When training hunting dogs, there comes a time when you need to cut the cord and let the dog go and do his thing. During our training of hunting dogs, we create artificial situations for the dog, and reward or correct his his behavior based upon his response. But, on this day, training hunting dogs consisted of a training hunt.
A training hunt is when you take the dog hunting, but you let him show what he has learned. There are strict guidelines so that the dog can learn from the random and chaotic environment that is hunting. When training hunting dogs, there needs to be reward for doing things right. Too often, in the artificial situations we create for training, there are not too many rewards. During a training hunt, what we really hope for is behavior good enough that we could shoot a bird so that the trainee can be rewarded by getting that bird.
This hunt is not about the hunters. It is about training the dog. Pup's first season should be all about the dog. Every hunt in pup's first season should be all about the dog. Very few birds are shot, because we, the trainers (not hunters) are waiting for excellent behavior before we reward the dog with a shot bird.
All summer long, we've been training one particular pup. His name is Zeke. Zeke is a Llewellyn Setter owned by my good friend, Gregg.
We've been running Zeke and Shiloh (my 3 year old Brittany) together for a couple of hunts. On this particular day, we decided to leave Shiloh at home and just let Zeke do his thing without the distraction of Shiloh.
The contingent of two-legged hunters consisted of myself, Gregg, and Gregg's godson, Austin.
Alarm goes off at 5:00 a.m. And 5:09. And 5:18. And 5:27. On the road by 6. (Shiloh is so disappointed at not getting to go, that he won't even look at me when I return.) Get to the hunting area at 7:00. This is public land, so we sign in to obtain permission to hunt. We start our hunt at 9:00. These birds are pen raised birds. These birds are released the night before, which makes them a little bit wilder. This helps train the dog to not get too close.
Zeke has some bad habits. One of them is smoking, but the patch is helping. Another bad habit, common to most young dogs is this: If the bird moves, even a little bit, he will break point and rush in to catch the bird. On this day, young Zeke was displaying some of this bad behavior. It can get hard for us, the two-legged hunters, seeing bird after bird fly away. When training hunting dogs, shooting the bird would result in teaching Zeke the wrong thing: flushing birds is acceptable.
After a hard day and a long slog in the field, we decided to call it a day. The forces of evil were conspiring against us. There had been quite a few birds that Zeke decided to try to catch himself. He failed, as Zeke has not yet grown wings (but he is still young). We'd had some birds that Zeke pointed well. The conspiracy grew and we were not able to hit those when we they flushed. In short, we were tired and decided to head back to the truck. Often, the hike back to the truck covers area that had been hunted a lot and is usually devoid of birds...
Zeke froze in his tracks. Tail sticking straight in the air. I walked up on the dog with my gun ready, but the bird held while I secured the dog. My instructions were clear: Do. not. miss. the. bird. Gregg and Austin walked in, the bird flushed, and the bird was hit. The conspiracy was over. I released Zeke to go and get the bird.
Gregg wanted to find another, to reinforce the good behavior. But another is not needed. Zeke handled the bird perfectly, and was handsomely rewarded for his good behavior. Dogs have an innate sense when us humans are pleased. Zeke was well informed that we were pleased.
Zeke has graduated. Zeke is now a bird dog. Time to celebrate!
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