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Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?

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November 21, 2011

Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?

By Chad Love

My old chessie, Tess, has always been a fantastic duck dog and an excellent bird finder on downed upland game when used as a non-slip retriever in conjunction with my pointing dogs. What she has never been, however, is a good upland flusher, mainly because I've never actively trained her to be one. But with a near-total lack of water thus far making my 2011 waterfowl season a total bust, Tess hasn't been getting as much field time this fall as she's used to.

She's watched with pleading eyes as Jenny, the setter pup, and I have driven off on a number of upland hunts this year. When I got back from the Kansas pheasant opener last week, guilt overtook me and I decided that if Tess and I couldn't do as much duck hunting this year, I would just have to figure out a way to start bringing her along on my upland hunts, either walking beside me as a non-slip retriever, or if I could train her, as a close-in flusher for heavy, late-season cover.

So for the past few days I've been attempting to train a set-in-her-ways, eight-year-old duck dog to trail pheasants through cover, and I'll be darned if she's not picking it up, after a fashion. What I've been doing is laying a long scent trail through cover to a winger loaded with a planted bird. I then quarter Tess upwind into the scent trail and when she gets close to the winger I launch the bird, pop the gun and she retrieves it. Tess, of course, caught on to this very quickly, and it remains to be seen if such contrived and rudimentary training scenarios will translate so well into real hunting situations.

And since dog training is such an interlocking puzzle, where one facet of training will often affect another unrelated facet in unintended ways, it remains to be seen if my impromptu flusher training on a middle-aged duck dog will somehow affect her behavior or performance in the duck blind. I am not, for example, requiring her to be steady to the shot while flushing, but I do require her to be (mostly) steady to shot in the blind. Will this cause confusion on her part? We'll see. I think dogs are smart enough to figure out what you expect of them in different scenarios, but if she starts breaking in the blind then perhaps I'll reevaluate steadiness to flush.

At any rate, regardless of how my experiment turns out at least it's getting my oldest dog out in the field in a year when such opportunities are increasingly hard to come by. Have any of you ever tried to teach your old dog a new trick? How successful (or unsuccessful) were you?

Comments (4)

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from Ontario Honker ... wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

My two labs easily make the transition from field hunting over my decoys to flushing pheasants. I am not terribly particular about them being steady to the shot when hunting over the field deeks but I will make them stay put if there's lots of birds still flying. If Jenny is a good pliable bird dog, I don't think you'll have that much trouble shifting back and forth from uplands to waterfowl blind. However, I strongly advise that you wait till one season is over before switching paddles. I would not expect my dogs to adapt instantly to a different kind of hunting every other weekend. Mind you, I'm not saying they COULDN'T learn to adapt, but it would take some patience and probably healthy doses of discipline along the way. I have no doubt that my labs could adapt to changing modes every day if I spent the time and effort to train them. There would be plenty of missed opportunities for shots along the way, but hey that's just less birds I'd have to clean at night. The dogs would still enjoy themselves if I'm patient (but firm). And you will too, even if you come home empty-handed once in a while.

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from bbainbridge wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

she's not a hunting dog, but our blue heeler was 9 when we taught her to "place" before she could get fed. She was constantly stalking us for her dinner, so now she has to wait at her "place" (in front of the glass slider) until we put her bowl down.

Consequently, I got the idea from reading this blog about how Dave taught Pritchard to "place" so she'd sit still in a blind. Any updates on Pritchard?

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from Hammin Cheese i... wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

I have a one year old english black lab. A beast of a dog. but recently i was in the back yard shooting a newly bought 9mm into the lake, when "Blanco" took after the splashes and retrieved a milk jug that is tied to a water dock for boats. Possibly mistaked it for a down fowl. Heres the kicker. He has never been trained at all other that when i would tie a pair of pheasent wings to the back of my quad and let him chase me. Maybe a born hunter. I just know that he'll be joing in on some hunts this winter and next spring.

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from Nathan Ross wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

My Chessie caught on pretty quick, he has a great nose and a drive to get the birds. He'll bust his butt to chase down a winged Pheasant although he has so much fun he tends to let it go to do it all again. In my amature opinion for a flusher you need a dog with a drive to find the bird and a nose. Train them with the scent and then you need to get them out there where their are birds the dog will learn the rest by himself. The hardest part is keeping the dog close enough to you for flushing within shooting range. The only thing I'd change about my chessie beside the fact he's more hard headed then me sometimes is his coat. He's got a short coat, an almost bare belly, he's got a landing strip on the top of his back of true chessie fur and that's it.

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from bbainbridge wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

she's not a hunting dog, but our blue heeler was 9 when we taught her to "place" before she could get fed. She was constantly stalking us for her dinner, so now she has to wait at her "place" (in front of the glass slider) until we put her bowl down.

Consequently, I got the idea from reading this blog about how Dave taught Pritchard to "place" so she'd sit still in a blind. Any updates on Pritchard?

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Hammin Cheese i... wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

I have a one year old english black lab. A beast of a dog. but recently i was in the back yard shooting a newly bought 9mm into the lake, when "Blanco" took after the splashes and retrieved a milk jug that is tied to a water dock for boats. Possibly mistaked it for a down fowl. Heres the kicker. He has never been trained at all other that when i would tie a pair of pheasent wings to the back of my quad and let him chase me. Maybe a born hunter. I just know that he'll be joing in on some hunts this winter and next spring.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Ontario Honker ... wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

My two labs easily make the transition from field hunting over my decoys to flushing pheasants. I am not terribly particular about them being steady to the shot when hunting over the field deeks but I will make them stay put if there's lots of birds still flying. If Jenny is a good pliable bird dog, I don't think you'll have that much trouble shifting back and forth from uplands to waterfowl blind. However, I strongly advise that you wait till one season is over before switching paddles. I would not expect my dogs to adapt instantly to a different kind of hunting every other weekend. Mind you, I'm not saying they COULDN'T learn to adapt, but it would take some patience and probably healthy doses of discipline along the way. I have no doubt that my labs could adapt to changing modes every day if I spent the time and effort to train them. There would be plenty of missed opportunities for shots along the way, but hey that's just less birds I'd have to clean at night. The dogs would still enjoy themselves if I'm patient (but firm). And you will too, even if you come home empty-handed once in a while.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Nathan Ross wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

My Chessie caught on pretty quick, he has a great nose and a drive to get the birds. He'll bust his butt to chase down a winged Pheasant although he has so much fun he tends to let it go to do it all again. In my amature opinion for a flusher you need a dog with a drive to find the bird and a nose. Train them with the scent and then you need to get them out there where their are birds the dog will learn the rest by himself. The hardest part is keeping the dog close enough to you for flushing within shooting range. The only thing I'd change about my chessie beside the fact he's more hard headed then me sometimes is his coat. He's got a short coat, an almost bare belly, he's got a landing strip on the top of his back of true chessie fur and that's it.

0 Good Comment? | | Report

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