Spring is here, which means it’s prime puppy acquisition time. As the weather warms up, you may be training a new pup to hunt in this fall’s upland bird season. Here, professional bird dog trainer Ronnie Smith of Ronnie Smith Kennels in Big Cabin, Oklahoma, shares his top tips for developing your well-bred pup into a lean, bird-finding machine.
- Do Your Homework: Thoroughly research breeds before deciding which is best suitable for your lifestyle and what you want to accomplish in the field. “Be wary of what you read on the Internet,” Smith advises. “Instead, talk to reputable breeders with a history of strong bloodlines to learn which bird dog breed is the best fit for you.”
- Start with Socialization: Socialization lays the groundwork for early training. It’s important for your pup to be well-socialized, because a dog with poor social skills can misinterpret what you’re looking for in the field. “Give your dog as much exposure to life as possible so he’s bulletproof when it comes time to train,” says Smith. “Take him for car rides, bring him to events with people and other dogs, and let anyone who wants to pet your dog do so.”
- Encourage Prey Drive: “A hardworking hunting dog must have a high level of desire for game,” Smith says. “This strong instinct makes the dog more coachable during training.” Expose dogs to birds as early as 12 weeks of age to encourage their natural prey drive. Smith adds, “When in the field, you want to get your dog to the point he is solely focused on the bird.”
- Establish Pack Mentality: “A dog is a pack animal and needs to know where he falls in the hierarchy,” says Smith. “In order to be a trainer, you have to be a leader.” Remember that as a trainer, be firm, fair and consistent. Puppies need lots of positive reinforcement.
- Reduce Unnecessary Stimulation: Smith points out that excessive petting and squeaky toys can cause problems in your hardworking bird dog. “When a dog is overstimulated, he can begin to disregard commands, so you lose control as a trainer,” he says. Make sure to keep training structured, so your dog can focus on the task at hand.
- Nutrition Powers Performance: Part of having a quality bird dog is feeding a complete and balanced quality dog food. It’s best to feed a high-protein/high-fat performance food year-round, adjusting the amount fed during the off-season. “I feed my dogs Purina Pro Plan SPORT Performance 30/20 Formula,” says Smith. “It fuels them with the proper nutrients to power through training.”