One would think because of the simplicity of what the bird dog does — find the bird, point or flush the bird, fetch the dead bird — training also would be simple. But there are way too many factors.
The specific breed the dog is, the kinds of birds the dog hunts, whether it is a pointing or flushing breed of dog, the regions and conditions in which it typically hunts all have to be considered before a training method is chosen.
But there are other — and equally important — factors too. The dog’s personality, whether the dog should range out or hunt close or both, and whether the dog may have to retrieve from bodies of water must be considered. Also, training methods may depend on whether the dog will participate in hunting competitions and in what terrain, and if there will be dangers such as rattlesnakes in some parts of the country.
Fortunately, there are lots of resources out there to guide you. The best advice comes from people who have had real field and training experience, whether that is in-person advice or from a book, magazine or website.
I have several books in my personal library, but two of my go-to resources are by Bill Tarrant, book author and gun dog editor for Field & Stream magazine for many years, who died in 1998: “Best Way to Train Your Gun Dog: The Delmar Smith Method” and “Tarrant Trains Gun Dogs: Humane Way to Get Top Results.” Tarrant also wrote books on training flushing dogs and retrievers.
A third book I often reference is “The Ultimate Guide to Bird Dog Training: A Realistic Approach to Training Close-Working Gun Dogs for Tight Cover Conditions” by Jerome B. Robinson, former gun dog editor for Sports Afield and author of articles in Field & Stream and other publications. He also wrote books on other types of hunting such as deer and turkey hunting.
And finally “Training Pointing Dogs: All the Answers to All Your Questions” by Paul Long, who was a highly respected pointing dog trainer with a simple, straightforward approach whose work was the basis for many other trainers.
These four books form the base of my training for my Brittany bird dogs. They are packed with how-tos from picking a puppy to finishing a gun dog. They also include plenty of information on trouble-shooting problem areas, choosing birds to use in training, building kennels for dogs and johnny houses — recall pens — for the birds used in training, bird dog diet, training equipment and lots about the special joys and pitfalls of hunting with trained bird dogs.
These books are classics in gun dog circles, and their advice is timeless, even though the accompanying photos and the language style may feel old-fashioned. I learn something new whenever I open one, even though I have read the same passages many times before.
Also in my home library, but less used, are “How to Help Gun Dogs Train Themselves: Taking Advantage of Early Conditioned Learning” by Joan Bailey, editor of The Gun Dog Supreme for 25 years and a field judge for many years; “The Training and Care of the Versatile Hunting Dog” by Sigbot Winterhelt and Edward D. Bailey, and published by North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association; and “Speed Train Your Own Bird Dog” by Larry Mueller.
All of these books have methods in common and differences in nuance and emphasis, such as in how the working bird dog interacts with the family, the types of birds used in training, handling puppies, housing options and timing for different stages of training. The trick is to find at least one whose language you understand and whose approach agrees with your philosophy and goals.
When I get tired of reading about training and just want to read some great stories about dogs, I dig out another special book from my shelves: “A Feisty Little Pointing Dog: A Celebration of the Brittany,” a collection of short stories about Brittany hunting dogs — including one by the late Tom Hennessey, who wrote and illustrated for the Bangor Daily News for many years. The book was edited by David Webb, a trainer, Brittany breeder and field trialer.
All of these stories — as well as the training books — illustrate the thing I have certainly come to know myself: the path to having a finished gun dog may not be smooth, but in the end there is nothing like a cool fall day in Maine’s woods with your best hunting buddies — your trained bird dogs.
Those precious hours make it all worth it.
Julie Murchison Harris is community editor at Bangor Daily News. She is widowed and shares her life with three Brittanys: Sassy, 12, Bullet, 10, and Quincy, 4 — in an old farmhouse in Hermon.