We’ve rounded up the best field and training tips from some of the best gun dog trainers out there. These quick guidelines will help hunters navigate everything from fundamental training principles to coaching a flock-busting turkey dog.
Get a Retriever Ready for the Big Water
Legendary trainer Tom Dokken on how to prepare your dog for the rollers.
1. Assess Your Dog
Not all retrievers are made for big water. “The dog has to be very confident in his abilities and have a high prey drive, because what you are asking for is above and beyond normal duties.”
2. Start Short, Then Go Long
Even if your dog has what it takes, still start with short bumper retrieves in a big, but calm, lake. Then, increase retrieve distances using a dummy launcher or a buddy in a boat.
3. Ride the Waves
Have the dog swim in big waves before the actual hunt. Remember, his eyes will only be 4 inches above the surface, so the bumper will keep disappearing from his line of sight as he swims through the chop. He needs to learn to stick with the retrieve even when he can’t see the bumper.
Bring Up a Blood Tracker
You don’t need a Bavarian mountain hound from Poland to blood-track deer. Almost any breed of dog can be trained to follow a blood trail, says Sean Timmens, who judges tracking-dog competitions and has seen Labs, pointers, basset hounds, dachshunds, and even a Chihuahua follow trails. These steps will get your dog into the blood-trailing game.
4. Read Up
Check out Tracking Dogs for Finding Wounded Deer, by John Jeanneney. This is essential reading for anyone interested in tracking dogs. But also make sure that blood-tracking big game is legal in your area.
5. Meet with a Local Pro
There are tracking-dog clubs all across the country that offer training days and seminars. It’s way easier to learn from a veteran trainer than to figure it out on your own.
6. Save Blood and Deer Hair
You’ll need these from your next deer to get your dog keyed in to deer scent.
7. Get Your Dog Working
Once the dog is a trained tracker, he’ll need real-world assignments each fall to hone his skill. Fifteen to 20 tracking jobs per season is ideal.
Hunt a High-Flying Pointer
Here’s what veteran trainer Nancy Anisfield recommends for hunting with a hot-rod upland dog.
8. Range Him Right
You decide the range that the dog hunts, not the other way around. Generally, the faster you walk, the farther your dog will range. If you slow down, it’s easier to bring him in closer.
9. Whistle or Buzz
Sometimes you’ll want the dog to range way out, but you don’t want to be yelling across the prairie for him to come back. So train your hard-charging dog to return on a whistle (which is easier for him to hear than hollering) or to the buzz of his e-collar.
Run Your Own Turkey Dog
To date, 29 states allow the use of dogs for hunting fall turkeys. But before you decide to grab your vest, decoys, and Lab to take a run at some fall flocks, consider these points.
10. Know the Game
Fall turkey dogging bears little resemblance to spring gobbler hunts. In fall, turkeys are typically found in gobbler groups or flocks made up of multiple adult hens and poults. Dogs are used to disperse the flocking birds, which are keen to remain together. Once turkeys have been scattered, they will attempt to re-call and often gather at the precise point of the flock break. And this is where hunters should be waiting. By matching the tone and cadence of the first re-calling bird, you can often bring the entire flock in.
11. Pick a Pooch
Although Boykin spaniels were historically bred specifically for fall turkey hunting, modern breeding has given rise to specialized lines such as the late John Byrne’s Appalachian turkey dog, which is a mix of pointer, English setter, and Plott hound. These are by no means the only dogs capable of breaking up a fall flock of wild turkeys. Renegade flushers are regularly re-trained to hunt turkeys.
“Remember that a good turkey dog is basically a bass-ackwards bird dog,” Byrne said. “They range too far, flush birds clear out of your sight most of the time, and then bark when they do it.”
12. Hop on the Turkey Train
Outdoor Life contributor Steve Hickoff has successfully trained two English setters to become fall flock busters. “The basic characteristics to look for in a potential turkey dog are a strong prey drive, the ability to run big, a desire to check back regularly, and the capability of smelling or tracking flocks,” says Hickoff. “Ideally, the dog should bark or be taught to bark on the flock break, which helps you find that break site, where you need to set up. Finally, the dog needs to be trained to sit quietly and calmly in a dog blind during the re-call.”
How to Start a Super-Pup
Think twice before bringing your dog on his first hunt this fall if you haven’t completed these steps in summer training.
13. Teach Basic Commands.
Sit, stay, come, heel. If your dog hasn’t mastered these commands, he doesn’t get to hunt.
14. Introduce Fur or Feathers.
Your dog needs to have some experience with game before the hunt. Work a bird dog on pigeons or at least feathered bumpers. Hounds can get experience with a caged coon or rabbit.
15. Simulate a Hunt.
You should expose the dog to the sounds, smells, and gear he’ll experience in the field. That means boats, dog blinds, decoys, gunfire, waders, and duck calls.