At the risk of sounding too self absorbed, I’d like to share the tale of Covey, my English setter puppy from Beirlsetters.com, hunting for the first time and getting her first bird — at the tender age of 3.5 months.
I don’t typically hunt pups at this age, but we have a rather special situation here on Dancing Springs Ranch. When we go for a morning or evening walk, we might encounter — and often do — sharptailed grouse, ringnecked pheasants, and gray partridges (Huns.) When we began these ramblings a few weeks ago, Covey was a hesitant, tumbling 10-week-old barely able to wrestle her way around a sage bush or clamor up a grassy creek bank. She spent half her one-mile-hikes crying or hitching a ride in our arms. But, day by day, her strength, stamina, and enthusiasm increased.
Honestly, I didn’t expect this pup to be ready to hunt until the 2019 season, but…
Two weeks ago she began noticing and watching flushing sharptails. Then she started trotting after them, a glimmer of instinct in her eyes. About a week ago the little pup began sniffing where birds had been and I began carrying my pet Mossberg International 28 gauge shotgun. I had no intention of launching a major hunt, but I wanted to be prepared should everything fall into place. I would not shoot unless Covey indicated she smelled birds and was in a position to see them flush and fall.
The first day we tried this we moved 20 different sharptails. Many were gone before Covey had gotten her head and ears out of the tall, noisy vegetation. Several flushed behind shrubs, blocking her view. Some departed without her smelling them. Two or three flushed right in front of her, but would have fallen behind tall, dense brush, hampering a retrieve. By the end of that hunt, however, Covey was well attuned to the whir and chuckle of departing sharptails. She was looking and listening for them. In short, my little Beirl setter was getting “birdy.”
On the next day’s walk Covey was out front, having figured that’s where the action was. She was slow and cautious. I gave her plenty of time to take in all the scents, sights and sounds. This was an interesting revelation about myself and my evolution as a dog trainer. Forty, twenty and even ten years ago I’d have been hurrying the dog along, more or less forcing it to hunt my way. Guess I’ve matured enough to realize one must allow a pup lots of leeway to figure things out. The important part of this early exposure is to let the dog discover itself and its inbred hunting instincts.
And that’s what Covey was quickly doing. She’d snap to attention, head up, when a sharptail flushed unseen behind a hawthorn thicket. She looked up when she herd the chuckle of one passing overhead and followed its flight intently.
After a half-mile hunt we’d put up three sharptails, none suitable for a shot. And then my little, freckled, Beirl-bred English setter puppy got birdy in the grass. She didn’t point, but a sharptail flushed right in front of her. There was enough open grass ahead that the bird would fall where she could see the arc of its trajectory. I pushed the little Mossberg 28 to my shoulder and pop. The bird spilled into the grass, but disturbingly close to the hawthorn thicket. Covey didn’t miss a beat. She raced toward the fall, then out of sight.
I found her over a steep bank, wriggling and sniffing over the dead bird right at the tangled edge of the brush. Again, in 1998 I’d have been directing and coaxing. “Atta girl! Get it! Fetch it. Bring it here. Bring it here.” In 2018 I merely crouched and watched.
This was the first bird this pup had ever contacted. She needed time to soak up the scent, the feel, the temperature, the texture of those feathers. Feathers? She soon had a mouth full and more were flying. She pawed at the bird, nuzzled it, mouthed it again and again. I spoke to her, softly but enthusiastically. “What have you got there Covey? Is that a bird? You like those feathers? Bring it here. You wanna bring it here? Come.”
And she did.
I don’t know if a star was born, but an instinctive hunter was awakened. Can’t wait to see what further develops.
Spomer has been a hunter himself since he was a pup of just 13 years. He has enjoyed the companionship of hunting dogs since getting his first labrador in 1972.