6 steps to flawless quartering
Upland hunting with a retriever can be a fun and exciting way to spend a day. Watching your dog work a field, finding and flushing birds for you to shoot can be a wonderful thing. That is assuming your dog understands what his/her job is and hunts with you, not against you.
Retrievers do not naturally know what to do when it comes to upland hunting. They have a genetic inclination to run to a bird that they see fall and pick it up. But this does not mean they understand how to quarter a field in an efficient manner to find the birds all while staying in gun range. That learning comes from training and experience.
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What is quartering for a dog?
When upland hunting, you want your dog to quarter the field. But what exactly does that mean. Quartering means that the dog will run back and forth, in a zig zag pattern, in front of the gunner. This process will allow the dog to cover a large area of the field hunting while staying in range.
Here is what quartering looks like ideally:
How to train your dog to quarter
We have already covered that a retriever does not just “know” how to quarter. Some dogs may quarter naturally, but most do not. And the ones that do quarter naturally still, most likely, do not understand why they are quartering.
So, how do you teach your Lab to quarter?
Tools needed to train your Lab to quarter
As professional retriever trainers, we have a process we follow to teach dogs how to quarter a field and stay in range. With this process we use some tools.
- A field with medium high cover. It is best if you do not do this drill on mowed short grass. Also, if the cover is so deep that you cannot even see the dog, that will make this drill more difficult.
- Flags. We use the short orange marking flags like the ones used to mark gas and electric lines before digging. The flags ideally should be orange since dogs have a hard time seeing orange. Also, the flags are used to mark the birds for you, not the dog.
- Dead birds. These can be pigeons or pheasants. We freeze birds after we shoot them so that we can use them multiple times for training. If you do not have access to fresh or frozen dead birds, you can start this training using bumpers, but it will not be as effective. I will give some guidance on how to obtain birds for training later in the post.
- Whistles. A mega-whistle is preferred but a regular Roy Gonia one will work. Just do not use the “silent” whistles or a coaching whistle. Get a dog whistle and a lanyard so that you have the whistle close at hand while training. Have you whistle trained your dog?
- Pheasant hunting vest with bird pocket. Optional but will help you get the birds put away so that your dog can focus on the next bird.
- Electronic collar. This is also optional if your dog is very obedient to the HERE command. If you are going to use an e-collar, you must introduce and collar condition your dog prior to starting this drill. Follow the steps in this post.
- Bird launcher and electronics to simulate flush. Optional, but having an electronic bird launcher is very helpful training dogs that want to dash ahead out of range for a flush. The launcher allows you to control the flush of a bird, so your dog does not get rewarded for dashing out of range.
Before you start teaching your dog to quarter
There are a few things your dog needs to be able to do, prior to introducing the concept of quartering.
- Retrieving consistently. If your dog is inconsistent with retrieving, sometimes brings back the bumper or bird and sometimes does not, then you should not start teaching your dog to quarter. Putting your dog in the position of refusing to retrieve in the field will make your retrieving problems worse, not better. Inconsistent retrieving can be addressed through a force fetch program. Take time to address the retrieving problem first.
- Introduced to live and dead birds. It is not fair to your dog if the first time your dog encounters a bird is on his/her first hunt. All retrievers should be introduced to live and dead birds in a training environment first. Let your dog learn about the birds in this safe environment and then you generally will have few problems in the field.
- Responsive on HERE command (voice and whistle). If your dog does not listen to you and respond to a HERE command in your back yard, there is no way that dog is going to listen when you command HERE in a field of birds. Do the obedience work needed prior to starting to teach your dog quartering. Including any electronic collar work if you plan to use one.
- Been exposed to gun shots properly (follow the steps in this post). This should go without saying, but I will say it anyhow. Make sure your dog has been properly introduced to gun shot and is responding well to the shots BEFORE you start hunting behind him/her. Don’t start by shooting a gun right next to your dog. That is NOT how you introduce a dog to gunshots!
Step one: Introducing your dog to dead birds
Okay, we are finally ready to start teaching our dog to quarter.
The first step when teaching a new or young dog to quarter is pull some dead birds out of the freezer and allow them to thaw overnight. Pigeons work well for this or if you have dead pheasants, that is perfect.
Remember, if your dog has never retrieved a dead bird before, you need to back up and work on that. Tease your dog with a dead pigeon and toss it a short distance away. If your dog goes and picks it up, great. Repeat with a dead pheasant if you are using pheasants. You must introduce any new breed of birds to your dog. Just because your dog retrieves pigeons, does not mean he/she will retrieve any kind of bird you shoot down. Take a couple minutes to introduce any new birds (grouse, pheasant, quail, etc.) to your dog with a tease and throw.
If your dog does not pick the bird up, you may not be ready to work on quartering just yet. By the time we work on quartering here at the kennel, all dogs have been through a complete force fetch program and are retrieving live and dead birds without issue.
If your dog has not been through a force fetch program and is not solid about picking up and delivering birds, do not proceed to quartering work. If you do, you will be making issues much worse since you will be putting your dog in a position of being able to refuse retrieving and you have no way to make the dog retrieve. This will start a very bad habit for your dog and make it much harder to train your dog to hunt in the long run.
If your dog is retrieving dead birds without issue, you can continue to step two.
Step two: introducing your dog to the quartering concept
Find a field with medium height cover.
While your dog is put away in a crate or vehicle, take 4-6 dead birds out to the field and drop them marking each one with a small flag (so you know where they are). Place them in a zig zag pattern. See below.
Walking in a quarter pattern
Go back and get your dog out and start walking the field. Walk in a zig zag pattern, walking toward the birds you have placed out. Use the command HUNT’EM UP to get your dog to start running and hunting in the cover.
As I stated, some dogs will do this almost naturally, others have no clue what you are asking them to do. Be patient. Walk the pattern. It may take several days for your dog to understand, but eventually he/she will get it.
When your dog finds the first dead bird, encourage him/her to pick it up and deliver it to you. When he/she does, praise the dog abundantly. Then continue walking toward the next bird, saying HUNT’EM UP. Do this for the remaining birds. When your dog finds all the birds you have placed in the field, call it a day.
Teaching the dog to stay in range
If your dog is running too far ahead of you, or darting out and back, use a HERE-HERE command to call him/her back to the area. Do not walk past the birds. Stop and call your dog back until your dog finds the bird.
The HERE HERE command is used to communicate to the dog that they need to come back to the area, not back to your side. HERE means come back to me, HERE-HERE means come back to the area.
If your dog is whistle trained, which we highly encourage, you can use the whistle to call your dog back to the area and keep him/her in range of the gun.
Make plans to train quartering again the next day or a few days later. This step may take one day or two weeks, depending on how well your dog learns to cover the field.
Step three: Repeat quartering drill slowly straightening your line
After a few times doing the quartering drill in Step two, you (the handler) should be able to start walking a slightly straighter line down the field and your dog should start to understand his/her job. Continue marking the birds so that you know when they are and encourage your dog to find the birds using the command HUNT’EM UP or FIND THE BIRDS. Use an encouraging tone to get your dog excited to find the birds and praise your dog with a GOOD DOG when he/she finds the bird and brings it to you.
You can also start using your arms to direct the dog in the direction you want him/her to go. Simply call your dog back to the area, stretch out your right or left arm in the direction you want him/her to go and say HUNT’EM UP. If your dog goes in the opposite direction, say NO NO, call him/her back and repeat the arm action and the command.
It may take several attempts to get your dog to follow the direction of your arm, but through repetition and attrition you can teach your dog that you want him/her to go in the direction of your arm.
Step four: Introduce live bird or launcher
Once you have your dog quartering through the field and finding the dead birds, you can introduce the concept of a live bird or launching a dead bird using a bird launcher.
If you are going to use a live bird, start with a wing clipped pigeon.
Only do this step if your dog has already been introduced to a live pigeon in a controlled setting and had a good reaction to the live bird. We use a fenced in area to introduce dogs to a live pigeon and keep the dog on a long check cord so that we can control the delivery.
Ideally, during a live bird introduction, your dog should go after the live pigeon with no hesitation and should grab the bird and hold it in his/her mouth. If your dog has done this exercise in a controlled setting, and done well at it, you can now place a wing clipped pigeon in the cover near the end of the field. Put the dead birds out like usual and add the wing clipped pigeon as the last bird in the row.
This will make the drill a bit more complicated because the wing clipped pigeon will be able to walk, just not fly. So, your dog will need to hunt to find the bird once you get to the area.
Using an electronic launcher to simulate flush
If you have an electronic bird launcher, take some time to introduce the bird launcher to your dog in your yard before using it in the field. Set out the launcher, put a bumper or a dead pigeon in it and have your dog sit next to you. Start around 10 yards away from the launcher. Launch the bumper or pigeon and let your dog retrieve it. Reset the launcher with another bird or bumper and this time move closer to the launcher. Launch the bird and send your dog for the bird. Repeat this several times until your dog shows no hesitation or reaction to the launcher and his focus is on the bird.
Once you have introduced the launcher, you can now put the launcher in the field. Place the dead birds as usual and put the launcher towards the end of the field as the last bird.
In the launcher, you can put a wing clipped pigeon or a dead pheasant. Be sure and mark the launcher with a flag so that you know where it is. After your dog has retrieved all the dead birds, move toward the launcher. As you dog smells the bird and is running towards the launcher, launch the bird using the electronics. Encourage your dog to retrieve the bird and praise him/her when they do.
Note: Be careful and do not let your dog get right next to the launcher at the time of launch. The launcher goes off with spring action and a lot of force, it can hurt and scare your dog. Always launch the bird when the dog is at least a few yards away. If he/she gets too close, simply call your dog back to your position and then release the bird.
Step five: Add gun shot
If you have completed the first four steps and your dog is handing the training well, you can move to adding a gun shot. But you can only do this if your dog has already been introduced to gun shots and has handled them well.
If you have not taken the time to introduce gun shots to your dog, you need to pause your training and do this introduction. Follow these steps to properly introduce your dog to gunfire.
To add a gunshot to your quartering training, you will simply repeat step four only this time when the bird is launched from the launcher you will add a shot at the exact time the bird goes up in the air.
Adding a shot works best if using a launcher but can also be done if a clipped wing pigeon manages to get up in the air a little bit before being caught.
Step six: Teaching your dog flyaways with and without a shot
The final and last step is to teach you dogs how to handle flyaways. Flyaways are birds you either cannot shot (i.e. hen) or birds you shot at but did not hit.
This is very important training, because most hunters are not perfect shots and if you are hunting pheasant, you may have to let the hens go depending on where you are hunting.
To teach your dog about flyaways, you need to have access to live pigeons or pheasants.
The training is done following the same directions in Step five, only this time you will be using a live pigeon or pheasant with all the feathers in tack. You will also be using a shot gun with live rounds.
Make your live flush the last bird in the field. If you are using an electronic bird launcher you can put the bird in the launcher. If you do not have a bird launcher, you will need to dizzy the bird so that it stays put for the most part.
When your dog smells the bird and starts toward it, launch the bird (if using a launcher) or wait for the bird to flush and shoot the gun. Don’t try to hit the bird, just take a shot and be ready to correct your dog. As soon as you shoot, command your dog to HERE.
Most dogs will be fixated on the bird and so they will ignore your command. Say NO and then HERE command again and if necessary, use your electronic collar to enforce the HERE command.
You can repeat this drill with and without a shot until your dog learns that he/she cannot run after the bird after you command a HERE.
Using an E-collar for upland hunting
An electronic collar is the ideal training tool when upland hunting. Upland hunting with a flushing dog is all about control. The e-collar gives you control in situations where your dog may be distracted such as when a bird flushes or when multiple shots are going off at once.
The key with electronic collars is that they must be introduced and used correctly.
Can you teach quartering without birds?
There are many posts and videos out there that will teach you to quarter your dog using bumpers. So, can you teach without birds, yes. But will it be as effective, and will your dog make the connection between a bumper in the grass and a pheasant or grouse? Unlikely.
Most dogs do not struggle with the concept of quartering in general. It is the quartering, flushing, shots, control and flyaways all together that makes the training a challenge for many dogs. And doing the work with bumpers is not the same as working with actual birds. Without the birds, the learning will be incomplete.
Where can I get birds to train with?
So, logically, the next question is where can I get birds to train with? Here are a couple ideas:
Pigeons are generally easy to come by. Consider these sources:
- There are people who trap and sell pigeons, check out places like Craigs list or similar marketplace options.
- Check out local dog training forums for listings by sellers or to find out where people in your area get their birds.
- If you are handy at trapping, many businesses and farms will allow you to trap pigeons since they are a nuisance to them anyways.
- Check with local farmers who may already trap the birds.
- Check with local dog trainers that may be willing to sell you a bird or two or give you a name of someone who traps them locally.
Pheasants are a bit more difficult.
- You can go pheasant hunting (without the dog you are training or with an already trained dog) and save the pheasants you shoot down in a freezer for training.
- If you have a place to house some pheasants, there are hatcheries or other companies that will sell you live pheasants (and ducks), but there may be a limit on how many you need to purchase. Some of these places will even deliver to your home.
Final thoughts on how to teach a retriever to quarter a field
I know the process I outline is very detailed and can take a great deal of time to complete. But we have trained hundreds of dogs to quarter and remain in range for upland hunting, and this is the process we use for each one. It is a very proven program and covers all the aspects of upland hunting so that when you take your dog out to hunt, they are fully prepared for what they may encounter and how to respond.
A poorly trained dog, or even worse, a dog that was never trained can quickly encounter situations that they are unprepared for. The result is often ongoing or long-lasting issues in the field. Take the time now to train your dog to quarter, flush and remain in gun range and you will have many long and successful hunts with your hunting partner.
If training your dog seems overwhelming to you, or your schedule just does not allow for this type of time and money commitment, consider seeking professional help. You can email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or just give me a call (651-303-6459). I would be happy to discuss your goals for your retriever and tell you about the programs I offer.
Until next time, happy retrieving.
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