Finding birds to use in dog training is one of the many hurdles we face as DIY bird dog trainers. But rest assured, there’s success in numbers.
I’m a card-carrying introvert. I tend to gravitate toward solitary activities and generally find social settings to be stressful. Perhaps the reason I love dogs so much is that I find it so much easier to interact with them! So it came as a huge surprise to me that one of the greatest things about getting into bird dogs was the new community that suddenly surrounded me.
Someone recently reached out to ask for advice on where to get birds for training. I reflected back on the past year and remembered – not so fondly – the near-constant pressure of trying to find birds. You may not be able to make a bird dog without birds, but you can certainly create an anxiety-ridden bird dog trainer. I’d scoured online classifieds, showed up at the homes of total strangers, and executed porch pickups while desperately hoping that I was at the right house and not opening someone else’s packages. I called trappers and exterminators with little to no luck. Mostly it felt very alone; a struggle to obtain an essential training aid was consuming my free time and I was out of ideas.
A year later, I’m sitting in the parking lot of the hardware store and awaiting the arrival of the duck farmer. I’d placed an order for three dozen mallards on behalf of our training group and was the designated pick-up person for this round. What ensued was a scene that only a dog trainer could consider normal. A pickup truck loaded with crates of ducks rolled in, feathers blowing out of the back and the aroma already offensive at 50 yards. We transferred loudly protesting ducks from her crates to mine, losing one drake in the process as he capitalized on his brief window to freedom. Shoppers on their way into the store gawked at our strange scene, reminding me of just how bizarre my hobbies had become.
Not being able to house all of the ducks at my place, I drove directly to a friend’s house to drop off his share. Of course he was out of town, so another friend met me there to help clip wings and get them secured in the pen. Once again, the pre-dog version of myself would have found this sight odd: two people entering the backyard of a vacationing homeowner, lugging stinking crates of ducks across the lawn, wrestling with the birds to snip their feathers, and turning them loose into a pen before nonchalantly leaving the scene. Nothing to see here.
So as I thought about how best to answer the question of where do you find birds, the word that stuck with me was community. I truly couldn’t do it alone. Placing group orders, sharing contacts, cultivating relationships, knowing someone who knows someone . . . it’s really a team effort to achieve this most fundamental need in training bird dogs. What’s remarkable is how quickly that community absorbed me – nobody was worried about another new person coming in to share their space or take advantage of their hard-earned contacts. I was welcomed with open arms and, as such, did my very best to contribute some value to the group – such as by volunteering for the incredibly bizarre parking lot duck transfer.
The community extends well beyond just ordering birds, too. On any given weekend morning, there’s a group of us meeting ad hoc to train our dogs. Nobody in the group is a professional trainer by any stretch; we just work together and help each other out by sharing our own experiences. Sometimes an extra set of hands or eyes is all it takes to advance a few more steps toward your goals. What was a solo undertaking a year ago is now an odd little social group of people who are deeply committed to their dogs and, by extension, to each other.
So what’s a rookie to do if you want to find a community of mentors and like-minded people? Do some research into local hunting dog clubs (NAVHDA, AKC, JGHV, HRC, NSTRA . . . the list goes on) and show up. Attend a training day or volunteer at a test. Even if you don’t have any experience, an extra set of helpful hands is almost never turned away. A “how can I help” mindset goes a long way toward building a community. Our little group has even gone so far as barn construction and maintenance at a local farm to give back for someone’s generosity in sharing their fields and ponds with us. This not only made a goodwill deposit toward future land use, but also strengthened our relationships within the group as we worked together. The key is to be willing to put in the time and effort to work alongside everyone else, whether it’s training or volunteering – we’re all just trying to figure it out and become better by working together.
It’s that grassroots mentality that I find so appealing about this new community I’ve found. People are ready to roll up their sleeves and pitch in because we all know that we couldn’t do this alone. Introvert or not, I’m finding that the human connections I’m making are really making the whole experience worthwhile. It truly does take a village to raise good bird dogs and, more than that, to raise good trainers.
Jennifer Wapenski is the managing editor of Hunting Dog Confidential Magazine and co-host of the Hunting Dog Confidential podcast. She has a lifelong passion for the outdoors, dogs, and wildlife; as an adult, she discovered that upland bird and waterfowl hunting were natural extensions of these pursuits. Jennifer lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and their two Deutsch Langhaars.