Top training techniques to make you and your flushing dog a more effective team
By: Nathan Ratchford
When it comes to grouse dogs, pointers get the lion’s share of attention, but hunting behind a good flushing dog can be a highly effective way to hunt ruffed grouse. It can also be a disaster – an absolute, out-of-control disaster. This is especially the case if you have a high-powered dog that doesn’t care if you’re within gun range when he hits a hot scent trail. Fear not, grouse gunners. Here are some simple flushing dog training tips that you can work on this summer and apply to your hunting come fall.
One of the most common frustrations flushing dog owners have in the tight covers of the grouse woods is keeping their dog within gun range. Simply put, in order for your dog to desire to work closer to you, he needs to understand that birds aren’t found away from you, or out of gun range, but instead are found near you. The best way to do this is in a controlled training situation. You don’t need to train with live birds such as pigeons for this drill, but it certainly helps. Even a tennis ball or high-value scented bumper will work.
First, find a good patch of cover and get your dog focused on you. Then release him to hunt. Use the same hunt command every time. I say “find them.” Let him hunt and quarter in front of you as you walk a relatively straight line through the cover. Whenever you see your dog ranging too far, stop and wait for him to come back into your desired range. After a minute or so, pull a dizzied pigeon or tennis ball from your game bag or vest and toss it 5 to 10 yards from your foot as you turn, stopping and letting him find it. With practice, your flusher will soon learn that game is always found close to you, and he should hunt consistently within gun range.
Patterning & Directionals
Many flushing dogs quarter and pattern naturally, but grouse cover isn’t uniform and flat, and some dogs may begin to hunt behind you or to favor one side, missing a lot of ground where a bird may be hiding. This is why it’s important to develop a proper hunting pattern and, while doing this, also to teach your dog directional hand cues.
In the same hunting drill discussed above, you can teach your flusher hand signals as he quarters. When he’s sifted through the cover on the left enough, get his attention with two toots of your whistle or wait until he looks your way and move your body to the right as you hold out your extended right hand. Sometimes it helps to use exaggerated movements to the right and left. Once he goes with you, validate him with a “good boy.”
But be careful not to overhandle your dog. Do it just enough for him to hunt thoroughly in a windshield wiper-type pattern in front of you. Make sure he finds success with a pigeon or ball. Having a dog understand the direction you wish for him to hunt can be very useful on overgrown two-track roads and when hunting a patch of cover thoroughly, as well as on retrieves where you can offer your dog direction from a distance.
Teaching your dog to sit on the whistle is a very useful tool for when your dog is on the scent of a running bird and moving too fast. It can also be used in conjunction with directionals on a retrieve when the dog has not seen where the bird has dropped.
I use a single whistle blast once my dog understands the command “sit.” I give the command and then hit the whistle, always using them together. Eventually, you can fade out the command entirely and just use the whistle.
You want to prove your dog’s knowledge of this command long before using it in a hunting scenario. Having a remote collar to correct quickly at a distance is very useful for this drill, but you should not need any high-level correction if your dog clearly understands what he is being asked.
Once your dog understands the sit whistle in a controlled situation, such as in the house or backyard, take him out to the field. While he is out running ahead of you, hit the whistle. If he doesn’t stop, vocally correct him saying “no,” and then hit the whistle again. Your dog should quickly catch on to this. Once expectations are clearly understood, you add in a collar if needed or desired. Incrementally add excitement such as a tossed ball, or training in a distracting location, and then your dog should be ready for this whistle command in the fast-paced grouse woods.
A basic but often overlooked training concept that can make your flusher more effective hunting this fall is off-lead heeling. While you travel cover to cover, it’s a good idea to have your flushing dog heeling to conserve energy, especially in the heat of the early season.
The best way to teach reliable heeling is with a slip or wonder lead. Teach your dog that pressure on the leash is bad by changing directions every time he starts pulling ahead of your side with pressure on the leash. Give the leash a quick jolt and change directions. Gradually, make your movements less predictable.
Once your dog is a reliable heeler in a controlled setting, take him to places with more excitement. Then go to the woods and keep him on lead. Simulate hunting with a buddy or other dogs around. Eventually, phase this out entirely, but make sure he stays accountable with an e-collar or another preferred correction once you have phased out the leash and head to the woods. As always, keep expectations reasonable and fair, and strive for progress, not perfection.