In this post, we will be discussing the intro of a young pup to birds. The intro of birds can usually be done with minimal caution with a fairly bold pup. However, it is still good to have a plan to follow as you often don’t really know how bold of a pup you have when they are so young.
As I stated earlier, I personally don’t think the intro of birds has to be done as cautiously as with, let’s say, guns. However, it doesn’t mean that one should go about it without any thought. Hopefully, by the time you picked up your pup your breeder has already introduced your pup to defrosted birds, such as chukar, quail, pigeons, and/or even ducks. I try to do this while our litters are still together at my house as they seem to have less fear when with the “pack.” I sometimes will also introduce the litter of pups to live, but hobbled birds that can’t flap their wings. Flapping wings can sometimes scare the pups at first when very young.
Whether your breeder did or didn’t take the above steps before you acquired your pup, I would still suggest you go ahead and take the steps above, namely: 1. Introduction to a defrosted bird or two, and then moving onto a 2. hobbled bird (e.g., pigeon or quail), before planting birds in the field. This will foster confidence around birds in your young pup. If you happened to read and follow the advice in the blog post entitled “Establishing a Solid Foundation of Retrieving in Pups,” then you are ahead of the game and have already on occasion used a defrosted bird while developing your pups retrieve in the yard.
Most pups will show great excitement around defrosted bird but will show a bit of timidity at first with a hobbled bird. Usually this is normal and they will eventually display excitement once they gain confidence around them. Most pups will move through these two stages quickly and only need one or two exposures of each to show confidence. Once you see confidence with frozen and live shackled pigeons or quail you are ready to move on.
A quick note on using a shackled bird. I’d suggest you put your pup on a light 10-20 ft. check chord. This way the pup can’t grab the bird and run away with you in hot pursuit. It allows for gentle intervention in the event the pup gets overly rough with the bird or attempts to runs off with it. I like to do this when they are 8-9 weeks. Basically, you are putting out the hobbled bird where it can’t flap too much and letting the pup engage it. This is to help the dog gain confidence around birds and for them to realize they won’t be hurt by the bird.
Rule number one, especially at this young age: Always be positive and never harsh with the pup when they are engaging a bird or have one in their mouth. If the pup gets too rough or tries to run off, don’t yell at the pup or be harsh with them. You want them to think birds are a good thing! They may get the wrong idea if you yell at them when they have a bird in the mouth, which is the wrong message you want to convey to your future hunting companion.
Once the pup has the bird in their mouth let them carry it and have fun. Unless they are being too rough with the bird try to not take it away immediately. When you go to take it from them, pull them to you with the check chord and let them hold the bird in their mouth as you gently pet them and speak kindly to them for about 20-30 seconds before you take it.
If the pup clamps down, unwilling to give up the bird when you attempt to take it back, don’t reprimand them. Simply place your hand over the top of their muzzle and with the index and middle finger on one side of the muzzle and the thumb on the other, slowly put increased pressure of their upper lips into their teeth from both sides until they open. At this point you gently take the bird with the other hand and praise your pup for a job well done. If your pup does this don’t stress about it as you have to remember that your pup is being exposed to new things that are very exciting to them. Typically, with additional exposure your pup will settle down and give it up more willingly.
Assuming your pups is showing confidence around live shackled birds, you are ready to put live birds out in grass around 6 inches tall or so. I’d suggest using pigeons, quail or chukar for this exercise as they are smaller (and cheaper) than a pheasant. Keep in mind the pup is still young and undeveloped, so it takes extra effort to pound the brush at this point, so the grass doesn’t need to be tall or the walk too far. The pups are usually between 8-12 weeks or so when I start putting birds in grass. There is some debate on whether a launcher should be used at this young age, as some pups will show fear at the sound of the launcher as it throws a bird into the air. In the name of caution, it is probably best to start with small kick over traps/cages that can keep the bird in place until you get there, instead of a remote launcher at this point. A training buddy made some kick over cages using some rebar and hardware cloth, and they have worked well for me. You can also simply buy some at Gun Dog Supply or Lion Country Supply online. Anyway, I usually put 2 to 3 birds out in these kick over cages/traps within a short distance of each other. It takes only about 100-150 yards of walking total for the entire training exercise at this young age. With age and maturity, you can and should extend this distance between planted birds.
After placing the birds in the field, I simply walk around with the pup coming in about 5-10 yards away from the bird at a cross wind. Sometimes the dog will turn and run right to the bird, sometimes they point, and other times they don’t acknowledge it at all. If they don’t smell it just stand around on the down-wind side until they do. Then, simply walk over, push the trap over with your foot or reach down and free the bird to fly away. When you do this make sure the birds wings don’t flap directly in the pup’s face if possible. Praise the pup as the bird flies off to encourage confidence. The pup may seem a bit nervous or confused or he might give chase. At this point casually stroll towards the next bird and do the same on the rest.
If you assist your pup in gaining confidence around birds by the occasional tossing of a defrosted bird in your yard and have introduced your pup to live but shackled birds, then most likely your pup will move through this stage with confidence and you will be building confidence around birds that will extend for the life of your pup.
The introduction as outlined thus far has covered how one might go about introducing upland birds to pups. Of course, most folks purchase a versatile hunting dog because they want to hunt multiple species. For most v-dog owners in the United States this also means waterfowl is on the menu of things to hunt.
Some folks make the mistake of only introducing upland birds to their pup and forget to take the extra step of exposing their pup to waterfowl. I have found that for some breeds it is more important than for others to expose them to waterfowl periodically throughout early development to reduce the potential for future problems. All dogs are individuals, so it is best to do the proper introduction to mitigate any hesitancy and build proper drive for ducks while young.
Waterfowl act, smell vastly different from, and are larger than most upland birds, so we want to build plenty of confidence and drive around them. We will limit our discussion of waterfowl exposure to ducks at this point as larger waterfowl, such as geese, are too large and intimidating to expose your pup to at this point.
Introduction to defrosted ducks can start while the pup is still pretty young. I often introduce them to defrosted ducks around 12-16 weeks of age. Keep a frozen duck around that you can defrost and toss in your yard for your pup on occasion just like you did with the quail, chuckar, and/or pigeons. As with the above suggestion regarding upland birds, put a light check chord on them and treat the pup with kindness when they are engaging a duck. Praise them and show excitement when they pick it up. You can take the duck to water and toss it short distances in the water as well. You may not even toss it swimming depth. It depends on your pup. Also, don’t use a check chord in the water. Simply meet them at the banks edge when they return, hopefully, with the duck. Once your dog is showing confidence around defrosted ducks you are ready to move on to live ducks. Once they are about 5-6 months old, they are ready for live ducks, first on land and then water.
We have discussed how to properly expose a young pup to both upland birds and waterfowl aka ducks. These methods are proven to work to properly build drive and confidence in your hunting companion around birds. Keep working and you will soon have the dog you dreamed of when you picked them up from your breeder.