Scent and Scenting, Part 3
As I have said on numerous occasions, we take a dog hunting to find and retrieve game that we otherwise would not be able to put in the bag. There has to be the balance in handling a dog between allowing him to use his own natural abilities and experience, and controlling him to ensure that he gets the game we are looking for as quickly as possible. We need to work in partnership. In training we can however provide some of the learning experiences that will enable him to work more effectively and understand the scent he is looking for while still maintaining and reinforcing the necessary control.
Where there is a lot of game, such as when you are picking up on a large estate, one of the most important abilities your dog requires is to be able differentiate between shot and unshot game. If you have ever had the opportunity of attending a trial where dogs are being sent for shot birds through fields of unshot game and on occasions even take the line on a wounded bird among unshot game, you could be like me, amazed at the dogs ability to determine the difference and stay on track. This comes from experience, and training. Firstly, a dog has to have the control, confidence and experience to get out to the fall of a shot bird ignoring all other game and scent. Secondly, when he hits the fall area, he has to be able to differentiate between the scents and identify that of the wounded bird. Blood scent is one factor that provides the difference and the other is the scent of gunshot on the bird from the pellets it carries. To see a dog take a track of a wounded bird through a field containing a lot of game that is either running or flying out is one of the most exciting sights in the gundog world. Even when there is not game, for a dog to take the track of a wounded bird among scent of birds that have now left the scene and is only seconds old, really sets the hairs on the back of your head tingling.
Experience on the real thing is the big teacher however there are a number of ways you can build up this ability. The most obvious is to lay a blood scent for your dog by dragging a dead bird or rabbit, that has blood on it, tied in the middle of a long rope held at the ends by two people who can then walk a distance away from the dragged game. Initially make the drag a short one and then increase the distance. Take your dog to the beginning of the trail and encourage him to hunt it up until he finds the bird at the end of the drag. Very quickly he will learn to follow the line of the drag. When that happens put a few curves in the drag and some right angle turns. Initially I prefer to have any wind movement coming towards my dog but as he progresses, by changing the line of the drag, he will gain experience at dealing with differing angles of scent created by the effects of air movement. Another way that is similar, but now includes a marked fall, is to have an assistant throw out a bird attached to a long piece of string. Once it hits the ground, pull the bird back to where a second bird is lying, not attached to the string. Send your dog only when the assistant has picked up the dragged bird.
A rabbit pen can be a very useful training ground to teach your dog to ignore unshot game and retrieve what you have asked him to. Teach your dog to retrieve dummies where he has to run through a group of rabbits. In the video I made with Paul French I show this with my Labradors and spaniels. I throw feed down to encourage the rabbits to congregate in the middle of the pen and then send my dogs for retrieves through them. If you have the opportunity to do this, initially throw marked retrieves, then move onto memory retrieves and finally do blind retrieves in the rabbit pen among the rabbits. During the shooting season, you can build on the experience by bringing home shot birds or rabbits and sending your dog for these in the rabbit pen. If you are really lucky and you have a friendly game keeper ask whether you can go into the pheasant pens and work your dog in this way. At certain times of the day and rearing season the keepers will be pleased for you to work on the outside of the pens bringing the birds back and in doing so you can give your dog the occasional retrieve among them. I counted myself very lucky with one keeper who would allow me in at feed time and feed the pheasants around my dogs who were then given the occasional retrieve either of a dummy or a dead bird among the feeding birds. This experience was invaluable. If you are able to dog in for an estate, pushing the birds back from the boundaries of the estate, again you can give your dog retrieves where he has to collect among running birds or at least where there is plenty of fresh game scent. This can be a very valuable exercise especially for spaniels who have to switch between hunting for unshot game which they should flush and not catch, to retrieving shot game.
In America , one of the common practices is to use live pigeons to encourage the use of the nose and provide a dog with the experience of tracking game. By clipping the flight feathers of one wing the bird cannot fly and if left on the ground for a few minutes will walk. I generally use this as a memory retrieve, allowing my dog to see the bird be put down and then walk him away before turning around and sending him for the bird. By increasing the distance and also the time before sending him, the bird will walk further and further away from the fall area. In this way a dog learns to take longer and longer tracks to find the bird. The other advantage to this is that I learn to read my dogs and know when they are on a track, as in the longish cover I do not know where the bird has walked. On more than one occasion I have had a dog that gets to the fall area and then hunts almost all the way back to me before finding the bird almost at my feet. We always expect the bird to move away from us but of course that does not always happen.
Occasionally when shooting and more often when picking up after a shoot, your dog will have to work through the scent of birds that have already been picked. It can be quite frustrating when a dog sticks an old scent and will not get out to where the actual bird you want has fallen. An exercise that can help your dog to recognize and go past ‘old’ scent is where you give him in-line marked retrieves, one after the other in cover where he cannot see the dummies and has to use his nose. With these marked retrieves your dog starts from the same place. The distance of the fall from your dog is increased by about twenty yards at each retrieve, and the dummies are thrown so that after the first they fall directly behind the one that had been previously retrieved. In other words the retrieves are at increasing distances and fall in direct line behind each other. Once you have him recognizing and running through the old falls you can now do this exercise using blind retrieves and then substitute dummies for dead birds or rabbits. With this exercise allow your dog to gain experience and check out the old areas if he stops at them. Give him time to think out the situation and make the decision to cast himself further out towards where the dummy actually is. Only if he is dwelling too long on the old scent should you stop him and cast him out.
Some dogs are so quick they run over their nose and are too fast for their scenting ability. These flashy dogs catch the eye, are a delight to watch but their game finding ability can be weakened by their enthusiasm for speed. At the other end of the spectrum some dogs appear to be thinkers and when in the area slow down, lower their heads and really puzzle out what is happening. It is as though they are reading the scent ‘book’, finding out where the wind is coming from, changing their position to locate where the bird has fallen and slowly moving down the scent trail to their quarry. These can be quite difficult to read, as they are so methodical and not very animated. And, of course there are all variations in between. What you are training for is a dog that understands and works at the ‘speed of scent’, in other words knows how to find scent over a wide variety of scenting conditions. A good game finding dog is a shooting man’s dream. Add style and pace to such a dog and you have a competition man’s dream. As a trainer you can help develop your dog’s ability to use its nose and interpret what it is telling him – dogs may be bred to have good noses but with the right training you can develop it even further.