Early-Season Tips Avoiding basic mistakes that can ruin buddy time afield

Your first-season pointer swings downwind and bumps a grouse that you recognize will fly directly overhead. Oh well, you think, the dog's mistake does almost guarantee another bird in the bag. You have three possible shots: coming at you, passing overhead or going away. Which shall it be?

We'd all be tempted, but the correct answer is none of the above. In the interest of getting the most out of your precious time afield with your dog, it's better not to compound one mistake by making another. In fact, maybe yours would be the only mistake. If the dog didn't smell the bird while running downwind, it was an accident. But shooting bumped birds, especially over young and partially trained dogs, is a serious no-no. It encourages deliberate flushing, which most pointers will then do at distances way beyond range. Later, if and when the dog is stop-to-wing trained, it's perfectly acceptable to shoot accidentally flushed birds. In that case, when he halts and watches the bird fly, you will know he's being honest, not flushing on purpose.

RELUCTANT RETRIEVER

Perhaps your young dog retrieved naturally at first but now circles you with the bird or simply refuses to fetch. Why? Maybe you worried too much about tooth marks and quickly yanked game from his mouth. Especially during initial hunts, make your dog eager to bring you more birds. Stroke and praise him lavishly and at length while letting him savor holding his game. If he's reluctant to release, say "Give," then gently blow in an ear to make his mouth open. After a few times, he'll anticipate what's coming and avoid it by quickly responding to "Give."

BEAGLE BLUNDER

Because hounds essentially work instinctively and mostly without our help, we sometimes forget how easy it is to make mistakes in their training. You've been diligent about giving the spring-born beagle abundant opportunity to learn how to find and trail rabbits. But you haven't thought about the gun. Now it's opening day and your little buddy bounces a bunny into the open 10 yards away. You can blast that rabbit and spend half the season desensitizing a gun-shy beagle--or you can wait and shoot in the air when your hound is at a distance and fully absorbed in the chase. If there's no reaction, shoot again when the chase circles nearer. If there's still no reaction, wait for the rabbit to complete its circle. Provided the beagle is trailing well behind, carefully drop the rabbit with one shot--not a noisy barrage--and let the hound trail in to find and "wool" it. Praise and pet as long and lavishly as you would for a young bird dog before taking the rabbit gently from his mouth. After a few events like this, gunfire will be accepted as just a normal part of the hunt.

Quick Tip

SPEED TRAINING Dogs trained with single-bird launchers want to go with the bird, then later have to be taught steady-to-wing. Trainer Ken Osborn uses groups of launchers and never shoots the first pigeon. Duke still points the remaining birds and automatically learns to stand steady until a bird falls.

The Big Gulp Water bottles are everywhere these days, so refill a couple and carry them in your shooting vest to avoid heat exhaustion in your dog during hot early-season hunts. Bottle-train the dog while he's out for brief summer runs. When he's probably thirsty, call him in, pull out his lower lip with your finger and pour some water behind it. Repeat this a few times; he'll soon learn to open his mouth to get more faster.