Sporting Life

Practice Makes Perfect: Prepping a Bird Dog

By Dennis Doyle

Hobbes, my rowdy 3-year-old black Lab, tensed as my son hurled the green ball high in the air toward a growth of waist-high weeds about 50 yards away. As the object fell out of sight into the wild growth, Hobbes let out a small yelp and looked at Harrison for the release command. Harry waited until the pup calmed then said, “Fetch it up.”

My dog has two speeds in the field, explosive and flat out. I worry that he will injure himself charging into and through anything that gets in his way; but so far, he has always emerged unscathed. 

I swear his feet only occasionally touched the ground as he flew toward the mark, checked himself as he passed the weed patch downwind, then whirled and plunged on the ball. Tearing through the thick growth he emerged triumphant with the green object held firmly in his teeth as he galloped back to us, as proud as a peacock. Depositing the ball at my son’s feet he then pranced about, demanding another challenge to his unerring searches.

This past year has proven a difficult time for bird hunters and their working bird dogs. Air travel has been severely hampered in the Midwestern states, and in our now-traditional shooting grounds, gamebird populations have deteriorated precipitously. Fallow, wild growth farmlands have been reclaimed the last few years in the thousands of acres and planted in corn following the government’s intent to use grain alcohol to augment the country’s supply of gasoline.

Bereft of winter cover and food supply the ringneck pheasant populations suffered sorely as the traditionally brutal Midwestern winters took their toll and the springtime nesting seasons, unfortunately, also proved poor to disastrous. Since Maryland’s acidic soil lacks the limestone base necessary for pheasant reproduction, there are no native populations. Our modern agricultural practices using herbicides have all but eliminated the once numerous resident bobwhite quail numbers and individual farms that foster released birds have become the only source of local wing-shooting sports.

A bird dog has to be kept in touch with their nature or they tend to get moody, even desolate, but some encounters with a few game birds always elevate their spirits and keep them eager to please for months on end.

Diehard dog man Carl B. and I plan to treat our hunting dogs, Hobbes and Spirit, Carl’s springer spaniel, to a day on the Caroline County farm of Donny Swann at the Eastern Shore Shooting Preserve. And that’s why my son and I were refreshing Hobbes’ scent tracking ability and instinct to retrieve.

The tennis balls were rubbed with a pheasant scent product created by a company in Michigan for just such a purpose. Quite similar to human underarm deodorants, it gives the tennis balls the unmistakable odor of a gamebird. The fuzzy surface of the tennis ball is an ideal surface to retain the smell and on days with a gentle breeze, a good bird dog can detect such an object well over 100 feet away. 

Hobbes quite likes the game and as my son fired off a scented ball, sometimes over 50 to 60 yards into the overgrown field, I followed along behind tossing other scented balls, some 12 in total, into any cover thick enough to conceal a gamebird. When we reached the far end of the field we paused to allow the balls to trail their scent out, then, walking back into the field, Hobbes was told to “Find ‘em!”

And he did—every one of them. He was ready to hunt.