The object in delaying actual bird retrieving was to avoid creating in the dog a desire to pick up and carry birds before he learned to point staunchly and to be steady to wing and shot. To have done this in the opposite order would have resulted in such problems as the dog’s looking for the bird instead of using his nose, getting in too close, and worst of all, breaking point in an attempt to catch it.
It is logical, on the other hand, that if the dog is taught, temptations and therefore problems are less likely to arise. The fact that dummies were used earlier in retrieving is immaterial as the dog will not have connected these with birds. They have merely served to teach him to pick up, carry, and deliver correctly.
As with staunchness and steadiness-to-wing training, it is advisable to use the check line at first and let your helper do the shooting, this time using only the shotgun, as some birds are going to be shot. If you were doing the shooting, your attention would be distracted at the very moment your dog would be most likely to break and run in, which is the time you would have the gun to your shoulder. There is no way you can watch the dog for those few seconds, and he will sense it.
Furthermore, it is most important from this stage in training that both you and your helper be fully aware of two other fundamental principles which must be rigorously observed. These are as follows:
(1) Never shoot a bird over a dog which breaks and runs in as the bird flies. The gunner should always pause first to see that the dog has held before taking the shot. This is because, as I have said before, a retrieve is a reward for doing right. If he breaks, he has done wrong, so no reward should be forthcoming.
(2) Never shoot over a pointing dog a bird which he has not pointed. The bird may, for instance, fly off as the dog is approaching it. If this happens it must be left strictly alone with no shot fired. When hunting wild birds later, there are bound to be occasions when a bird will flush which the dog has not pointed. This will happen often with grouse and sometimes with pheasent. Woodcock tend to hold fairly well, but they too can be fickle. The rule of thumb, especially during a dog’s first season or two, should be to ignore all birds that flush of their own accord and those which you are unsure whether or not he has pointed. This demands self-discipline in great measure, especially if the bird happens to be the first shootable grouse of the day after three hours in the woods! It is a rule most hunters
would not be prepared to go along with, but if you are a dog man more than a hunter, as I hope you are, you’ll have to make up your mind to accept it.
If you do shoot birds over a pointing dog when you cannot tell for certain whether he pointed, you may in fact be shooting birds he has flushed. And birds shot over a pointing dog that he had knowingly flushed lead directly down the slippery slope to unstaunch points and general unsteadiness. Be staunch yourself, and you’ll reap the benefit in seasons to come.
Start by hunting the dog into the area where the birds have been planted, check as usual to see that the dog is staunchly holding his point, then stand on the line. Wait a few seconds and give your helper the nod to walk in and flush the bird. As the bird flies, concentrate on watching the dog, not the bird. Your helper will have noted its location when he shot it, and hopefully so will the dog. When the bird is down, wait a while as you would if it were a dummy and be ready to act, because if a break is going to occur, that’s when it will happen.
Don’t let the dog retrieve the first two or three birds that are shot over him, even though he remains good and steady. Have your helper walk out and pick them up in full view of the dog. As he walks out for a bird, say “Gone away” to the dog, and nothing more unless you have to. Let the dog take a sniff at each bird collected and, as you progress, walk out to pick one up yourself now and then, making quite sure he stands his ground. Now you will appreciate the value of having done this earlier with the dummies, when you allowed him to collect only the ones you wanted.
Repeat the process for another couple of sessions, leaving the check cord in place despite the fact that he’s holding, because next you are going to let him do some actual bird retrieving. They will not be, for the moment, the birds just shot, but cold dead birds from the previous training session. Make sure they are clean and free of blood and have your helper carry them in a pocket or bag.
I prefer pigeons for this but naturally if up until now you have always used quail, by all means use dead quail instead. The reason for using cold dead birds at first is that it tends to discourage a young dog from “mouthing,” which can sometimes happen when first retrieving warm, freshly shot birds.
Start by having him stand alongside you and give him several retrieves of dead birds thrown by your partner as the gun is fired. Make him wait until commanded to retrieve; also tap him lightly on the head if you used this technique with the dummies. Have him bring them right to hand and, if he’s at all hesitant, adopt the same tactics as with dummy retrieving backing away, whistling, calling him, etc.
After a couple of sessions of this, provided he has performed well, you can proceed to use the dead birds in conjunction with shooting over him after a point and when a bird has been flushed.
This time, when your partner walks in and flushes the bird, he should shoot but not to hit it. Instead he will have with him a cold dead bird which he will throw, after the shot, in full view of the dog, twenty yards or so in front. The dog’s attention will then be wrested from the departing flyer onto the thrown dead one. The dog won’t know the difference. Pause for the compulsory few seconds, then give the command to retrieve. After doing this another two or three times, leave it for the day. Next time out, you can fire the gun yourself but still have your helper throw the dead bird.
Only now and I make no apologies for being so strict because that is what training is all about may you allow him to retrieve some birds that have actually been shot over him. Remember the rules: your helper to do the shooting; you to watch the dog; check line still on; a quiet pause once the bird has fallen before you send the dog to retrieve, and praise when he delivers to you.
Two or three birds shot and retrieved in one session are enough, and remember to let one or two fly off unscathed with a shot fired in the air. You did this with dummies and he came to understand it; now you’re doing the same with birds, so there’s every reason to believe he’ll understand this too. Like us he must (albeit reluctantly) come to terms with the fact that not all birds that are shot at are brought down.
Once more self-confidence will dictate to you when the check line and choke chain can be removed, and lastly, having had your partner shoot for you for a while, all that remains now is for you to do the shooting yourself.
Bearing in mind that you’re assuming two roles i.e., dog handler and gunner your actions on walking up to your dog when he’s on point are going to be somewhat different now so we’ll go through them from A to Z. First make sure that your gun is loaded (it’s easily forgotten!). Approach your dog from the side or front. Give him a reminder to ”whoa” as you start to kick around in the cover in front of him prior to kicking up the bird. Watch the dog carefully all the time for signs of movement. If he holds well, flush the bird but don’t shoot too soon. Pause for a second or two to look at your dog and to “whoa” him again. Then swing on the bird and shoot. As the bird drops, don’t dwell on where it has fallen; instead, look around immediately at the dog again to be sure he has held. Pause, unload, then send him for the retrieve.
A lot to do, you may think, but in practice it’s done almost without thinking and accomplished in seconds. Take my advice and learn to do this as a routine.
What you have achieved by now, therefore, should convince you that at last you have a dog which is steady to wing and shot. There’s still wild bird hunting to be done of course, which we’ll get around to later. But you have now progressed through the most important and difficult stages of this fascinating (and at times frustrating!) aspect of training.