You’ve put in the long hours; either beating the hot sun or staying out late in the cool evenings to run your drills. Perhaps you’ve joined a local retrieving club to learn from and grow with your pup. Shoot, maybe you sent you little buddy away for a few months to get him/her really tuned up for the season. But here it is, looming over the next few weeks like Christmas when you were a kid. There’s excitement no doubt, but there is also some anxiety. How will our pups perform? Will they do what they’re supposed to? Will I do what I’m supposed to as a handler? Will I even shoot any birds over my new hunting pup?
I’ll steal a quote from Simon Sinek, “Always plan for the fact that no plan ever goes according to plan.” No matter how many situations or ideas you have in your head before your first hunting trip, none of them are actually going to go exactly as planned. Once we accept that, we can actually plan for that. Once we do that, we can truly enjoy our first couple outings rather than stressing or getting frustrated. I’ve tried to lay out a few things that I know I’ve been guilty of or seen in the field myself:
1. Be Patient: Not many people can truly give a lifelike training scenario for a pup. That includes early mornings, boat rides, strangers, decoys, duck calls, multiple guns going off. Not to mention just the excitement that we feel definitely rubs off on the dogs.
2. Do NOT Expect Perfection: Understand that your pup is young. The first couple hunts are really just training sessions and should be treated as such. The first few hunts I took Traveller on, I did not touch my gun until I knew he was going to be steady and was marking birds well. The first few hunts for a dog are really just like pre-season games for the rest of their hunting career.
3. Go With Trusted Friends: Having friends that can shoot while you handle the dog is a lifesaver (it also helps if they can shoot well). I would also suggest that these friends recognize the objective of this hunt; to give the dog experience, not bag birds. Friends that are equally as patient as you are with the pup will make sure everyone enjoys the outing. I know I have hunted with friends that had a young dog and they kept apologizing for how their dog was acting. I told him there’s no reason to apologize, we have all been there, and there’s only one way the dog will learn. These first few hunts are for the dogs, not the hunters.
4. Put Your Ego Aside: Understand that the dog will mess up. Maybe he breaks. Maybe he barks when excited. Maybe he doesn’t mark well. Maybe he goes after an ejected shell (been there before). Maybe he gets caught up in a decoy or tries to bring one back. Again, these first few hunts are training sessions, put your ego aside and do not get embarrassed or angry at your pup.
5. Keep the Hunt Short: If possible, whether waterfowl or upland hunting, try and keep the hunt a shorter one. We can’t expect the pup to have perfect discipline sitting in a duck blind for 10 hours and not get whiny or rambunctious. For upland hunting, I can’t expect nor would I want a young dog to hunt for hours on end. Just like training a pup in basic obedience and retrieving, keep the hunts shorter.
I know I have been guilty of being way too excited about my new pup that I probably put the cart before the horse. Thankfully, I didn’t ruin him and we still had a good experience. But had the hunt gone poorly or perhaps I lost my temper, I could have caused some damage to his eagerness to go hunting again. Remember, we will have 8+ years with our buddies, no need to rush anything. Most important of all is safety. Second, is ensuring the pup has fun. The last thing that should be on your mind is how many birds you're shooting. Be patient now and it will pay dividends in future seasons.