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Things They Don’t Tell You About Bird Dog Training

Things They Don’t Tell You About Bird Dog Training

A bird dog trainer holding a training pigeon.

Pigeons are disgusting and other surprises not disclosed when you get your first gun dog

I was stalking through the garage, wielding a fishing net over my head. The pigeon smirked at me from his perch above the workbench—and I muttered a string of unsavory words under my breath. He took another lap around the garage and settled on a new spot, flipping me a middle feather as he landed. After a few more leaps and swipes, I finally netted the little beast and stuffed him back into the crate from which he’d escaped. I exhaled in relief and wondered at what point my expectations stopped being realistic.

I’d started this gun dog adventure with a vision: strolling through wide-open prairie, my Deutsch Langhaar bounding ahead to happily point birds, the pair of us bagging a limit, and returning home for a hot cocoa by the fireplace. Instead, here I was wiping pigeon excrement off my car and sorting the flying rats into field bags. It’s not that I didn’t know about the training necessary for a dog, it’s just that there’s a difference between acknowledging the concept and living it firsthand. The books said I’d need pigeons, but the reality didn’t sink in until they were stinking up my garage.

On the plus side, the quest for birds helped to build some connections with the local dog training world. It started with a sketchy online classified ad proclaiming simply: Live Pigeons—$5. Having no idea what to expect, I showed up at the address prepared to make a hasty retreat. Much to my relief, a pair of wirehairs greeted me at the door. My pigeon dealer probably had similar purposes as I did. Sure enough, we knew many of the same people and chatted about our dogs while catching birds out of his pigeon loft.

Our first outing with that set of pigeons was a bit of a comedy act. We’d read about what to do. But somehow, that preparation flew out the window (pun intended). There were so many moving parts: the puppy, the birds, the handler, the assistant…how were we supposed to remember all the right things to do at the right times?

The puppy was ready for the game, though. The first bird was regrettably dispatched by the pup when her enthusiasm outpaced our reaction time. The second bird flew right out of the cage, did three taunting laps of the field, and departed. By the third bird, we’d gotten the hang of handling them, but it took another two before we could reliably plant the birds in the grass. Believe me, dizzying a bird is more of an art than a science. I’m not sure how much the pup got out of that first training session. As for the humans, we definitely got schooled by the birds.

Through our growing contact list, we started receiving “gifts” of frozen birds for our young puppy. Before long, an assortment of feathered training aids was filling up our freezer. A weekend at a local NAVHDA test resulted in a cooler full of generous donations for the puppy: a chukar, a couple ducks, and pheasants. We welcomed the kindness of our new friends. At the same time, it was a little startling for a newcomer. I lived in fear that an unsuspecting guest would open my freezer drawers.

There was a further social challenge. What was I supposed to say on Monday morning when coworkers inquired about my weekend? They were getting used to the idea that I routinely spent chilly sunrises behind decoys in the salt marsh. This, though, this was a more delicate subject. How do you politely say, “I bought pigeons off a stranger on the internet and hid them in a field for my dog to find” without sounding like you’ve completely lost it? Until I find the answer, I’ll just shrug and say, “Not much, just a little dog training.”

View Comments (18)
  • Haha, great post. I just happened to have spent my first day in a Johnny house catching pigeons with a net today and experienced the joy of figuring out a launcher – which only smacked me in the face with a pigeon once before I learned to set the darn thing correctly. Will look forward to following you as a fellow rookie.

    • Thanks! That’s pretty brave; I haven’t worked up the courage to try a launcher on my own. I can envision a similar pigeon-meets-face outcome! Good luck in your new adventure.

  • It’s ashame that training a gun dog has come to this. There was a time when wild birds were available to meet all of your training needs.

    • Now THAT I can handle ! Well had to with my GSP pup last year when the baby birds were fledging … She was snatching them up and running. When she would give them up and I would toss them over the fence she started to chomp and swallow ! NOW WHAT ?

  • I have been known to catch the rats with wings early on a sunday morning in Seattle. Now there are some funny stories. We had an abundance of birds for our dogs. They are discusting, but it is a living and a good one if you are a pigeon. Well written enjoy your time with the dogs.

  • my problem is that the pigeons don’t last much more than maybe 2-3 retrieves…. granted… they are cheap and easy to get but i go through 10 pigeons per training weekend….

  • Where do you find pigeons and other birds for training? I’m not having a lot of luck down in Olympia.

    • Hi Christine – I’ve found that birds are best sourced through relationships. I’ve tried calling exterminators to get trapped birds with minimal luck, but I know some people who develop a relationship with a local trapper and can act as a single point of contact for their training group. I know others who work with pigeon racing clubs and get “culls” that won’t be used in their racing programs. You can also purchase a pigeon trap and ask a few farmers if you can set it up in a barn. What has worked the best for me is joining NAVHDA, attending training group sessions, and talking to people about where they get birds. I’ve found people to be really generous with sharing their “sources”, splitting large orders, etc.

      I’ll also send you a note privately with a couple of ideas for local contacts – out of respect for their privacy I won’t post that publically.

      Good luck and happy training!

      • Thank you! The pigeon racing group in Thurston County specifically states in their ads that they aren’t interested in selling birds for dog training. All the game bird farms require a large order and I don’t want that many. I don’t think my English Setter is NAVHDA material. I *might* take him to a hunt test in Almira in May. That’s what I want the birds for – to see how he does. lol My Pointer could do NAHVDA, but he can’t hunt anymore for health reasons.

    • If you join your local navhda chapter you most likely can order game birds through them for each training day:) they may know someone in your area as a pigeon resource also…

      • I did email my local NAVHDA contact and never heard back. I was able to get some birds from some nice folks from the Northwest Pointing Dog Assoc facebook group. 🙂

  • Well written, and very entertaining . Making good memories with a dog that will love you forever . If a person is extremely lucky they will have one really good bird dog in there life that they will compare every other dog to , it sounds like you may have found yours . Good luck in your adventure.

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