Should You Allow Your Flushing Dog to Chase Birds? - petsitterbank

Should You Allow Your Flushing Dog to Chase Birds?

The timeframe to steady a dog is based on the individual’s demeanor, maturity, and prey drive. (GUN DOG photo)

Within dog training circles, a few debates seem to stand the test of time: pointing dog or flushing dog, English setter or English pointer, e-collar as a training tool or no. Only a step behind these perennial favorites is the argument over whether a gun dog should be allowed to chase after the flush. There are established trainers and handlers who advocate for each school of thought, and they make their respective cases with sound reasoning, or at least conviction. But, like all good dog trainers, I am not one to waffle on my opinions. I have a clear position on whether a dog should chase, one I’ve arrived at after years of training, observing, and handling flushing dogs. But before I share my opinions, a little background first.

When you step back and look at gun dog training, it is a straightforward process. Basically, you take a dog whose genetics incline him towards a high prey drive, you reinforce in him that desire to seek out and catch game, and then you manipulate that desire to meet your objectives. In the case of a pointing dog, you train the dog to suspend that pounce instinct, holding off at the moment when the game is identified and located by smell long enough for the shooter to flush and optimally knock down the bird. With flushers, conversely, you develop the prey drive to provide the dog with an intense desire to find, rout out, flush game, and to retrieve it once shot. But as is the case with most matters that we set out to over-simplify, dog training is not entirely straightforward.

Indeed, prey drive is the motivator around which behavior can be sculpted, but invariably once a bird has been flushed, the rules of engagement change. With a bird on the wing, and likely visible, the dog will have some inclination to chase. The question becomes whether the chase is a desirable behavior to allow, or whether it should be trained out of a dog as part of the formal process of finishing or steadying.

Arguments for and against allowing a dog to chase apply to both flushing and pointing dogs. That said, in this installation, we will discuss the pros and cons of chasing where flushers are concerned, and whether there is good reason to train the chase out of an upland flusher.

In general terms, when I am asked if flushing dogs should be allowed to chase, my answer is no. Quickly after responding, however, I must qualify my answer. Flushing dogs should be allowed to chase for a period of time, and only if necessary. But ultimately, the behavior should be trained out of them.

When to Permit the Chase

What is that period mentioned above within which a flushing dog should be allowed to chase? It is basically that developmental period during which prey drive and enthusiasm need to be encouraged to provide a solid reward system that will sustain the rest of the training period.

The ultimate reward for any gun dog, even a food-motivated gun dog, should be birds. Birds will be the reason for every behavior you put into a dog, and birds will be the motivator which will keep a gun dog enthused through the stresses of the learning process. For that reason, early introduction of birds must be positive, encourage, and lots of fun. When a pup first encounters a bird, he may be timid, started, or even curious. Over repeated interactions, the intensity of his interest should grow, as genetics work their magic, and predatory instincts take hold. If prey drive does not grow, it is valuable to maintain a positive exposure environment, and to encourage any example of heightened enthusiasm around birds. If that pup develops a desire to chase, his prey drive and sense of engagement will get cranked up, eventually to such a degree that they can be manipulated in the interest of building other desired behaviors.

yellow lab chasing a pigeon in grass
Chasing is a prime example of how dogs show enthusiasm for birds, and one which, in certain dogs, may require permission, or even encouragement. (GUN DOG photo)

Why Not to Chase

There are several reasons why I discourage trainers from allowing a flusher to chase. Certainly, there are those that tell me a dog can get a better jump on crippled game or initiate a retrieve more readily if they can get an early start in pursuing the flushed bird. My first point of disagreement comes from a safety standpoint. When a dog chases after the flush, that dog puts himself into harm’s way, keeping him physically closer to the intended target than he’d be if he did not chase. In the excitement of the flush, the shooter may become over-focused on the bird, and may not be able to differentiate between a safe shot or a dangerous shot that puts both prey and pursuing flusher in too-close proximity.

Often, especially in the case of pen-raised quail or chukars, flushed birds will not fly a sufficient distance or elevation to make sure that a poor shot, or an open pattern, will not intersect the path of a dog that is chasing. Additionally, when new shooters, or overly-competitive shooters are in the field, they often pick out a bird in the air that has flushed to safe height only to descend quickly. Too often, the shooter tracks the bird down below the horizon and into a shot position that could prove deadly to a chasing dog. Therefore, it is better to keep the dog at hup after the flush, ensuring as much distance as possible between that dog and the bird that gets shot.

As a secondary point against allowing a flushing dog to chase, I personally feel that a dog can mark better while sitting, versus while running full speed after a bird. Many will tell you that a chasing dog will have greater success getting on a retrieve quickly, or getting on the trail of a cripple, but in my experience the dog that is hupped on the flush has an easier time marking fallen game, and then executing a precise retriever. A dog running full tilt in thick cover simply cannot put full attention on a bird falling. There are too many other variables to contend with, too many distractions. Chasing surely positions this dog closer to the downed game, but not necessarily with a good eye on the mark.

black cocker spaniel sitting and holding a pigeon in mouth
A composed, hupped dog will watch the flush, shot, and fall thoroughly, then will use the information gained to make a precise mark and retrieve. (GUN DOG photo)

A final point against the chase is simply that teaching steadiness, or teaching a dog to resist the temptation of the chase, helps enforce the trainer/dog relationship, and helps establish a proper training mindset. Generally speaking, gun dogs want birds, gun dogs therefore want to chase those birds, and the practice of training steadiness teaches a dog to resist that temptation. This exercise basically defines dog training. The greater the ability of the trainer to teach and enforce desired behavior, and the greater the ability of the dog to know the desired behavior and let training override the instinctual response, the stronger the dog/trainer relationship. If this relationship can be practiced and reinforced daily by exercises such as teaching steadiness, those skills, and the substance of that relationship, stay strong.


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