Wild birds, wild birds, wild birds, wild birds…”Our dogs handle wild birds”…”We prove our dogs on wild birds”…etc etc. We’ve all heard it before but what does it really mean? Does it really matter? Is it just an advertising tactic? In short, yes it really matters. But why and how it makes a difference is another story.
Simply hunting a dog on wild birds is not, in and of itself, the critical factor. It’s having the experience and knowledge to see and evaluate a dog’s ability to handle those birds. Making a point or two on birds he blunders into doesn’t make him a great dog. It’s the almost intangibles that make a dog great and, as a result, more likely to pass on greatness to his offspring. Only they’re not quite intangible. Is he thinking about where the birds might be? Does he evaluate cover? Learn where different species of birds live? Know how to use wind? Know when he’s following running birds? Learn what they’re going to do to try to evade him? And on and on. How many people actually think about these things while hunting? How many would recognize that these things are happening? I guess I don’t know the answer to that but I do know this. If you don’t hunt you can’t know what it takes, much less if your dog has it. And even if you do hunt you might not have noticed any of this.
Let me back up and start from the beginning, my beginning that is. My first setter was very good at finding and pointing grouse. She had plenty of faults but she was a really good grouse dog right out of the box. I was clueless and had no idea what set her apart so I decided I should try to learn what I could from her while I had the chance. The very next hunt I took her on provided an Ahah! moment for me. I was walking a logging trail as she ran ahead of me on the road. I watched her swivel her head as she ran, looking side to side at the cover on both sides of the road. She locked onto a patch of dogwoods, veered off the road, and swung around the downwind side of the birdy looking cover, slowing down to check for scent as she passed by. The exact place I thought might produce a grouse. I remember stopping dead in my tracks, mouth agape, and thinking “Holy $&*?, she’s looking at the cover!” I was amazed. Prior to this I guess I had assumed dogs just ran around searching randomly for scent. In hindsight it seems kind of dumb to not have realized she learned which types of cover grouse were likely to be found in. Of course she did and that was part of what made her so good at pointing them.
That observation led to 25 years of studying dogs’ performance and evaluating the way they search for and locate birds. What they learn and when they learn it. There have been plenty more of those Ahah! moments along the way. I remember taking Comet out for Huns when has was about 1 1/2 years old. Birds were sparse that year and he’d never seen a Hun but he hunted like an experienced dog, hitting the places I expected to find them. He only had a couple hunts under his belt with no contacts but he knew where to find them? How?
Fast forward to 2015. Iris is nine months old and has never seen a bird in the three hunts I’ve taken her on. Chukars and Huns were difficult to impossible to find that year but I’ve watched her slow to investigate likely locations over and over again. On her fourth hunt she’s swinging downwind of each likely location, checking for scent as she passes by. She was checking roost locations in brushy draws, feeding areas on steep ridges, loafing areas around rock outcroppings, etc. She was an experienced dog but with no bird contacts. How? By then I knew how and when she swung over to check out a feeding area, caught scent, then turned and worked forty yards to where she pointed a pair of Huns you’d think she’d done it many times. This is a dog that showed me she had the intelligence to figure out where to find a bird she’d never seen before. And she did so at only nine months of age. Made her first retrieve on one of those Huns too. Yes it takes birds to make a bird dog but this girl didn’t even need to find them to figure them out. She showed me more on a few hunts with zero bird contacts than you could ever learn about her with planted birds.
Those are the kinds of things that set the great dogs apart from the rest of the pack and you can’t begin to understand them unless you’ve hunted those birds where they live. If you aren’t familiar with the birds and their habits yourself, how can you recognize when, or how, your dog figures them out? You can’t.
So when I say my dogs handle wild birds this is what I mean. Not that a dog made a point or saw a few birds, they really know how to handle them. Have learned where they live and how to locate and point them. Follow/relocate if they run off. Anticipate where they will run. Then find and point them. It’s a beautiful thing…