Bird dog optimism always runs high leading up to the waterfowl or pheasant opener. But, by this time of the year, reality has likely poured water on that fire and hope given way to frustration about your dog’s performance.
This is often the case with young and middle-aged dogs, with the seasoned veterans less likely to throw you for a mid-season loop. Acknowledging this is the first step, but you really need to understand why your GSP or Lab started to slip as the migration moved on or late season kicked off in the uplands.
According to Karl Gunzer, accomplished dog trainer and director of the Sporting Dog Group for Purina, there are two primary factors contributing to the degradation of your dog’s performance during the season.
Bad Shots and No Birds
“When it comes to young dogs, they need the right reps with birds,” Gunzer said. “When you’re after wild birds, a lack of action can take the promise right out of them. They need as many flushes or points—and retrieves—as possible. If the action is slow to nonexistent, or you simply can’t shoot very well, that can lead to a dog that loses interest.”
Gunzer says this is the case whether you’re hunting roosters in CRP or sitting in a blind waiting on flights of greenheads. “Whatever you’re hunting, if the action stinks the dog is likely to behave poorly out of boredom. They can start to dislike hunting altogether.”
Either scenario is bad. While you can’t guarantee action on any given hunt, you can do your part to ensure that the trips are timed appropriately and you know where the birds will be.
This is one of the reasons why I’m a big advocate for taking advantage of any good bird hunting opportunities available. The woodcock migration is a huge opportunity for young dogs to work multiple birds. Early-season puddle ducks lend themselves high-intensity hunts. Not everyone has those opportunities, of course, but making the hunts happen (or any others like them) with young dogs can generate some much-needed field time if the action sputters out later in the season.
It’s also important to know when to spice up a hunt or call it a day. If your 1-year-old dog is starting to lose his mind and drive you crazy in the blind, it might be time to toss a dummy or a dead bird. Or, you might just need to pack up and go home. That’s not as much fun as hunting all day, but it can stave off some issues with your dog that are difficult to untrain once they solidify.
Crazy Times and Crazy Dogs
On the other end of the action spectrum would be a gang hunt in the pheasant slough or blind full of shooters on a waterfowl mission. Too much action for a young dog can be simply overwhelming and cause a quick degradation in obedience and hunting skills. According to Gunzer, this often happens when we lose sight of our responsibilities to the dog during the heat of the hunt.
“Too often I see that when dogs get really crazy during the mid- to late-season, it’s because they didn’t get corrected on the little things as the season progressed,” Gunzer said. “This is tough because when you and your buddies are out and shooting lots of birds, it’s fun. But it’s also a time when we might overlook some flaws creeping into our dog’s behavior, and when they settle in over the long run and don’t get addressed, you might find yourself frustrated with the overall performance.”
This can happen to dogs of all ages. It’s often a matter of how honest we are as dog handlers and how open we are to acknowledging problems. Great hunting is fun, but you shouldn’t ignore a dog’s shortcomings as birds fall from the sky.
Houston, We Have No Problems
As I’ve discussed in a previous article, gun dog bias is all too real. It’s tough to look past our unabashed love for our dogs to see the reality that they might not be perfect. This is one of the reasons professional trainers are so good at removing behavior from dogs that the owners aren’t able to.
The trainers don’t come into it with any bias toward individual dogs. They’ve seen bad behavior a million times over and they know how to address it. They don’t make excuses for a dog that is breaking the rules. They can’t afford to look the other way. They diagnose and treat.
That’s not so easy for us as the owners of our favorite dogs ever, but it’s a good idea to understand our biases and think about what our dogs do that is frustrating. Does your Lab jump out of the blind before the mallards cup up? Does your pointer suddenly creep along instead of locking on point? Does your “whoa” command not carry as much weight as it did a month or two ago?
Dog obedience and quality in-field performance are moving targets and they often move in the wrong direction as the season progresses. That’s OK, it happens to all of us. But what isn’t OK, or at least won’t be OK if it goes on long enough, is not addressing the issues and working to shore them up. There’s no better time than now, with seasons winding down, to make an honest assessment and a good plan for your dog’s future as a good companion and a good hunter.
Feature image via John Hafner.