’s fit, an experienced hunter and knows it, that is, he’s confident and ready roll for the upcoming upland hunting seasons.
My gun dog philosophy reads thus: every interaction with my dog is an opportunity for training. When I walk take him out first thing in the morning, its “Hunter sit” so I can put his lead on. While canoeing a nearby lake, its “hoka hey” when I see a duck. Hunter knows that’s my signal for “game sighted.” He looks around and whimpers. I keep an e-collar on Hunter while on the lake to keep him from chasing waterfowl, but also as a reminder that I’m in control and I expect him to behave. It also keeps him from chasing game at a time it’s not allowed. Sure, I let him make a few bounds in their direction for fun, but then it’s back to discipline.
When we see a rabbit in the yard it’s “no bird” and I turn him. When a deer ran in front of us while on my land near Duluth in northern Minnesota this summer, it was “no bird” and we turned. A bit later, we heard a noise in the brush and it was “get ‘em up” and Hunter bounded off on the prowl.
On our bike rides (I run him 2-3 days per week), its “sit” while putting on the lead. Sometimes I’ll walk around the corner, out of sight, to tighten up his obedience. Then it’s” heel” as we walk to and fro, then “sit and stay,” as I walk away, and walk back. If he breaks, we do it over until he doesn’t.
I carry a pistol on my land sometimes and pop it off to gin Hunter up. He doubles his speed and intensity working the brush as an experienced gun dog should. At home, I make Hunters sit, then hide a retrieving dummy somewhere inside the house. Then, I give the command “fetch” and off he goes on the hunt. He must bring the dummy to hand and hold it until told to release. If he doesn’t, we do it over until he does. If he can’t find the dummy, it’s an opportunity to train him on blind retrieves. I sit him by me, point in the direction of the bird and its “back,” his command for blind retrieving. He knows then the ‘bird’ is in that direction and he won’t give up until he finds it.
Hunter is a hunting dog and I treat him as such. While dove hunting, the training continues (dove hunting is a great opportunity to sharpen a dog for the hunting seasons that follow). Dove hunting is mostly a retrieving experience for Hunter, but I do use him to flush birds in stubble and standing crops (where I get permission), being cautious not to overheat him. Especially early seasons, I keep an e-collar on him until I’m sure he’s tightened up his behavior, but for most of the recent seasons, I don’t even put it on him. He knows what I expect of him.
Gun dog ownership is not a part time hobby, but a lifestyle lived and enjoyed every day for both parties involved. Our dogs want to be a part of our lives, not a toy to be set aside when we’re done playing with it. That goes for training too. Train them yourself and you will be that much closer, that much better a team afield.
I think when our gun dogs are family, they know it and respond accordingly, more likely to please at home and afield. This is prime time for Hunter and I can’t wait for the next few years hunting with him.
-Mark Herwig is editor of the Pheasants Forever Journal and Quail Forever Journal. Email Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org.