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Training your bird dog right

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By Joe Nowakowski as told to Tyler Allen

Good bird dogs are key to any successful hunt. Whether you’re after pheasant, Hungarian partridge, ducks, or grouse, proper training will result in a good bird dog.

Pointer breeds will go out and find birds like pheasants, and once the dog goes on point, hunters are alerted to the game. Retrievers are able to patiently sit for extended periods of time and recover the shot birds in the water.

But begin at the beginning: Purchasing the right puppies and socializing them when they’re still young is key to success.

A well-bred puppy is smart money because you’ll save on training bills in the long run. Start out with the best puppy you can afford and it will pay off in dividends.

murphyThe three basic commands are “Sit,” “Here,” and “Heel.” With retrievers the foundation is “sit,” since you take a young dog that’s expected to sit for 30-40 minutes between shotgun volleys – that’s a lot to ask of a dog. You want them to “sit” on one whistle blast, and come “here” on two.

A leash, or lead, is the No. 1 tool when training dogs – if you don’t have a lead, you don’t have control. Step on the lead, pull him in hand over hand, saying “Here, here, here,” instead of correcting your puppy with your hand – this will prevent head shyness. Early on we’re just forming good habits, and the corrections are as simple as lifting up on the lead and pushing their butt down to have them sit.

We start the puppies at 5 weeks old on a lead with whistles. Dogs that are imprinted with whistles at a young age are exponentially ahead of dogs that get into it at 8 months.

We control a puppy’s environment, and do a good job of not letting bad habits start. The crate isn’t just for potty training, because you can’t leave an 8-week-old puppy unattended. You socialize the dogs, but don’t let a lot of people handle them. I don’t care what words you use for commands, but use them and use them consistently.

When socializing a young bird dog, it’s important to start with short lessons of three to five minutes, three to five times a day. Aside from these lessons and walks, riding in the car or spending supervised time playing with the family, a bird dog should spend the rest of its day in a kennel. More is not necessarily better, because of the puppy’s short attention span. End each lesson on a good note, not a failure. If I can’t get the new concept through, I’ll go back to something the dog knows.

Once your puppy is properly socialized, the three tenets for training a good bird dog are water, birds and guns.

Water: Take your puppy out on a run with older dogs that will lead the younger ones right into the water. Your puppy might be a little timid at first, and it might take a week to get them in, but be patient. If they get hot from the run, they’ll get right in. One problem I see is when a dog owner forces the puppy into a cold creek, you’ve got to let them do it on their own.

Birds: The operative word in “bird dog” is “bird” – they have to have the introduction at a young age in order to be imprinted. I start a litter of puppies at five-weeks-old with pigeons. It’s a litmus test for what types of dogs we’ve got.

If a pup doesn’t have a strong initial desire, we can take them out of the litter and work with them. You you want your dog to have that “prey drive.”

Guns: When dogs are chasing pigeons, start shooting with a blank pistol as the dogs are running away. Gradually increase the noise level, then start standing up and firing from a higher position. Finally, stand up and fire in front of the puppy. We make as much noise in the kennel as we can, including slamming doors. I want them to be bombproof at 16 weeks.

If you lock your dog in a kennel for the first 16 weeks, you’ve lost it because at that point the puppy’s mind is as mature as it’s ever going to get. The first 16 weeks are critical in forming behaviors in your dog for the rest of their life. The clock is racing, and there’s no going backwards.

Joe Nowakowski has been training bird-hunting dogs for more than 20 years and has operated Little River Kennel – now located in Gallatin Gateway – for seven. He was raised in Georgia, got his first bird dog when he was 19 years old, and moved to Montana in 2001. Visit or contact Nowakowski at (406) 995-2617 for more information.

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