What Is A Bird Dog?
By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz August 16, 2020
Ever since the domestication of dogs, they have enriched our lives through their love and companionship. Dogs continue to provide comfort, protection, and assistance thanks to their unique abilities. The human-canine bond is as diverse as it is strong, and bird dogs provide a marvelous example of how special these relationships can be.
What Is A Bird Dog?
Bird dogs are dogs which are trained to help hunters find and retrieve game, particularly birds. The dogs are trained to work with their handlers (and sometimes other dogs) to find birds, trigger them to fly so they can be safely shot, and to retrieve them and deliver them unharmed to their handler. Many hunters have well developed relationships with their dogs and feel as though their dog is an extension of themselves when hunting game (Corkran, 2015).
A Brief History Of Bird Dogs
For as long as humans and dogs have co-existed, we have hunted together. Artwork on the walls of 3,000-year-old Egyptian tombs have been found to contain depictions of hunting dogs such as Pointers. Most of the current sporting dog breeds can be traced back to wealthy Europeans who selectively bred them according to their own preferences. Hunters would breed for traits such as size, coat, athleticism, intelligence, and temperament to create their ideal companion. They would also select dogs that would be best suited for the type of hunting that they wanted to do, such as upland hunting, marsh hunting, or both. Bird dogs are extremely common in the 17th through 19th century paintings and tapestries suggesting that they had a significant impact on society at the time. The hunting breeds we know and love today exist due to the popularity of sport hunting throughout Europe, and later in North America. Before guns were used for hunting, birds would be located by bird dogs and captured by hunters using nets. Falcon hunters would also employ bird dogs to flush (trigger birds to fly) birds out for the raptor to capture. Modern day bird dogs continue to be popular hunting companions and even contribute to wild game research by helping improve scientific knowledge to improve conservation programs (Gutzwiller, 1990).
Can Any Dog Be A Bird Dog?
Any dog can technically be trained to become a bird dog. However, breeds that have been selected for hundreds of years to preform this task are likely to be easier to train and work with. Bird dog breeds, such as the Labrador Retriever, German Shorthaired Pointer, Brittany, Boykin Spaniel, Golden Retriever, Vizsla, English Springer Spaniel, and the Nova Scotia Duck Trolling Retriever, have traits that make them best suited for becoming a bird dog. These breeds have natural hunting instincts and mental and physical characteristics that make them particularly adapted for hunting birds.
How Are Bird Dogs Different Than Other Dogs?
Bird dog breeds have been selected over hundreds of years to have traits that make them excellent hunting companions. This includes traits such as being extremely loyal and willing to please, athletic, good stamina, even tempered, water loving, easy to train, and having excellent noses for picking up bird scent. Bird dogs have the ability to track a scent even while running (Steen et al., 1996). Another trait that has been selected for and is highly desirable in bird dogs is an “on/off switch” meaning that these dogs can go from high alert on a hunting trip to easily relaxing and being comfortable in a home environment.
How Are Bird Dogs Trained?
There are three main types of bird dogs depending on the specific tasks they are trained to perform. These include retrievers, flushing dogs, and pointers.
- Pointers and setters
Pointers and setters are trained to work in the field with their handler to track down birds. At first, the handler will send the dog out to search the edges of a field for birds. This initial pass also allows the dog to burn off some of their excitement, calibrate their noses for the environment, and to get into work mode. The dogs will then proceed to search the field back and forth beginning near their handler and searching out to a certain distance. The dog and the handler will repeat this process in various locations in the field until birds are found. Sometimes dogs will work in teams with another dog or multiple dogs to make this process easier. When game is detected, the dogs have been trained to freeze and point or hunker down. Then depending on their training, the dog will either be given a command to stay frozen while the hunter flushes the game, or the dog will flush the game for the hunter. This training is critical to keep the dog out of harm’s way when the hunter shoots the game. If the hunter is successful in shooting a bird, the dog is trained to search for and retrieve the bird’s body. Pointers and setters are often used to hunt birds that stay in flocks or family groups such as bobwhite, quail, and grouse.
- Flushing dogs
These dogs are trained to work a much smaller area which allows them to remain within shotgun range of their handler. This style of hunting typically works better on birds that are more likely to run from the hunter such as pheasants. Flushing dogs are trained to identify and startle birds into flight so they may be safely shot by the hunter. Once a bird has been flushed, the dog is trained to sit and stay and to watch the flight of the bird and remember where the bird falls if shot. Once the bird falls, the handler will give the dog a command to retrieve the bird. The dog will then race to the point of the fall, pick up the bird, and return it to the handler.
Retrievers are most often used for hunting waterfowl. Retrievers are trained to sit calmly and wait until a bird is shot and then they are given the command to retrieve. A well-trained retriever will watch the handler’s gun and watch where downed birds land. When the hunter is done shooting, they will command the dog to collect the birds that were shot. If the dog cannot find a bird, or if they do not know where they landed, the handler can use signals to direct the dog from a distance. Multiple dogs may work together, each retrieving their own birds. Birds should be delivered to the handler free of any damage from the dog.
What Do I Need To Do To Make My Dog A Bird Dog?
If you are interested in training your dog to be a bird dog, it is best to start preparing them as a puppy. Do not fret if your dog is older, dogs of any age can be trained to be successful bird dogs (Williams, 2012). Make sure your dog learns basic obedience and is well socialized. Consistent training is necessary to prevent bad habits from developing. It is important that your dog is comfortable being around other dogs. Exposing a puppy to well-mannered dogs can help them learn proper social skills. Dogs should also become used to being outdoors and around water. Exposure to gunshots is also important to prevent fearful hunting experiences. Crate training for hunting dogs is also important for reducing their stress during transport to a hunting location or even to the veterinarian for routine check-ups. Bird dogs must have excellent recall skills and should never become distracted from their handler, as this can lead to unsafe situations. Young dogs should be given lots of outdoor time in fields and marsh areas similar to where they will be hunting later in life. When dogs are older you can start introducing them to game. Dogs will need to be reinforced for gentle handling of birds. Stop and rough handling of game such as biting or shaking. Develop a thoughtful training plan and stick to it. Consult with a professional trainer if you are inexperienced or if you are struggling with training your dog. When working with your dog, patience and the use of positive reinforcement will yield the most successful outcomes. Begin training with short simple training routines, and then work your way up to more advanced training only when your dog is ready. Finally, bird dogs need to be fed a high-quality, high-energy diet that is designed to keep up with their extremely athletic lifestyle (Coffman, n.d.).
The relationship between bird dogs and their handlers is remarkable. Dogs and humans have hunted together for thousands of years and will likely continue this tradition for thousands more. Anyone with the right knowledge and a dog with good traits can experience hunting for birds and other game as a human-canine team.
Coffman, M. Feeding the high performance bird dog.
Corkran, C. M. (2015). “An Extension of Me”: Handlers Describe Their Experiences of Working with Bird Dogs. Society & Animals, 23(3), 231-249.
Gutzwiller, K. J. (1990). Minimizing dog-induced biases in game bird research. Wildlife Society Bulletin (1973-2006), 18(3), 351-356.
Steen, J. B., Mohus, I., Kvesetberg, T., & Walløe, L. (1996). Olfaction in bird dogs during hunting. Acta physiologica scandinavica, 157(1), 115-119.
Williams, B. O. (2012). Bird Dog: The Instinctive Training Method. Willow Creek Press.