by Gary Koehler
Many years ago, while living in northernmost Illinois, a friend and I would make an annual pilgrimage to a public hunting area with the intent of chasing put-and-take pheasants provided by the state.
I had a German shorthaired pointer at the time. And Nick doubled as my duck hunting companion, except on the coldest of days. Without fail, on each pheasant hunting trip we'd come across a couple of guys trailing behind a Chesapeake Bay retriever. Somehow I thought that odd.
But even though there was no water to contend with, I should not have been surprised at the number of Labs and golden retrievers pressed into service. Just as I relied on my shorthair to occasionally retrieve ducks, these other hunters got double duty by employing their dogs in the uplands.
Then, and now, the majority of active hunters live in either a city or suburb. And few have the space or the time to maintain a large kennel with numerous dogs. Retrievers that adapt to hunting different types of birds double their value.
John Pease, who has raised and trained retrievers (hilltopkenneliowa.com) for more than 30 years in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says that only a little additional training time is required to transition your dog from waterfowl to upland game. "I have always hunted my dogs for both ducks and pheasants," Pease says. "My retrievers were all adaptable to upland game hunting."
"For most people," he continues, "it makes a lot more sense to have one dog—if they do it right. The more dogs you have, the less time you spend with each one of them."
Assuming that your retriever has undergone basic obedience training, there is not a lot more to add before turning it loose in the pheasant fields. "A little preparation helps a lot," Pease says. "You know, work on things that you are going to encounter in the field before you take the dog into the field.
"It's the same with a duck dog, where you get it used to getting in and out of the boat, retrieving bumpers ... that kind of stuff. To prepare your dog for upland birds, you have to first get it ready. Otherwise, you can expect the worst."
Steadiness is one consideration. Anyone who has ever hunted upland game likely has a horror story about a dog who took off on a dead run and didn't stop until every bird in the field flushed—hundreds of yards ahead of the hunters. "I get that phone call every year the night before the pheasant opener," Pease says. "People will call and ask me how to keep their dog under control. It's too late at that point. The dog probably isn't going to be under control the next day."
Pease demands that his dog stays close to him and any other hunters who may be accompanying them so the birds are within shotgun range when they flush. "There's a place for a retriever being steady to wing and shot, and I insist on that when I'm hunting ducks. But when you're hunting pheasants with a big group of people and there are other dogs around, whistles are blowing, and guns are going off, it's tough," he says. "It sounds good, but in the real world it's tough to pull off."
Pease conditions his retrievers to stay close during the off-season. "I take them for walks and get them in a routine," he says. "I let them get out a ways and I'll call them back. I work on that until it's second nature for them to stay close to me. It's all about routine. They learn how far they're supposed to range and they stick to that.
"It's all about the dogs knowing the rules. If you don't have any standards, the dog's not going to have any standards. Be consistent and the dog will figure out what you want it to do."
Pease also works on getting his dogs used to fences—something that retrievers may seldom encounter while hunting waterfowl. "When I am training a dog, I get him used to going over or under fences," he says. "I start with something low, like a plastic pipe or hog wire panel, and get him to jump over it and retrieve from the other side on command. Fences can be dangerous. Dogs have to be introduced to fences or they won't know how to handle them."
"The best way to learn to train a dog is to let a dog that's smarter than you are train you." –Robert Ruark