Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?

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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?