Now Reading
Training a Bird Dog: It’s Personal

Training a Bird Dog: It’s Personal

Training a Bird Dog

There are some things in life that are personal and often categorized by the presence of both good and not-so-good. Personal is real, and real is experience with actual substance. That’s why carrying a crying puppy covered in fecal matter to the bath is real. With substance. However, it is funny now (at least) and makes my bond with my dog that much more personal.

Recently I spent some time with the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) filming their Natural Ability test. A world I quite frankly avoided with my dog (now two years old) since the first thing that came to my mind was club equals competition. Turns out I was wrong to jump to such a conclusion.

The test proved to be far from being a competition. I found myself in the company of lots of open-minded people who were eager to offer a veritable smorgasbord of advice free of judgment and absolutes. Again, staying honest to the concept of the personal nature of training a bird dog, I still would not test my dog. But would I hang out at a NAVHDA event with my dog? Would I theorize, ask for advice, and eat a burger with the NAVHDA folk?

Yes, I would. Without hesitation.

The judges were far from being, well, judgmental. In fact, they proved (to my surprise) to be quite human. One owned Griffons and bantered with me in casual conversation over some issues I had been facing with my pup. Normally I would never do this, but these people were chill.

A NAVHDA judges watches a woman’s dog work on natural tracking during a Natural Ability test.

I have yet to venture into the much larger world of NAVHDA with their invitationals. I am sure people may be a little more of the competitive spirit there. However, I recalled that two gentlemen I have spent a fair amount of time hunting with in New York over the years had been to many invitationals. They were so non-competitive — at least in their hunting day vibe — that I legitimately forgot how “into” that world they were. In fact, one specifically pointed out that they considered themself an amateur grouse hunter and even asked me for advice on hunting covers.

This whole NAVHDA adventure has reinforced something that I am very passionate about: building a world of bird dog training that is a community rather than a judgmental mess that can come off as ego-driven, even as bullying. Cutting through the bullshit of “my way is the only way.”  We will find out real quick that there are so many people in our upland bird hunting world who are helpful and open-minded. They are in fact a community. They are in it for the experience, for personal fulfillment. And that that tends easily toward building relationships with others of kindred spirit.

Training a bird dog is a singular experience. It should not be constrained by what others think or theorize. It should be free from any fear of judgmentalism.

Training a bird dog is a singular experience. It should not be constrained by what others think or theorize. It should be free from any fear of judgmentalism. Free from the god-awful anxiety of “screwing up my bird dog.” Free from the danger of becoming overly self-critical.

So why should we train a bird dog? The logic is simple. Most dog breeds we see, we have, we want, are hunting breeds. They have an instinctual craving to work, to be challenged, to be applied. We must only attempt to apply them and reap the rewards of a more personal relationship, a greater experience.

The world of bird dogs, at first, seems daunting at surface level. It is multi-dimensional, to be sure. But at its heart, it’s an experience built by the user, not by the culture at large. Because of that reality I always feel compelled to lay to rest some of the misconceptions of training and hunting with a bird dog.

I certainly put no stock in hunting being a “sport.” I am not in a competition. I never liked sports, never played sports, and have zero plans to start now. After a quick glance at the definition of “sport” and a substantial look at the data around the word association, I cringe every time someone refers to hunting as a sport. Let’s toss that bad vocabulary choice out the window.

The act of hunting (particularly with your own bird dog) is personal. Once you wrap your mind around that, you realize it is legit in all aspects. Abide by the laws and everything else is up to your imagination, your goals, your sanity. I hunt Ruffed Grouse. Grouse hunting for me is often about meat on my table and how damn happy my pup is every time he gets a mouthful of feathers. I do not need more than that.

If someone watched us hunt grouse and they are a “traditionalist,” they would probably be horrified by the style my dog and I have meshed together. He is part of the team. I gave him what I can in training and I feel the rest is up to me to adapt to him. It is not for me to unwittingly break his will or set an unrealistic bar of achievement (that is at least my personal choice). And that makes for some very non-traditional style.

Hearing about the differences, the uniqueness of each experience is good. It’s what personalizes training a bird dog so much. The lesson for all of us is the fact that being judgmental has no place in our community. Community is a place of diverse ideals which brings up the one stigma that I hope breaks over time. There is not only one way to train a bird dog. And there is no externally-imposed measure you are held to. Only your own goals.

Maybe my harshness on competition is, in some cases, unwarranted. The world of field trials which I am not versed in is an optional world. If you want to be competitive, if that is your vibe, then go for it! The key word here to remember is optional. I beg those of you who are set on a competitive bent to enjoy what you do. Be proud of what you do. But do not let what you do became the motivation for internet shaming or hostile rants which deter and poison the vibe of what training a bird dog should be. That internet world is the one which persuaded me to hold an unfair image of a group like NAVHDA. The attitude of being judgmental will wrap its stealthy tentacles around your head before you even realize it.

As much as I have stressed how personal the process of training a bird dog is, we must also be willing to look for the tools available to us. The community, our friends, books, websites, even professional trainers. You, in fact, are still training your dog even if both of you are getting lessons from a professional. Just remember there is more than one way, pardon the expression, to skin a cat. What works for one may not work for another. Our dogs’ personalities are as diverse as we ourselves. Be open-minded, ask questions and do not be afraid to challenge what you learn.

NAVHDA President
The President of NAVHDA on a one on one training lesson with the authors dog.

Sharing a belly rub on the couch with my dog is only part of a much bigger and more rewarding relationship. A journey, if you will. If you have owned a pet, you know what they teach us about ourselves. But the opportunity expands those outlets into training and hunting, opening layers that I never imagined could be so rewarding.

Training a bird dog starts with the very personalized name you gave your dog. It ends when they are curled up next to you with your family. Everything in between is what your imagination, your personal goals have in mind. It is one of the most rewarding relationships you can ever have with another species. So if you are looking for a new outlet, hobby, goal, fulfillment — I could list emotions and motivations for a day — then this is your calling. Get a bird dog. Train a bird dog. Reap the rewards.

View Comments (7)
  • This post resonated with me as a first-time hunting dog trainer. NAVHDA has been hugely helpful in getting me started. I have dealt with the “don’t do this or you’ll ruin your dog” mentality, and it used to cause me a lot of stress. Now I’ve learned to pick through all the resources available to find those that work best for me and my dog. Thanks for the post!

    • I hear ya Adam! I found that when I was nervous about the whole “ruin your dog” mentality and my sense of anxiety translated over to my dog. Once I finally learned how to relax and became more casual about it my dog did better. Like anything removing the fun is a good way to take the passion out of it and when it comes to a dog needs to feed off our passion.

  • First, let me say that I am a bird hunter and bird dog owner, and not a member of any organized bird dog association. But, wow, this article pontificates. For someone so adverse to competition and judgement, this is very judgemental. Not competitive? How about, “I hunt grouse hard and my measure is how many birds we can eat in a season…………………….” Please.

    • 100% see where you are coming from in that response and rightfully deserved. I guess I should have clarified more on the concept of setting personal goals which can 100% be viewed as personal competition. The measure I am trying to state is that what makes one tick is not gospel for the next. Hence starting the above-quoted text with “Abide by the laws and everything else is up to your imagination, your goals, your sanity.” and eventually following it with “(that is at least my personal choice)”. Do it for what makes you happy not what others have set as a “standard” or “rule” to how we can pursue what we love. Which I would take your comment as advocating the same. Thanks for the feedback.

  • I wanted a Brittany. I got a Brittany/Border Collie. $17 in training supplies we were training. zip has many miles of brush busting for birds. He trained a Brittany that was terrible (I tried to give him away.. who is now awesome..Both are now training a Gordon Setter.. If I keep at this long enough, they’ll train me to be a better bird dog hunter!,,

  • I am also relatively new to NAVHDA and wonder why it took me so long to become part of the group. I avoided clubs, competitions, thought I knew best and that by reading all the training books I could come up with a “trained” dog. Having gone down this road, I strongly recommend anyone who has a bird dog to join their local NAVHDA chapter. The wealth of dog training experience available is amazing. It will enhance your experience with the dog in the field and at home.

    While the NAVHDA judges are far from judgmental, they are still judging. It is a competition against a standard, a way of putting into words what should be expected from a hunting dog. The competition and scoring are what has kept our bird dogs viable. You don’t have to look very far to find examples of “hunting” dogs who are now great companions but far from what would be considered a working hunter. The competitions and scoring are needed to pick which dogs should be bred and identify which breeders are still trying to maintain a true hunting dog. Anyone looking for a dog should be checking a dog’s pedigree for these competition and scoring results.

  • Great perspective. I was competitive in my younger years in everything & got over it a long time ago.
    Any pressure or preconceived expectations involved in hunting or dog training isn’t fun.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll To Top