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  • Writer's pictureDavid A. Van Wie

Officially A Bird Dog

Just a few days after her first birthday, Autumn earned her wings as an Official Bird Dog.

She got her first birds under the gun. Two chukar partridge, which were soon a scrumptious dinner.

It was a deliberate process to get her there. My thanks to Eric Bragg, owner of BBB Guide Service in Thetford, VT, for the opportunity to train her to live birds at his family farm.

Early Training

Recall from earlier posts that I had started training her as a pup with a real pheasant wing on the end of a fly rod and line to encourage her to learn the scent and point at a “bird.” She loves to “play bird wing” and gets excited when she hears those words. I introduced her to the sound of a cap gun when the “bird” flew so she would expect and accept the noise.

In The Training Pen

Earlier this summer, she started off in the training pen over in Thetford- about an acre of brush, small pines, milkweed and other shrubs- with live birds that Eric raises on site. He has quail, chukar partridge, and ringneck pheasants that he stocks on his 400 acres for private hunts and training.

We started with a few quail and chukars. Eric showed me how to put the birds to “sleep” by tucking their heads under their wings, rocking them upside down a few times, then setting them down carefully, sort of hypnotized or disoriented, where they sit quietly a while- usually long enough to go get the dog and start working the cover. It’s good for me to know where the birds are, so I can watch her behavior and encourage her to search with her nose up.

It didn’t take Autumn long to decide that birds were more fun than chipmunks. She picked up the scent quickly and got right to work. When the first quail exploded under her nose, she took off after it, excited, with her flaggy tail going in circles wildly. Chukar partridge were even more energizing. They are much bigger and noisier than a quail. Soon she had her nose up and was working every bit of cover looking for more birds. (The quail and chukars return a trapping hutch or to the roost at night, so they are no worse for wear after a round of training.)

After a couple mornings in the pen, she had this figured out, so the next step was out into the open fields where she had more ground to cover. It was time to introduce real gun noise when the birds flushed, this time a .22 pistol to move up a few decibels.

She quickly found and flushed a couple chukars. When I fired the gun with the bird in the air, she didn’t seem to care. She watched the bird the whole way, following to see where it went. She also found a couple pheasants leftover from some earlier hunters.

As we headed back toward the car, I wanted to see her reaction to the gun without a bird holding her attention. I fired once randomly when she was about ten yards away. She looked up for a bird, then turned to look at me, confused why she heard the shot with no bird in the air. Great response and good attitude!

The Real Deal

Autumn was now ready for the real deal. She still hadn’t heard a shotgun, and she hadn’t seen a bird fall. We needed to see how she’d react to the bigger gun, and whether she would find the bird. Here in New England, the chance of finding a downed bird is pretty small without a dog. The birds blend into the woods, grass, and brush.

Eric brought a single shot .410 shotgun which he uses to teach young kids to shoot. It’s louder than a .22, but not the louder blast of a 12 or 16 gauge. I carried my Browning 16 gauge that belonged to my grandfather. I’ve used it since I was 12 years old. If Autumn handled the blast of the .410, I’d then give the 16 gauge a try.

It wasn’t long before Autumn was on a bird that Eric had put out in a thicket at the edge of a field. It’s magic to see her flaggy tail wagging hard when she is on a scent. She located the bird, pointed and held steady just long enough, then flushed it, giving Eric a clean, short shot. He nailed it and Autumn followed the bird to the ground. This was a new kind of “bird wing!” She sniffed the bird and looked up at me, very proud of herself. She was officially a bird dog.

After working the field, the woods and the edge, the next bird was a hen pheasant. Autumn held it for a few seconds then flushed it. But I had to run around a pine tree to get a shot. Too late and too far, but I fired the 16 gauge anyway. The pheasant flew down the hill across the field with Autumn racing after it. I called and she came right back to me. Eric was impressed with her prompt “recall”. The shotgun noise was all part of the excitement for her.

Follow & Find

And then I had a good shot at a chukar. With her tail working hard, Autumn pointed at a bird under a pine. I walked up and gave her some encouragement. When she flushed it, I fired the Browning and hit the bird, but wasn’t sure how cleanly, so I shot again.

Eric said the first shot took it down, but I didn’t see where. We walked down the hill where we found Autumn standing next to the bird at the edge of the woods. I would never have found that bird without her following it with her nose to pinpoint the spot. She gave it a few sniffs and looked up at me for approval. I offered her a treat from my pocket, but she had no interest. Off she ran, looking for another bird.

We covered more ground and gave her a cool swim in the pond. But we had accomplished what she needed to do. She worked hard and efficiently, staying close enough so we’d be in range. She held her points long enough for us to get close. She was steady to the shot, and found the downed birds with ease. What a bird dog!

I went back last weekend with my friend, Chris Ramsden, and his two-year-old golden retriever, Dorothy, trained for upland field hunting. At first, Autumn was more excited to meet Dorothy, but as soon as they both picked up bird scent, the two were working hard covering the territory. With the distraction of another hunter and dog, she sometimes went farther afield than I wanted, but she mostly stayed close and put up several birds in good range. Another very successful day!

Now I’m looking forward to some wild birds- ruffed grouse and woodcock- to test our skill. Should be quite an adventure!

I can’t say enough about Llewellin Setters as a breed. Autumn as the epitome of what I had imagined for both a companion and a working bird dog. We still have work to do to improve her staunchness (hold a point until I find her) and steadiness (stay with me after the flush and shot until I release her). But she has all the basics and is willing to learn.

Thanks again to Kurt Spear of Maine Bird Dog Adventures for introducing me to his beautiful Llewellins a few years ago. And thanks to Blue Mountain Llewellins, formerly of Colebrook, NH, now in Crewe, VA for bringing Autumn to us. So proud of our bird dog.

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