Bird Dogs & Training  |  05/18/2017

First Season with My Flat-Coated Retriever

The most common question you’ll be asked when you get your first bird dog is, “what breed did you get?” If your response is not a Lab, golden retriever, German shorthaired pointer, or Brittany, have a follow-up answer ready. I’ve been answering the “what breed?” question for over two years, always providing a flat-coated retriever as my response. Typically, it’s a puzzled look that prompts my follow up – “He looks like a black golden retriever.”

Why a Flat-Coat?

Recently categorized as one of the forgotten retrievers, here is a quick timeline of how the flat-coated retriever, uncommon in the uplands, became my first bird dog:
1. Growing up my family had three dogs: a lap dog, a black lab, and an English setter. Watching how excited the lab and setter got when my Dad took out his hunting gear first sparked my interest in hunting.
2. In middle school I was already thinking about what dogs I’d eventually own – so much that I made a list by checking out the Dog Encyclopedia from the library and rating my favorite breeds. The flat-coated retriever received 4-stars and ranked #2 on my list. Only the Bernese mountain dog ranked higher, and you can’t hunt with a bernie.
3. After college, I started working at Pheasants Forever. Working at a dog-friendly office moved my attention away from trying to convince my dad to get another bird dog and focused my efforts on my own ideal hunting dog search. I still remembered the flat-coat from the Dog Encyclopedia, so I did a lot of research (again). I’d never met or even seen a flat-coat in person.
My Flat-Coat Findings
  • Utilitarian retriever that’s well-balanced, strong, but elegant
  • Primarily a family companion hunting retriever—keen and birdy, flushing within gun range, resourceful on both land and water
  • A gun dog with a sense of humor
  • Well-deserved reputation for being clowns…these dogs love life
  • An intelligent breed that’s easily trained and does best without harsh correction    
  • Cheerful, optimistic, good-humored 
  • Compare most closely to the perpetually happy golden, but with more mischief and inventiveness
  • Peter Pan dogs: Retain youthfully good-humored outlook on life into old age  
  • Full of fun with busy minds – they like to be worked; a bored flat-coat is an unhappy one
  • Desire to please with a confident, happy, and outgoing attitude characterized by a wagging tail
4. The flat-coated retriever again received 4-stars. This was my ideal hunting dog: a jet-black, strong and elegant, multi-talented bird dog AND an outdoor-loving goofball that would make me laugh and get me outside daily.
Now a 2-year-old dog, my flat-coat, “Lux,” and a Chesapeake Bay retriever bring diversity to our lab-dominated retriever club on training nights. Last fall, the adventure of getting both Lux’s and my first wild roosters ensured this flat-coat will never be a forgotten retriever.   

Our First Season

Lux’s first October came when he was 9-months-old. Rather than hitting the fields then, I chose to have Lux spend his first season at Cannon River Kennels, mastering force-fetch and retrieving an endless amount of pigeons. When I got him back on Christmas Eve Day, I was confident the foundation and prey-drive I wanted in my dog had been established. Delaying our first hunting season together was the right choice for us.

Training Group
At the start of summer 2016, I had a great pigeon dog. The trainer worked Lux on pigeons. I worked Lux on pigeons. The problem was I didn’t have a pigeon coop, and I didn’t want to keep buying pigeons from a guy in the Menards parking lot. In order to gain access to birds and needed expertise, I looked into local retriever clubs. This ended up being one of the best decisions I made as a first-time bird dog owner and trainer.
From May to August Lux was introduced to ducks, pheasants, chukars, dummy launchers, ponds, hills, decoys and boats. And he wasn’t the only one learning new things. At the same time, I was introduced to doubles, triples, blind retrieves, hunt tests and bacon-wrapped snow goose (yum!).
At every training night I ran Lux on single marks. First, we worked on getting him to push past decoys and challenging cover changes. After that it was clear he had learned how far I could throw, so the focus became stretching him out in new and varying cover. Prior to training nights, Lux’s only water experience was lakeshore-based. When ponds were introduced I learned Lux liked to cheat, so we also worked on addressing that common problem.

Hunt Tests
While intimidating at first, joining the retriever club elevated the goals I had for Lux and I and my ability to get us there. An example of an elevated goal was deciding to run Lux in a hunt test. The retriever club I joined is affiliated with the North America Hunting Retriever Association (NAHRA). Thus, over the summer, I ran Lux in two NAHRA Started Retriever tests; he passed both. We’ll need to pass two more tests for Lux to earn his first title (a goal for this year). Being new to the hunt test world, I found the tests to be similar to the 5Ks and half marathons I run – you pay to play, but it keeps you committed to training and improving.
First Hunt
Right out of the gate, Lux’s offseason training was put to the test on his first hunt – the Governor’s Pheasant Opener in Montevideo. When I arrived I learned that I would be hunting in the Governor’s party, which also included four congressmen. As I was attending representing Pheasants Forever, Lux needed to be on his best behavior, and he needed to perform.  
That hunt, Lux flushed his first hen and worked another hen the length of a field. I was pleased to see the positive effect of scent hitting his nose; he hunted harder the next 15 minutes after a flush. While we didn’t bag a bird, I received compliments for how well Lux listened and took away that I needed to get more live pheasants under Lux’s nose if I was serious about developing a great pheasant dog.
It was time to make another investment in my flat-coat. While game farm hunts aren’t cheap, they are guaranteed birds for a young dog needing more experience. For the hunt, we were set up in a corner field that resembled public land cover (not corn rows) with two pheasants and three chukars. From that hunt I learned three things: 1) I need to get my gun up quicker, 2) Lux likes to air scent, and 3) when Lux takes a hard turn and veers off … follow the dog!! It was a “connect the dots” hunt for Lux that also helped me learn his hunting tendencies. Additionally, it was a great warm-up for our November road trip to western Minnesota.  
First Wild Rooster
For our Friday drive to Marshall, Minnesota, my Dad, Lux and I stopped in Sleepy Eye to hunt. A coworker had circled a promising WMA on my public lands map. Tucked just off the main road, the parcel offered prime early season cover to test my young retriever on wild birds again. As luck would have it, shortly into our first push, Lux put up a bird that my Dad still claims cackled right at me. I didn’t hear it and failed to get a shot off – stuck in the bad habitat of trying to identify a bird prior to shouldering my gun.
On our push back to the truck, I was still replaying how fast that rooster sped out of range when Lux’s tail started picking up speed. We were pushing birds again! Excitement heightened, the pace quickened and before we knew it two roosters erupted out of the grassy cover ahead. Without missing a beat, my Dad shouldered his gun and shot. One rooster escaped across the road, but the other started its plummet. “That bird still has legs,” my Dad yelled to me as Lux went bounding towards the fall site, a marshy ditch. When we reached Lux, he was hovered over a clump of thick marsh grass, tail waving frantically.
“Where’s the bird, Lux?!” my Dad asked, and Lux responded by pushing deeper into the grass. Apparently, that was all my Dad needed to see. He handed me his gun and dropped down to join the search party. A few moments later, my Dad looked to me smiling. “I’ve got him!” he said, “Now help clear this grass so I can pull him out.”
When we finally got that rooster out, Lux couldn’t take his eyes off his prize. A first bird for the flat-coat. For that reason and more, our southwest Minnesota hunting trip will forever hold a special place in my heart. It was a trip of firsts – first wild rooster for Lux, first wild rooster for me, and Lux’s first Minnesota limit. To any other metro-based, first-time bird dog owners: they aren’t kidding when they say it takes birds to make a bird dog, and southwest Minnesota has birds.
Late Season Development
Having mastered hunting in early season cover, the onset of Minnesota winter brought a new challenge to a young hunting duo – frozen cattails sloughs and smart roosters. Lux’s air scenting habits proved ineffective in cattails. He’d get birdy but would lose scent in the dense cover. It wasn’t until the final 20 minutes of our last hunt that we had our late season triumph. Usually one or two whistle stops and Lux’s birdiness would die off, but not this time. Another whistle blast and Lux slammed on the brakes as I hurried to catch up. Once released, Lux’s nose hit the ground and he was off to the races again until the next whistle stop.
As the chase neared the slough’s edge, I saw a hen pop her head out of a clump of cattails. Sure enough, there was Lux on the other side, but he seemed to be frozen in awe that this bird hadn’t flushed yet. On the cue of “Get it, Lux!” he pounced towards the hen who finally launched herself skyward. “Hen!” I hollered to my Dad. He smiled and signaled for me to bring the dog around to a patch we skipped over during the pursuit. With 15 minutes of daylight remaining, Lux caught scent of another hen and off to the races we went again.
The Nose Dog
By the time our season ended, I had learned an important thing about Lux: he is a nose dog. If there’s not strong bird scent in an area, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish Lux hunting versus Lux going for a stroll at the off-leash dog park. In other words, what turns Lux into a crazed bird dog isn’t the sight of guns and hunting gear; rather, it’s 100% bird scent. So, what happens to the nose dog when a bird holds so tight that he actually catches all of that bird’s scent? I got to witness this scenario taking Lux to a game farm on January 15 to celebrate his second birthday.
Snow combined with pen-raised birds resulted in extremely tight holding birds, which meant complete system overload for the nose dog. A nose of 100% bird scent resulted in failure to move. My flat-coated retriever turned flat-coated flash pointer. Luckily, not all the birds held that tight, and we still got to witness some great flushes and retrieves from the birthday dog. At the end of the hunt our group had 17 pheasants, 6 chukars, and one tired but extremely happy bird dog.
Story by Emy Marier, Pheasants Forever membership marketing specialist
Photo Credit: Main and third image by Jim Marier; First image by Josh Dahlstrom; Second and fourth image by Emy Marier