Just Starting Out?
Tips for Getting Started In the Field
by Kathryn Newman
Are you interested in learning how to hunt with your Golden Retriever? Perhaps Hunt Tests or Field Trials intrigue you but you don’t know where to start? Would you like to add a Working Certificate title to go along with a bench Championship or CDX title? Every Golden owner who has ever shot over their dog or released their dog from the line in competition was once in your shoes. Getting started on any new project can be a daunting proposition particularly when you have limited knowledge about the area of interest. Here are a few tips to help you get started.
1. Start Early . The younger and more frequently you expose your puppy or young dog to birds the more desire you will create in your dog. Barn pigeons are a good bird to initially introduce to an inexperienced dog. They are small, generally in plentiful supply, easy for a novice dog to retrieve and are cheap. Keep in mind that before you go a field you will need to introduce your dog to the type of bird (ducks, chukkar or pheasants) you will be hunting. When faced with a large Mallard duck or rooster pheasant for the first time, many a young dog who has happily retrieved pigeons may appear bewildered and somewhat uninterested.
Most game birds and barn pigeons can generally be purchased at a game farm / hunting preserve. Pigeons can range in cost from $2.00 to $6.00 apiece and while a rooster pheasant can range in price from $14.00 – $18.00 per bird. Bird costs vary from region to region depending upon time of year and availability.
2. Join a Local Retriever Club and Get Involved . Most Retriever enthusiasts belong to a local retriever club. Retriever clubs are not specific to any breed but instead welcome all owners of any Retriever breed. The primary focus of these clubs is training dogs for hunt tests, field trials and hunting. Generally, a retriever club will host AKC Hunting Tests and Field Trials and offer educational programs.
If you are truly interested in learning more about the field game, offer to volunteer at the club’s competition events. If you are just starting out, volunteer to work the Junior stake, as this is the first stake you will be participating in at a Hunt Test. If you are interested in Field Trials do the same for the Derby or Qualifying stakes. By helping out at the stake you are planning to compete in, you will get a good idea about what the judges’ expectations are in terms of dog work and what you need to do to properly prepare your dog.
3. Join a Training Group. This is where most of us get our education in field training. You’ll be able to network into a training group through your Retriever club as it is filled with dog owners just like yourself who are interested in training their dogs. Try to train with people who have more experience than you have AND who have successfully competed in the stake you wish to participate in.
4. Join a Game Farm or Hunting Preserve. Game farms provide you with the valuable opportunity to get your young dog on birds and work on control in the field. Game farms offer pen-raised, upland game birds such as pheasants, quail and chukkar and frequently stock ducks. A well-stocked game farm will also be your source for training pigeons. Annual dues can run from $300 to $2,000 or more a year plus the cost of birds. As such, visit a few of the game farms in your area to identify which one best suits your needs. There are game farms throughout the United States. They can be located in the Yellow Pages under Game Farms or Hunting Preserves. Gun Clubs generally cater to gun enthusiasts and do not stock birds nor have fields to hunt. Instead, they offer target practice, skeet, trap and sporting clays. They are also sometimes called Sportsmen’s Clubs. If you have any questions you can call either of the two types of organizations and they can point you in the right direction.
5. Obedience Train Your Dog. The difference between a good hunting dog and a great hunting dog is not nose, marking or desire. The difference is control. You will shoot more birds over a dog that hunts in gun range, returns on a whistle and sits quietly while in the blind or posting a pheasant field. (see our article OBEDIENCE — A BASIS FOR SUCCESS IN THE FIELD.)
Most hunting dogs and all Field Trial and Hunt Test dogs are trained to respond to a whistle. The two commands for which a whistle is used are SIT and HERE. However, your dog will also need to be taught a trained retrieve (force fetch), to work out of a boat, honor another dog’s retrieve and heel in and out of the field.
There is a fine line between having good control over your hunting companion and having a dog that is overly cautious or sluggish. To this end, make sure your training techniques match your dog’s personality and your personal goals.
5. Seek Out Professional Help. Don’t be afraid to seek out the help of a qualified professional field trainer (see article Selecting a Field Trainer). All owners who intend to hunt their dog should see to it that their young dogs participate in some type of introductory bird and gun course. This type of course prevents gun shyness by ensuring the gun is introduced properly and is associated with the presence of birds. These programs are generally two weeks in duration in which your dog stays at the trainer’s kennel.
6. Be Smart About Introducing Your Dog to Water. In the spring many enthusiastic Retriever owners are chomping at the bit to get their young dogs in water. Although it may seem like a warm spring day to you the water may still be quite cold. A good rule of thumb is the 100 degree rule. When the air temperature and the water temperature add up to 100 degrees or higher it is safe to introduce your pup to water. No thermometer is needed if you remember that water freezes at 32 degrees. Consequently, if it is 70 degrees and the water is not frozen technically you have met the 100 degree rule. However, a 32 / 70 combo rarely occurs. Instead you will have many days of 40 – 60 degree temperatures as the ice goes out and the water warms. Once the daily average is above 70 degrees it is probably safe to introduce your dog to water.
Do not force your dog into the water. Encourage him by tossing a floatable play toy, taking along an older, experienced dog that loves the water, or wade in yourself.
7. Teach Marking by Running Marks in Short Cover . The true value of a retriever is their uncanny ability to locate and retrieve fallen game. To mark a fall means that a dog identifies the area of terrain in which the bird has fallen, promptly travels to the area locates and retrieves the fallen bird. It is best to start with short marks in low cover to build confidence and teach the fundamentals of marking. Football and soccer fields are great locations to start out young dogs as you can easily measure your dog’s progress and ensure quick finds.
As you can see, preparing a dog for the adventures of hunting or field competition is a varied process. The variation of training activities is one of the pleasures of fieldwork. Having a quality foundation will ensure that you and your Golden will start off on the right foot allowing both of you to enjoy many days a field.
Just a couple of things in response to the initial comments the article received. It was agreed that, as a committee, we would address the needs of field competitors as well as provide information to help the average Golden owner who wants to learn to hunt with their dog. I know of no water fowling dog that has not been worked out of a boat here in the upper Midwest. In fact, many guys take it a couple of steps further and train their dogs to sit in tree stands in order to work flooded timber and to sit quietly in specialized goose and duck blinds. Here in the Midwest if you happened to send your dog to a field pro for an expanded gun dog training program AND the dog had not been introduced to a boat you should ask for your money back.
Yes, I do believe that most dogs, especially those owned by first time hunters, should be sent out to a pro for early introduction to bird and gun. Most people who live in the city or suburbia can not house live pigeons nor shoot within the city limits. A quality bird and gun program involves a young dog being worked on birds in association with a gun for 10 – 14 days straight. During the training a .22 is initially introduced. Hopefully, by the end of the program a pup will flush live game birds shot by a 12 gauge using 4 – 6 shot depending upon the type of bird being used.
Secondly, many people take short cuts in their training regimen. You can easily introduce a competition dog (hunt tests and field trials) to a gun at the gunner’s station. However, there is world of difference between a signaling for shot at 100 yards and blasting Mallards right over your young dog’s head in the duck blind. Even if in the heat of the moment YOU refrain from shooting, what about your buddy next to you whose primary interest is the not the development of your gun dog but getting his birds?
Each year I work with dozens of gun shy dog brought to me by guys “who thought they could do it themselves”. These dogs were short- changed in their training by not having enough wing clipped pigeons (happy birds), too few days with the .22 and rushed to the larger gauge guns. This weekend we went out with friends who have a young but promising English Cocker. They wanted to “do the training themselves” meaning the bird and gun. Technically, had they been throwing happy birds for their pup all week we could have graduated to shooting over the dog. Instead, the pup was worked only two days this past week yet the owner STILL wanted to shoot game birds over his dog. Pretty typical response on the owner’s part – let’s gloss over the boring stuff and get right to the fun stuff. Keep in mind his pup had only limited experience with pigeons. Let’s just say the gun didn’t negatively affect the dog. What if the pup got spurred or pecked by a large rooster. Then what?? With limited experience on easy birds, a spurring could end a young dog’s hunting career. Thankfully reason won out, the gun stayed in its case and the cocker got a healthy dose of happy birds.
I have always thought the Golden owner’s attitude that Goldens are so totally different than other gun dog breeds that the owners need to put their own special spin on proven training techniques is misplaced. In many cases this individualization hurts more than helps the dog. Here I am specifically speaking about the early development of a gun dog.
Additionally, I have always felt that if you believed the stereotype that Goldens are “more sensitive” or ” have less drive” or are “creative thinkers”, or “are not bred for field work” (i.e. conformation dogs) would it not be more logical to be pedantically thorough in building your foundation so your dog has a clear understanding of your expectations? It is when dogs are uncertain that problems occur.
Just in case the stereotypes are true I assume that my conformation bred Goldens need to be put on more birds than my husband’s field bred labs and shorthair. Do I believe in the stereotypes? In the end it really doesn’t matter because as a professional trainer I approach my dogs in the same manner as my client dogs – we are where we are with this dog and need to adjust his training accordingly. I repeatedly ask myself, what does this dog need to advance him to the next level and beyond? At some point breeding isn’t a consideration. The only thing that matters is what does this dog need now, next week and next month. I don’t think the average Joe poses this question to himself when he is training his dog, especially when introducing birds and gunshot.
You can see this vividly at hunt tests when a conformation bred Golden is brought to the line by the novice who felt he or she could do it themselves. These dogs do not “get up for the guns.” Is it the dog’s breeding? No, it’s the lack of foundation that will haunt dog and handler as they try to pursue their field goals. I saw this phenomenon at the first hunt test I attended many, many years ago. It was very clear to me that dogs who were hunted (therefore had more experience on live birds) had the edge over dogs trained solely for competition. At that point I swore that every one of my dogs that would eventually go to the line at a Hunt Test would be hunted prior to competition in order to gain valuable bird sense and desire.
Sorry about the soap box but this is the one area that just gets to me. Every year I see Goldens go to the line at the Junior stake so overwhelmingly under prepared that their resulting performance is an embarrassment for the breed. Yet the owners criticize the judges’ set up, poke fun of Labradors’ stupidly blind drive to retrieve and comment that Goldens weren’t meant for this type of hunting. In reality it’s the owner’s fault at not preparing the dog adequately. It’s not the dog or the breed. It‘s the owner.
Do I believe that a dog needs to be sent out for all of his field training? No, I do not. I trained my first two Master Hunters myself. However, Grace was sent out for a two week bird and gun program because I realized that I could not house pigeons at my condominium. Dave, my husband, did Brecon’s bird and gun as I was in Connecticut at the time. Keep in mind that Dave is also a professional trainer and we have daily access to birds and the ability to shoot live rounds. The rest of the girls’ training (force fetching, collar conditioning, swim by and advanced marking) I did myself. I would encourage other golden owners to do the same if time and circumstances permit AND assuming they are willing to see the training through.
Most folks quit when the dog “goes off” and switch to agility, tracking or some other “fun” activity. In the end what did the dog learn? – If I sulk the training goes away.
If your desire is to come back and complete the dog’s training recognize that on the second go round, the training will be more labored as you have two demons to face; the original issue that resulted in the sulking behavior AND the new knowledge that if I (the dog) sulk my owner will move on to something else.
As far as land availability is concerned, you make do with what is available. For years before we moved out to the country or had contacts that have perfectly groomed training ponds, we trained on soccer fields, undeveloped commercial lots and church lands that were big flat areas of grass. If we drove past a pond or field that looked promising we would stop by and ask for permission to train on the land owner’s property. You do what you need to do to make it happen.
We now have a letter to the land owner that clearly defines what we would be doing on the land and that we would not hold the land owner responsible for any mishap. The two game farms that we belong to also allow us to field train on their grounds throughout the year.