If you were going to go pheasant hunting on a farm where you’d never been before, where would you start your search? You would probably head for the thickest cover because you know that’s where birds feel safest and therefore tend to hang out the most, right? Well, when you take your retriever or other flushing dog hunting, that’s where you want him to spend most of his time, too. If you train with that in mind, you should end up with a dog that is excited about aggressively working the thick stuff.
In earlier articles about introducing your retriever to upland hunting, I talked a lot about training your dog to hunt within range. For those exercises, the type of cover doesn’t really matter. In fact, you usually start out those exercises in shorter cover where it’s easier to keep an eye on your dog. To ingrain the idea that birds are in the thick cover, however, you definitely need to train where you have lots of places to hide your training birds.
As soon as a dog is covering ground with confidence, which means he’s using his nose and quartering back and forth with consistency, I make sure that he finds birds only in thick cover. This is different than in the past when I might have helpers on each side of the field shouting and waving a bird and then tossing it out in plain sight to get the dog fired up. Now I want that dog using his nose to seek out birds he can’t see. So, I might use the helpers again to get the dog’s attention, but they’re just calling the dog over into the thick stuff to look for a bird that they’ve already planted. Once the dog picks up the scent he should be able to find the bird.
Another thing I’ll do is walk a dog on a simulated hunt and alternate between thick cover and thinner cover. I’ll keep some wing-clipped pigeons in my vest, and when we’re in the thick stuff and the dog is working away from me, I’ll flip a bird off to the side in the opposite direction. Now when he swings back that way he’ll smell it and then find it, again reinforcing the idea that success comes when he hunts the thick cover.
Another way to encourage a dog to work the cover while at the same time teaching tracking skills is to plant a shackled pheasant in the cover ahead of time and then come back with the dog and work toward that area. Hopefully that pheasant has moved off and now when the dog finds the scent he’ll start using his nose to track it down. I like to use hen pheasants for that because they tend to not run as far or fast. A mallard is another good training bird because it will move but not super-fast, and a duck leaves a good, strong scent trail.
I do get a lot of questions about what to do if a dog just isn’t that excited about hunting the cover or even worse, if a dog wants to walk behind you. This can be tough to deal with because there comes a point as a dog matures where if he doesn’t have a passion for birds, you can’t just force it into him. However, if it’s as simple as a dog just not having the confidence to get out and seek game, I’ll work that dog through thinner cover and then every so often pull out a wing-clipped pigeon and sail it into the thick stuff. If the dog has any retrieving spirit at all, that should get him fired up enough to chase after it and pull it out of the cover.
This all really goes back to a very simple concept: Get your young retriever lots of positive, successful experiences with feathers and live birds at a very young age. A dog that loves the game of seeking and finding feathers should continue to want to play that game no matter where the birds are hiding.