Pup ran with reckless abandon—a wild banshee showing little regard for life or limb. His fenced backyard at home and the 30-foot tether that controlled his every movement in the field for the entire 6 months of his life forgotten in an instant. He was free!
I fought the impulse to reel him back in—heeding one of many lessons I’ve gleaned from the worn pages of Bill Tarrant’s difinitive book on field training dogs: “The Best Way to Train Your Gun Dog: The Delmar Smith Method.” The book chronicles the training methods and colorful reflections and witticisms of the original “Dog Whisperer.” Delmar says that every pup comes with its motor running. It’s up to us to outfit it with a steering wheel and a set of brakes.
But not before he has his fun. Writes Tarrant: “Pup’s first year is the year he flies. Pup can’t have too many Happy Sessions—days with him and you and all the dogs moseying in the fields, him standing bold in bark over a dust toad, scrambling after butterflies, barking at cows, upending box turtles, leaping to come down cross-pawed on singing locusts, jumping sideways from slapped-back branches, eating dead fish, rolling in cow manure, getting trapped in a multiflora hedge.”
Rebel’s my sixth Brittany, and I’ve never failed to give the book a fresh read each time I’m anticipating my next pup’s arrival. Delmar has a certain horse sense about dogs, and his musings have provided me with countless “ah-ha” moments. If you can find a copy of the 1977 classic (I’ve seen them for sale at Amazon.com), I highly recommend you add it to your library.
So I let Pup run—and run he did. He sprinted across a sprawling pasture and scampered up the hill on its far side. He made a wide circle and then, ear flattened against his head, made a mad dash past me at breakneck speed. He chased grasshoppers and butterflies, pointed mice and meadowlarks, ran wind sprints for no apparent reason and, well, just went about the business of being a pup.
Finally, his instincts took over and Pup settled into the zigzag pattern hard-wired in hunting dogs with bonafided bloodlines. I whistled the youngster up and he fell into stride with his brace mate, 3-year-old Ruckus. The older Britt was already down to the serious business of seeking out the prairie grouse that were scattered in the long grasses of the Nebraska landscape. He’d played this game before—we were in prime chicken country, and he knew it. Pup was mostly along for the ride.
It was early morning, and the saffron-colored sun was perched a few degrees above the eastern horizon. The cool September air was laced with the faint promise of autumn, even though the temperature would soon climb through the 70s. I turned the dogs into the wind and made a wide sweep that would eventually take us back to the truck. They worked the prairie grasses that bowed to a moderate western breeze like gentle waves on a wind-washed lake.
My early season trip to the Heartland’s prairie grouse belt provided the ideal backdrop for Pup’s first wild bird hunt, as it had for the pups before him—wide open country with lots of young-of-the-year birds. Here I could let the youngster run large without fear of losing track of him or worrying about him running out into traffic. It’s pretty hard to misplace your dog when you can see for miles in every direction. I’d learned an important lesson a few years back, when I turned a young Brittany loose in the big woods of northern Wisconsin. The pup broke point and dashed after a flushed ruffed grouse. Luckily, I was able to retrieve him—no worse for wear—several gut-wrenching hours later. Since that incident, I’ve always teathered my pups for their first big-woods hunts until I’m confident I can recall them without fail.
Mind you, Pup had completed basic training at this stage of the game—subjected to countless hours of yard work, an introduction to the e-collar and several forays to local game farms—and had earned his first trip afield to hunt wild birds. I never—NEVER—put a new dog on the ground until it has all of the basic commands down and responds to them appropriately, especially if I’m going to be teamed up with other hunters. I never want to be “that guy” whose dog is running amuck, kicking up birds and ruining the day for all. I was confident Rebel would be a good citizen.
So with Rebel and Ruckus secure in their crates, I’d pointed my truck down the road and didn’t let up on the gas until East met West. This was the second consecutive year I’d be feeding my grouse addiction by visiting what, in my mind, is one of the country’s purest prairie grouse haunts—the Sandhills Region of north-central Nebraska. And once again I’d be the guest of James Brion, owner and operator of Prairie King Wingshooting—a topnotch guide service that boasts some of the best whitetail and turkey hunting in the region—and arguably the best prairie grouse hunting left in the country. His 70,000 leased acres provide room for his hunters to roam and experience the true wonderment of hunting the “King of the Prairie.” When I told James I had a new pup that could use some on-the-job training, his response was immediate and gracious: “Bring him on out!”
How To Jumpstart A Hunting Pup
I’m a big fan of putting hunting dogs on the ground as early in their lives as possible, and it didn’t concern me that Rebel was only 6 months old. Young dogs are like sponges, absorbing all the details their first road trips provide. And lessons learned early—good and bad—tend to stay put. Nothing quite prepares a young dog for its life ahead like its first road trip, and there are a number of things you can do to make your pup’s first year in the field productive and fun—providing the building blocks for the years ahead.
• Give Pup A Break. First off, remember your pup has been on this earth only a few months. Every smell, every sight, every experience is new and exciting—Pup’s sensories are on overload. Let it have fun exploring its surroundings, but give it some boundaries. Your dog shouldn’t be allowed to run helter-skelter out of control—busting birds and disrupting the hunt. I absolutely will not put a pup on the ground around other hunters unless I have a resonable level of control over it, and you shouldn’t, either. Yes, I’ll let Pup run, but only if I’m certain I can reel the youngster back in. The last thing I want is to do is ruin everyone’s time in the field by constantly yelling at my out-of-control dog. The ground work should be set, and while you shouldn’t expect too much in the field at this early stage, you must demand discipline. Having said that, you might be surprized at how well your pup does, especially if you’ve done your job teaching it the basics.
• Yard Work. Take it to the bank that if your dog won’t respond in a controlled setting, it won’t obey in the field. The solution is to lay down a solid foundation of ground work before ever taking your dog into the field to hunt wild birds—fundamentals that will not only make it a good citizen, but help ensure its safety. In my mind, “Here” or “Come” are the most important commands at this stage of the game. No matter what else your dog does in the field, if you can recall it without argument you’ll have a good outing. Retrieving drills, rope work, heeling and the like all come into play to make your pup the best it can be in preparation for its first road trip. Your dog doesn’t—and shouldn’t—know it all at this point. But until you’re confident you can consistently recall your dog, do not take it into the field to hunt wild birds. I begin with rope work; graduating from a short rope and strict control to a longer rope and less control. Practice calling your dog in while giving it short tugs on the rope. This is also a good time to introduce the whistle and then the e-collar. At this point the e-collar is more of a safety device. I want to be able to stop my dog if it takes after a deer or rabbit or wanders too close to a road or other danger. Most e-collars have a tone function, where no stimulus is present. This is also a good time to introduce it. I begin recalling exercises with the whistle and then substitute the collar tone.
• Road Trips. In preparation for your pup’s first extended road trip—and you might want limit it to an overnight or 2- or 3-day hunt at the most—take it on short road hops close to home to get it acclimated to being in the crate for extended periods of time. If you’ve done your job, the crate has been part of your puppy’s life since the beginning, so this shouldn’t be much of an issue. Make them fun trips so your pup associates going for a ride with a grand time. Take it to a nearby WMA for a run; take it to visit the relatives in the country and let it play with your nieces and nephews; heck, take it to Dairy Queen for a burger! If all you ever do is load Pup up for a trip to the vet or boarding kennel, that’s the negative association it’ll make. Also, get Pup acclimated to kenneling up on command and without argument. Keep it on a lead at all times if there’s traffic present. I always strap the e-collar on as well in case the pup get confused and bolts or becomes head strong. This is also a good time to get your dog into the routine of taking controlled pit stops, riding quietly, staying put in the crate until released, etc.
• Birds, Birds … And More Birds. Nothing fires a young pup up more than chasing feathers—and nothing fine-tunes a gun dog better than exposure to lots of live birds. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the luxury of keeping penned birds or have access to unlimited wild birds. But most of us have game farms nearby where we can rountinely work our dogs on live birds. Many of these facilities keep pigeons for the sole purpose of training puppies. Early on, I just want to build desire in the pup, and chasing clip-winged or harnessed pigeons is a good place to start. The last thing you want is for your puppy’s first exposure to birds to be a negative one—such as a rooster pheasant flushing wild in its face. Begin slow until your pup is confident around birds in a controlled environment before you let it loose on planted or wild birds.
• Follow The Leader. There are two schools of thought regarding whether Pup should have a mentor. One group believes that young dogs learn the tricks of the trade from following the lead of a veteran. The other group insists that running a puppy with an older dog will render it dependent, and that it will not learn to think on its own. I’m a graduate of the former institution. I typically keep two dogs and believe my puppies benefit from the tutoring they receive from their older brace mate. But I do believe it’s important to give a pup some solo time to build confidence and work out things on its own. Last fall my older Britt was “stealing” birds from my younger dog. Only when I put Rebel back in the field by himself did he build confidence and fortify his retrieves. When I teamed the dogs up for a later run, the younger dog had the confidence to challenge the older dog, and Ruckus began honoring the younger dog’s retrieves.
• Praise And Patience. You can’t praise Pup too much at this point, and you should never let a good deed go unrewarded. On the flip side, go light on punishment, but don’t let bad habits develop. And remember, the field isn’t a good place to make adjustments. Should problems arise in the field, deal with them back home in a controlled setting. Nothing but positive experiences should come out of Pup’s first road trip. Be patient and never lose your temper. There’s so much more to a dog’s first road trip than the hunt. It’s all about learning routines and dealing with new experiences. It’s also about building a bond between the hunter and dog. The travel, the motels, the sights, sounds and smells of strange new places are all learning experiences for the newbe. Have the patience to see—and monopolize on—training opportunities as they arise. Above all, have patience. Pup is new to the game and it will make mistakes. Everything good and bad will be a new experience: Pup’s first retrieve, its first point—even its first skunk encounter! Above all, have fun and enjoy the fleeting moments of Pup’s first hunt.
• Let Pup Have Fun! Serious bird work will come with time. I don’t care if Pup is pointing butterflies and grasshoppers, barking at the cows or chasing its tail. For now, that’s its job—to have fun and run like the wind, explore its world and build confidence and desire.
The slate-colored sky hinted at rain, and there was cool bite in the air as I turned the dogs loose for their final run. We’d be heading home in the morning and we were two birds into our three-bird daily limit. I’d seen a transformation in Rebel. He was still obsessed with chasing meadowlarks and butterfies, and he routinely ignored the first blast from my whistle. But he also had developed a much more serious demeanor and he was more focused. Pup’s motor was running. There would be plenty of time later to outfit him with a steering wheel and a set of brakes.
Hunt The ‘Prairie King’
Prairie King Wingshooting offers world-class wild grouse hunting at a modest price. Said owner James Brion: “Our prairie chicken hunts are among the best wind-shooting experiences found anywhere today. Not because we have a million-dollar lodge—we don’t. Not because we release lots of birds for you—it can’t be done. It’s all about the experience of hunting this incredible native bird on its own terms.”
Watch The Slideshow
Want to see Rebel in action on the Nebraska prairie? Watch the photo slideshow below.