I once watched a friend ruin a young male English pointer named Sam by literally the push of a button. My friend thought Sam was false pointing, just as he had done earlier in the morning on some meadowlarks and field mice, so he pushed the button to power the electric collar scrapped to Sams neck. The shock sent Sam wheeling to his left with a loud yelp. In an instant, a covey of about eight bobwhites flushed from the bush where Sam had been pointing.
Thats not exactly the message anyone would want to give a bird dog, but it would be one he would remember: if you scent quail and point them, you get disciplined. I scolded my friend for the obvious impatience he had had with his young dog by reminding him that his pointer wasnt even a year old, and that if Sam wanted to point meadowlarks and field mice, that was okay. It was okay because Sam should be allowed to have fun running through the pasture, smelling everything out there, and having a good time rather than being taught to be afraid to hunt. After all, he was like a young boy or girl exploring the outdoors and having fun tossing rocks into the river or turning rocks over to see what was underneath, just for the fun of it. Those are the types of things that build future hunters, man and bird dog alike.
Over the years, I have seen many impatient and unskilled dog owners take the hunting out of their bird dogs by similar tactics as those used on Sam. I bet you have, too. A harsh rebuke, smack on the butt, mild electric shock, or just as bad---doing nothing at the right time to prevent a dog from acquiring bad habits---will prevent even the best bird dog from reaching the height of its potential.
Over the years, I have hunted behind a wide variety of excellent bird dog breeds, including English pointers and setters, German wirehairs and shorthairs, spaniels, red setters, pointing Labs, and others. To me, upland game bird hunting is about one thing: the dogs. Sure, camaraderie with hunting buddies, just being outdoors, and the rush of the flush all make a hunt a great experience; but watching the dogs work puts the cream in the ice cream.
I have admired the gusto of long-ranging dogs like male pointers and the diligent, close-in work of spaniels and others. And who could ever forget the first point of a quail, pheasant, or other upland bird made by their puppy?
Matt Brown, owner of the S.M. Brown Game Bird Ranch located on a Texas Family Heritage Ranch north of Nocona on the banks of the Red River, shares the same feelings about bird dogs. Brown has been breeding and training bird dogs for years, and it was while on a 21-mile canoe-kayak trip down the Red River with him and his son, Colton, last summer that I learned just how far ahead of the game Brown is with bird dogs and bird dog owners. He has developed new plans not only to train bird dogs but also to train their owners how to do it themselves while supplying one of the key ingredients---plentiful supply of quail.
Although the Brown Ranch has some of the fastest-flushing released birds I have ever seen, the multitude of native grasses on the well-managed lands also provides prime habitat for a large number of wild bobwhites. Unlike many other areas of Texas, such as to the west and south, above-average yearly rainfalls that spur good quail habitat are normal in the Nocona area. Releases of bobwhite quail, pheasant, and chukar combined with wild quail populations provide hunters with excellent upland bird hunting opportunities.
"It is no great news that bobwhite quail populations have declined drastically all across the country," Brown said. "I got to thinking that since I have the quail, why not let bird dog owners bring their own dogs up here where they can get expert advice from a professional trainer, while training their dogs themselves over a lot of quail. I have my own dogs that I use on regular hunts, but I think the opportunity for someone to bring their own dogs to a place with lots of quail and train them under the guidance of a professional trainer and a lot of quail on the ground is great. There are several mistakes some dog owners make while trying to train their dogs themselves; every dog is different; they have different temperaments; but there are things you can do to bring out the best in them."
Recognizing the potential in a particular dog, being aware of the strengths and weaknesses of a particular breed, addressing attitude changes, and learning how the dog is developing are things a good bird trainer does well. Passing that knowledge over to the dogs owner while he is in the field with his dog over lots of quail is a good concept, and very likely will be adopted by other bird dog trainers, especially those who have quail hunting operations where they can provide lots of quail for the dogs. To me, putting a young dog into large numbers of quail is a big part of the equation, but just as important is knowing the dos and donts of training a bird dog. I just wish Sam and his owner had been as fortunate to have both.