Training: When Your Bird Dog Bolts

Charley Waterman, my favorite writer about bird hunting and dogs, once wrote words to the effect of "My new shock collar had a quarter-mile range. Pete could cover ground in a hurry, so I practiced my fast draw." That quote always reminded me of my first shorthair, Sam, and the troubles I had training him with an electric collar, all of which was brought to mind by the post I wrote about collars the other week.

Sam was given to me by a friend of my father’s who raised dogs. This dog had been the runt of his litter and was returned to Vern at the age of one. Vern gave him to me. The dog’s name was Peewee, which I found undignified, so I renamed him Sam. Having been a neglected kennel dog for the first year of his life, he was poorly socialized and had absolutely no personality. Seriously, none, although he sort of liked me. But the price was right, especially for me in those days when my wife was a grad student and I was breaking into magazines, and he was my first bird dog.

Sam would bolt. He would be hunting along in range, then he would take off. Sometimes he would take off after something (bunny, wild flushing bird), sometimes he would just take off. The funniest instance was the day an airplane flew over low, at 500 feet or so. Sam looked up, saw it, and the chase was on. I screamed and screamed. He ran after the plane until he was a little white dot against the black plowed field ¾ of a mile away, and he only stopped because he ran into a fence.

On the way back, he bumped a rooster. I screamed some more, then realized the pheasant was flying right at me. I shut up and hid behind a tree, then stepped out and shot the bird. Sam arrived on the scene just in time to point the pheasant dead at my feet.

It’s funny now, but back then it wasn’t. I saved up my money for an electric collar, which, like the collars of the day, spent more time in the shop than it spent on Sam’s neck. I had to think of some other way to correct him in the act. Yelling at dogs after the fact does no good.

The solution came to me in the off-season, when every day I would walk Sam around a 40-acre pasture on the farm we rented. At some point during our walk he would bolt, run the boundary fences of the 40, and meet me back at the house while I screamed at him to come back. Sam was a fast dog, but, remembering my Pythagorean geomerty, it occurred to me that if I wore my running shoes on our walk and he took off, I might be able to run diagonally from one corner of the pasture to other while he was running the boundaries, and get there before he did.

Next day on our walk I bolted when Sam did and ran as fast as I could to the opposite corner of the pasture. We arrived at the same time. I screamed, waved my arms, took him by the collar and pushed him down onto the ground while screaming even louder. And after a couple of walks like that, Sam believed I could pop up anywhere, at any time. It worked wonders on his response to commands. That was almost 30 years ago, and I was a lot faster then. Now, as they used to say about the Yellow Pages, I let my fingers do the walking if I have to correct a dog at long range.