When I travel to South Dakota hunting pheasant, or Saskatchewan for Hungarian Partridge, I typically go with a very good friend of mine. He’s got a British Lab that he’s hunted with now for about a decade. Riley is a very good retriever… he’s made many great retrieves and worked hard in the field his entire life. However, his owner never trained for, and isn’t insistent, Riley be steady to shot and flush.
When quartering a field, Riley typically works very close and stays within range. However, on flush and shot he can be off to the races and it doesn’t always work out well for my hunting partner. Riley can be off chasing a hen, or disturbing cover that may hold more birds. Sometimes he chases an initial hen flush, and misses seeing the flush and shot of a rooster. Riley is a good dog, typical of most retrievers in the upland field. The question is, is it really necessary to train a retriever to be steady to flush and shot?
The debate on this training is something I’ve listened to for years. Some hunters feel that to hold a flushing dog back when a bird gets up significantly decreases their chance of finding this bird if not dropped stone cold dead. A crippled bird will be a runner, and they don’t want to give the bird a head start in this bird and dog footrace. I cannot say I agree with this opinion for multiple reasons.
First, I want some separation between my dog and that escaping bird. I want the opportunity for a safe shot without jeopardizing the life of my dog with errant shot pellets, especially on low flying birds. Secondly, I want to identify my potential target is a hen or rooster (not a factor with huns, but it is with pheasants). It doesn’t do me any good if my dog breaks when a hen flushes, and now he’s 100 yards away chasing this bird when there may be roosters holding tight. Third, what if that flushing bird flies over a road or a barbed wire fence? For the life and safety of my dog, I absolutely must be able to stop that dog from breaking. Fourth, a moving/running dog does not mark the fall of a bird very well if at all. When a dog is sitting steady, they much more accurately judge the direction and distance of a fall far better than when they are chasing and running.
Finally, there are two types of control with a retriever, loose and tight. When your dog is walking at heel with you, that’s tight control. When your dog is quartering in the field in front of you (within shooting range) that’s loose control. A finished retriever can “shift gears” and go from loose to tight control with the command of sit, either verbally or with blowing a whistle. One of my goals in training my dogs is to be under control and obey me no matter what the distractions are, especially in the excitement and frenzy of a bird flushing. As an amateur trainer, I have been able to develop this in my dogs for the past decade. Both of my dogs have earned NAHRA (North American Hunting Retriever Association) MUR (Master Upland Retriever) titles. Part of earning these titles involves successfully completing a required number of tests that involve this shifting of gears multiple times under challenging circumstances.
What can an amateur trainer do to develop this skill in their retriever? It all starts in the yard with obedience and the sit command. No, it’s not the sit request and you’re not going to nag your dog into sitting. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Sit means sit. This is non-negotiable. Either sitting at heel or sitting at any place or time you tell them. A finished retriever has this “parking brake”. It’s not sit for a while then get up and start wandering. It’s just sit. Period. I was very impressed with using the strategies on teaching this from Bill Hillmann. His DVD titled “Traffic Cop” was outstanding in combining e-collar conditioning with the sit command. Check him out on YouTube. I think Bill’s teaching progression here is outstanding.
When sit is mastered (not partially mastered, but fully mastered) you’re ready for walk-up marks. This starts with your dog on lead heeling with you as you’re walking. Your dog is now under tight control. At some designated place, a bird/bumper is thrown by someone assisting you (from a hidden position behind a tree, building, hill, or other obstacle) with a simulated gun shot when the thrown object is at the top of its arc. If you have access to a remote-control bird box or winger this would allow you to do this training by yourself.
Immediately when this object is thrown, command your dog to sit either by voice or whistle (if you’ve whistle trained your dog). Be prepared to use your electronic collar to give your dog a strong SIT-NICK if he does not immediately sit. Do not let your dog break for the bird. Make your dog sit steady with you for a good slow count to five. Then, on your command, release your dog to make the retrieve and deliver the bird to hand. Continue with this, moving this around to different locations until you’re again seeing mastery.
Your next step in this progression is to do the same walk-up, but now with your dog off lead. Again, be prepared to use your electronic collar to give your dog a strong SIT-NICK if he does not immediately sit. Do not let your dog break and really do not let them get the bird if they break. If you do, you just rewarded your dog for being naughty and breaking. Fixing this breaking problem is extremely difficult once they’ve been rewarded for this behavior. Developing steadiness off lead will take time, but in the end is very much worth it.
The next step is a big one. When the off-leash walkup has been mastered, you now have the dog quartering in front of you simulating upland hunting and work on steadiness to flush and shot. Keep your dog actively seeking game within gun range. Your dog is now under loose control. When your dog reaches a designated location, the bird is again thrown with a simulated shot at the top of the arc. Immediately when the bird is thrown, give your dog the sit command, going from loose to tight control. If you’re using a whistle, grab another lung full of air and be prepared to blow your whistle again. As before, be prepared to use your electronic collar to give your dog a strong SIT-NICK if he does not immediately sit. Be consistent, be patient, and do not lower your standard of expectation. Do not let your dog break and really do not let them get the bird if they break. Do not reward breaking. It’s a vicious cycle of rewarding bad behavior that will likely cause that behavior to continue and grow progressively worse.
Hunting with a retriever is all about teamwork. A retriever that can shift gears from loose, to tight, back to loose, and back to tight control following the direction of their handler is a grand partner in the upland field. It does not happen by accident. The only one that can create this teamwork is you. In the end, you’ve built a dog you will be proud of, and a dog that others will enjoy hunting with.
About Paul: Paul Agranoff is a member of Team Kinetic, an avid hunter and Retriever trainer, and the Central Region Director for the North American Hunting Retriever Association (NAHRA). You can view his full bio on his Team Kinetic page.