To Steady or Not To Steady

Steady Training

Is steady training with a gun dog worth the time and investment?

Dog One is 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 that lets 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 both hunter and dog. The key is steadiness.

I didn’t always train my dogs to be steady for 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. One was an English pointer named Mike and the other was a wirehaired pointing griffon named Jake. I shot my first quail over Mike hunting at a local preserve. He tore out on the short, raced to the bird, and grabbed it. Then he took it to the woods—and ate it. New to bird hunting, I was surprised, but took it as an acceptable norm.

Fast forward twenty years and countless training clinics later: I can’t imagine not wanting a steady dog.

There is an oft-repeated joke about all this. The bird dog down owner who doesn’t believe in steadiness is the one with a dog flying six fields over in hot pursuit of the bird he busted before being close enough for a shot. The joke isn’t completely fair. There are many fine bird dogs who are not steady to wing, shot, and fall—for good reason. By the way, similar arguments can be made about the “whoa” trained into the moment of a flush, followed by steadiness until release.

Time is the first reason mot bird dogs are not steady. Steadiness training is not particularly difficult, but it is time consuming. This is true whether or not it’s done with a check cord or e-collar, planted birds or pop traps. Steadiness training requires a lot of patience, practice, and reinforcement. And in most cases, the job is never permanently done.

My 7 year-old shorthair is technically finished, but that doesn’t stop him from breaking on the shot every year when ruffed grouse opens. He does this, because he can. I usually hunt alone and can’t both watch the dog, 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. Steadiness training takes so much time, because we ask our dogs to do something that goes against their instincts. Bird dog breeders conscientiously select for strong hunting skills like nose and prey drive. In training, we spend half our time developing skills like organizing the search, lengthening the natural pause into a held point, and shifting the retrieve from possession to delivery. The other half we spend suppressing others skills like pouncing on the prey and eating it. Holding steady is unnatural.

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 is often the desire to get the dog on the mark as soon as possible—especially if the bird is crippled and running. The first three arguments against steadiness can’t be refuted, but this one can be. Which dog is more likely to keep its focus on downed game? The dog crashing through brush, or the dog concentrating on the sight of the bird’s descent?

Other benefits are obvious. Steady dogs give shooters time to get in position for a shot. This is hugely important when it comes to hunting grouse in thick woods or working pheasants in a brushy draw. Steady dogs won’t distract a shooter with peripheral movement. In addition, they are less likely to inadvertently flush other quail in a covey when the birds haven’t all flown together. They won’t steal retrieves from other dogs, or worse: risk a dog fight or mangled bird when they both claim the game.

Safety finally wins the argument. 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 the shooter will not get in the way of shots at low flying birds. Similarly, a steady dog will not be in danger when the action becomes hectic due to multiple shooters or birds flushing at intervals.

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.

Last modified: May 1, 2018

10 Responses to :
To Steady or Not To Steady

  1. Steve Roche says:

    I have two flushing dogs; labs. They are both steady to flush wing and shoot. It is my believe that I can get a better more confident, safe shot with the steady dog. I always know were he is. Consequently, less cripples. They only goon a send command; their name. so I can send them on a cripple after I shoot if I need to.

    1. Doug says:

      Having a steady dog gives you a choice. If you want you can send your dog before the bird is on the ground or you can wait. It’s your choice when the dog goes not the dogs.

  2. Paul Fuller says:

    Nancy, very well done. I’ve never heard a good reason yet for not breaking a dog to wing and shot. The number of dogs shot each year while chasing birds is frightful…especially low flying quail. This is the No. 1 reason we started Bird Dogs Afield TV nine years ago…to demonstrate better dog work.
    http://www.birddogsafield.com.

  3. Rick says:

    If someone shoots their dog, its never the dogs fault. Steady or not steady, you just have to be careful.

    1. Steve S. says:

      I completely agree to this. A hunter should know their limits. If you’re taking an unsafe shot just to bag a bird, then you’re hunting for a different reason than the majority of us.

  4. John Sullivan says:

    Steady, and steady to wing shot and fall are two different situations. I believe steady until the hunter flushes the bird is all that is necessary. That must also include the dog being trained to stop to flush. I hunt up to four dogs at a time in chukar country and making sure that all dogs were STWS&F would be impossible. I have had four FC/AFC dogs that were STWS&F for competition but I did not demand that when hunting. Cripes! Most pointing dog owners use them as flushing dogs half the time anyway. Just watch Scott Linden’s Wingshooting USA show. Hunting dog owners are highly unlikely to spend the time necessary to have a dog STWS&F. Most don’t even spend the time to demand that they be steady until the hunter flushes the bird. Any responsible hunter has no problem avoiding shots where the dog is too close to the bird. If the dog is steady and you walk out in front of the dog to flush the bird the only bad situation would be semi late flyers. Your goals are unrealistic and unnecessary.

    1. Nancy Anisfield says:

      Thanks so much for replying and sharing your thoughts. If you get a chance, check out Wingshooting USA’s Episodes 34 and 27; both focus on steady dogs.

  5. Missy says:

    Hi Nancy, another well written and informative article. Thanks

  6. Flairball says:

    I strongly believe that a dog should be trained not only to wing, shot and fall, but fully finished to handle blinds, honor a brace mate, and stop to a wild flush. Why? Not because it’s impressive, or to be a show off, but because every minute a dog owner spends training their dog creates a better bond, thus making them a better team in the field. Even if one never finishes their dog, the on going training is super beneficial. We all want a dog that will work hard for us. Train to the highest level you can, and your dog will perform better than you’ve ever thought possible. Remember, if you haven’t trained your dog to do anything, you can’t ask it to do anything.

    1. Paul Fuller says:

      Flairball, very well stated.

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