Raising and training a bird dog in an urban environment presents its own set of challenges and rewards
By Doug Spale
My gun dog odyssey began amid towering skyscrapers, squealing elevated trains and the bustling cityscape of Chicago.
This story arises from a promise to my father that I would develop a gundog with the prowess to hunt the storied Great Plains, where I was raised. My path was lovingly crafted by my father, who preached to me both passion and respect for nature, its peoples, and gundogs.
I began my quest armed with Richard Wolters’s classic book Game Dog
, a bag of bumpers, a whistle, and a blue-blooded black Labrador named Sunka O’ War.
Training a gun dog in Chicago was a rewarding while sometimes challenging process. My journey progressed through various milestones while working through the developmental stages of Sunka’s maturity.
I also had to balance all the variables life presents, including a young attorney’s lifestyle and all the attractions a big city offers. Throughout our odyssey, I discovered that time was a precious commodity and its lack of availability an inescapable truth.
Nevertheless, my promise became my motivation, and Sunka’s successes sustained balance in my life as we formed a supreme bond. But a continuously changing city often impeded our established routines.
For example, I utilized my “L” (elevated train) rides to work as scouting opportunities for new areas to train. My dog and I often practiced within the confines of fenced vacant lots. As I fumbled with check cords, our frozen flyers were released on cold rainy mornings, and the whistle commands were perfected amongst many curious eyes.
We encountered many distractions along the way, including rabbits and squirrels. As we overtook the parks, Sunka’s endurance was tested by these favorite dog-friends. Our early morning training sessions before the city awoke were special, as an empty lot, park or forgotten space transformed itself into our oasis of serenity.
As each fall approached, we would venture out to (not-so) local game preserves to refine our flush-sit-release with gunfire and live quarry. These tune-ups were vital to hunting success, and provided exceptional opportunities and advantages that I could not replicate in the city.
Although a city presents numerous challenges to gundog training, the journey also had a handful of advantages.
From a young age, Sunka was fortunate to socialize with many different dogs. This translated well to our hunting experiences because she was never aggressive to other dogs or competitive with her bumpers, toys or birds.
Sunka learned to swim against the robust waves and strong current of Lake Michigan.
Our dog-friendly city allowed Sunka to interact in many social settings, which I used as an opportunity to reinforce her soft-natured temperament and obedience.
Our time together in Chicago was epic. Our training regimen, while unique, was steady. As a result I was able to deliver a savvy birddog to my father when we got chances to hunt together.
I guess my message is, you can raise and love and train a bird dog in an urban setting. Sunka’s hunting prowess was perfected in forgotten municipal lots, on public beaches, and amongst islands of green spaces. Our journey was hardly ideal, but Chicago was our home and we made the most of it.
Through no fault of the city, a health tragedy took Sunka from me early, just as she was reaching her prime. That is perhaps a story for another time. The memories created afield with my father and Sunka O’ War shall live with me forever.
However, my story is not finished. I begin anew. Life has taken me to a new city. And a new pup is on the way. Stay tuned.
Doug Spale grew up in Nebraska and seems to be working his way back westward. He loves bird dogs and is perhaps a waterfowler at heart, but seems to be adding more uplanding into his mix.