Whatever you do, dont shoot the dog - By Tom Keer

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I've never seen a bird dog get shot, but I hear of at least one instance per year. When the stories roll in I get sick to my stomach. They unfold in pretty much the same way. A group of folks review the pre-hunt safety talk. All have heard it before, all are in agreement. The dogs are cut loose, the hunt is underway, and spirits are high. Jokes fly around, conversation is light, and everyone agrees they are more happy in the field than at work.

The dogs are doing great. They're handling well and performing exactly as they should. The days, weeks, months and years of training are paying off. Then there is a point followed by a back. The handler announces, 'get ready," and that's the last clear recollection anyone has about the event. The rest is a gray area that everyone wishes could be walked back.

There are a lot of moving parts to wingshooting. There is finding productive areas, being savvy to all state and Federal regulations, handling dogs, working terrain with other hunters, and you know the long list, for it goes one. Things get complicated when hunting over other people’s dogs, running pointer/flusher combinations, and pursuing wild birds. Here are a few questions to review before you cut your dogs loose.

1. Ask to what level is the dog trained?
Pointing dogs of all breeds are trained to different degrees. If you're hunting with a buddy then the odds are you know a lot about his dogs and his training methods. If you're new to the group then ask what level of dog work you'll likely see so you can be prepared to be safe.
Broke: A broke dog is steady to wing, shot, and drop. After the flush and shots, the handler releases his stationary dog from the point, usually with a tap on its head. It takes a lot of training time and good genetics to have a finished dog that stands its birds like a statue. Broke dogs are used on wild birds, on preserves and in field trials. When the bird flushes these dogs simply won't move upwards of 99.9% of the time. That said, we all have our days and there may be one day in 1000 when a broke dog bolts.
Steady to wing-and-shot: These dogs lock up on point and remain so when the bird flushes. They also hold tight until shots are reported. At that point they'll break to pursue the downed bird and quickly get on the quarry for a retrieve. Dogs that are steady to wing-and-shot are used on wild birds as well as on preserves.
Steady-to-wing: Dogs that are steady to wing lock up on bird and hold their point until the bird flushes. Steady-to-wing is a common training method among wild bird hunters for a variety of reasons. First, the wild birds are up and gone at the flush. The theory is that steady-to-wing dogs quickly get to the bird for a retrieve. Second, wing-tipped birds can run, so a dog that gets close to where the bird dropped easily picks up foot scent and returns with the bird. And third, wild birds don't hop like a preserve bird on a rainy day. But that’s not always the case, for wild birds have a mind of their own, too.

2. Pointer-flusher combinations
Over the past few decades, the use of both pointing and flushing dogs has increased in popularity. It's with good reason, for cutting loose a big-running dog helps handlers find more birds. After the birds are found the handler gets his hunters in position for a proper kill shot. When everyone is clear about his shooting lanes and safety protocol, a flushing dog is put on the ground to get the birds into the air. After birds tumble from the sky the flushing dogs gather harvested game and then is picked up. The pointing dogs are released to find more birds.

English springer spaniels, English Field Cockers, and Labrador retrievers are frequently used as flushing dogs. The issue of a shot dog often comes when a flushing dog puts birds in the air. If the dog has strong prey-drive, which we hope they all do, then it might leap up after the bird. There are a lot of different solutions to this issue, all of which involve patience. Hunters who wait for an extra moment find that gravity brings the dog back to earth. They also find that the bird has gained extra height, and hunters can take a safe shot with lots of blue sky between the dog and the bird. That degree of patience also means the shot can develop for another hunter in the group. His shot is probably more safe, too.

3. Low birds mean no birds.
Sometimes birds fly low. Preserve hunts with recently liberated birds mean that some of the pheasant, Huns or quail might not be flight conditioned. They pop off the ground for a brief flight and then drop back down. And it happens with wild birds on occasion. Every year I see a few migratory woodcock tired from a long night's flight pop up and then quickly drop down. Wild birds like Ruffed grouse, are keen on avoiding avian predators like goshawks, so they may flush low, too. In this case holding off on a shot is the best bet.

4. If you think it can’t happen to veteran bird doggers guess again.
Sometimes it’s easy to let down your guard. It appears as a loss of focus. Lower concentration levels can be related to fatigue coming from several weeks of a daily hunting grind. It might come from hunting an area that is intimately known where by hunters know how to navigate the terrain and where they often find birds. Hunting new areas draws attention to general navigation, how the dogs are working, and where your buddies are. Factor in barbed wire fences, stone walls, heavy brush, terrain changes with a sudden flush and it’s easy to get overloaded. The burst of adrenaline coming from excitement is a rush, but unless your presence of mind is clear an accident might occur. Proper target acquisition is paramount all of the time.

5. How are you going to shoot your birds?
Some hunters only shoot pointed birds while others are fine to take wild-flushes. So as to be on the same team it’s important for hunters to define how they will take their birds prior to cutting the dogs loose. Ever watch a bird working hard to pin a bird or a covey and then hear a shot fired from the periphery? It’s an example of one hunter wanting to shoot a pointed bird while another just wanting to shoot a bird. It’s unnerving, so get everyone on the same page by defining how birds will be handled. Then, stick to the plan.

If you're not excited when a dog is on point or getting birdy for a flush then you're probably not passionate about bird hunting. Take shots that don't put a dog in harm's way. If you're ever in doubt, don't take the shot. I interviewed 15 professional guides for this piece and they all had dogs shot by clients. Based on their feedback I’m honestly surprised that not one is in jail.

About the Author

Tom Keer
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Tom Keer owns The Keer Group, an outdoor marketing company which works perfectly with his freelance writing career. He casts his four English setters in Northeast upland coverts and Southern quail fields with fortunate regularity. Hes been lucky to be surrounded by people and dogs that are much smarter than him. Visit him at www.thekeergroup.com or at www.tomkeer.com


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