Mammals and bird dogs don't mix
WORTHINGTON -- Two gentlemen (maybe even pheasant hunters after a day in the field) sitting on bar stools, enjoying a cold beer have debated the merits as to whether his Chevy Truck is better or worse than the other man's Ford at least 100,000 times. At the end of the debate there is still no consensus and if they did it another 100,000 times the result would most likely be the same.
When it comes to dog training methods these same kinds of debates take place all the time and in the end it is likely that dog trainers of differing mindsets will also come to no consensus. The debate in this dog training column is whether it is good or bad that a dog has a little fun chasing a rabbit or mouse or other mammal.
Some dog owners will brag about how ferocious their dog is on raccoons. My dog can take any coon of any size and kill it just a few seconds is a dog owner boast that I have heard at least 75 times. They then ask me how my dogs do with coons and I say I would not know as I have never let my dogs intentionally tangle with a coon. Dog/coon tangles happen in the field from time to time, but, after a little training, my dogs will make a wild circle and coon adventures become a thing of the past.
My very first hunting dog named Scout developed a love of skunks and developed a favorite pastime of seeking them out and killing them. The skunk always died and she always got sprayed and then got her rabies vaccination boosted at the recommendation of my vet. It was the favorite jest of my hunting partners because I routinely had deodorizing duties before I could head home. She got sprayed 17 times in one summer before I learned how to correct the problem and it was the most difficult training exercise effort in all of the dog training I have ever done.
This was because this behavior was well entrenched in the dog before I learned how to fix it. Now I just incorporate mammal avoidance into my training protocols and correct it before it ever happens and my skunk encounters have been very limited to almost zero. My dog Decoy died at age 11 and had never been sprayed. Ace died of cancer at almost 5 and he had never been sprayed either. Axle is 3 1/2 and, so far, he is skunk free.
Here is my dog training motto: dogs that like or enjoy messing around with mammals spend less time on their first and most important responsibility of finding and retrieving fowl. In my book, it doesn't matter what kind of mammal it is. It could be deer, rabbits, coons or even mice and any interest in these will distract all dogs to some extent. I have hunted with many different dog owners who were sure that a rooster was about to bust from the cover when the dog returned with a mouse in his/her jaws and all proud of themselves.
Other times the owner will be encouraging their dog to get into the thick stuff and "get em" and end up in the spray of a skunk because they could not see what the dog was after. There have been more than a few dogs that have been hit by a car or run full blast through a barbed-wire fence in a foot chase with a deer. There is just no good outcome between a dog and a mammal except for the very short term humor of the dogs' owner.
In addition to dogs that track, trail and kill mammals and the diversion it causes from their regular day job of hunting birds, contact with mammals increases the chances of coming into contact with rabies or other mammal-carried diseases. I have heard the "my dogs are vaccinated, so that's good enough" excuse. My vet recommends a booster when your dogs have up-close-and-personal contact with a possible rabies carrier. Even if you toss out the monetary value of a good hunting dog from the equation, I still can't bring myself to outguess the vet. Trips to the vet cost money and are inconvenient. It is better to just eliminate or reduce these encounters through training.
It is stinky work, but worth the effort. It is not hard to find a roadkill coon or skunk and both are better than one. Do one at a time and each at a different time. Put the dead skunk or coon where you can see it and hunt the dog upwind to the area. When the dog gets a nose full of scent or starts to display interest in the dead mammal, give the command "NO, HERE" and make a stern correction with the training collar. Bring the dog all the way to heel and have them sit for a few seconds. It will take only a few of these encounters and the negative results the dogs gets by interacting with skunks or coons for them to get the idea that these animals are to be avoided.
When you have done this drill a few times in training you will have the foundation to make the proper corrections when your dog encounters these same situations in the wild. Most dogs (even mine) will naturally want to chase a rabbit pushed from the cover when pheasant hunting, but my boys will make about three steps in that direction and then lock up and say to themselves, " Boy I don't want to chase or play with that. It's not worth it."
I am by no means saying that this training will result in a dog that has zero to do with mammals, but it is a start and with your attention and adherence to your training rules and routines should dramatically reduce your frequency of interactions with many of the things that will distract and possibly harm your bird dog. It is worth the time and effort in my book.
Just like the Chevy/Ford discussion there will always be those that think a good rabbit chase or coon encounter makes for good humor, but it just won't be with any of my boys. Have a safe season with your dog this fall.
Scott Rall is the Daily Globe's outdoors columnist. His column can also be read weekly at www.dglobe.com.