June 21, 2022
Waterfowlers wince when their Labs break to retrieve a downed mallard while another flock makes its final approach, or worse yet, lunge forward before any quarry is in range at all. That’s what makes steadiness so highly prized in gun dogs. There are many ways to develop a calm, focused retriever, but Duckhill Kennel’s Robert Milner has a method that is unique. Milner works his Labs in flight pens loaded with birds. While that method is unconventional in America, it’s commonplace in the UK for good reason: It works.
A Thinking Gun Dog
“The first time I saw a dog trained in a flight pen was in England over 30 years ago,” Milner, the Eukanuba pro trainer, said. “I was working Labs with Robin Watson of Tibea Gun Dogs and Golden retrievers with the late June Atkinson of Holway Kennels. What struck me most was how both developed retrievers capable of making independent decisions to recover a wounded duck while running through a field full of live pheasant. To me, steadiness means a self-controlled dog focused on the task at hand. To get that level of discernment, dogs should be capable of figuring things out on their own. It’s best to cultivate that behavior when they’re a puppy.”
The Flight Pen
“The Brits use flight pens that are several acres large for every 1,000 birds,” Milner said. “The pen’s side fences are chicken wire, they’re about six feet tall, and they have a hot bottom. Electricity at ground level keeps away predators, and since the UK has few avian predators, their pens are left open."
Before birds are released in the pens their wing feathers are clipped so they can’t fly away. Add in regular feeding and watering and the birds associate the pen as their roosting site. Those wing feathers will regrow in a few weeks, and when they do, ducks, pheasant and grouse will fly out of the pen. After spending their day in the wild, the majority of birds return to the pen at night. Birds that don’t return are rounded up with retrievers, and that training technique is called "dogging the birds in." It’s similar to a collie rounding up sheep.
Milner’s Double Barrel of Bird Pens
Milner has two bird pens, one for young dogs and one for puppies. “The pens are similar with the puppy pen being smaller in size. I’ve mostly followed the British model to save for extra juice at the bottom to keep out the racoons. I also added a top of two-inch nylon netting to keep the hawks and owls away. I then placed 8-foot tall stakes every 30 feet or so. Those stakes elevate the netting so handlers can comfortably walk around in the pen while working dogs. That extra height also gives the birds more air space in which to fly.”
The pen’s interior resembles a natural environment. There is a spring-fed pond in which Milner planted duckweed, smartweed and rice. He’s also planted peas, beans, millet, and Coastal Bermuda grass. “I like the Bermuda grass as a cover crop,” he said. “It’s a perennial with a robust root system and it’s durable enough to withstand the pressure from regular dog training. I added hen house tunnels used by Delta Waterfowl in their prairie conservation projects for roosting areas. The birds use them for nesting in the spring, and that means I have a new supply of birds every year. That’s a big help for keeping down my bird costs.”
Milner has Guinea fowl and ducks in his puppy pen. His large pen has a wider variety of birds which include ducks, Guineas, pheasant, geese, and a few peacocks. Variety is important for puppies and young dogs for two reasons. The birds look and behave differently, and that introduction is important for hunters who target different species.
Flight Pen Training Time
When his pups are six-weeks old, Milner introduces them to birds in the small pen. “The sight and smell of the birds helps puppies develop a relaxed confidence,” he said. “I want puppies to learn that birds are not dangerous, and when they’re relaxed and confident around live birds they won’t be excited or jumpy when in the blind when a big flock of ducks flies in. Puppies that associate live birds with the natural environment see them as part of their normal, everyday life. Puppies or dogs that don’t see lots of birds get excited, and when they get excited, they lose focus or misbehave.”
Around the same time, Milner works on teaching puppies his five critical behaviors. Those five critical behaviors are the skills he wants all retrievers to possess. He’ll start that training at six weeks of age and continue until the behavior is automatic. “Automaticity means the behavior is a natural response,” he said. “The dog doesn’t have to think about it, he just does it.
Those five behaviors are:
• Delivery to hand
• Sit and stay
• Memory retrieve to know where the bumper/bird fell without being able to see it.
• Whistle stop—and look for a command.
Advanced Training in the Big Dog Pen
When the pup has mastered the five critical behaviors, Milner introduces the puppy to the big pen. “I’m looking at the larger number of different types of birds to increase the possibility for distraction,” he said. “I expect the puppy to stay on task despite the fact that there are birds walking and flying around. I introduce them slowly and in a controlled manner. A good first step is to ask them to heel and then to walk them around the pen. While birds are running or flying around I’ll calmly and quietly talk to the puppy and ask him to heel. After the pup has exhibited calm behavior I’ll move on to another task like sit and stay. I’ll stand next to the puppy while another trainer walks around the pen to flush the birds. I want to ensure that the puppy remains sitting in the middle of that distraction. Another task is to throw bumpers into the middle of a bunch of live birds and send the pup on a retrieve. I expect them to return with the bumper without chasing birds. If they can remain focused in the pen then they will have no problem sitting still in a blind on opening day when lots of ducks pour in. They’re conditioned to that kind of excitement and it has become normal behavior. They also know they’ll be rewarded with a retrieve if they ignore the live birds which they won’t be able to catch anyway.”
Milner says that a similar technique is used in the UK when developing fox hounds. As fox hounds encounter a lot of different game during a chase, the pack needs discernment to stay focused on the fox. Handlers introduce fox hound puppies to a wide variety of animals. They’ll walk the pups through cattle pens, horse corrals, past sheep, around goats, and through birds.
If you’re looking to try training your retriever in a bird pen and have a lot of land then consider building a pen of your own. Another option is to see about training in a bird pen at a commercial hunting operation. Give Milner’s bird pen a try. It’s another innovative method for developing calm, focused and deliberate dogs.