If you want your hunting dog ready for pheasant hunting this fall, now is the time to be in the field.
Training dogs and getting them to be physically fit takes time and practice.
On-Point Outfitters of Addison, Somerset County has been helping sportsmen and dog owners get the most out of their time in the field for 22 years.
Co-owners Mike Hartman and Eric Hoover handle all aspects of bird hunting. Hartman said his father Mitch Hartman, Vince Smith and Chuck Groff are the original owners of the facility which started as a hobby.
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“It turned out to be more than that,” Mike Hartman said of the operation’s growth.
They offer dog training, upland bird or pheasant, chukar and quail hunting and they provide dog boarding services.
The season for the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s statewide pheasant begins October 22. At On-Point’s regulated facility, they are able to offer bird hunting from September to April, six days a week. The dogs are trained all year round.
“We train everything. Hunting dogs, pointing dogs. Everything from Cocker Spaniel to English Setter to English Pointers. If he hunts a bird, we train him.
Hartman, 35, has been involved in the operation since childhood. “I love the company with the dog. I love watching them start out as a young puppy and see them develop into a bird dog. It’s really interesting to watch the development, it’s rewarding to watch them know nothing to become a big dog.
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Can I see your papers?
“German Shorthairs, English Pointers, Labs, Setters, Brittanies are the gold standard of bird dogs. And you can get obscure breeds,” he said of the many options hunters have when buying a bird dog.
“The most important thing – no matter if you’re buying a poodle or whatever – is to look at his parents to make sure he comes from a hunting background.”
Just because a dog has registration papers doesn’t make it a good hunting dog.
The dog must have the genetics to hunt, he said, comparing it to basketball players who are 6-foot-5 and have an advantage over shorter players. “You want the right genetics.”
He said genetics isn’t everything, but helps start the process.
If you are considering buying a dog, he reminds people to remember that this is a 10-15 year commitment. “Bird hunting is definitely a family sport. Many dogs are 95% of the time their family dogs. Not only can you enjoy it as a pet, but you can also use it in the field.
Having a bond with your dog is important. “The best dogs are made in the kitchen, not in the kennel.”
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Point or flush?
If you’re not sure what type of dog to consider, you need to think about your hunting style.
With flushes, like Labradors, you don’t have to walk through brush to get the bird to fly. “They stay close and chase the bird for you,” Hartman said.
Pointers, like German shorthairs or setters, cover more ground and hold their point until the hunter arrives. “The beauty of a pointer is that you can let it go further and it will stop and not chase the bird. It will hold the point until you come up so you can flush the “bird and shoot. Another benefit of pointers is that they help shooters – including young or new hunters – prepare for the opportunity. When the dog is on point, you know there is a bird to hunt and you can prepare your position.
The training process
“Whenever you start out with a puppy, you have to take him to the grocery store, take short walks, expose him to people and new things and that helps the puppy become bold. You want a puppy that is bold and confident. You don’t want a retarded and scared pup. Bring them around kids, people, malls, out in the field, take them for walks and it builds their confidence. The more confident a dog is , the more trainable he is,” Hartman said.
To develop a dog for bird hunting, Hartman advises against shooting the dog immediately because you don’t know how it will react to the loud noise.
A common mistake hunters make is that they fire their shotguns too soon around a young dog and fire around a new dog in the absence of birds.
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Early in the training process, his team places homing pigeons and quail in the fields for the dogs to chase. He stands at a distance of about 100 meters with a pistol firing blanks / caps and watches the reaction of the dog.
He repeats the process, moving closer to the dog until he is standing close to him. He then repeats the process with lighter caliber shotguns.
He suggests training early or late in the day because you don’t want to overheat your dog where he could get sick. He said if the dog gets too hot, the heat can damage the dog’s nose and its ability to pick up scents. Dogs cool down through their mouths, noses and paws.
Another training tip is to go to an area that has plenty of birds for your dog to discover. “It takes birds to be a bird dog. There is no magic. The more birds you can get your dogs into, the better off they are.
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Hartman’s trainers place quail and racing pigeons in the fields for the dogs to chase and hunt during the summer months. “The racing pigeons work very well because they come straight back to the coop… It costs nothing to me or the customer because they come right back” and can be part of the training as often as needed.
If you don’t have the time or the place to train your dog, facilities like On-Point offer training opportunities. “We train a lot of dogs for people,” he said of owners leaving their dogs for a week or a month at a time. When people go on vacation, they can leave their dog and the trainers work with their pet on bird flushing.
With 400 acres, they can do six hunts at a time on the mostly flat terrain. “We’re just on top of a hill,” he said.
He said it is important that people start preparing for the fall pheasant season in the summer. Dogs must be exercised and conditioned to hunt to meet the expectations of the hunter.
Type of shotguns for bird hunting
Most types of shotguns like a pump action, semi-automatic or double barreled options work well for bird hunting and it is rather the preference of the individual. He said semi-autos have less recoil but cost more than some other actions. He said shotguns are affordable and reliable.
“As long as you get a gun that you’re comfortable with and that works for you, that’s the main thing.”
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They offer guided and unguided hunts. They also partner with sporting groups on youth hunts where children don’t normally have to pay. “If we don’t get the next generation of hunting, there will be no hunting.”
The facility also has a range of sporting clays with five stalls for hunters to practice.
Have Patience, Grow a Great Dog
“Don’t be in too much of a rush to get a young dog hunting. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was a bird dog. Be patient and have realistic expectations. Put the time in the first two years and you’ll have a bird dog for the rest of its life,” Hartman said.
“You’ll get out of your dog what you put into it,” he said of spending time with your pet in the field.
“You can’t buy a dog and wait for the first day of pheasant season and expect him to be able to hunt hard for you and be productive. Guys who put in the time definitely get more out of it,” he said, comparing it to shooting a free kick in basketball or throwing a baseball. “The more you practice, the better off you will be.”
Brian Whipkey is the outdoor columnist for USA TODAY Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at [email protected] and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter via email on your website homepage under your login name. Follow him on social networks @whipkeyoutdoors.