Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Good and the Bad of Training with Homing Pigeons

It’s hard to beat homing pigeons as the bird of choice for the early stages of the steadying process. They are easy to obtain, easy to keep and they return to the loft. Pigeons don’t hold for pointing dogs so you have to restrain them in some manner. While you can make a pigeon stay put by dizzying the head and tucking it under its wing or tying a cardboard tether to one of its legs, homing pigeons act too tame in these situations and will teach your dog bad habits by allowing him to creep or crowd them before they fly.

Maurice Lindley developed a method using remote launchers and homing pigeons for steadying dogs (see Training with Mo: How Maurice Lindley Trains Pointing Dogs by Martha Greenlee). Launchers work best for training setups such as stop-to-flush and backing where the dog doesn’t have scent of the bird. If you want your dog to point a launcher, you need to be careful. If your dog gets too close, the launcher may scare him when the bird is ejected. Another problem is the dog knows the launcher is unnatural and he quickly figures out the bird isn’t free to move around. If you let your dog point too many launchers, he can turn them into a game filled with bad habits. I had a training buddy whose dog started out pointing launchers, but because she trained on them too long, her dog stopped pointing and started charging as soon as he smelled one. He wanted to make the bird fly.

A Higgin’s remote releaser works best for pointing setups. It is a metal cage with a lid that opens remotely so the bird is free to go when pressured by a dog. Dogs relate to releasers differently than launchers. While a launcher is usually planted in thick cover so the dog can’t see it, a releaser is planted in lighter cover. The bird can see the dog coming and the dog can see the bird, usually when the lid opens, and realizes he can catch it. The bird knows it better fly or else and if the dog makes a dive for the bird, he knows he’s the one putting it in the air.

In Maurice’s method, you use homing pigeons to develop your dog’s point, teach basic commands and introduce the e-collar during the first couple of months of the steadying process. You are building the foundation and all of the hours you spend in the training field will boil down to achieving one major accomplishment—teaching your dog the e-collar. You should be able to stop your dog with the e-collar as he is chasing a bird, and once he stops, you should be able to walk out in front of him while he remains standing. Once this accomplishment is achieved, your dog is ready to advance to loose birds.

The hardest part of training with homing pigeons is giving them up. Maurice puts it this way, “Launchers are great tools for a very short period of time.” Unfortunately, some amateur trainers get so comfortable with the control pigeons offer that they continue to train on them to the detriment of their dogs; or they return to pigeons after their dogs have already advanced to quail. Last month I watched a dog barely indicate a pigeon in a releaser. The dog looked miserable as his tail slowly wagged back and forth, his head turned away. The owner couldn’t understand why the dog looked so bad and described how beautiful he had looked pointing wild quail earlier in the year. I tried to explain that his dog was beyond pigeon work.

Once you move to loose birds, you don’t go back. Loose birds, usually quail, are more challenging to use and the training gets harder. More things have to go right to have success. You need good flying birds, proper cover, fast reflexes and skill with the e-collar. You no longer control the flush—the bird does. And you are going to make mistakes, lots of them, but your dog is going to handle them because you’ve already built a good foundation with homing pigeons. It’s easy to understand why some amateurs hesitate moving their dogs forward or they return to pigeons after their dogs have advanced to quail, but sometimes you have to bite the bullet. Sometimes you have to think about what is best for your dog and leave your comfort zone and the bad habits that result from training with pigeons too long. When your dog is ready to advance, you need to advance with him. It may be hard to do, no doubt about it, and you’ll miss the control you had with homing pigeons, but loose birds will make you a better trainer and your dog a better bird dog.