Taking the lessons from a first bird hunting season with a bird dog.
The young pup looked at me quizzically and cocked her head to one side. I snapped her new orange vest into place and tousled her ears.
“You’re a hunting dog now,” I proclaimed. She stood a little taller with the newly bestowed title. I lifted her down from the tailgate and checked my new hunting vest one last time. Treats, check. Whistle, check. Plan for what to do next, not quite.
I surveyed the endless sagebrush, expecting the answer to leap out at me. There must be birds out there, I thought. The Fish and Wildlife website said there were birds here. As far as I knew, I just needed to walk through the field and get the puppy on bird scent so her enormous potential could be unleashed. Simple, right?
In spite of my grand hopes, that first day afield served as a good reference point for measuring future progress. Between a wide-eyed puppy and a wide-eyed new hunter, we just enjoyed the walk in the high desert. The pup, a Deutsch Langhaar, stayed mostly underfoot during the first outing. This game was new to her and she wasn’t entirely sure how to play. She did know how to find her way back, though. She was elated to run ahead and circle the parked truck as though we’d been lost in the wilderness for days. I began to worry that I was teaching her to play an elaborate game of hide and seek.
To be fair, I didn’t really think we’d encounter any wild birds on that first day. With a puppy that was only three months old at the start of hunting season, I knew it was important to keep my expectations low—as in zero. This first season is all about positive exposure for her developing mind and body. Devoting this season to the puppy, and not to myself, will be an investment for the years to come. But I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit to wanting to shoot my first bird, too.
As the bird-less days went by, though, my frustration began to grow. Were we doing something wrong? Was it unreasonable to hope to find birds with such a young puppy in tow? A month into the season, the only game bird we’d seen was a released pheasant standing, bewildered, in the middle of the highway. Having reached a point that neared desperation, I seriously considered aiming for the lost bird and counting roadkill a victory. Yet good sense prevailed and that poor bird lived to see another day.
Looking back on those first weeks, it is remarkable how quickly the pup progressed without the luxury of abundant birds or a skilled handler. We began to build a foundation from that first uncertain day in the field. We returned to the same spot another day where she confidently ranged out to five yards. That confidence transferred to a new location as we started underfoot again but quickly expanded to a short range. There were deer tracks, field mice and a bullfrog to investigate. Watching her senses awaken was an experience I will never forget.
The puppy wasn’t the only one learning new things. I learned to view everything as a series of baby steps: build confidence first, then expand it, then introduce something new. Lather, rinse, repeat. Each outing concluded with a quick debrief to identify what went well, what could be improved, and what to do differently next time. It was repetitive but rewarding. Before long, the pup could barely contain her excitement whenever the vests and guns were out.
Our first season bird hunting has been full of adventure, joy, and a little frustration. We are both trying to learn this new game. More than that, we’re learning about how to work together. I’m a little jealous of friends with vast hunting experience and seasoned dogs, but I know that our time will come—and I know that this time is special in its own way. The beautiful pictures of proud dogs and limits of birds are no longer discouraging to me: they’re my inspiration for how our story will turn out.
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.