It’s a Track Meet: Dealing with Thin Cover and Running Roosters

  • 7/29/2015 11:03:13 AM
You had to see it to believe it. Scrub, an 80 lb. German wirehaired pointer with a head like a moose and paws the size of bobwhites, taught himself to block running roosters. Fortunately, over the years we had witnesses, so this wouldn’t become one of those unbelievable brag-about-your-dog tales. 
Working down a shelterbelt or through a field of milo, Scrub would quarter back and forth until he corkscrewed into a point. If the bird held tight, he wouldn’t move. If it started running, Scrub would bolt out the side of the cover, race at top speed to the end then whip around and lock back on point facing into the brush with the rooster heading right toward him. The rooster would either freeze, flush or start zig-zagging. If the latter, honest to gosh, Scrub would side step, crisscrossing his legs, keeping parallel to the bird, pinching it until the hunters got close enough to flush the rooster and shoot. 
Surely there are other fine bird dogs who have learned this on their own, just as many grouse, quail and woodcock dogs have learned to circle around and pinch a bird between themselves and their hunters. In most cases, though, those aren’t running birds. Teaching a dog to relocate and block a running pheasant would be difficult, especially since many of us train our dogs to run down and retrieve crippled birds. Nevertheless, there are skills dogs can be taught and handling techniques that can help with the frustration of running ringnecks.

Keeping the Dog Close & Managing Speed 

 Eric Johannsen, owner of Johannsen Farms Outfitting, a fourth generation family farm and hunting ranch in South Dakota, guides and hunts with Labrador retrievers, some of which have had over 5000 birds shot over them. These are experienced gun dogs, seasoned on wild birds. Despite the fact that they have far more bird exposure than most dogs, Eric gives them a strong training foundation for their field work. His methods are similar to that of waterfowlers, teaching his dogs to stop on a whistle and look to him for direction. That, along with teaching them to work within gun range gives him the control and obedience needed for the best results on running roosters. 
“The main thing with wild pheasants is to keep the dogs within a 40 yard range and keep their speed consistent. If the hunters’ and dogs’ speeds vary, slow down or speed up too much, the pheasants will get nervous and flush out of range,” Eric explains. “Even if you are hunting a cornfield with a blocker at the end, hold the dogs at a steady pace until both the walkers and blockers are in range.” 
Dan Bailey, Pheasants Forever’s Montana regional representative, hunts with wirehaired pointing griffons. He agrees with Eric that keeping the dogs close is critical. Dan uses the buzz feature on his e-collar to handle his dogs in the field. “When I can tell that my dogs are working a running bird, I use the buzz on my e-collars. I can keep them ranged in close with that. It is essentially a whoa command without having to yell whoa,” he says. 
“Both of my griffs seem to do a slow sneak on running birds which is nothing I taught them. They will slink up 20 yards and stop, then continue that until the bird either flushes or it holds,” Dan adds.
That sneak can be taught, however. Blaine Carter, professional dog trainer and owner of Merrymeeting Kennels, has been training gun dogs for over 40 years. He primarily hunts the ruffed grouse woods of Maine but travels to the Midwest with his German shorthaired pointers each year. His dogs work running roosters the same as they do running grouse or woodcock – tracking and moderating their pace in response to “whoa” and “easy” commands.
“The dog needs to follow the bird at a speed that doesn’t encourage a foot race,” Blaine says. “The dog needs to respond to ‘whoa’ and ‘easy.’ With those, the dog can be kept in tracking mode and not accelerate into a faster, wider search mode which will push the pheasants to the point that they blow out of the cover beyond gun range. Controlling that speed and distance may give a pointing dog an opportunity to point and it may not, but either way the closer range will give the hunter a chance to move up and shoot.”

Foundation Training Paired with Control

As Blaine points out, tracking speed is hard to teach. First the dog must respond well to a basic “whoa” command. Then, working with flightless (wing feathers pulled or taped) pen-raised chukars, he develops the “easy” command to control the dog’s desire to chase. A bird is released in cover that will encourage it to run a bit then hold under brush. When the dog finds and points the bird then chases it when it runs or is flushed, Blaine gives the “whoa” command. The dog stops, then the “easy” command is given, usually in a calm lower tone, to release it. The dog can then resume tracking, usually somewhat more slowly. The dog may speed up, shifting back into a search mode until it locates the bird again, so the scenario is repeated until the dog stays more cautious on the easy command in anticipation of the “whoa.”
Neither Eric or Dan use voice commands to handle their dogs, relying on the whistle or buzz to communicate. As with hunting into the wind to mask the sounds of the hunters and dogs, keeping as quiet as possible helps to not alarm the birds.
“If you prefer to use a whistle instead of a voice command, ‘whoa’ and ‘easy’ can be taught with a one toot and two toots,” says Blaine.
Foundation training paired with control in the field can go a long way towards successful dog work on running roosters. The odds will improve even more with some savvy field management. Hunt into the wind and keep quiet. Try to plot your attack to take advantage of natural breaks – the end of a corn row, a cross field ditch, or the back boundary of a shelter belt – where the birds will be reluctant to flush into the open. Strategizing some shooter placement can help, too. 
“When a bird is really moving in thin cover, it is usually when we are working a coulee that is thinning out towards the top. I have watched a lot of birds take off well out of gun range when that happens. If you are hunting with partners without a dog, having them walk the high ground about a gun length ahead often gets them shots when the birds decide to flush. The shooter is out in front, away from the dogs, so it provides a safe, clear shot,” Dan recommends. 
Like Scrub, some dogs have a knack for teaching themselves new tricks, but most pups benefit from focused training. Eric believes in understanding his dogs’ strengths and weaknesses, then helping them to build on their strengths.
“You can’t micro-manage them in the field,” Eric says. “Running roosters can be challenging. Dogs will push pheasants and some will flush out of range, but I don’t want to over correct the dogs. They learn a lot through ‘real world’ experience. It’s all about teamwork.”
Photos by Nancy Anisfield