I grew up around bird dogs. As a kid, my dad bred and trained English pointers. We had anywhere from five to 10 dogs at a time, and I’ve had a dog of my own since the fourth grade. Having a good bird dog is like owning a boat or a prime whitetail lease—you get to pick who tags along. I’ve hunted with a variety of people, from first time hunters to seasoned veterans and everything in between. The first thing to understand about most dog owners is that they hunt for their enjoyment of dogs as much as the birds they pursue.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen some cringe-worthy moments that resulted from a lack of etiquette when it came to someone else’s dog. Whether your buddy has an experienced dog or a new puppy, there are a few blunders you should avoid if you want to get invited to hunt with them again.
Never Command Someone Else’s Dog
My dogs do more than hunt for me. They’re companions, living in the house with my wife and me, and are spoiled to an extent that makes me blush. However, because the dogs have bonded with us, they handle better in the field from a desire to please. Part of their daily spoiling involves a walk in the field across from our house. Recently, a visiting relative came along on one of these walks and became frustrated after commanding my unmindful pointers to “come” until he was red in the face. I let it go on longer than I should have until I reigned them in with a loud, “here.”
The point of this story is simple: Never say anything to a dog that’s not yours unless you’re whispering sweet nothings in its ear after a successful day of hunting. You don’t know what commands its owner uses, and more importantly, it’s not your dog to handle. I’ve seen how confusing it can be for a dog when suddenly there is a stranger giving them loud, unfamiliar commands. Commanding or disciplining someone else’s dog is like scolding their children. Unless they tell you to get involved, stay out of it.
Mind Your Gun
You should handle your gun around a dog like you would your hunting partner. Never point or swing a gun across a dog. This should go without saying, but it’s not always the case. On a pheasant hunting trip in Montana, we were walking towards the field we planned to hunt with my friend’s dog, Bridger, healing alongside. Unfortunately, a hunter new to our group was walking with his shotgun pointed straight at the dog and his finger on the trigger. When Bridger’s owner noticed and said something, we all winced as the safety clicked back into place. That guy never hunted with Bridger again.
Gun safety is a serious issue. If you handle your gun sloppily around a dog, chances are you’ll do the same around people. In fact, you should handle your gun more carefully around a dog. I’ve heard a similar story from more than one person about setting their shotgun down to take a leak and having a dog run by, step on the trigger, and fire the gun. Thankfully no one was hurt, but it proves my point.
Another situation you should watch out for is if your hunting partner has a flushing dog that jumps at birds. Make sure the dog is well away from the bird before shooting and be aware of where the dogs are at all times. This is especially true in thick cover and when coveys flush a few birds at a time. By the time the last bird gets up, an unsteady dog could be anywhere.
Take it Easy
We’ve all hunted with a trigger-happy hunter—the person who is there to shoot birds and doesn’t care how it happens. For them, bird hunting is about shooting a limit and little else. These hunters are inclined to see a dog in training as a hindrance to their goal and are soon competing with the dog.
I’ve been guilty of it myself. While hunting with an untrained pointer as a teenager, I knew a small patch of cover that always held a pheasant. When approaching the spot, I called the dog back and had my girlfriend hold it while I walked ahead and got into position. The dog anxiously whined until she let it go, and sure enough, when it ripped through the grass, up came a pheasant. I knew she wouldn’t hold point and instead of turning it into a training lesson, I made it about me. I got my pheasant, but it wasn’t worth it.
I’ve seen the same thing after busting a covey of quail. Some people will mark singles and try to get to them before the dog. They were gung-ho about shooting birds, but couldn’t care less about dog work. There’s only one way for a dog to learn and that’s by getting into birds. Understand that you wouldn’t have found the birds without the dog in the first place, and its owner likely wants it to get more experience pointing singles.
Know Your Role
A family friend lets his setter do whatever it wants, including barking at rising coveys and eating dead birds instead of retrieving them. He doesn’t much care what she does. However, when it comes to dog owners, he’s the exception, not the rule. Most dog owners are a fickle lot and have very particular expectations of their dog. Some are what the writer Jim Fergus called, “fascist dog handlers.” That is to say they’re tough on their dogs, controlling their every move. Some won’t shoot a bird unless everything is perfect—a staunch point, and a flush where the dog never flinches. If they expect that much of their dog, chances are they expect as much of you.
Find out how your hunting partner feels about shooting bumped birds. Some dog owners don’t want to reward their dog with a bird unless it was pointed. Others don’t care. It often comes down to the situation. In places like Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas where quail will hold for a long time, hunters often demand a point. In the thick timber of the Northeast, grouse can be notoriously spooky and flush wild so most hunters will take any chance they get at a bird.
Also, talk to the owner about how they want birds flushed. A dog new to the steadying process might creep if you walk in beside it. Sometimes dog owners prefer you to walk a half circle around the birds and come in from the front of the dog. Every situation is different in regard to both the dog and the birds. If you’re wondering what to do, just ask.
All these rules could be summed up in a single word—communication. If you’ve never hunted with someone, ask them how they like to hunt. Ask about their dogs. Hunters love to talk about their dogs. What they say should give you a good idea of how they hunt. If you haven’t done much upland hunting, let them know. With everyone on the same page, the hunt will more enjoyable for the dog owner, you, and the dog. Show respect and you’ll hopefully get invited back.
Feature image via John Hafner.