By the Bird
The utlimate training tool has feathers and a beak.
New England’s foremost gun dog trainer, Bob Paucek of Bar Mills, Maine, has been turning out first-class shooting dogs for more than 50 years. Dogs he’s trained are among the very best you’ll find in the New England grouse woods and woodcock coverts come October. In November, Paucek and his dogs are in Iowa nailing down hard-running cornfield pheasants. By Christmas you’ll find them at his winter quarters in South Carolina, hunting sedgefield quail on horseback. Bird dogs trained by Bob Paucek are renowned for their ability to handle all sorts of gamebirds in any type of habitat.
“To teach dogs to handle gamebirds, you need to train on birds you can control,” Paucek says. “You need to be able to get the dog on a bird when you’re ready, and the birds need to be strong fliers that get up and out of there when they’re flushed.
“Common pigeons are the best birds to use for most training situations. Forget pen-raised quail. Too often they burrow into the grass and refuse to fly. They let the dog approach unnaturally close before they flush, and the dog might catch one. Then what has it learned?
“Pigeons have a strong scent, they fly better, and they’re easier to keep than quail or other gamebirds. They have such a strong homing instinct that they’ll fly right back to their pen at the end of every training session, even if they’re several miles from home, and they’ll get there before you do.
“Dogs that learn to point pigeons and hold them in different types of habitat make an easier transition to wild birds later,” Paucek explains. “The trick is to use pigeons in situations where the dog will later be finding grouse and woodcock or other gamebirds. That means training in a variety of cover types, not just open fields.”
Plant a Bird, Grow a Bird Dog
Paucek immobilizes a pigeon by wrapping a Velcro-and-nylon strap around it so its head is held tucked under its wing. He puts three or four of these birds in the pocket of his hunting vest, then heads out through a patch of typical bird cover, walking downwind, with a bird dog coursing ahead of him, dragging a 15-foot check cord.
Here and there, Paucek takes a strapped bird out of his pocket and tosses it under a bush. When the birds are all planted, he whistles the dog in to him, then turns around and heads back through the same cover, this time walking into the wind. When the dog smells a bird ahead and points, Paucek picks up the check cord and ties it to a bush or sapling so the dog cannot move in or chase the bird when it flushes. Then he goes to the dog’s side and styles it up, stroking its tail into a high position and pressing forward on the dog’s haunches while repeating “whoa.” The dog will resist this forward pressure and become even more rigid on point.
When the dog has held the point long enough to satisfy him, Paucek whoas the dog again, then steps ahead of it and flips the pigeon into the air with a snap of the holding strap, setting the bird free to fly home to its pen. From his position in front of the dog, Paucek can enforce the dog’s steadiness when the bird flushes, making sure the dog does not move until he unties the check cord, touches the dog on the head, and says “okay.”
“You can do a lot of important work with a dog this way,” Paucek notes. “You can train in different locations and different types of natural habitat, making it very clear to the dog that it must hold its point until it is released, no matter where birds are found.”
Paucek starts young dogs pointing strapped pigeons in a small field close to his kennel, though he says that this can even be done in a backyard. Later, when the dog becomes proficient at holding points, he begins planting the pigeons in heavier cover and new locations. Moving your practice sessions from place to place, sometimes even miles from home, makes training more like actual hunting. Dogs form a clear understandiing of how they must behave when training locations change-because the same discipline applies.
“To train a bird dog to hold points, you have to keep increasing the dog’s temptation to break and showing it that breaking is not allowed, no matter how tempting it is,” Paucek explains. “First teaching a young dog to hold point on pigeons helps when the dog graduates to wild birds. Then, if the dog breaks point on a wild bird, you can next set up a similar situation using a strapped pigeon and repeat the lesson using a bird you can control. Eventually the dog understands that it must not break point, no matter what.”
Pigeons are easy to keep, too. A 4×4-foot, head-high closet in your garage is big enough to house half a dozen birds; an 8×8-foot space will keep more than you’ll ever need. Fresh water, a pan of grit, and a diet of cracked corn or mixed grains is all pigeons require for nourishment.
A 4-inch-wide board mounted high along one wall of the coop provides roosting space. If you also install a couple of 1x1x1-foot wooden boxes on a high shelf along one wall, pigeons will nest and reproduce in them, keeping you supplied with new birds even if some are lost to hawks or other predators. If you turn your birds out for a flight period each day before feeding them, they will become strong fliers and will be quick to return to their coop at feeding time. The only special piece of equipment you’ll need is a one-way entry gate that locks the birds in once they have returned to the coop. These are available through dog-training supply catalogs such as Scott’s Dog Supply (Dept. FS, 9252 Crawfordsville Rd., Indianapolis, IN 46234; 800-966-3647; www.scottsdog.com).
Pigeons that are to be used for dog training can often be purchased inexpensively as culls from people who race homing pigeons. (You may be able to locate racers through feed stores.) Dog trainers and field trialers can usually help you find a local pigeon source, too.
If that doesn’t work, consider catching your own. Feed stores, dairy farms, and grain elevators often have resident feral pigeons that are considered nuisances, and the owners are usually delighted to get rid of some. Use cracked corn to lure pigeons into a wire pigeon trap in an elevated location, or catch young ones from their roosts at night when they are easy to approach by using a ladder, a flashlight, and a long-handled fish-landing net.
It’s best to begin with young birds that have not yet learned to fly. Those that learn to fly from your coop will always consider it home and will raise their offspring to return to it as well. If you can only get older birds, you’ll have to clip their flight feathers to prevent them from flying until after they have reproduced and raised young in your coop. Once they have babies there, they will not leave and may then be allowed to fly and be used for dog training.