Murph’s First Bird: Picking at Sandanona

I’ve been training Murphy for almost a year now, and he’s seen his share of feathered bumpers, goose scented tennis balls, and frozen ducks, but the opportunity to get his mouth on freshly downed birds was not something I was taking lightly. I wanted a somewhat controlled, but real environment, and a Continental Release at Sandanona Shooting Grounds in Millbrook, New York, seemed just the place.

Working as a picker at these kinds of shoots is, in my humble opinion, one of the best things you can do for a dog, young or old. It requires patience on their part, requires them to mark well, and gives you more retrieves in a day than you might get in an entire season of hunting, particularly here in Vermont. More importantly, since I’m not shooting, it allows me to concentrate on the dog. I’ve done these fairly religiously with Pickett over the years at Sandanona and a couple of other places, and Pickett is a happy, exhausted dog at the end of the day.

Sandanona offers a number of Continental releases during the season for their upland members, and this was the first of the season. It was not a big event, with only six butts shooting, but there were plenty of birds, and it was the perfect place for Murph’s introduction.

I needed to be careful, as there is a lot of stimulus here for a young dog; lots of gunfire, birds dropping out of the sky, and Pickett constantly coming back with a bird in his mouth. I did two things: I moved farther back from the firing line than I normally would stand with Pickett—probably another twenty yards back—and I kept Murphy at heel with the steady tab in my hand the entire time. Pickett is a veteran, and he was rock solid, honored the other working dogs, and went only when I sent him. Just watching him mark is a pleasure. He would bring the bird back, give it to me and go back to heel. God bless 10-year-old dogs. His presence, in my opinion, was a significant benefit for Murph, as it offered familiarity and confidence in an otherwise strange and very simulating new environment.

Murph First Retrieve

Here’s the first of what will be hundreds of retrieves in years to come.

photo by Paul Fersen

Generally I would throw the bird in the pile, but occasionally I would hand it to Murph and we would hand it back and forth just as we have been doing with bumpers since he was seven weeks old. It all pays off eventually. Whatever concerns I had as to Murphy’s reactions to real birds were unfounded as, if anything, I had to coax it back out of his mouth. He loved ’em.

The ultimate moment came late in the shoot when Pickett was off on a long retrieve back across the river behind us. A bird dropped right out in front about 20 yards away, and Murphy marked it. He looked up at me almost as if he knew this was the moment, and I dropped the steady tab and sent him. He drove through the brush, picked up the bird and returned it to me as if he had been doing this for years. It was simple, uneventful as it should be, but a bit momentous for me as this was the first retrieve in what hopefully will be years doing this together. For him, it was just great fun.

After the shoot, I threw a couple of birds in deep cover and let him hunt for them, and that was it. One retrieve and a couple of short hunts in cover, but it was huge in its ramifications. He marked, he waited patiently, he was exposed to more gunfire than he’d ever heard, but the distraction of falling birds, scent, and Pickett’s actions eliminated any issues there; and he got his mouth on the real thing.

These Sandanona shoots will be the highlight of his training this season, featuring a controlled environment with my undivided attention and Pickett’s example. By next season, he should be ready to take his first steps into the real thing.

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