Grouse wings and hunting dogs

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Courtesy photo Palouse bird dog trainer John Sykes, also an avid falconer, annually trains dozens of retrievers, pointers and flushers at his Palouse River Kennels.

It’s wing season time in North Idaho.

That means hunters have the opportunity to shoot upland game and snip the wing on a dead grouse to use as a dog-training tool.

Grouse wings are a standard tool for bird dog aficionados as well as the newly indoctrinated hunting dog owner whose flop-eared pup was purchased with future upland game seasons in mind.

Tossing a bird wing for a pup to retrieve, or dancing one on the end of a fishing line to teach a pup to point, has been standard fare for bird dog owners since the dawn of “The American Sportsman” television series.

Probably earlier.

“The American Sportsman,” a classic weekend hunting show that began when the RCA Victor came with a walnut cabinet, is, like TV cabinets, no longer around.

Using a wing to teach a dog, though, is sort of a tradition.

It’s one that John Sykes doesn’t like.

“Wings aren’t a good idea,” said Sykes, a Palouse-based hunting dog trainer.

Say what?

“They get a dog to like to chew on things,” Sykes said.

Most first-time and many experienced dog owners who have learned to toss wings to eager pups don’t employ the kind of discipline it requires to introduce a puppy to a bird wing, Sykes said.

He sees a lot of those dogs at his Palouse River Kennels west of Potlatch.

“It’s easier to train a dog than to retrain a dog,” Sykes said.

When Sykes trains dogs, he takes the animal’s genes into account. German shorthaired pointers are among the most popular pheasant- hunting dogs in the U.S., Sykes said. But because they were initially bred to hunt a variety of game including fox and deer, they tend to chew on stuff. Tossing a wing to a lanky, puddle-eyed shorthair pup, and letting it have its way, releases its desire to gnaw and bite. That can transfer into the dog chewing up the dead birds that hunters want gently returned to hand.

“They tend to be hard-mouthed dogs anyway,” he said.

That means they clamp down on a bird where other breeds, retrievers for example, are more prone to gum a bird instead of bite it.

There’s another problem with the wing-tossing scenario, said Sykes, who is also a falconer and trains his own dogs to work hand in hand with his birds of prey.

Most hunters display the same eagerness as their pups. Patience is a key to training a sound bird dog. Sykes doesn’t like to start training a dog until after it has shed its baby teeth.

“Somewhere between four and six months they are teething,” he said. “They want to chew on something because their gums hurt and it makes them feel good.”

There’s another reason to be patient and let a pup grow a bit.

“We’re kind of waiting on brain cells at that point,” Sykes said.

Using the proper stimulus, dogs that are more mature than a sprightly, needle-toothed 3-month-old are easier to train.

When Sykes trains dogs at his kennels — he’s usually booked and stops taking in dogs in the dead of winter — it is with a dose of psychology that he calls common sense.

He uses it to shoot down traditional training methods such as the practice of popping a gun when a dog is eating in an effort to get pooch to equate the shotgun blast with comfort. The dog won’t be afraid of the noise if he has his snout in a bowl of kibbles when first he hears the bang, according to the theory.

A gun shy dog is better suited for the couch than the field, right?

What really happens when you shoot a gun near a feeding dog, Sykes said, it trains the dog to eat birds when it hears the blast. Or, something like that.

It’s better to pop a blank when the dog has a bird in its mouth, Sykes said. He uses clipped wing pigeons.

When you do that, he said, the dog immediately associates the bang with a downed bird.

“That noise means something good is going to happen,” he said. “And that something is a bird.”

The dog doesn’t associate the sound with food.

Things go easier from there on out.

No eating of your prized, wing-shot pheasant, no raised hackles among hunters, no ruffled feathers, just a dog with a bird in its mouth, bringing the bird back to the shooter because that is the behavior it connects with a gunshot.

To introduce a pup to the sound of a gunshot, Sykes first claps two pieces of 2-by-4 together. He gradually moves up to pulling the trigger on a 410 shotgun, weeks later he works up to a 20 or 12 gauge.

He doesn’t use a .22 he said, because it is too loud.

“Dogs can hear the bullet move up the riflings,” he said. “It’s a lot louder for a puppy than it sounds to us.”

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