Proper bird introduction for the pointing bird dog is a foundational and pivotal step in their development as a bird dog. Done right, and the dog will be a breeze to train. Done wrong, and you could perhaps never get to hunt with that dog.
So, imagine a world where you are afraid of the one thing that is your destiny. Afraid of the one thing that you are ‘supposed’ to love because of your history or your genetics. What a horrible existence that would be. Imagine a tween girl who is afraid of vampires or a redneck who is afraid of pickup trucks. Just a horrible thought, no?
There are upland pointing dogs that are afraid of birds. These dogs had all the genetics and breeding to be outstanding bird dogs, but, because of improper introduction to birds, they have been scarred and are now frightened of getting close to birds. These dogs, when in the field, will find the birds but will subtly turn and go the other way.
There is not a lot of magic behind making a good hunting dog. The first thing to do is to allow the dog to become bird crazy. Get that dog to a point that it will ignore food and toys and even you (the owner) in order to get that bird. This is easy to accomplish: Don’t let the bird scare the dog. Think about it: If, the first time a tween girl started reading Twilight, you gave her an electric shock (hrmm…) she would probably not be too interested in picking up the book again. She would not fulfill her destiny. Same with the redneck: If every time he hopped into a pickup, you took away his Pabst Blue Ribbon, he’d seriously be considering a Prius instead. Same with pointing dog puppies… their first close-up exposure to birds needs to be done in a way that does nothing to scare the puppy. The bird must not flap a wing and hit pup in the face, nor is the bird permitted to peck with the beak or scratch with the feet.
Zeke lives out in McHenry County. There is a preserve near Zeke’s home where there is a population of pheasants. Pheasants are big birds and the males have long spurs on their legs. The spontaneous flush of a male pheasant has caused many a person to jump back in fear. A sick or wounded pheasant could perceive a small puppy as a threat and peck and spur the dog. Is this likely? It is actually highly unlikely… you stand a better chance of stealing a Pabst Blue Ribbon from a redneck than having a pup get frightened of a pheasant. But it is a possibility and it is easy to prevent.
So, how do you do it? Kind of like this: The bird is restrained so that it is safe for him to get close and sniff it. Seeing it fly a safe distance away awakens the instinct and breeding without anything negative. Teasing the dog with the bird increases the interest. This activity will be repeated while letting the bird have more freedom… one wing free, then two wings free. This all increases boldness and interest. After two or three sessions of this, we’ll buy some quail (small birds) and turn them loose in a field and let Zeke have-at.
All the above is theory…now comes the actual introduction. I scheduled Zeke to come over on Saturday afternoon to do some bird introductions. Now, Zeke has chased robins and sparrows in his yard. He’s even picked up the remains of a coyote-killed goose and paraded it around. But, to my understanding, he had never had a close-up one-on-one encounter with a bird. When Zeke showed up, his owner informed me that earlier that day, they had stopped and visited another trainer who dropped a bird in front of Zeke. Zeke proceeded to pick up the bird and head for the horizon.
Many times, when you expose a dog to a bird the first time, there is some apprehension on the puppies part. Gentle sniffing and then fascination when the bird flies away. My own pup did a bit of this, and another friend’s English Pointer was really apprehensive. But not Zeke. He knew what he wanted. He wanted that bird.
The following video shows that introduction. This was his 3rd bird that I showed him. On the first bird, I did it by the book: I held the wings to let the pup sniff it out. Pup could care less; he walked right up and took the bird’s head in his mouth! OK, let’s speed up the schedule. When I finally got the video camera out, I was teasing the puppy with the bird to get him excited and let him watch the bird fly off.
So, what did Zeke learn and what did I learn. Zeke is just having his instinct awoken in him and he is learning that birds are fun. I learned that this pup is pretty bold around birds and I can accelerate his exposure to birds. So, for the time being, Zeke needs to continue to be exposed to birds. Zeke is interested in birds. He is excited by birds. But we need to go to the next step. We need to get him to the point where he thinks he’ll die without birds. This will come with time and exposure. The puppy needs to be a bit bigger. He needs to be less distracted by the world around him. We’ll know we are at that point when he willingly chases the birds for a distance. These are the two things we are hoping to see: the chase and the carry. These two markers indicate that he is truly bird-crazy, and bird-craziness is the foundation upon which nearly all of his training will be built.
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