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The First Year Field Manual

It's no secret how big a role bird dogs play in my life, and probably because of that I am asked about them on a regular basis. All kinds of questions: what breed is best, how to pick one out of a litter, what to feed them, how to train them, how to keep them from chewing up the back seat of the trucků.you get the idea. Usually the person asking wants a quick, two-sentence answer to a question that begs for a seminar-series reply. When someone says, "I'm thinking of getting a bird dog. Which type should I buy?", you can't just answer "a Brittany," and move on to the next topic. There are simply too many variables in play to permit the one-size-fits-all answer.

One of the questions that owners rarely ask, however, is "what can I do to build the best possible relationship between me and my new pup?" The relationship between man and dog more often than not takes a back seat to the nuts and bolts of training. It's easy to get bogged down in the details of force-fetching or steadiness to wing or become overwhelmed trying to stop a young dog from creeping on point, and because of this owners make more mistakes in the first two years of a dog's life than in the remaining ten or twelve combined. You may have heard the old saying that "everyone ruins his first bird dog" and while a bit of an exaggeration, there is some truth to it. These are the formative years where an owner's hand shapes the pup for better or worse, and mistakes made here often become habits that are hard to break. As important as it is for a dog to learn commands, obedience, behavior afield and such, it is equally important that an owner develop the proper mindset for working with the pup.

For someone getting his first bird dog, or maybe his first bird dog in a long time, there are three things that I feel are more important that just about anything else you'll find in books or videos or seminars. Assuming you've chosen a dog from good hunting stock, these three things will keep you out of a lot of trouble, keep you from having to undo a lot of mistakes, and will build a dog that performs better for you, and with you, over the long haul, and owning a bird dog is all about the long haul.


Spend as much time as possible with your pup. While training time counts, more important at this stage is the non-training time that the two of you spend together. This is the time where a bond develops that becomes the foundation of your relationship in the field, so it's important that he gets to know you well. In spite of what some may tell you, it's not a crime to have him in the house with you. Roll around on the floor with him and scratch him while he's sleeping. Let him follow you around and sit at your feet while you read or watch TV. Load him in the cab of the truck and take him to run errands with you (except in hot weather). Walk him on a leash around the neighborhood. And never miss an opportunity to take him into the field, not to hunt, just to walk around. Indulge his natural curiosity by letting him learn the smells and feel the scrapes of running through brush.

This kind of contact gets him used to being around you and depending on you. He comes to know you as the primary person in his life, the leader of his pack. He gets used to unfamiliar situations, which makes him much more comfortable and less intimidated when he is in a training environment. And it makes for a naturally patient pup. Make sure this is happy time, having fun, goofing around. The more fun he has with you, the more he'll want to spend time with you and, ultimately, the more he'll want to please you.


If you're considering training the dog yourself, give serious thought to your situation. There's a ton of truth in the old saw that "birds make a bird dog". Exposing your dog to birds once a week or once a month during his formative years will leave a lot on the table, so to speak. If you don't have the time or the means to work your pup on birds at least once a day, preferably twice a day, leave that part of his training to a professional. Bird work is more work than you think, not only because of the time required to work the dog, but also because you must house and feed the birds and find a good field in which to conduct the training. If you don't have a good field or don't have access to a good supply of birds, don't shortchange your pup - leave the training to a professional.

If I had the time, there is nothing that would give me more satisfaction than training a pup myself. Given the requirements to do a good job of it, however, it won't happen until I retire. In the meantime I'll take consolation in knowing that an owner can do quite a bit of yard work himself while leaving the bird work to a professional.


Remember that dogs are individuals, just like people. They learn at different rates, have different personalities, respond to praise and criticism in different ways. Be patient with them. They'll push you, just like kids do, and not because they resent you or don't like you. They're just trying to figure out where they fit into your life.

Be patient with them. Yelling scares a dog more than it helps and whipping does little to reinforce the bond between the two of you. More often than not, a stern tone of voice or simply ignoring the pup when he wants your attention will accomplish the same goal of letting him know that you are not pleased with his behavior. They're a lot smarter than we give them credit for.

If the yard work isn't coming along as quickly as you think it should, ask yourself why before you 'try harder'. Are you comparing your pup's progress to your buddy's? To something you saw in a video or read in a book? Consider the sources- your buddy may have exaggerated a little and videos depicting a slow learner aren't likely to sell as many copies as those showing a pup steady to wing at 10 weeks of age. Be realistic and remember that this is not a race. You won't get bonus points for finishing your dog before he's six months old.

Think of your relationship with your dog as a business partnership where each of you brings something unique to the table. If you could do everything yourself you wouldn't need a partner. There are things you can teach him and there are things he can teach you; a good owner is equal parts student and teacher. Cultivate the talents he has while learning the limits of your own. And keep it all in perspective. Remember, there will come a day when all of the training comes together and he performs flawlessly, finding a covey in a strong breeze, holding the point for a brief eternity until you catch up to him, standing steady when the birds rocket into the sky, and displaying a distinguished composure when you miss with both barrels.

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