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Dog Training with Live Birds
written by Tracy Breen

Using live birds to train pointing dogs, flushing dogs and retrievers helps dogs reach their full potential and teaches them how to respond to birds in the field.
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Pigeon in Launcher for Live Bird Dog Training
Pigeons are cheap, fly like a wild bird and reproduce on their own. Bosma believes having a bird launcher like this one is a must.

Most hunters who've ever owned a hunting dog know how frustrating it can be when fall arrives and the same dog that last year was a retrieving or pointing machine turns into a couch potato. Besides chasing rabbits in the backyard, the family hunting dog probably hasn't seen a live critter in months.

Most of us don't invest enough time training our dogs, so when opening day arrives, the mere sight of a bird causes the dog to melt down. It barks, shakes nervously, and when it's time to retrieve, the dog grabs the bird and only brings it half way back to you, and then drops it on the ground. If that sounds familiar, maybe you need to spend more time training your dog, especially with live birds.

Nothing refreshes a dog's memory more than training with live birds. Buck Bosma from Pleasantview Kennels in Northern Michigan is an expert on training with live birds. Bosma specializes in training German breeds and spends countless hours every summer training his dogs and the dogs of other hunters. "Regular training with live birds can teach young dogs and refresh the memory of older dogs faster than training with a dummy," Bosma explains.

Hunters often don't realize that there is a right way and a wrong way to train a dog with live birds. Some birds are better than others for training dogs. "The best bird for training a hunting dog is a homing pigeon," Bosma says. "Homing pigeons have good flight wings so they can get up and fly very well. They will simply fly home so you don't have to worry about losing lots of birds like you do with quail and other game birds." Another advantage of homing pigeons is they will lay eggs and raise their own young. "Build a coop for them and give them a place to nest. Over time, they will grow in numbers so you won't even have to buy birds. They will become flight conditioned on their own, which is another benefit."

Quail are often used for dog training, and if the birds are flight conditioned, that is fine. However, many quail are not flight conditioned and should not be used for training. "A quail that is not flight conditioned won't fly very well, so in many cases, a young inexperienced dog might catch it before it even takes off during pointing exercises, or the bird will only fly a short distance before sitting down. A dog might chase it down and catch it," Bosma notes. "Either way, the dog is learning bad habits, which is why I like all of my birds to be flight conditioned. They cost a little more, but it is worth the extra expense."

Live Bird Dog Training
Using a launcher ensures the trainer is in control at all times. Once the dog points, you flush the bird.

For training a pointer on live birds, Bosma prefers using a remote bird launcher, which is controlled by a wireless remote like a training collar. The bird stays in the launcher until you hit a button on the remote that lets it out. Launchers are a great tool for teaching pointers to steady on point because the bird stays put regardless of what the dog does. "I put young dogs on a lead and let them work the pigeon that is in the launcher. As soon as the dog starts showing signs of knowing the bird is in the launcher by flash pointing or trying to run in on the bird, I launch the bird," Bosma says. The moment the pigeon hits the air it takes off flying so the dog doesn't catch the bird.

"As the dog matures, it learns that it needs to point and hold so the bird won't flush prematurely. Many good dogs need a refresher course in the summer. I often put a pigeon in a launcher and when the dog points, I walk up to the dog near the launcher and kick around in the grass, making lots of noise," Bosma explains. "I'm trying to get the dog to break point. As soon as the dog breaks point, I launch the bird. If the dog holds point through all of that, I launch the bird and shoot it." Shooting the bird and giving the dog something to retrieve helps the dog learn that if it holds point, it gets a reward. If it doesn't hold point, the bird flushes. Using a launcher keeps the trainer in complete control. "Using a launcher and a pigeon allows me to be almost certain that a dog won't catch a bird during the flush." According to Bosma, if your pointer catches too many birds on its own, pretty soon you will have a flushing dog and not a pointing dog.

On mature dogs who know how to point rock hard and hold it, Bosma uses flight conditioned quail for training. "I will use a small covey of quail to train a dog how to hold point when there are numerous flushes and gun shots. This simulates what can happen with a covey of grouse or wild quail, Bosma notes. "You can set out a few quail and they will stay together. After the first bird goes up, I shoot. Then another bird goes up and so on. During this entire sequence, the dog is learning to stay on point until all of the shooting is done, and then I tell him to fetch the bird." This teaches the dog to mark downed birds and retrieve multiple birds.

Pheasants are expensive, but Bosma trains with them also. "When you bring a dog into the woods to hunt upland game, you want him to be ready for everything. Pheasants are big and loud when they flush, and roosters cackle when they fly. A half-trained dog might not be able to hold point with so much going on when a pheasant flushes, so I use pheasants to finish dogs," Bosma explained. "One of my favorite tricks is bringing a dog that is almost finished right into my pheasant pen. I continually tell the dog, 'Whoa,' as I walk him around with many different kinds of pheasants walking around in front of him. I even shoot a gun a few times to see what the dog will do. If the dog honors my commands with all of those birds and gunfire, I know I have a finished dog. Training in a pen full of pheasants is a good training tool for mature dogs I am trying to finish."

Dog Training with Pigeons
If the dog is steady on point, buck will flush the bird and shoot it.

Bosma will also shake up a pheasant so it is dizzy and lets it out in a field to let a dog track it. Since the bird is dizzy, it often runs. This teaches dogs how to track and hunt running or wounded birds. Bosma does this sparingly with young dogs to teach them to track; doing it too much can interfere with the dog's pointing drive. This is also a great training exercise for a flushing dog.

The bottom line is dogs need to be worked with live birds if they are to reach their full potential. "From the time a dog is a puppy until it reaches a year old, the more often a hunter can use live birds in training, the better the dog will be in the field later on," Bosma explains. "I suggest young dogs be worked with live birds a couple times a week if possible."

After a dog has spent a few years hunting and knows what is expected of him, live bird training isn't needed as frequently, but it's still important. "I train dogs for many hunters in the summer. In many cases, the dogs I am training are pretty good hunting dogs and just need a refresher course to get them ready for the hunting season," Bosma says. Bosma often keeps a dog for a week or more and trains the dog on live birds daily. Bosma consistently holds training classes where he teaches hunting dog owners how to train their own dogs.

Using live birds to train pointing dogs, flushing dogs and retrievers can help a dog reach its full potential. Being exposed to live birds regularly teaches dogs how to respond to birds. A dog that is only trained with a dummy will go crazy when he is introduced to wild birds in the field because there is too much stimuli. A dog that is trained on live birds knows what to do and when to do it when you bring him to the field because he is used to the sights, sounds and smells associated with live birds. If you want your dog to be the best it can be, at least purchase a pigeon or two. You will be amazed with the results.

To learn more about Buck Bosma and Pleasantview Kennels, visit pleasantviewkennel.com or call (231) 330-4333.

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