Written by: Simon Perkins, Pro Outfitters
Come autumn, I have the best job in the world. As a bird hunting guide for PRO Outfitters in Central Montana, I spend 28 days a month with my dogs walking rolling hills under a big sky, looking for wild sharptail grouse, Hungarian partridge, and ring-neck pheasant. My dogs are ideal co-workers: every morning their eyes light up when they see me, and they can’t wait to get to work.
Bird hunters know that few things compare to the bond you share with your dog in the field. And nothing compares to watching your young pointing dog gain confidence, put the pieces together, and finally “get it.” When it comes to training pointing dogs, nothing’s black and white, but I’d like to share an alternative approach to training. Now, I’m in no way a dog-training guru. I train my own dogs, and I am proud of them. But there are many professional trainers I respect who subscribe to more conventional methods. I also know my job means that I get to spend much more time in the field with my dogs than the average hunter who may work a five-day week and squeeze in hunts whenever possible.
Often, the average hunter needs to research highly-regarded kennels, buy an English pointer, setter, or Brittany, and dream about it growing into the ideal hunting companion. Then they find a reputable trainer and send their dog to “boot camp” in order to be ready for the season. Most dog trainers I know do a superb job under a short timeline.
But ever since I started working for PRO Outfitters, I found myself using a more unorthodox method modeled by my bosses and fellow guides. Maybe it’s because our dogs sleep in our beds with us at night. Or maybe it is because we have seen too many dogs come out to hunt with us who are slightly tentative and “hunting not to make mistakes.”
In Montana, upland bird hunters cover a lot of ground and they need a dog willing to get out there and work the terrain. A dog that looks to simply follow orders will struggle. When training young dogs, our priority is building confidence.
Unlike labs, a pointing dog’s hunting spirit can be broken at an early age, sometimes beyond repair. We keep it simple throughout the entire first year. We get them out in the field, let them run with the big dogs, build up enthusiasm, bust through wild coveys, and cause havoc until they are tripping over their tongues, looking up at us with big happy eyes. We introduce them to the word “whoa,” whether it is making them wait before eating their food, getting in and out of vehicles, or playing in the back yard. We use the locating beeper function on their collars in the field to initiate a form of communication. We run them with the older dogs and watch them study and try to mimic the routines of their older counterparts. But we keep our thumbs off the “nick” button, maintain an enthusiastic voice, and prevent the pups from developing any negative connotation with the act of bird hunting.
Once the dogs have arrived at or around that twelve-month mark, their blood is pumping with enthusiasm, confidence, joy, and desire when it comes to anything having to do with birds, leaving you with a perfect foundation upon which to mold, direct, and discipline in the ways of pointing.
I like to always remind myself of the power behind a pointing dog’s instincts. I know there are certain inherent hunting traits that I cannot teach a dog, and I love creating an environment that helps pups develop these attributes on their own. It demands much time and patience, but one thing is for certain: it is a hell of a lot of fun.