The Basics of Bird Hunting with Dogs

Few things evoke the joy of hunting like a picture of a dog hunting birds. How do you get started hunting birds with dogs, though? What type of dogs are good for bird hunting, and how are they trained? What is the best gun for bird hunting? What kinds of safety precautions should you take? Let's answer these questions, and more, concerning the basics of bird hunting with dogs.

In many states, before you can purchase your hunting license, you must earn a Hunter Education (or Hunter Safety) certificate. You can find your state requirements through the International Hunter Education Association.

The Gun

Bird hunting means, in most cases, an introduction to the shotgun. Many hunters use the same shotgun for all types of hunting, but some shotguns are better suited for upland birds, while some are better for waterfowl. There are also different actions of shotguns, the three most common being: pump-action, break-action, and the autoloader.

The pump-action is usually lighter and the least expensive of these. Break-actions are generally double-barreled, and an advantage is that you can use a different choke on each barrel. The autoloader may be the easiest to use, and tends to have the least recoil; however, it is also typically the heaviest shotgun of the three, and that may be something to keep in mind if you will be doing long hunts for upland birds.

Everyone will be different, and which shotgun you get will be a personal choice. Upland bird hunters, however, generally prefer a shorter barrel for easier, faster handling and to reduce weight. The 16-gauge and 20-gauge are good choices here. For waterfowl, the 12-gauge is most often the go-to version, though the lighter weight and recoil of the 20-gauge is often used by women and young hunters.

Chokes shape the pattern of shot. They range from cylinder (no restriction) to full (the least spread of shot). Because most birds in upland hunting are flushed close to the hunter, the cylinder or improved cylinder choke works best. Waterfowl hunting, where duck and geese are often in the distance, calls for the modified and full chokes.

One last thing to consider, especially for waterfowl, is the finish. When trying to lure duck and geese to a blind, you don't need flash reflecting from your barrel to scare them off. To prevent this, shotguns with matte or camo finishes are better for waterfowl hunting. Another advantage of the matte or camo finish is that it reduces rust.

The most popular pump-action shotgun is the Remington Model 870, with more than 11 million sold. It comes in 12-gauge and 20-gauge.

The Dog

Perhaps almost as important as the gun, is the dog you choose for your hunting partner. Hunting dogs are separated into different groups, like hounds, terriers, and gun dogs. Most bird hunting dogs will fall under the gun dog group. The particular kind of dog you get will depend largely on the type of bird hunting you want to do. Some are water dogs, some are good for upland game, some flush, and some point. While most any type of dog can be trained for any type of hunting, you might as well go with the dog breed that has the particular kind of hunting skills you desire in its genes.

A few of the breeds to consider include:

  • German Shorthaired Pointer: A favorite of bird hunters, the GSP is easy to train, and is an excellent retriever. An excellent upland bird dog, the GSP loves the water, so is suitable for waterfowl hunting as well.
  • Irish Setter: An excellent bird finder, the Irish setter is considered by some to be the most beautiful dog of all.
  • Pointer: Often referred to as the English pointer, the pointer is an energetic, muscular, and hard-charging. They are not waterfowl or retriever dogs, but, they are supreme upland bird finders.
  • Brittany: Points as well as flushes birds. The Brittany looks as good as it hunts, winning more dual championships than any other sporting dog breed.
  • Labrador Retriever: Not just one of the top waterfowl and upland bird retrievers, the Lab is consistently rated as the most popular dog breed in the U.S.

The Irish Setter goes by two different names. Those who register with the Field Dog Stud Book prefer Red Setter, while those registering with the American Kennel Club prefer Irish Setter.

The Equipment

When going on a hunting trip, there are some basics to bring along to ensure you have a safe, enjoyable experience.

  • Dog ID: Even if your dog is chipped, you should have a collar with a dog tag that has a phone number in case your dog gets lost.
  • List of local vets: Save time in an emergency by already knowing the names and locations of some local vets. In critical situations, seconds can matter.
  • Water: Carry water for you and your dog. While dogs can go for quite a while without water, the activity, humidity, and temperature will act to dehydrate your companion.
  • A spare leash and spare collar and tag: You never know when something is going to break. Remember the old Scout motto, "Be prepared."
  • Duct tape: This is a make-and-repair-just-about-everything invention. Really handy for emergencies of all types.
  • First aid kit: Include antihistamine—either pill, or for faster results, injectable—in case your dog is snake-bitten to stabilize your dog until you can get to a vet.

Instead of hanging dog tags, a noiseless alternative that also prevents snagging is a name tag riveted to the dog collar.

The Training

Training starts when your dog is a puppy. All dogs need to learn the basics: come, stay, and sit. Once those are mastered, training can move to specific things needed for bird hunting. One thing to keep in mind is that training takes a commitment in time. You can't train a dog for a few hours one day and weeks later expect any kind of positive experience on a hunting trip. It needs to be constant and consistent. Even as little as ten minutes of training three times a day, however, will produce the results you wish.

If you can't set aside the time, you can take your dog to trainers, though some feel that lessens the bond between dog and hunter. Though it is generally much more expensive, you can also buy dogs that are already trained for bird hunting.

It used to be believed that a hunting dog needed to be kept outdoors. That's a myth. Dogs are social animals and need interaction. It is true, however, that you shouldn't keep a dog you want to hunt with continually cooped up inside. Your dog will be in all sorts of climate situations and needs to be acclimated so he performs well and doesn't develop issues like hypothermia on a hunt.

Remember to be consistent in the field on the actual hunt with what has been done in training. Slacking off or changing the way things are done in the field will undo months and months of training.

If you like competition, there are bird dog trials and contests for nearly every breed of dog and type of hunting to keep you and your dog sharp.