I should preface this post with the fact that Floyd is not my dog, I am just privileged to get to work with him a lot. Floyd is a 2 year old Springer Spaniel, and he is very special to me, because he is one of my first ALMOST finished dogs. To be perfectly honest, none of my dogs will ever be finished; I will always try to push to envelope and see what else I can get them to do. It’s not good enough that my Mals are great at their respected jobs, I want to see if I can make them do what retrievers do (and by the way, they are close to being great gun dogs, if they would just be a little more gentle when it comes to bringing the wings back!). I want Floyd to be the best all-around dog possible. He does fantastic obedience, beautiful agility, has awesome manners. In his spare time, he passed the Kentucky Canine Therapy Dog Program. One would think that he would be finished, but why stop there!
He has a natural talent to hunt birds, so that’s what I decided to do next. We would hunt! Rather, he would run around and flush planted birds and I would cheer for him like he had just won the Super Bowl. I have no real desire to shoot anything. I am more than happy to go with the guys while they hunt, but shooting guns is just not my thing; my job is to work the dogs. I will clean and cook whatever they bring back, I just don’t want the responsibility of carrying the gun and shooting. It also hampers my photography, and obviously that is much more important!
So, anyways, back to Floyd and his birds. Our first outing occurred at Quail Point Preserve in Winchester, KY. This beautifully tended property is literally “for the birds”! Mr. McCord takes great pride in his farm and it shows as you drive through the meticulously tended fields. Everything on his property is done for a reason. There are fields of sunflowers and corn that stretch out for acres, and every hunting area is complete with water access to cool the dogs when they need a break from their work. Several years ago, he converted his tobacco greenhouses into nurseries for his new tenants, and his fields that had been planted for harvest for the past century were now converted into the perfect area for hunters and their dogs to enjoy. His grandchildren will be the sixth generation to live on this piece of land, and his conversion to this unique business, will give them the opportunity to let the land work and provide for them, just as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago.
This was the perfect place for Floyd’s first foray into the hunting life, and let me tell you, he was ready! I had been hiding pheasant wings around the kennel for him to find for a while, and he never had a problem finding them and bringing them to me. It was a fun game for us to play, a dog/bird hide and seek of sorts. Now, he a had a live version to play with, and play he did! Mr. McCord planted ten quail for us, and Floyd couldn’t get going fast enough! When quail are “planted”, basically you are taking a farm raised quail and putting it to sleep and “planting it” in a designated area. There are several methods of putting quail to sleep, and they mostly involve making them dizzy and a little out of sorts. It will take them sometime to come to their senses, so they won’t travel very far out of the area. This is perfect for the beginner dog; by having the birds in one area, and not traveling very far, the dogs are able to find them fairly quickly and this makes the game fun. Eventually, you would make the area larger and ask more from the dog, but in the beginning, letting them have fun while they are learning is very rewarding. These birds were put out right before I let Floyd out of the truck, so he would have the easiest time possible to find them. When birds are put out for actual hunts, they are put out up to 3 days ahead of time, to give them a sporting chance. It may be fun for the dog to find easy birds, a hunter wants the chase that goes along with hunt.
Any-who, I had read a lot of books, and watched a lot of YouTube videos about hunting with Springer’s, but nothing will prepare you for watching them work uninhibited in a field for the first time. I like training dogs to perform certain commands and always want to see what I can do next, but let me tell you, there is nothing like watching a dog do what he was born to do. I had never “taught” Floyd to hunt for birds. It was a talent that I had honed slightly with wings, but this ability was all his own. He jumped out of the truck, his little tail going a mile a minute, in true Floyd fashion. We did a few heeling and recall commands, just to make sure his manners were in place in this new environment, and then I left him to his work. “Hunt it up” was all I had to say and he was off like a shot. He knew there were birds in that field for him to find and the game was afoot! He quartered with such a natural talent that you would have thought he had been doing this for years, when in reality he was just born to hunt. The grass was tall and had been strip mowed the week before, so there were nice paths for me to walk through, while he did his job.
I’m not going to lie, he ran right over the first bird he came across and I don’t even know if he knew it was there! He was on a mission, but needed a little direction for the exact parameters of said mission. I brought him back to the spot where the bird was waking out of it’s stupor and this time, the bird moved on his approach. That was all it took! He knew the mission and was not going to stop until all the birds had been found.
Five birds later, he needed a little break. It’s hard work running and jumping through the brush, looking for birds! He took a quick swim in the pond that was a little bit away from our allotted hunting area. I threw his pheasant dummy for him a few times, just to add a little training to the afternoon, and then he was back at it! By this time, he knew the prey and he was using his nose to find them. Floyd is a very athletic dog and it didn’t take him long to figure out that he could jump as soon as the bird took flight and catch them. Obviously this is a no no for a hunting dog, since they should sit at the flush and wait for the retrieve command, and we are addressing this in his training now, but there was no room for any negativity in this session. He was looking for the birds with a vengeance and I was not going to do anything at that point to put a damper on his day! He brought his first bird back to me and I swear he had a proud smile on his face! He was prancing around like the cocky prince that he his and his excitement was radiating through his liver and white tail, that was going so fast, I thought he would take flight at any moment. He was in his glory.
After he found and flushed all the planted birds, I figured I would buy a couple birds to take back to the kennel and plant for him over the next few days. Mr. McCord boxed up ten more quail for us, and we went home. I fed Floyd, and put him to bed. He needed his beauty rest after such a fun filled afternoon. I went out to find a cage for Floyd’s birds, because obviously they could not live in this cramped box for the next few days. Tractor Supply was of no help, they did not sell birdcages. This was one of those situations where I could see what I wanted in my mind, but was having a problem articulating this vision to the sales person! All I wanted was a wire box with a door on the top for these birds. They told me to try Wal-Mart, but since I’m boycotting Wal-Mart after the whole Paula Deen debacle, I obviously wasn’t going there. It was getting late and I wanted to get to bed, so I figured I would just put them in a large dog crate and they would be fine. That was my first mistake. Birds are never fine; they are crazy, unpredictable creatures who refused to understand that I was just trying to do something nice for them! I had no intentions of shooting them and would make some effort to stop Floyd from jumping up and catching them when they were flushed. I just wanted to give them a little house to stay in for a few days before I put them out.
I thought I would open the top to this box and pick each one up individually and gently put them in the dog crate. As I cut the zip ties on the box, I looked at my new little friends; they were all huddled together looking terrified. I reached in for the first one, and all hell broke loose! In a matter of seconds, there were ten crazy birds flying around the equipment room! I just got in the fetal position and lay on the floor; what else was I going to do! Apparently, these birds were going to take over the kennel and I was their first prisoner; the dogs and I were doomed to a life of being quail slaves!
I finally picked myself up off the floor and took stock of the situation. I am vertically challenged and the birds knew it! They roosted on the top of the shelves where even a normal sized person couldn’t reach them and I needed to make my arms longer. The best tool for this was clearly a Frisbee. In my mind I was going to use the Frisbees as tongs to extend my reach and calmly get each bird and put them in the crate. You should also know that I am not a very coordinated person, so climbing on the shelf and using Frisbees as tongs, while I tried not to fall is not in my wheelhouse. I did succeed in scaring the birds off the shelf and they scattered to the four corners of the room. I went for the ones trying to escape through the window first. They were the easiest to get, because they were disoriented from hitting the window too many times. I then played ring around the crate with a few, and ended up dizzy myself. These little buggers are fast! Finally, it was down to the last three and they had decided to hide under the shelf. Obviously, they knew my arms were too short to reach them. I turned again to the Frisbee tongs. After a few failed attempts, I was able to get them out and into their crate. I gave them food, water, and put them to bed. I cleaned up the mess of feathers and bird poop that was littered around the room and hoped that I got it all before Stonnie came back down in the morning (I admit that I am horrible at cleaning, and it is a quality that he seems to accept about me, but I knew that bird poop all over the walls would not be acceptable 🙂 ).
I came back down the next morning, ready to set out a few birds for Floyd. I would put them out and wait a little longer than I had the first time, raising the stakes of the game for him, by giving the birds more time to wake up and move around. This would also ensure that I could not subconsciously lead Floyd to the birds I had planted, which is something that I know I would have a tendancey to do. I had put the birds in the largest crate I had, because I wanted them to be comfortable. I did not think about them huddling in the back of the crate out of the reach of my tiny arms! I tried the Frisbee tongs, but no dice, the birds were on to my tricks. The only way to get them, was to crawl in the crate with them. As I crawled in the crate, they went crazy. Didn’t these birds know I just wanted to let them go! Yes, I was going to spin them around and make them dizzy, and then let my dog chase them around and possibly catch them, but after that, they were free to live out their life in the back forty. After ending up with a huge amount of quail feathers in my hair (something that I am sure will never be fashionable), I crawled back out of the crate with three birds. I took them to the backfield to plant. Some people put the birds head under one of their wings and hold them until they asleep; others put their head between two fingers and swing them around until they are dizzy. There are many other methods and some people just throw the birds into the brush and hope for the best. I chose to put their head under a wing and swing them around for a bit, before plating them. I have no idea if one method is better than the other, or if this is a completely unnecessary step in the process, but it’s fun to play with the birds and I think it’s a good step to take in the beginning to ensure that your dog will find some birds and not get discouraged early in his training.
I planted the birds and went back for the dog. He was ready again; this time needing no encouragement to find the first bird. “Hunt it up”, and he was off. Another great afternoon of training. We would do this again, each afternoon for the next two days, putting three birds out the next day and four the day after that. He never lost interest and needed little help from me. He was hardwired from birth to do this. There is nothing more beautiful than watching a field bred dog work. They are very thoughtful with every step they take and once their nose hits the scent you can see the excitement multiply over their entire body. Being pooped and feathered was totally worth it to watch Floyd do his job. This first experience has not deterred me from getting more live birds, but I have learned several valuable lessons about keeping them. There is a reason why those wire cages for birds are certain sizes and have doors on the top!
Next time……CJ and Reba go to Washington!