Is steady training worth the time and investment with a gun dog?
Dog One on point. Dog Two hurtles in around a thick tangle of juniper and slams the back, honoring his bracemate. Both hold motionless except for a barely perceptible quiver of excitement. The hunters arrange themselves for a sweep of shooting lanes on either side of the lead dog. The bird bursts skyward and is taken on the first shot. After a pause to let the adrenaline settle, Dog One’s handler releases her for the retrieve.
The choreography isn’t quite that perfect most of the time, but when everything works in sync, it’s a win-win for hunters and dogs. The key is steadiness.
I didn’t always train my dogs to be steady to flush, wing, shot and fall. In fact, I owned my first German shorthair for a couple of years before I saw what finished dogs can do. My introduction to pointing dogs initially had been over two excellent noses, an English pointer named Mike and a wirehaired pointing griffon named Jake. Hunting at a local preserve, I shot my first quail over Mike. He tore out on the shot, raced to the bird, grabbed it then took it to the woods and ate it. New to bird hunting, I was surprised but figured that was an acceptable norm.
Fast forward 20 years and countless training clinics later; I can’t imagine not wanting a steady dog.
The oft repeated joke goes that the bird dog owner who doesn’t believe in steadiness is the one whose dog is flying six fields over in hot pursuit of the bird he busted before the hunters were close enough for a shot. That joke isn’t completely fair. There are many fine bird dogs who are not steady to wing, shot and fall, and some good reasons why. (Note: Similar arguments for or against steadiness can be made for flushing dogs without a “whoa” trained into the moment of the flush followed by steadiness until released.)
The first reason most bird dogs are not steady is time. Steadiness training is not particularly difficult, but it is time consuming. Whether it’s done with a check cord or ecollar, planted birds or pop traps, it requires a lot of patience, practice and reinforcement to ingrain in the dog’s performance. And in most cases, the job is never permanently done.
My 7-year-old “finished” shorthair starts breaking on the shot every year when ruffed grouse season opens. He does this because he can, because I usually hunt alone and can’t watch the dog, watch the bird, shoot the bird and correct the dog at the same time. At some point every year, I have to reclaim his steadiness with training drills.
The second argument is connected to the first. Why it takes so much time to train steadiness is because we ask our dogs to do something that goes against their instincts. Bird dog breeders conscientiously select for strong hunting skills such as nose and prey drive. In training, we spend half our time developing some of those skills (such as organizing the search, lengthening the natural pause into a held point, and shifting the retrieve from possession to delivery) and half our time suppressing others (like pouncing on the prey and eating it). Holding steady is not fundamentally natural.
Cost is the third reason. Unless you know a farmer with a barn full of pigeons to catch, training birds are expensive.
The fourth reason frequently given for not training steadiness through to the drop is wanting the dog out there as fast as possible on the mark, especially if the bird is crippled and running. The first three arguments against steadiness can’t be refuted, but this one can with the answer to one question: Which dog is more likely to keep its focus on downed game – one that is crashing through trees and brush, or one that is still, concentrating on the sight of the bird’s descent?
Switching to the pro-steadiness side, other benefits are obvious. Steady dogs give shooters time to get in position for a shot. This is hugely important hunting grouse in thick woods or working pheasants in a brushy draw. Steady dogs won’t distract a shooter with peripheral movement. Steady dogs are less likely to inadvertently flush other quail in a covey when the birds haven’t all flown together. Steady dogs won’t steal retrieves from other dogs, or worse, risk a dog fight or mangled bird when they both claim the game.
Most important, and the reason that wins the argument hands down, is safety. We’ve all seen a dog leap in the air after a flushing bird. We don’t want to see that dog’s head in front of the gun barrel. The dog that stays put next to or behind the shooter will not get in the way of shots at low flying birds. A steady dog will not be in danger when there are multiple shooters or bird flushing at intervals when the action can become hectic.
Upland bird hunting is a pursuit of a thousand variables that seem to converge in moments of amazing intensity. Taking one of the variables – an uncontrolled bird dog – out of the moment is worth the investment in time and training.