It takes exposure to birds, as well as introducing foundation basics at key development stages, to make a good bird dog, according to pro bird dog trainer Ronnie Smith of Ronnie Smith Kennels
in Big Cabin, Oklahoma.
“You can have the best trained dog in the field, but not necessarily one that is a good bird finder,” says Smith, whose “Developing a Bird Dog” seminar was one of several presentations by professional sporting dog trainers on the Bird Dog Bonanza Stage at the 2017 National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic, held this past February in Minneapolis. “In order to train a good bird finder, there are three important development stages a dog must complete before he or she starts a formal training program.”
To help ensure your dog reaches his or her potential, follow Smith’s guide to training during these three key development stages.
- Socializing Your Pup As a trainer, your job is to shape your dog’s unbridled passion and natural instinct to the desired behavior of a confident, mannerly bird dog. Therefore, a dog must be receptive to his or her trainer and the act of being trained. Socialization occurs during the first 6 months of age and involves exposing pups to people, other dogs and situations to which he or she will later be exposed, such as car rides. Dogs that aren’t well-socialized often can misinterpret situations and could forever lack proper social skills.
- Enhancing a Dog’s High Desire for Game A young dog should be given the opportunity to develop his or her inherent prey drive through exposure to birds. This can be accomplished during the imprinting stage, or the first 6 months of life, when a pup’s primal desire for game is awakened, and he or she becomes enthusiastic about birds. Missing this window of opportunity for building prey drive to a pinnacle before a dog reaches one year of age can result in a dog that is never able to reach his or her field potential.
- Introducing Field Sights & Sounds Once a dog begins to excitedly find and chase birds, you can properly introduce the sights and sounds of what the dog will later experience in the field. A dog exposed to birds, new grounds and new situations will more readily train than a pup denied these exposures.
During these three development stages, you can begin to nurture the retrieving process with your dog, usually around 12 weeks of age. “Anything that moves and encourages prey drive will help start and encourage a dog’s retrieving ability,” says Smith.
Smith advises owners to be choosy about which objects are used during the retrieving process, particularly avoiding anything that squeaks. “Squeaky toys can promote a hard mouth and possessive mindset,” he cautions.
Smith says there is no particular age when a dog should begin a formal training regimen, but rather, after he or she has reached and completed all three development stages and is nearing a year of age. “You’ll know when your dog is ready to move on to training,” he says. “These development stages lay the groundwork in developing a willing, biddable bird dog.”