Duck dog, Essential Behaviors

 by Robert Milner

One spring day in 1980, I was running a dog on a typical field trial water blind. We started about 50 yards back from the water. The line entered the water at a very acute angle of about 20 degrees. About 150 yards our, the line extended past and downwind of a point of land where I had dragged a duck, leaving lots of scent to tempt the dog toward land. It is a fairly typical field trial test. I lined up the dog and sent him. He took the angle entry into the water beautifully and chugged on down the line. When he came abreast of the scented point, he took a sharp right turn toward the duck scent. I gave him a stop whistle. He ignored it. I whistled again. He ignored it again and landed on the bank and started hunting. I blew the Whistle again and delivered a brief shock via the electric collar. He sat and looked at me. I gave him a cast. He bounded back into the water and resumed the line toward the blind retrieve.

Just about that time a light bulb went off in my feeble brain. I rebU.K.ed myself: “You just shocked that dog for performing the behavior you most want from him on a duck hunts!”

After that Mud revelation, I began to see the many flaws of our gun dog retriever tads. However, about a year later I got a good look at what field trials and gun dog behavior should be. I happened to go to England and was exposed to British shooting and field trials.

Game-bird shooing in the U.K. is similar to ours. Much of it is conducted Walking around flushing birds from cover and shooting them. They also do a good bit of driven shooting where the birds are herded and flushed over pre-stationed shooters, similar to what We do when stationing shooters at the end of a cattail slough and driving the pheasants toward the shooters.

Driven shooting is a 32.8 billion industry in the U.K. It is an important industry for the farming sector. Because of the huge inheritance tax in the UK., many of the large estates are pressed for cash. Game birds are treated like a cash crop.

A typical booking would be a syndicate of eight guns who jointly book a day of shooting at a price of about 30 pounds per bird, or $1,250 for each shooter. The other actors in this production are the beaters and the pickers.The bearers move die birds into coverts Where they will stick. Then they move through that cover and flush them at a graduated rate. The activities of the bearers are generally kept out of sight.

After the signal for the end of each drive, the guns Walk back to the guns vehicle while the pickers come in with dogs to gather the harvest. People gather the birds that are in plain sight, While dogs get the birds in cover, and the runners. The dogs are expected to retrieve all the birds regardless of the difficulty of the retrieve. Each uncollected bird is approximately $50 in lost revenue to the shoot owner. Dogs are expected to add to the quality ofthe shooting day by having good manners as well as collecting all the downed birds. Out-of-control dogs make the shoot unpleasant for the paying customers and lower the bag of birds shot and co1lected. They are not tolerated.

British field trial rules prohibit the use of birds thrown by a person. Thus, the U.K. shooting industry has played a major role in shaping retriever Held trials. Trials are run only on a days shooting, by invitation of the shoot owner.

A typical field triad starts with walking up, during which the birds are pushed from peripheral fields toward areas Where diet will tend to concentrate for later flushing for the drives. A line of beaters extending across a field will walk down the field, pushing birds toward cover at the end of the field. Interspersed down the line will be guns, dogs and judges.

As the line progresses, all dogs are expected to walk quietly at heel. Most of the birds move ahead of the line on the ground, but an occasional bird flushes and is shot. When two or three are down, or when a bird is only winged, the line is stopped and the birds retrieved. If the bird to be retrieved is a runner, the working handler will be told the birds approximate location and the dog will be sent.

When the dog is sent for a downed runner, he will be running through and past birds that are on the ground in &ont of the beating line. He is likely to flush one. If, en route to a fall, the dog chases a freshly flushed bird, the dog will be dropped from the trial. If the fall is a runner, the dog is expected to track down the bird and retrieve it. Frequency the runners track will take the dog totally out of sight for a ntunber of minutes. If he returns without the bird, it is a failure and the next dog is sent. If the second dog fails, then a third one will be sent. If he fails, the judges will Walk out and look for the bird.

If the judges then find the bird in question, they drop all three dogs. If they don't find it, then they typically drop only the first dog that failed since he should have succeeded with a fresh track to fol1ow. The walked-up phase of the field trial is an extremely good test of a dogs game-finding initiative or hunt drive. It also gives the dogs manners a strenuous test because it will be heeling in the line for several periods of 10 to 15 minutes or more while birds are flushing and being shot. The dog is expected to heel quiedy and the handler is expected to be quiet as well.

After the birds are gathered in holding cover, a drive will commence. The guns will be stationed across a flight path that the gamekeeper is able to predict. Generally the shooting and drives are designed with the aim of producing high fast birds to challenge the guns. At the good shoots, the driven birds may be expected to be coming over at 30 to 40 yards and flying fast.

For the driven phase of a field trial, the dogs will be stationed in one or two groups adjacent to the shooters. You might see 100 pheasants zip over the guns during the coturse of a 15 to 20-minute drive with 50 or 60 birds being shot.The dogs are expected to sit still during the entire drive while birds are falling all around them. Any dog that creeps, breaks, whines or otherwise disturbs the orderliness of the shooing will be dropped. After the drive ends and the shooting stops, the birds are relieved. Each dog must honor the others until his turn comes. Sitting calmly for all the birds and shooting presented in a drive gives the dog a real test. Additionally, the practice of picking up cripples first will operate again here, and each handler will be instructed on which bird to have the dog retrieve.A great deal of control is required for some of these retrieves.

At the end of the trial, the judges announce the places. Sometimes the judges will not award any places and will give instead several awards of merit, which carry no points toward a field champion title. Sometimes they will award a first and second place but no other award except those of merit. Judges in the U.K. are very aware of the importance of field trial titles in breeding selection and they typically want to see two behaviors from a dog to which they award a place: sitting for drivenbirds, and tracking down a crippled bird. If a particular dog doesn't get the chance to demonstrate both, then he is probably going to get only an award of merit.

One other factor heavily influences field trials and breeding selection. Dogs owned, trained and handled by amateur field trialers win fully 90 percent of the field trial titles. The structure and small size of British field trials precludes the rise of professional trainers as a major factor. British retriever trials are a maximum of 12 dogs for a one-day trial or 24 dogs for a two-day trial. Thus a Held trial title for a given dog tells you that the dog was probably easy to train, because hobby trainers have limited experience. When a hobby trainer gets a dog that he has trouble training, he usually gets rid of the dog and gets another one. They keep the easy-to-train ones and win trials with them. This drives breeding for dogs that are easy to train.

The typical puppy buyer and the typical breeder look to pedigrees to make their purchase or breeding choices. They count the number of field trial titled ancestors in the pedigrees and generally will select the dog or the breeding with the highest number of field trial champion titles. If the behavior sets behind those field trial titles are valuable for a gun dog, then the pedigree gives a good baseline of probability that a particular puppy will become a good gun dog.

The U.K. retriever field trial system has been operating since the first field trial in 1899. It has been very successful in driving breeding selection to produce the dogs high in the behavioral traits that make great gun dogs. Those traits boil down to being high in impulse control and low in reactivity, plus being highly intelligent.

Robert Milber has trained more than 2000 dogs since he began working with retrievers in 1972. He Founded Wildrose Kennel in that year and sold it in 1995. He currently owns and operates Duck Hill Kennels, breeding and Training British Labradors

by Robert Milner


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