HR Catherine's Little Brownie
In our first article we covered Quartering. Now we want to start the next phase of training, "Steadying to Wing and Shot".
A steady upland flushing dog is very much like a steady retriever. They both must sit and remain in place while watching the bird's flight and marking its fall. Both must also wait there until commanded to retrieve. The one very important difference, however, is that the steady Flushing Spaniel is not at your side but is most likely 10 to 30 yards in front of you. He has also just had the bird blast right up from in front of him. He has reached this point by closing in on the bird's scent and is very hot on the trail. His close proximity to the bird and distance from you are of considerable contrast from sitting next to you in the dove field or duck blind. So, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that we have some training to do with our steady non-slip Boykin Retriever in order to create a steady Boykin Flushing Spaniel.
If your hunting buddy is a steady non-slip retriever and has been gun proofed, you already have a leg up on this training. In fact, I am going to assume he is steady and start the discussion from there. The "Steady to Shot" is mainly for dogs working in a brace. When one dog gets a flush and a shot is fired, all dogs need to sit. That way a retrieve can be commanded of one dog while the others honor. "Steady to shot" can be done first or in conjunction with the "Steady to Wing".
If your Boykin answers the sit whistle reliably, you can take a starter's pistol that shoots blanks along on romps or during other light training. Introduce the pistol shot along with the single whistle toot. He will very quickly come to realize that the whistle, the sit command or the gun shot mean the same thing--"SIT". By the way in spaniel language the traditional sit command is "HUP", imported from England--of course.
We begin "Steady to Wing" training with bumpers. Take Yellow Eyes out for a play run with some bumpers in your vest. As he turns and looks your way, toss a bumper in the air behind you so you are between it and the dog. As you throw, toot the sit whistle. If he sits, great; praise him but keep him sitting and go pick up the bumper yourself. Release him to run some more and when he is not expecting, throw one again (still keeping yourself between it and the dog.) If he sits again, great--let him go get this one. (A note here: In all this training you are going to pick up at least 1/3 of the bumpers/birds. This is so that he never just expects to retrieve a fall. We want to emphasize STEADY, not retrieving.) If he does not sit but breaks for the bumper, you are in position to intercept him. Do so and march him back to the spot where he heard the whistle. Sit him there, shake him up just a little, and then walk to retrieve the bumper yourself.
If you haven't already, now you can introduce the pistol shot with the whistle. Shoot the pistol first then the whistle--finally the pistol with no whistle. Every time, use only one whistle, one shot or one "sit" command. If he breaks say "NO", grab him and march him back to the command spot. As you progress start tossing the bumpers out to your side, then later on, a high arc over his head. Each step offers more temptation. So if he breaks, go back to the previous step and then work back up again.
After the bumpers, go back to the beginning with the same process using dead birds, preferably pigeons. We finish up with this same training using clipped wing pigeons. Here, of course, the temptation is the greatest. So once again go back to the beginning and start with the toss behind you so you can intercept the breaking dog. Continue until your Boykin is steady no matter where that clipped wing /flapping bird lands. At this point we will have what appears to be a pretty steady flushing spaniel-not the case however. He has not picked up the scent, located the bird, charged in for the kill and had the bird launch skyward right from under his nose. If he does "Hup" or "Sit" on his first wild flush, I guarantee he will not for long without further training.
So now we go to the live/flushing/flying birds. We will use pigeons first. If you can obtain the use of homing pigeons, you have a great advantage. If you do not have homers, you will need to catch, trap or buy common wild pigeons. You need to be prepared to let a lot of these fly away. Although it seems like a waste of time and money to obtain these birds just to let them go, you have to do it if you want a steady dog. Homing pigeons of course will fly back to their pen--you can use them over and over.
We start with live/flying bird training just as we did with bumpers and clip wing birds before. Stuff a couple of pigeons (preferably homing) in your vest or a live bird bag, and take your little South Carolina State Dog out for a romp. Put a couple of dead pigeons in your vest also. Get a live bird ready and as your hunting buddy turns to look at you, toss it straight up. Toot the whistle, shoot the pistol, even yell "sit" if you want. LET THE BIRD FLY AWAY. If your Boykin sits, there is no way you can praise him too much. This is the most intelligent dog in the world and you need to tell him so. If he breaks, don't blow the whistle again; yell "NO! NO!" If he responds to your "No", then go ahead and yell "SIT" again. If he sits (and he should if he slowed with your "No" command) give him a small "good boy" but go get him and bring him back to the original "sit" spot. Once there, reinforce the sit command with the whistle and back off to where you were when you tossed the bird.
From there, with him steady and watching you, toss another flyer. Blow the whistle, shoot the gun and yell "sit". As a steady retriever, he should stay steady this time. Let the bird fly away with the dog watching the bird go. Then go over and praise this most intelligent Boykin for staying steady this time. Release him for another romp and when he is not expecting, toss another bird. (A note here: There is the case where you toss the live pigeon, your dog breaks, but does not slow when you yell "NO". In fact, he just keeps on chasing. We will handle that problem the same way we will handle chasing after an actual flush--covered next.)
Do no more then two or three of these successful live bird tosses. On the last one, after the bird has flown away with your Boykin steady in front of you, blow the whistle to reinforce steady. Take a dead pigeon out of your vest and toss it for him to retrieve on command. This is important. He must know he only retrieves when he sits, marks, and waits for your command-just like non-slip retriever work. Now we are ready for the big one, the actual flush.
Before we go any further however, it's important to understand what traits we want in our Boykin Flushing Spaniel. In the U. S. we want our spaniels to go after birds with a BOLD flush. In England they train more for a soft, easy flush. But here we want that Springer, AWS, or Boykin to blast in on that bird like a freight train. We want to see tail feathers fly and if that bird is slow to launch, we want a Boykin heading back to us with our dinner in his mouth without a shot being fired. I can't overemphasize that what you do from here on will solidify what kind of flush your Boykin has.
What ever you do don't get in a hurry to finish this training by taking short cuts now. We have only a short way to go but this is the most important last step. When we were teaching quartering, we finished by using clipped wing pigeons. They can not fly but really flap those wings. Our Boykin should have already established a solid bold flush from driving in on those flightless birds. We start this final phase of training by dizzying a healthy homing or common pigeon and planting it in a tuft of grass. Put a couple of dead pigeons in your vest. Then bring your Boykin out and quarter him into the wind to the planted bird. When he drives in and flushes, let him put the bird into the air, THEN blow the whistle (no gun these first few times). Blow it loud and long. Yell "sit" if you want, but that is all. If he sits, he is the greatest dog and tell him so. Reinforce sit with the whistle again. Take out a dead bird and toss it up and out to your side. Then send the dog to retrieve.
If he breaks and chases the bird at the flush and does not answer the whistle, let him go. He will run after the pigeon as it circles up and flies away. When your little buddy tires, slows and finally looks back at you, then blow the "sit" whistle again. Even if he is a 100 yards away, blow and yell "sit". When he responds, toss a dead bird high for him to see and command fetch. You must repeat this as many times as necessary until he figures out that steady to the flush is his key to a retrieve.
If, after a few of these flushes, he still chases you may have to go out to where he finally does stop and march him back to the flush spot where you first ask him to sit. Toss a dead bird for him to retrieve and then try the whole process again. You may even have to go back to the toss of a live bird with him sitting in front of you but stay with the process until he is successfully. During this training, introduce the words "Gone Away" or "Fly away" as the dog sits and watches the pigeon fly. "That is one we are not going to retrieve my little hunting buddy." Also, reintroduce the gun shot after the flush. This may take several training sessions, but don't go farther until he "Hups" at the flush--Is "Steady to Wing".
Now, finally, what we have been waiting for all this time-shooting the flyer. Bring out the guns. If at all possible, have 2 gunners accompany you for this shooting session. Set up the same way. Plant the dizzied pigeon (common not homing) and quarter your Boykin to the bird. Station your gunners ahead and to each side of the bird. You might consider working your dog from the upwind side of the bird. He will work closer to you and be closer when he makes bird contact. At the flush, have the gunners wait until the dog sits. If the Boykin breaks and chases, the gunners must not shoot the bird. If he is steady, let the bird move out as far as the gunners feel comfortable with, then shoot it. You then command the retrieve. The obvious thing here is to not shoot the bird unless the dog "Hups" at the flush.
We must not reward the break with an exciting mark to retrieve. I would recommend working with a friend as gunner several more sessions. You can continue to concentrate completely on the dog, and the gunner can concentrate on the shot. Miss some shots, call "gone away" when you do. Also, you retrieve one or two shot flyers yourself to reinforce the dog's steady over and above his retrieve.
Finish this whole process by working him on game birds. Your payday will come when you see his level of excitement on a pheasant. Be careful with "pen raised quail". They sometimes flush a couple of feet into the air and fly low and level to the ground for only a short distance. This temptation for a break should not be presented to your freshly steadied Boykin. Don't chance training with them here unless you know they are lively birds that get up and fly hard and far.
In closing, I want to revisit an earlier important statement: "What ever you do don't get into a hurry and take short cuts with this training." There are two shortcuts that either you will think of or will be suggested to you by others. One is the use of the electronic collar; the other the use of a remote controlled bird release trap.
The use of the collar will come to mind, or be suggested, as a way to enforce "steady" at the flush of the bird. I strongly recommend you not use it. At best it will soften that bold flush we have worked so hard to obtain. Most probably it will cause your Boykin to "flash point" and not flush at all. At worse it will cause him to "blink" the bird--avoid the bird--act as if it is not even there. One moment of incorrect timing with that electricity can ruin this entire training. If you have collar conditioned your dog and want to use it after this training is completed to reinforce what he already knows, that is another thing and is your call. But, I've seen good retrieving Labs in the new UKC Upland Hunting Test blink birds. I feel certain it is because the collar was used to help train steadiness.
The release trap was designed, and is a good training tool, for pointing dogs not flushing dogs. The use of one here can ruin your dog's bold flush if he gets tangled up with the trap and bird at the point of trap release. Even if you have an assistant trip the release at just the right time, the dog will very quickly learn to cue on the trap noise. You may think you have a spaniel steady to flush, but what you really will have is a spaniel steady to release trap noise. At the least, the use of these traps will soften your Boykin's flush and probably start him pointing or blinking the bird.
Many retriever people, when using their retrieving buddies for upland game feel it is neat for their dogs to point. That does show, as with the Labrador, what versatile hunting dogs our Boykins can be. However, all spaniels, with the exception of one, are flushing dogs. If you want a spaniel that points, Brittany is his name (and Brittany people don't even want their dogs called spaniels any more). Far ranging, big running pointers and setters must point. If they didn't their flushes would be far out of gun range. Put these pointing dogs on big running birds like pheasants or blue quail for a couple days of hunting, and you will be lucky if they don't become flushing dogs also. Our Boykins are bred and trained to drive through birds when they retrieve. Keep them that way in the uplands also. Besides, at our 1999 National Hunt Test our dogs will be judged on their retrieving and upland flushing abilities.
This "Steady to Wing and Shot" training can be time consuming, difficult and frustrating. If you enjoy upland hunting and want to push your Boykin to the utmost of his genetic abilities, you will find this training totally rewarding.
With Catherine's and my two Boykins, HR Catherine's Dolly and HR Catherine's Little Brownie, I probably spend 90% of our training time on retriever stuff. However, in early fall when quail season is about to open and our annual trip to South Dakota is drawing near, we head out to the fields to touch up our quartering and flushing skills. We work on our quartering pattern and review steady to wing and shot. In two days we could be ready for the uplands anywhere. Once they've got this stuff, they just don't forget it.
Good luck. I hope you give this training a try. My goal for the Boykin breed would be
to see them in the dove fields in September, hunting ruffled grouse in October, busting
pheasants in South Dakota in November and retrieving ducks in December. Oh, yes, Catherine
reminded me--on the couch in the middle of the family portrait on Christmas day.
You can reach Howard Nichol by e-mail at:
Spaniels in the Field Periodical dedicated to spaniels. Great articles on training
your dogs to flush.
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Upland hunting - quartering
Upland hunting - control
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History of the Boykin Spaniel
Boykin Spaniel Standard