A first-time pointing breed owner and trainer shares takeaways on what she would do differently the second time around
Story and photos by Kali Parmley
“Jones is on point?” I said questionably to my hunting friend, Jared, as I stared at my GPS that had just alerted me that my dog was standing still.
We were no more than 200 yards from the truck, our first trek of the day deep in the Idaho backcountry. Just minutes before, as we had shouldered our guns and closed our tailgates, I had apologized in advance to Jared.
“I’m sorry if Jones bumps birds this weekend,” I said. “Sometimes he remembers he’s a setter, sometimes he thinks he’s a flusher.”
As we made our way over a rise, Jones’ white frame came into view. He stood staunch and upright, only the hair of his tail moved with the wind. I looked for Jared’s drahthaar, Jager, in the thick grass — surely Jones was honoring him.
I saw a flash of brown move in the distance and realized Jager was 100 yards in front of us — Jones was pointing all on his own. So taken aback by what I was seeing, I didn’t move. Sensing our presence, a covey of Huns burst from the undergrowth a few yards in front of my little setter with a thunder of wing claps.
I stared wide-mouthed at the covey as it flew away and down a menacing canyon to safety. That’s when I realized my young setter, just a little over a year old, had connected the dots.
I’m no stranger to telling everyone about my stressful journey with my first pointing breed. Many times, I wavered on adding a setter to my pack, never having owned or trained a pointing breed. I grew up with Labs, and a Lab was my first bird dog. Training a pointer was, frankly, intimidating.
I did what I was supposed to do: I read books, watched videos, and talked to every trainer in my contact list. I was determined not to fail. But that didn’t mean that I didn’t question my every move with Jones, my tri-color setter from Northwoods Bird Dogs.
I had many concerns, including and not limited to: a fear that I couldn’t love another dog as much as I loved my Lab and first bird dog, Lincoln; a worry that I didn’t know the first step to training a dog to point; and a building anxiety that I would mess it all up and be the cause of my dog’s inability to find and hold birds.
When I laid eyes on Jones for the first time, my first worry of not loving him soared right out the window. I fell in love with that sweet puppy as he pounced around with his litter mates. I knew he would become an integral part of my life with Lincoln.
My intense love for Jones didn’t squash my other fears — in fact, they only intensified them. But as my first year of training went on and my little setter reached milestone after milestone, I soon learned a thing or two that I put in my back pocket for when, and if, I ever decided to add another setter to my pack.
The first thing I learned: I should have deleted social media. My feed was filled with images of puppies pointing both wings and live birds. I was seeing dogs younger than my own aggressively busting through cover and coming to a standstill when they hit a scent cone.
What I wasn’t seeing were the weeks of bird work before that. Training days where puppies were using their prey drive to navigate through cover to flush birds rather than to point them. I didn’t see the puppies hold point for a few seconds before breaking to bump a training bird or wild covey.
I found myself comparing my puppy to the dogs I was seeing on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. That led to me fully believing my dog was behind on his training and it was my fault. What was I doing wrong? What could I be doing more of?
What I learned much later is to not believe everything you see on social media. We all do it: We share the good things and the things we are proud of —not the bad and the ugly. I wasn’t seeing whole steps to the training process, and I wasn’t even aware.
I felt that dogs magically just understood how to point birds. Sure, it’s part of their natural instincts, just like an athletic human finds eye/hand coordination simple. But when you first start to play baseball, do you catch a ball with ease? No. It’s something that takes repetition and practice.
The more wings and live birds I pulled away from Jones as he bounded for them, the more he began to point. He soon realized that if he held still, the thing he wanted most held still: the bird. It was soon after, during a training day, that he stopped on a dime to a planted pigeon when that scent cone hit his nostrils.
My takeaway: manage expectations. Each dog is their own being and learns at their own pace. Just because you see a young puppy pointing, doesn’t mean that is where your dog should be. There are many things happening behind the scenes that you aren’t seeing. Don’t believe everything you see on social media.
Birds, Birds, Birds
I took what I had read about not frightening your dog with live birds at a young age way too far. I eased Jones into the live bird introduction when he was around four months old. If my future self could talk to my past self, I would say start earlier and do even more live bird interactions than you did.
The more birds I put in front of Jones, the more he learned—and fast. It takes money and effort, but it makes all the difference in the world. Wild bird contacts are ideal, but to build a bird dog, you need to invest in training birds. Whether that be pigeons, or purchasing farm-raised game birds, spend the money.
I had a lot of birds in front of his face during the off-season, and that helped shape him. When the season came and he started having contact with wild coveys, the wheels really started turning. If he got too close to a covey and they flushed wild, on the next covey he learned to give them space. By the end of the upland months, Jones had smelled so many wild birds that he performed like a different dog.
My takeaway: Invest in your dog. You want a bird dog, double down on the fowl. Birds build bird dogs.
One requirement I set for my dogs is that they will behave like proper gentlemen. No one loves the dog that acts a fool. But I questioned whether I could do that with a setter. I know it sounds silly, but I was worried that if I taught Jones to sit or heel, it would hinder his ability to point or range far. I now know what a foolish fear that was.
You will find trainers who encourage you not to teach your pointing breed to sit. That a “whoa” command could be confused with the “sit” command in the field and cause your pointer to sit while holding birds. In my book, “whoa” and “sit” are two very different commands. “Sit” means sit your tail on the ground, and “whoa” means stand tall and don’t move.
When I first started overlaying a “whoa” command before feeding Jones his food, there were only two times that he sat when I said “whoa.” What did I do? I picked him up, set all four paws on the ground and repeated “whoa.” He never sat on “whoa” again.
The drive your dog has for finding birds will push him to range far. Keeping a dog at heel won’t hinder that. In fact, Jones understands that a heel from the truck is required, and it excites him. Why? Because he knows that I will reward him with an “ok” command to send him off on the hunt.
My takeaway: Obedience training is the same for all breeds — it will not hinder how they perform. It will only help them excel. Being calm, cool, and collected allows a dog to focus on the task at hand: the hunt.
One Step at a Time
You expect a lot out of your bird dog, and you want it fast. You want your dog to hunt for you and you want it now. That’s just not realistic.
Most bird dogs aren’t going to mature and understand their natural ability until long after a year old. Don’t overwhelm them and expect fast results — take it one step at a time. The first time you introduce your dog to a live bird and he reacts positively, don’t immediately bring out the bird launcher. The first time your dog points, let him do it another time or two, then put him up to rest his brain — don’t take him to the hunting fields.
There are going to be times your dog does something positively, and in the next go, he does it incorrectly. This is all part of the learning and growing process. Once your dog has mastered a command, move to the next. If he regresses, then take it back a step and redirect. Moving too fast through the process will only hinder your dog’s training. Refine and master a task and don’t move too quickly just because you want a finished gun dog.
My takeaway: Each dog matures at their own speed, and in their own way. It’s on you as their handler/trainer to guide and develop them into a bird dog by taking it one step at a time — and one step back if need be.
The Bird Dog
It was only 100 yards away from that first point that I shot my first wild bird over my young setter on that beautiful fall day in Idaho. After crowding that first covey of Huns too much, Jones gave the next batch a wide birth.
Still unsure if I was really seeing Jones put the pieces together, I at least approached this point with my Citori ready. The covey rose and my shotgun broke the silence of the backcountry. A bird fell from the group, and young Jones ran to it. My cries of joy echoed off the canyon walls. A year of stress and doubt had culminated in a young bird connecting the dots and his first wild bird in the bag. We would finish the weekend with Jones pointing covey after covey and more birds in the bag — like he had been doing it forever.
My takeaway: Some people have more resources than you and can spend more time in the field bringing out a dog’s natural ability. Some dogs get it right away. Some require more repetition. Don’t compare your dog to anyone else’s. You can surely guide the process, but your dog will figure it out on their own, and at their own pace. Trust the process.
Kali Parmley is Editor-in-Chief of Gun Dog magazine and a frequent contributor to Quail Forever Journal
This story originally appeared in the 2022 Summer Issue of the Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a member today!