While we are waiting for winter snow and ice to give way to spring mud, it’s a perfect time to gather what we need for basic equipment to do spring yard work with our bird dogs when the time comes. And by yard work, I don’t mean pruning bushes and planting seeds.
Even finished gun dogs need a spring tune-up, especially if they are going to compete in the many hunt tests and field trials offered by various pointing dog clubs in New England from spring through the end of fall.
It’s not that the dogs forget what to do. They are just out of practice — rusty, if you will — and lack the finesse they had achieved by season’s end last year. Competition placements can come down to finesse.
A toolbox of training equipment can be as simple as a check cord, a whistle on a lanyard, a bumper, a blank gun and a lot of patience.
Check cords generally are 15 to 20 feet long, can be made of different materials, and are basically a length of rope used to help direct or keep control of the dog. They can be purchased at custom lengths as well.
I use a pea whistle on a black nylon lanyard I ordered online 12 years ago. It has become my favorite, and it is the one all of my dogs recognize. I keep this one in my vehicle in case one of the dogs escapes me for some reason. I also have a pealess whistle as a backup, but I rarely use it.
Bumpers — also called dummies — are used primarily to teach retrieving. They can be made of plastic, canvas or rubber. The plastic ones float, so they are good for teaching water retrieves. You also can apply bird scent, which comes in a plastic bottle from a store that carries bird dog training supplies, to the bumpers and use them in the place of real birds when teaching the dog to find scent.
Training bumpers look similar to the ones people use to protect a boat from hitting the dock it’s tied up to, only smaller so it will fit in the dog’s mouth.
The blank gun is a real functioning gun but it has a solid or plugged barrel and only delivers bang, using blank ammunition or primers. You also may know it as a starter pistol, like what is used to start races. It’s a more serious version of the cap guns we played with as kids.
In bird dog training, the blank gun gets the dog accustomed to hearing gunfire near him without breaking his point, and simulates the hunting experience while you teach him what he’s supposed to do. Blank guns are used in field competitions as well.
I paid $69 for my blank gun locally about 11 years ago and another $39 to rebuild it three years ago, when it became necessary for me to use two hands to cock the gun. My gun is a low-end price and very basic model.
Live birds such as Bobwhite quail, chukar partridge, or pigeons are good to have — especially later in the season — but not totally necessary for those first spring forays into the field. I have taken advantage of wild mourning doves that land inside the dog fence or in the field off my driveway, but working with the dogs while trying not to scare off the doves can be a challenge.
Because the wild doves never land where I really need them to and I have no control over them, they aren’t a reliable alternative to farm-raised wild birds. There is a handful of farms in Maine that raise wild birds for training and field events.
You also can mail-order them from other states, but they are required to have a health certificate and the farm providing them must be certified with the National Poultry Improvement Plan. If you plan to shoot live birds while training your dog, you will need a state permit in Maine.
I keep a game bird wing or two in my freezer from the season before for the dogs to carry around in their mouths as part of spring training. It reinforces that it’s a good thing to carry the bird, which they must do in order to retrieve the dead birds to my hand.
Most of the basic equipment is available locally. I’ve seen plastic practice dummies, whistles, check cords and light duty bells even in national chain pet stores. Outdoor outfitters such as L.L. Bean and Cabela’s have most basic equipment, as do some local independent specialty sports shops.
For a better variety of options and more specialized training equipment such as bird launchers and equipment for keeping live birds, I recommend an online resource like Lion Country Supply or Gun Dog Supply. You also can find blank guns, bird scent and bird wings at these places.
Lion Country offers a pointing dog starter kit for $69 that includes a D-ring 15-inch orange 1-inch wide collar, canvas bumper, Roy Gonia Special whistle, nylon whistle lanyard, 20-foot orange tangle-proof check cord, and a training video.
Whenever I am working outdoors with a dog, he wears a collar that has a brass plate mounted on it with my name and phone number engraved — just in case he gets a notion to take off. My Brittanys also are microchipped. I use the dog’s bell on his collar too because it’s a signal to him that we are working, not playing.
Really, the first few outings in spring are meant to get the dog back into top physical condition. We all go a little soft in the winter, especially when the season is icy like this year.
Even though we have indoor activities meant to use muscles and brains, none of it replaces the kind of daily endurance running the dogs need to get into shape for hours of hunting in fields or woods.
Come talk with me this weekend at the Penobscot Fly Fishers’ 14th annual Cabin Fever Reliever, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, March 2, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at Brewer Auditorium, 318 Wilson St. Bangor Daily News will have a booth where you can meet BDN Outdoors staff. Free admission.
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.