Training a Cover Dog Trial Prospect Part B
I guess the question I should answer is: “what should I do if I don’t live where there are lots of grouse and woodcock?”
There are two things that many winning performances in the woods share and the obvious one is finding birds and the second is the dog’s race. It has to fill the course, be to the front, and there usually needs to be some demonstration that the dog and the handler are working together (although there are some judges who like them wilder than others). So, if you don’t live where you have natural habitat to train in you have to create as natural a setting as you can. Having a Johnny House with quail in the backyard is okay. And I’ve definitely done a lot of training over the years with pigeons and various release mechanism, but a bird field is a slippery slope and can easily be over done. It can also be counter-productive. Wild Apple Jack is now 8 years old and if I took him tomorrow and let him loose in the bird field near the house that I use to introduce puppies to birds, he would shut down to a slow trot or a walk and go from objective to objective looking for the planted quail or pigeon. I had one dog that would go on point as soon as you turned him loose at the truck when it was his turn to work the bird field. You are not going to develop a winning cover dog in a bird field.
There are ways to avoid this. A friend of mine who once had five cover dog champions in his kennel at the same time lived where there was good cover but not very many birds. He devised a system where he had two basic training scenarios. He would run the dogs in a big cover for conditioning and handling and then had a relatively small cover that he used for bird work. The bird area was wooded which provided nice shade in the summer when he was training and also had some ferns and brushy understory. In this area he put a few Johnny Houses and followed some pretty strict rules or training on quail. First he never handled the birds. Before working his dogs he would go each House and fly out a few birds. Then he would work a dog through the cover just like you would in a trial. He never stopped and hacked a dog into a bird, if they ran through the cover and only found one bird that was fine. He took them one and expected them to do better the next time. The dogs only found a bird if they hunted for them and birds were much closer to wild without human scent on them. There were a few different ways to go through this training area and he would try to mix it up from session to session and make the dog handle to the route he’d taken. The birds were always dispersed randomly and he avoided the kind of conditioned caution that you can develop in a bird field.
Another trainer has leased a piece of property to train on and has had good luck naturalizing quail and some pheasants so that he has plenty of birds to work on but they are as close to wild as you can get in the Northeast without having access to good grouse and woodcock cover. Not everyone has the good fortune that Tony and I have to literally have excellent grouse and woodcock cover in our backyards, but if you don’t that doesn’t mean that you can’t build a top cover dog. You just have to be a little more imaginative in creating training situations that are going to prepare your dogs for the woods.
Another trainer who was a force to be reckoned with in the woods in the not to distant past used to train and condition his dogs on 20 acres outside of Boston than make an annual two week trip to the North Country in late August to get his dogs into the cover and on wild birds before the trial season started in September. The important thing for him and any one who hopes to be competitive in the woods was having a clear idea of what the dog would have to do to win and then expecting it when you cut it loose.
For the next installment I’ll talk about making the transition from puppy to derby for a cover dog.