A few years ago at a National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic pro-trainer question and answer panel, a man in the audience complained to the trainers that his dog worked too consistently at a reasonably close range.
“I want to run him in field trials,” the man said, “but he won’t range out farther than I can get to him quickly to be in shooting range.” He was pretty wound up despite most of the bird dog owners in the audience snickering about how the guy shouldn’t complain, how he’s pretty darn lucky, etc.
“How do I get my dog to run really big, really?” he insisted.
Delmar Smith, famous for his sage advice, slowly stood up and took the microphone.
“Buy another dog,” Delmar said. That ended the discussion.
Range issues are a common problem for many pointing dog owners. Ranging too far out, that is. Heady with scent or fueled by the drive to find game, many pointing dogs soar across the prairie or crash through the woods so fast and far that their handlers expect to see another zip code on their GPS by the time they reach their dog on point. Sadly, some birds don’t cooperate and will have flushed long before the hunter gets close enough for a shot.
Range problems have a simple equation. Speed plus distance. Scott Linden, author of What the Dogs Taught Me writes, “Running hell-bent for election certainly helps cover more hunting territory. But my old dog Yankee taught me that most times, it pays to slow down. When we do we usually find more birds and enjoy better dog work.”
“Energetic, enthusiastic dogs can blow right past sitting birds. They could be exhaling when they pass through the scent cone, or a brief wind shift may have pushed the scent trail the other way,” Scott explains. “Warmer temperatures or thick cover minimize the spread of bird scent and could impact a speeding dog’s ability to detect it.”
Whose fault is a ranging-too-far dog? It’s fair to say both dog and owner. In the case of the dog, its need for speed may be genetic. Some dogs simply run farther and faster. Breeds like English pointers, Brittanys and German shorthairs trend towards running big. Gordon setters, Spinones, and some of the Braques have a reputation for closer work. Within any breed, however, there can be big runners and tight workers.
The owner’s fault is threefold. First, not doing research on how a particular breed or lineage ranges can result in getting a dog that naturally ranges farther than the owner expects. Second, many owners don’t give their dogs a solid training foundation. Without that, it is very difficult to handle a dog so it will search a particular type of cover in a workable distance. Third, not understanding how a dog works a cover can result in handling that allows the dog to indulge in its “excess.”
One range control training exercise for puppies is to take them into the woods or some sort of thick cover at an age when they are not yet confident enough to stay out of sight of you for long. Let the pup run ahead, then hide behind a tree or bush until he comes back – usually with a worried look – looking for you. When he gets close, greet him with praise and affection to teach him that checking in is a very positive thing.
Teaching a young pup to quarter a field, to work it side to side (think old typewriters or windshield wipers), turning back to its handler on a command or whistle, gives it a basis for handling in other types of covers. Quartering can be taught first with a long lead – let the dog run out, then tug the lead to bring him back, giving a distinct whistle blow as he turns. (I use a twee-ooo-eee high to low to high whistle that is clearly different from my quick tweet-tweet recall whistle.) Walk the opposite way, let him run out ahead, then toot and tug again, turning back to the original direction. It’s one of the easiest types of foundation training.
In their extensive online training center, experts Jim and Phyllis Dobbs offer a training drill using liberated quail to teach a dog to hunt close. “Visually mark the area where the bird landed....Take off through the field and let the dog get out and hunt. Position yourself so that when you call the dog in, you are in the area where the bird landed. As the dog approaches the area, begin whistling, making a sound like ‘wheep-wheep-wheep.’ Continue whistling as you look around for the bird. The dog will find the bird, and with experience will associate the ‘Hunt Close’ whistle with finding birds in a close proximity to you.” This drill can be done with planted pen-raised quail or chukar, although the dog may track the bird planter’s scent instead of searching unscented ground before finding the bird.
These two drills give the hunter a means by which to tell the dog to turn back from the direction he’s hunting in and to stay in a tighter range to search. Keep in mind, though, that a pointing dog’s purpose is to work beyond gun range to find birds you wouldn’t stumble on yourself or locate with a flushing dog.
Smart handling can help, and slowing down is often all it takes. Scott Linden writes, “Sometimes, we’re the guilty party, going too fast and trying to cover 100 acres of CRP field all at once. A dog will start exploring that yummy hint of scent, and his owner will urge him on. If pressured to move quickly, dogs won’t circle the area to get a new vector on scent.”
Besides slowing your pace, moving in a pattern can help your dog determine how far to range. If you quarter back and forth across a cornfield or prairie slope, your dog is more likely to do the same than if you were walking straight ahead sending him the message to keep surging farther out.
Handlers should also watch their dogs and learn how to tell when they get birdy. If your dog shows signs that he’s getting scent – rapid wagging, lowered head, crisscrossing the same ground, consulting an Audubon bird identification book – stop and let him search the area before pushing on.
Technology gives us a few more handling options. E-collars can be used instead of whistled or verbal commands, relying on a “nick” or “momentary” stimulation to warn the dog he’s out too far. One training system teaches the dog to quarter or turn on a vibration or tone. That’s handy when hunting in a lot of wind or if the dog is running through brush so thick he might not hear a voice or whistle.
Canine GPS tracking, with or without training stimulation features, is now available from several different manufacturers. The GPS itself can’t be used to control range. It can only give location and motion information to the handler about that far-ranging dog (you know, the one on point a half mile away over the stream up the steep side of the ridge where the razor sharp thorn apples grow...). Nonetheless, a GPS collar is an unequivocal safety device for finding lost dogs. And there are many terribly sad stories of dogs lost while hunting, even ones that didn’t range too far.
It would be great if we could sit down before a hunt, show our pointing pal the local topo map and together plan who will work where and how. But since that’s not likely to happen, we can only rely on training and handling. That’s not a bad alternative. In fact, it’s an invitation to relish the challenge of every hunt.
Nancy Anisfield, an outdoor photographer/writer, sporting dog enthusiast and bird hunter, serves on Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s National Board of Directors. She resides in Hinesburg, Vermont.