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The Etiquette of Hunting Over Another Person’s Bird Dog

The Etiquette of Hunting Over Another Person’s Bird Dog

A hunter in the field with someone else's bird dogs on a hunt.

Think about these rules to get invited back to hunting over someone’s bird dog

I will say it upfront: I am far from being an expert on bird dogs. But if there is one thing I have become certain of over the years, it is that there is not enough information out there for new people to understand the proper etiquette of hunting over someone else’s bird dog. Now more than ever, the influx of mentoring in the upland community coupled with a real thirst for knowledge from novices begs for some helpful guidance on the etiquette of hunting over someone else’s dog.

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I may say this even stronger as a bird dog owner who has had a few bad experiences which I credit to my lack of communication rather than the error of the mentee. These things exist for two main reasons: first and foremost, for the dog’s safety; and second, so that you the hunter actually get invited back.

Here are eight essential rules to follow unless the owner tells you otherwise.

Thou shall restrict muzzle control even further

Anytime I watch new videos pop up across social media I cringe at the lack of muzzle control around bird dogs. Yes, hunter’s education taught you that a muzzle pointed at the ground is safe, but that can change in an instant when a hunting dog is involved. Start practicing keeping your muzzle up at all times while still being mindful of the people around you. Keep that gun action open as often as possible, which may be easier with pointing dogs than with flushing dogs.

When approaching a point, the gun’s muzzle should always be ready at a level above the dog. If you approach a point with your gun shouldered but pointed towards the ground, you will often have to sweep the muzzle up through the dog in order to shoot. This is a very dangerous situation where safeties and trigger fingers are at their most vulnerable points. While the idea of pre-mounting a gun on a point is a whole other topic around poor instinctual wingshooting, at a minimum, low-mounted guns should always be avoided for the dog’s safety.

Thou shall not command another’s bird dog

Just as we would not discipline another person’s child or bark orders at them, the same principle is true with a bird dog. Sure, jumping up on us is one thing. But when a bird dog is working, we must stay out of that person’s vibe (even if it’s a bad vibe). In some cases, a handler may ask you to call a dog your way, or maybe help contain their dog for some reason. All that is fine given that we were actually requested in our actions.

A few years ago, I experienced what was a long day when a novice hunter proactively took it upon themself to command a handler’s dogs. Every time he opened his mouth, I wanted to crawl out of my skin, it was so awkward. Not only did this person not understand the process of bird dog work, it is bad for both a dog’s training and the opportunity to get future invitations. Over the years I have now made it a point to say something to novices before a dog hits the ground when filming whether it’s my dog or not. This can save what can be a painful day in the field and a real tension I am not interested in filming.

Thou shall not shoot a bird on the ground or a low flush

This is the fastest way to end a hunt. Yes, this has happened to me. Honestly, it was my own fault because I did not set the groundwork before we started the hunt. Never shoot anything (even a rabbit) on the ground over someone’s bird dog unless they tell you otherwise. The same is true for low-flying birds. Many dogs are only steady to flush which means a dog hot on its tail. If a dog can jump that high, do not shoot.

One thing I have learned is that the human thought processes and body are very capable of split-second decisions like these – as long as you are conscious of them. This is all so important to the safety of a bird dog that is most likely like a child to the handler. I know.

A hunter pets another hunters bird dog.

Thou shall not give another advice on their bird dog unless solicited, even if you are a pro

Past the world of novices, even veteran handlers are tempted to command another’s bird dog. There are moments of painful dog work that seem to scream “Help!” But truth be told, we must let people develop at their pace and via their moments of learning. Patience is mandatory. When people are ready for advice, they will ask if they feel comfortable. But let them get there first; if not, it just makes for an awkward day afield rather than a potential future opportunity for learning and teaching.

Novices must be even warier of this. Maybe some people are just overbearing, but I have seen a novice give advice on bird dog handling that has been everything from irrelevant to lunacy. Save those thoughts for your own dog in the future and keep note of what you personally would do.

Thou shall not judge another’s bird dog because it’s just complicated

Recently I was subjected to a novice giving proactive criticism by comparing a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon work to English Setter work. For anyone who knows a little bit about bird dogs, we can easily point out that this is like comparing apples and oranges. If you hunt over a dog and do not like its style, understand that it is probably related to a breed’s style (or to the way the dog was trained). Don’t want to chase a dog through the woods and rush to a point because slow is a good pace for you? Then do not buy a Pointer. That has nothing to do with a dog being trained wrong or a handler letting the dog do things it should not. It is the fact that dogs are bred for different types of game, country, and even competitions. Blood lines in a breed can vary greatly by the purposeful nature of what traits and behaviors were favored.

Until you are knowledgeable on what you want in a bird dog and understand how different they all are, restrain yourself from jumping to conclusions. Even once we achieve a better understanding, it’s still best to keep our personal preferences to ourselves.

Keep in mind that the conditions alone can dictate a good or bad day in the field. If the conditions just aren’t right, there is nothing the handler or the dog can do to make them ideal. Like a good or bad hair day, so goes the world of a bird dog.

English setter bird dog

Thou shall not judge a whole breed by one dog

I have done this. More than once. I was wrong every time. Just like we all like different styles of bird dogs (hence the variety of breeds in the world), we also cannot judge a whole bird dog breed based on one dog. Why? Because of a million reasons. Maybe they were trained poorly (still keep that to yourself). Maybe they had a bad day like I mentioned above. The reality is that bird dogs are complicated creatures and everything from good breeding (or bad), training and even daily conditions can go into the art and science of how a dog works.

I have seen good quail dogs tank on their first day of grouse. I have seen it in reverse. I have seen good grouse dogs fail on woodcock. I have seen my own dog be a rock star one day and an asshole the next. Frankly, I have seen more bad Griffon work than good, but I still love the breed.

Thou shall ask the rules of the dog before the hunt

Asking goes a long way. Most people that want only pointed birds shot will tell you. If people say things like “stop to flush,” ask what it means. In the north woods, many of us will say pointed woodcock only but wild flush grouse are okay. Some of us will say if you are new, shoot it whether it’s a wild flush or not to get your first bird. Just open the lines of communications. Most of the time we will end up learning a wealth of information about what dog work actually is, looks like, and shouldn’t be with starting these conversations.

Even something like approaching a point is not just a learning experience but a moment of varying habits and styles. Do not be afraid to ask, “Where should I go?” “What should I do?” and even, “What the hell do I do now?!” Once the communication starts, you will understand all these rules of etiquette and hopefully be invited again.

Thou shall ask questions and listen

If you are fortunate enough to experience bird dog work for your first time, you will be exposed to different breeds, bird dog training styles, and game. Ask questions. Learn. You will be amazed by the accelerated knowledge you will gain over time being in the field with different people and dogs. Then someday, you can judge your own dog to the standards you want to achieve. There is always something to learn with a bird dog on the ground. Be a good mentor, mentee, friend, and communicator.

View Comments (25)
  • This is an important article and one that could be a series. The paragraph under “Thou Shall Ask the Rules of the Dog Before the Hunt” left a key question unanswered. What does “stop to flush” generally mean?

    Hunting is a high-risk, high-investment activity. When a new hunter enters the dynamic, emotional intelligence and good interpersonal skills are important to identify and resolve emerging conflicts quickly. Asking for feedback and guidance is a good way to facilitate communication while learning the ropes of a given hunting environment.

    • Great points Chris! We certainly will expand upon stuff like “stop to flush” in the future. We have been striving to build up a knowledge base on the most simple to the most complex so people can come and find information that has not been readily available. Often questions novices ask are overlooked by the professional community and it causes a level of breakdown and separation that certainly does not facilitate growth.

      I often tell the story how another novice had to tell me to not feed my bird dog before hunting him. Despite all the time I have spent around professional trainers not one person thought to tell me that. We often overlook “common knowledge” when it actually is not.

  • Good article and advice; however, not being open to novice questions or comments is, well, just plain snobbery and a bit childish. One of greatest byproducts of hunting, particularly Upland, is the camaraderie and relaxation of the sport. If you have to be on guard every minute because you might offend someone about their dog, I’m not interested.

  • Many good points brought out in the article. As a guide for upland hunters (pheasant, quail, sharptail, ruffed, etc.) I have clients who have never hunted over pointing dogs. They expect the dog to flush the game. Folks need to be informed and reminded to move up on the dog when on point, and not talk to the dog.
    My dogs retrieve game to me 95% of the time.Other hunters should not expect nor command another’s dog to bring a bird back to them. I reward my dogs each time they make a retrieve, and they have been conditioned to expect that reward.
    Even more important is that the gun should NOT be shouldered until the flush is made and a clear/safe shot can be taken. I lost a dog to a low shot, so to me, safety is the most important element in a successful hunt. A safe hunt is a great hunt, regardless of the birds in the bag.

    • sorry for your loss – many hunters question the rigor of steady through wing and shot – this is why – I hunt with an old single-shot, bolt-action 20 ga., never load a shell till my dog is steady on point and I’m moving ahead to make the flush – he’s trained steady through fall and release to retrieve – I can take low shots as he never breaks to chase on flush and is always steady at stop to flush, which I only ever blank with a training pistol, provided it’s hones (he didn’t make game) – if he bumps the bird, I just show him my back and walk away

  • Hi Chris,

    Mean thing to say about setters. Mine certainly holds point until I get there, sometimes it takes me a little bit to find her in the thick grouse woods.

    Otherwise as a long time bird dog owner who had a dog get hit by a truck because my hunting partner didn’t follow the basic rules.. your article rings true.

  • Having had pointers, flushes and hounds and having introduced many newbies to hunting over my dogs, I made it a practice to take charge from the beginning. New hunter stays next to me and does not fire at bird until I give the ok. New hunters have no idea about which questions to ask. With me they dont need to ask. I will direct every facet of the hunt.

  • Also …. Never ask to borrow someone’s bird dog …. if they offer on their own free will to lend you their dog, ask what the commands are and how to handle/treat the dog.

  • Id love to be a writer and have the gift of taking the common place; in this case common sense and courtesy; and to examine it and turn it over and to reorganize, synthesize and articulate the common in an informative article that rings true such as the above .
    I have hunted over many stupid , unruley , noseless, uncontrolled [incontrollable] dogs and did so mutely and politely.
    Even with an unruly dog hunting birds on the wing is an enjoyable pursuit. The dog is a partner and just like you wouldn’t kick a human partner or scream at them for missing a bird; dogs no different. “….. When I go down to the town….They gotta quit kickin my dog around”

  • Robert Ruark said:

    “If I know anything of decency at all, I learned it with my grandparents and with my father in the woods, behind a bird dog, with a shotgun in my hand.”

    Note only did I learn decency, but my formative years were spent with grandfather, father and uncles hunting over good bird dogs; learning all the right things to do. I took a detour in life, spent decades pursuing whitetails, but at fifty decided I needed a bird dog again. When my friends smirked and asked “what do you know about training a bird dog?” when I got a new pup at 8 weeks, I just smiled to myself instead of responding.

  • Excellent, excellent reminders. All should be adhered to diligently. I think it is especially important to emphasize the
    “no ground swatting” rule. My hunting partner had way too many ‘close calls’ with his dog while guiding for novices
    and rookies in spite of making sure they understood “no ground shots’. Rookie excitement, adrenaline, stupidity,
    whatever. It’s just dangerous.

  • Excellent article. One of the scariest moments ever was when a wounded rooster was flopping around and my GSP was rushing in to get it when one of the other hunters raised his gun and was gonna shoot. Everybody else started screaming at him for this. My friend wouldn’t even go back to the ranch after for a beer he was so mad at that guy. Afraid of what he might say.

  • Great information, especially with a new season coming up. Another point to touch apon is hunting public land and missed followup shots. I have hunted public land and have seen parties shooting at other peoples flushed birds.

  • Excellent points (no pun intended). Our hunting group does a safety brief before we begin where we review some (but not all) of these points. I will make this into a checklist and use it for future safety briefs. Thank you.

  • Excellent reminders. I have two (main) rules that I always tell partner hunters right off the bat: “One, don’t shoot the dog, and Two, don’t shoot me, in that order!” It usually gets a short chuckle but it makes the point about how important the dog is. Naturally, no one would ever think about shooting me but it lets folks know I put the dog before me. Gratefully, I have almost always had partners who will turn down low shots that I would have taken myself. I always thank them.

  • One other point in keeping the gun barrel up when dogs are excited and ripping around the end of the barrel and even the sight when nicked by a dog can open a wound. Rare but it can and has happened.

    Secondly, with a double gun you will always know whether or not it is safe. Not always with the others.

  • Thank you, Great Article. As we all have been in each of those roles, (Novice Hunter, Novice hunter-over-dogs, Novice dog owner, Novice hunting dog owner, etc.) the one common thread has ALWAYS been, “Before you have to make the decision, have the Conversation.”
    Taking an extra 5-10 minutes with the entire party before you step out, can make a massive difference in how the outing goes. Is it your Dog? Be proactive with your mates. Not your Dog? Ask the questions and give the owner/handler a proactive chance to tell you expectations. Hunting with a Novice? Let them know you are happy to answer any questions they may have (and don’t be a snob about your answer) Are you the Novice? Or first time with this group? Be open to insight and follow leads and examples.
    Enjoy yourself, Be Safe.

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