My Hunting With Drahthaars
By Clem. Walton
I don't do as much training as I used to do, mostly because I found that my dogs developed their mature hunting behaviors much faster when I wasn't trying to control them. I also found that obedience can be totally impressed with a very few repetitions if the training is done sparingly. If you do a lot of training it's going to take a lot longer to train the dogs.
I hunt with Drahthaars and German Wirehairs and they are very similar in learning speed and abilities. Of course I have chosen my dogs from a few selected breed lines for many years now and they aren't really representative of the diversity of breed lines available in North America.
My preference is for ruffed grouse but we will work woodcock when the dogs find them, I also take snowshoe hares, ducks and geese when the opportunity arises. Our normal routine is to start on opening day and hunt all day until dusk, this is continued six days per week throughout the hunting season (we cannot hunt on Sundays). Because of the nature of the habitat in Maine and the Canadian Maritime Provinces we cover a lot of territory and may work covers within a 50 km radius of whatever camp we are using. Hunted covers range from small pieces of a few hectares up to 'all day' covers that can cover several square kilometers. Most of the cover is thick, mixed woods alternating with first stage regrowth (poplars, birches and alders) that provides good cover for the birds but very little opportunity for watching the dogs.
We start all of our young dogs with neck bells that permit us to track their movements and evaluate their behavior. The bell sound patterns clearly indicates the dog's behavior, searching, cruising, tracking or stalking.
With a bit of experience you learn that the bell rhythms are quite different for a dog tracking fur and a dog working feathers. This gives us the opportunity to call a dog off a hare if we don't want one.
Part of the hunter's role is to pay attention to where the dog is and what it is doing, often you have to remember where the sound stopped to find the dog on point. The dogs always know where I am, they maintain contact with me by the sounds that I make and accommodate their search pattern to my movements. This an entirely natural cooperative behavior that I encourage by rarely speaking to my dogs unless they need a location for me.
When the dog bell stops I normally ask softly: "what have you got?", if the bell starts again the dog was waiting to hear from me, if it doesn't the dog has a bird. I don't use beeper collars because they are pitched too high for me and I cannot localize the dog by sound. The most important way of developing this interactive hunting pattern is to shut up and follow the dog. If you want the dog to work at a much greater range just keep on talking, if you want the dog closer whisper to it, if you want the dog to adapt to your movements shut up and hunt, the dog will work with you.Young wirehairs and Drahthaars tend to wander off and lose track of you but if you remain quiet and don't move after the bell fades they will miss you and come back within a few minutes. When I follow this pattern the dogs eventually learn that they have to keep track of me and there will be no bird work unless they are with me while we hunt.
There is a natural tendency for dogs to range wider when game is scarce but my older dogs will simply quit hunting and come to walk with me when there are no birds in the area. Learning to accept this from your dogs is a difficult task and by insisting that they go out and hunt again always ends up as a waste of time and effort. The dog's know a hell of a lot more about birds than I do and they will let me know if there are any in the area.
To develop cooperative hunting patterns such as these you must avoid interfering with the dog's hunting, when you are talking the dog stops learning. By the third year I usually remove the bell from a dog since it has learned to keep close track of me and will be working within a short walk when it finds a bird. The interesting part of this pattern occurs when the dogs are worked on pheasants in open farmland under these conditions the range is much greater but only as far as is necessary to produce birds. It takes a week or so for most younger dogs to shift from grouse hunting mode to pheasant hunting methods, older dogs can manage the transition immediately without a hitch in productivity.
These dogs always become more productive as they slow down and grow older and I am repeatedly surprised at the numbers of birds missed by young dogs that are in a hurry. I like to let my son and his hunting friends take their young dogs through a cover at a trot and then I can work the same cover with an older dog and produce more birds than they encountered by swarming through in the rush of youth.
I don't take every shot, it's more fun letting the birds win most of the time and often a bird won't move far and we can work it again in a short time. This doesn't hold with Canadian pheasants in the late season, when they flush they go a long way.
I never interfere when my dogs are working scent, they cannot learn anything from my mistakes so I shut up and study them. Some dogs can learn to pin a running bird with half a dozen encounters, others take years to get it right. The one think that is certain is that they don't ever learn to do this when you try to control their hunting behavior.. again the rule is shut up and watch the dog.
I assume that my dogs point only when they have a location fix on a bird, if they move from the point the bird is moving. I work towards the dog and when it is pointing and I reach it there's always a bird waiting to be flushed (unless I screw up and frighten it). This viewpoint has worked flawlessly with many dozens of wirehairs and Drahthaars over the years and these dogs have all taught me the same lesson, when things go wrong it's usually my mistake and not theirs.
It took a long time for me to learn that I cannot teach a dog how to hunt, even a German dog, and when I stopped training my dogs they started getting really good at producing birds for the gun. Obedience is wonderful and necessary but it has nothing to do with finding birds.
We hunt with other dogs and new people every year and the most predictable combination is the fellow that hacks his dog through the woods with a steady stream of commands. The result is always the same, after a few minutes his dog is hunting, along with my dog, in front of me. It never fails and it helps about half of the babblers to learn to shut up and start hunting, the other half are hopeless and I don't hunt with them again. I have learned to hunt birds from my wire coated dogs and they always find something new to teach me every fall day.