(Originally published in Fall 2019 issue of California Waterfowl)
by JOSH MILLER, SportDOG® Brand
I’ll never forget the first time I went on a real dove hunt – “real” as in not just my buddies and me sitting in my parents’ back yard with our two foam dove decoys hoping to see something.
My first real dove hunt was in Kansas with a friend. He put me in this cattle pasture with a bucket and a few decoys and told me to let him know when I had my limit. Seemed like a cocky statement at the time.
I had a young British Labrador, Brock, along with me, and this would be his first hunt. You could tell he was excited, but then again, so was I.
I initially treated it like a duck hunt, since that was all I knew. I would shoot a bird, then try to get him back quickly with that retrieve since there were more birds in the air, almost as if there was a wad of greenheads locked and setting in.
After a few retrieves, I remember looking down at him and realizing this was actually a live training situation. I then let the next five birds come in the decoys and go without firing a round. I watched as his intensity and patience grew simultaneously. I then started taking more difficult shots, which led to longer marks and blind retrieves.
I am sure that for most of that hunt I had a big smile on my face, not because I was killing birds, but because I was able to enjoy watching all my hard work with this young dog come together. Being a dog guy, that was as about as much fun as I had ever had in the field, and I have loved dove season ever since.
Many of us look at dove season as the ultimate tune-up for waterfowl season. But I also want to caution you, because the wheels you spent all summer putting on can come off in a hurry during this stretch.
There were a few things I quickly learned that first season I was in the dove field: This is a very laid-back style of hunting. It can be a very target-rich environment. And you can do some serious work with a young dog in just a few days.
Here are some things I do to turn dove hunts into great training opportunities:
1) Don’t shoot every bird! Remember, this is a laid-back hunt with (in most cases) a lot of shooting opportunity. You don’t need to squeeze that trigger every time you see a bird. Let your dog see a few birds decoy and encourage him to be steady and calm. By doing this you give him the chance to settle in and not think that every bird he sees will lead to shooting, which then leads to a retrieve because we all know what happens if he’s thinking that … and it’s nothing good.
2) Go out with friends who have dogs to work on honoring. As long as your friends have dogs that will be under control, this is a great time to work on honoring while in the field. If you need a leash, use a leash. If you need a place board, bring one out. There is often a lot of flexibility on these hunts, so take advantage.
3) Use this as a live training situation. About every dove hunt I have ever been on has included sitting on a bucket wearing light camouflage in a highly visible area for my dog. Sound familiar? This is as close to a training set-up as you will get in the field, so use it that way. Since these birds often come in singles or pairs, it allows your dog to really work on marking, since there isn’t the overwhelming situation of a whole flock to watch. Take your time, don’t rush things and look at each bird as an opportunity to train.
Now, onto some warnings.
I have been in the field before where dogs are out of control, running all over the place with 10-plus guys down the line shooting. As you can imagine, it’s chaos. If you have a young dog, DO NOT put him in this situation. You are asking to unravel your training.
Keep in mind that these are very small birds, so dogs can easily lose a mark or run past them. Make sure you are marking the birds well yourself in order to make the dog successful.
Last, watch your dog’s mouth. It’s hot and dove feathers tend to come off and cover the inside a dog’s mouth on each retrieve. Your dog might be tempted to get mouthy with the birds, and you can’t allow him to do that.
The best thing about the dove field is that it reminds you why you got into hunting and dogs in the first place. I see more smiles and hear more laughter on these hunts than most other seasons. Enjoy the hunt, enjoy your dog and enjoy your time in the field. You’ll be thankful you did.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Josh Miller is the product training specialist for SportDOG® Brand and owner of River Stone Kennels and Britishlabradors.com. Josh has more than 13 years of training experience and has been successful running in AKC/HRC hunt tests and field trials, and is a five-time NASHDA Championship winner.