There comes a time in every grouse hunter’s life when they have to show their new hunting dog that dreams don’t always come true. That typically happens on its first hunt when birds are encountered.
The pup, if it is like most, is usually full of energy, focus and ambition to hunt grouse. Worse still, it looks upon its master as perhaps the single greatest human being on the face of the Earth. After all, it thinks, this is the person who plays retrieve with me, who lets me run in the fields and woods, who feeds and praises me, and give me snacks. Heck, he or she even picks up my poop and has bought me a couch to sleep on.
Plus, that pup has probably listened closely when its master regaled others about his or her shooting prowess and how the grouse won’t stand a chance because of that and his new dog.
So, it is only natural that the pup has the expectation to flush birds and watch this great person shoot them down, so that they can both have fun with the retrieving part.
Often, however, that dream crumbles when the first bird goes up.
Typically, it goes like this.
The dog does exactly what it was trained to do. It quarters happily in front of the hunter. Then it recognizes bird scent, follows it and either flushes or points a grouse. In either case the result is the same. A bird rises up and presents the hunter – that dog’s master – with what could arguably be called the easiest shot opportunity ever presented.
If the hunter hits the grouse, that’s great. My best advice to that the hunter is quit then and there and leave their dog with the happy memory of how perfect it was. It will be proud of you for the rest of its life.
Most of us are not so lucky, however. And, even if we initially hit a bird, we eventually push our luck too hard, and miss many more than we hit.
Typically, it goes like this. A bird gets up and we are tangled in a tight stand of alders or hawthorns and we shoot from an unbalanced and awkward position – and miss. Often more than once.
The thing to do at this point is not make eye contact with your dog. You don’t need to see the shame and disappointment on its face.
Miss often enough and the dog will start begging you for the gun. Or, at the very least, roll its eyes and blush every time you tell a hunting story.
Fortunately, I have trained my dog not to have those high hopes. This is a long and complicated training process that involves me missing many clay pigeons in front of her, getting tangled in the hawthorns in her presence and generally fumbling when a training bird rises.
After a few sessions of that, my dog is actually a cheerleader for me and when I hit a grouse in front of it, it actually gives me the kind of look my grade school teachers gave me when I got a D-plus or participation award. Basically, it says, “Well, that’s pretty good, considering what you have to work with.”
The ultimate goal is to make it an emotional support dog who can keep a secret.
This is a far healthier approach for both dog and hunter. Of course, you can’t let up on this sort of training.
Next year, I’m hoping to teach it how to give me a pat on the back.