A Bird Dog Owner Shares his Passion to Hunt both Feather and Fur in the Uplands
One of my first ring-necked pheasant hunts was when I was a kid out with my uncles in Wisconsin. I remember being so excited about the birds that were hiding in the field of CRP in front of me. My uncle said, “If you see a rabbit you can shoot that, too.” I got even more excited. Suddenly, the chances of bagging my first wild game effectively doubled in my head.
I had no idea what was waiting for me in that field, but I was determined to find out. It wasn’t long before my uncle’s dog, a young yellow Labrador, started to get birdy. I readied my shotgun and anticipated the rush of wings — but instead, I saw a flash of fur burst out in front of the dog. I was about to take a shot at the rabbit, but the dog wasn’t far behind. I held fire. The rabbit escaped, but most importantly, my uncle’s dog came away unharmed. A lapse of focus on my part combined with an untrained dog could have led to an unfortunate outcome.
The Mixed Bag Hunter
It’s 20 years later, and I’m diving back into the uplands and getting my own hunting dog. I’ve worked hard to get to the point where I can responsibly own a dog, and I’ve spent more than a few nights thinking about our future hunts. I’m an opportunist, so whenever I’m in the uplands I will take any legal game I can find and make a meal out of it. I plan to continue this same process with the new dog. If we find a squirrel during a woodcock hunt then there is no question — there will be some fur in my game bag.
Some bird dog owners disagree with my approach. The criticisms around shooting fur over your bird dog revolve around the idea that it will distract the dog from what it is really out there to find: birds. There is probably some validity to this, but for me, the advantages outweigh this cost.
In my home state of Indiana, wild game birds like pheasant and quail are tough to come by. The mixed bag approach is especially advantageous if my goal is to bring home wild game meat. Rabbit and squirrel meat can both be used as a substitute for chicken in lots of dishes. One of my favorites is Braised Barbecue Cottontail Lettuce Wraps.
Another advantage of taking fur during a bird hunt is that it gives new hunters more opportunities for success. I’ve helped a few hunters get started and they get hooked on those first harvests. I am one of those “variety is the spice of life” kinds of people. While wingshooting is one of my favorite activities, squirrels and rabbits offer shot opportunities that birds don’t. They are both challenging, but distinctly different.
If you do decide to take on other game with your dog there are a couple things I recommend keeping in mind.
Safety First in all Hunting
That pheasant hunt in Wisconsin taught me a valuable lesson on how important our shooting decisions can be. Choices like this are a critical layer for the safety of the entire hunting party, including the four-legged members.
However, we shouldn’t only rely on the choice to shoot to avoid an accident. It’s important to train our dogs to stop on command for their safety. This is a popular opinion — training bird dogs to “whoa” is common. Still, there are some who choose not to spend time with their dogs on this. When hunting birds there is less risk to a chasing dog if the bird has enough altitude.
Based on just a few experiences, I recommend that someone who wants to shoot fur over their dog should train a solid “stop.” The added risk of the dog and game running at the same level, plus the vegetation that can obstruct your view, make it dangerous to rely only on split-second decision making. You might be thinking that it’s impossible to teach a dog to stop mid-chase, but I’ve seen it done. I’m sure it’s not easy, but my dog and I will both be learning how to make it happen.
No On-Off Switch for Fur
If you decide a mixed bag of fur and feathers is your thing, keep in mind that once you start shooting fur over your dog it will be difficult for him to ignore it. I’ve trained a few non-hunting dogs, and they will do more of something if it is encouraged and less if it is not. If a dog jumps up on people and receives excited voices and pets it will probably keep jumping on people. On the other hand, if people turn away and ignore a dog that jumps it will learn it’s not such a fun behavior.
I think the same idea can be applied to hunting with your gun dog. If the rabbits and squirrels your dog finds are consistently shot and the dog gets to experience the fun of smelling them, tasting them, and retrieving them it will likely want to keep finding them. This is where the argument comes in from people that just want their dog to focus on birds. If the dog learns it will never get to catch things without wings, then it will probably ignore the fur it smells and keep trying to get on birds.
I’ve considered this while anticipating the day I get my dog. In my situation, where wild birds are hard to come by, when my dog starts to get excited with “birdy” behavior, there is a pretty good chance that it’s fur she’s smelling. There are lots of skilled dog trainers out there, and I’m sure some can tell their dog, “We are just going after birds today.” But that’s beyond my skill level as a novice. Whether you want your dog to be an upland generalist or a bird specialist, it’s probably easiest to pick one and stick with it.
It’s your Dog. Hunt how YOU Want
If you haven’t learned already, upland hunters have no shortage of opinions. This isn’t such a bad thing because it means they are passionate. The dark side of those opinions is when they turn people away from the uplands. Every hunter is going to have different goals and experiences they want to have afield. No matter the game they want their dog to hunt, or even if they don’t have a dog, their quest has a place in the uplands and it should be welcomed.
Ultimately, the only opinion that matters besides yours is your dog’s. And his main concern is that you get out there and go hunting.
Luke Louden is an outdoor professional whose work has taken him from fighting wildfires in the western United States to studying chimpanzees in Uganda. Now he lives in his home state of Indiana where his priority is introducing people to hunting with the help of his bird dog “Flax.” Currently, he is planning a native prairie project on his property to bring bobwhite quail back to where he grew up.