The Etiquette of Hunting Over Another Person’s Bird Dog
I will say it upfront: I am far from being an expert on bird dogs. But if there is one thing I have become certain of over the years, it is that there is not enough information out there for new people to understand the proper etiquette of hunting over someone else’s bird dog. Now more than ever, the influx of mentoring in the upland community coupled with a real thirst for knowledge from novices begs for some helpful guidance on the etiquette of hunting over someone else’s dog. Bird dogs will play a critical role in hunter recruitment as the R3 movement (RECRUITMENT, RETENTION AND REACTIVATION expands.
I may say this even stronger as a bird dog owner who has had a few bad experiences which I credit to my lack of communication rather than the error of the mentee. These things exist for two main reasons: first and foremost, for the dog’s safety; and second, so that you the hunter actually get invited back.
Here are eight essential rules to follow unless the owner tells you otherwise.
Thou shall restrict muzzle control even further
Anytime I watch new videos pop up across social media I cringe at the lack of muzzle control around bird dogs. Yes, hunter’s education taught you that a muzzle pointed at the ground is safe, but that can change in an instant when a hunting dog is involved. Start practicing keeping your muzzle up at all times while still being mindful of the people around you. Keep that gun action open as often as possible, which may be easier with pointing dogs than with flushing dogs.
When approaching a point, the gun’s muzzle should always be ready at a level above the dog. If you approach a point with your gun shouldered but pointed towards the ground, you will often have to sweep the muzzle up through the dog in order to shoot. This is a very dangerous situation where safeties and trigger fingers are at their most vulnerable points. While the idea of pre-mounting a gun on a point is a whole other topic around poor instinctual wingshooting, at a minimum, low-mounted guns should always be avoided for the dog’s safety.
Thou shall not command another’s bird dog
Just as we would not discipline another person’s child or bark orders at them, the same principle is true with a bird dog. Sure, jumping up on us is one thing. But when a bird dog is working, we must stay out of that person’s vibe (even if it’s a bad vibe). In some cases, a handler may ask you to call a dog your way, or maybe help contain their dog for some reason. All that is fine given that we were actually requested in our actions.
A few years ago, I experienced what was a long day when a novice hunter proactively took it upon themself to command a handler’s dogs. Every time he opened his mouth, I wanted to crawl out of my skin, it was so awkward. Not only did this person not understand the process of bird dog work, it is bad for both a dog’s training and the opportunity to get future invitations. Over the years I have now made it a point to say something to novices before a dog hits the ground when filming whether it’s my dog or not. This can save what can be a painful day in the field and a real tension I am not interested in filming.
Thou shall not shoot a bird on the ground or a low flush
This is the fastest way to end a hunt. Yes, this has happened to me. Honestly, it was my own fault because I did not set the groundwork before we started the hunt. Never shoot anything (even a rabbit) on the ground over someone’s bird dog unless they tell you otherwise. The same is true for low-flying birds. Many dogs including my own are only steady to flush which means a dog hot on its tail. If a dog can jump that high, do not shoot.
One thing I have learned is that the human thought processes and body are very capable of split-second decisions like these – as long as you are conscious of them. This is all so important to the safety of a bird dog that is most likely like a child to the handler. I know.
Thou shall not give another advice on their bird dog unless solicited, even if you are a pro
Past the world of novices, even veteran handlers are tempted to command another’s bird dog. There are moments of painful dog work that seem to scream “Help!” But truth be told, we must let people develop at their pace and via their moments of learning. Patience is mandatory. When people are ready for advice, they will ask if they feel comfortable. But let them get there first; if not, it just makes for an awkward day afield rather than a potential future opportunity for learning and teaching.
Novices must be even warier of this. Maybe some people are just overbearing, but I have seen a novice give advice on bird dog handling that has been everything from irrelevant to lunacy. Save those thoughts for your own dog in the future and keep note of what you personally would do.
Thou shall not judge another’s bird dog because it’s just complicated
Recently I was subjected to a novice giving proactive criticism by comparing a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon work to English Setter work. For anyone who knows a little bit about bird dogs, we can easily point out that this is like comparing apples and oranges. If you hunt over a dog and do not like its style, understand that it is probably related to a breed’s style (or to the way the dog was trained). Don’t want to chase a dog through the woods and rush to a point because slow is a good pace for you? Then do not buy a Pointer. That has nothing to do with a dog being trained wrong or a handler letting the dog do things it should not. It is the fact that dogs are bred for different types of game, country, and even competitions. Blood lines in a breed can vary greatly by the purposeful nature of what traits and behaviors were favored.
Until you are knowledgeable on what you want in a bird dog and understand how different they all are, restrain yourself from jumping to conclusions. Even once we achieve a better understanding, it’s still best to keep our personal preferences to ourselves.
Keep in mind that the conditions alone can dictate a good or bad day in the field. If the conditions just aren’t right, there is nothing the handler or the dog can do to make them ideal. Like a good or bad hair day, so goes the world of a bird dog.
Thou shall not judge a whole breed by one dog
I have done this. More than once. I was wrong every time. Just like we all like different styles of bird dogs (hence the variety of breeds in the world), we also cannot judge a whole bird dog breed based on one dog. Why? Because of a million reasons. Maybe they were trained poorly (still keep that to yourself). Maybe they had a bad day like I mentioned above. The reality is that bird dogs are complicated creatures and everything from good breeding (or bad), training and even daily conditions can go into the art and science of how a dog works.
I have seen good quail dogs tank on their first day of grouse. I have seen it in reverse. I have seen good grouse dogs fail on woodcock. I have seen my own dog be a rock star one day and an asshole the next. Frankly, I have seen more bad Griffon work than good, but I still love the breed.
Thou shall ask the rules of the dog before the hunt
Asking goes a long way. Most people that want only pointed birds shot will tell you. If people say things like “stop to flush,” ask what it means. In the north woods, many of us will say pointed woodcock only but wild flush grouse are okay. Some of us will say if you are new, shoot it whether it’s a wild flush or not to get your first bird. Just open the lines of communications. Most of the time we will end up learning a wealth of information about what dog work actually is, looks like, and shouldn’t be with starting these conversations.
Even something like approaching a point is not just a learning experience but a moment of varying habits and styles. Do not be afraid to ask, “Where should I go?” “What should I do?” and even, “What the hell do I do now?!” Once the communication starts, you will understand all these rules of etiquette and hopefully be invited again.
Thou shall ask questions and listen
If you are fortunate enough to experience bird dog work for your first time, you will be exposed to different breeds, bird dog training styles, and game. Ask questions. Learn. You will be amazed by the accelerated knowledge you will gain over time being in the field with different people and dogs. Then someday, you can judge your own dog to the standards you want to achieve. There is always something to learn with a bird dog on the ground. Be a good mentor, mentee, friend, and communicator.
Editors note: As one of my friends likes to say, "shoot my bird, ok...shoot my dog...well now...we are way out in the desert and you may not get home!"