Natural Instincts

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With specialized skills and a love for the chase, dogs make the ultimate hunting partners. 

By Nancy Dorman-Hickson

The relationship between hunter and dog stretches back as far as Neolithic times, when early humans were able to find, retrieve and carry food more easily thanks to canine assistance. Some historians even believe that the partnership gave humans an evolutionary edge over Neanderthals. Once livestock animals were domesticated, hunting with dogs was less of a necessity, and eventually it evolved into a sport.

Today, many hunters cite their bond with their four-footed companions as the most rewarding aspect of the pastime. “Getting to watch your dog work, that’s 90 percent of the hunt,” says Wesley Schlosser, a dog trainer at Broadfield, A Sea Island Sporting Club and Lodge, which offers quail hunts, continental pheasant shoots and falconry.

Special Skill Sets

Three major categories of “gun” dogs, or canines that don’t spook at the sound of gunfire, are pointers, flushers and retrievers. The labels indicate the unique skill set each possesses. Pointers sniff out their quarry. When they home in on their target, their bodies freeze, announcing the prey’s location to the hunter. Flushers drive quarry out of hiding. Retrievers bring downed game to the hunter.

“It depends on what animal you’re hunting as to what kind of dog you are going to use,” explains Elaine Goodner, secretary for the Master National Retriever Club. In general, she says: “You want a hunting dog to be steady and very trainable. They need the ability to be a team player, not a dog that says, ‘Leave me alone, boss, I can do this myself.’ ”

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Dogs can be trained to cooperate with predatory birds during a hunt.

A combination of nurture and nature determine a dog’s abilities. “They have to be trained but the genetics are there,” Schlosser says of certain breeds. He generally starts with 8-week-old puppies and works with them for a year and a half before taking them on a quail hunt. In the interim, he tests them with birds, prepares them for working in the field and familiarizes them with the sound of gunfire. He looks for dogs that “hunt really hard and have a lot of poise. You’re looking for a dog with a strong retrieve drive or pointers with a strong instinct. That makes training a whole lot easier.”

Jerry Mann, the American Kennel Club’s sporting breeds field director, hunts a variety of prey throughout different seasons and trains canines for the activity. “You need a dog that is obedience-trained and responds to your commands, including sit, heel, stay, come and down,” he says.

When choosing puppies to teach, Mann looks for enthusiasm. “For rabbit dogs, you want a dog that’s interested in getting down and smelling and running rabbits,” he explains. “If he doesn’t show you a desire to do it, he’s probably not going to be a very good hunting dog. It doesn’t mean he won’t be an excellent pet. Same thing with retrievers. If you’re going to be a duck or goose hunter, you’re going to want a dog that doesn’t mind getting in the water and swimming out to pick up the game and bring it back. Some dogs don’t like the water.” 

Choosing a Breed

Beyond the particular skill set required, selecting a breed comes down to individual preference, as many share common specialties.

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Hunting dogs need to be highly trainable and have the ability to be team players.

“For bird hunting, you’ve got your retriever breeds: Labrador, golden, flat coats, curly coats,” Goodner says. “Poodles, originally a water retrieving dog, are coming back, too.” Pointer breeds include German shorthaired and Weimaraner, she adds, while breeds that excel at running down game include Salukis, Afghans and greyhounds. Dogs low to the ground, such as dachshunds and beagles, are good at pursuing animals that burrow. Dogs adept at flushing prey include springer and Brittany spaniels.

At Broadfield, Chris Kennedy conducts hunts using falcons and hawks. He chooses dogs with overlapping skill sets to help locate and flush prey for the predatory birds. “I use a vizsla, a Hungarian breed that points and retrieves,” the falconer says. He also enlists the help of a German wire-haired pointer and a German jagdterrier for the same versatility. “If you’re going to have a dog that you hunt with a falcon or hawk, you look for breeds that can hunt multiple prey because the hawk and falcon hunt a variety of prey,” he explains.

The relationship between all of the members of the hunting group is also an important consideration. “The dog has to be comfortable around the hawk and falcon and the predatory birds have to be comfortable around the dog,” Kennedy says. “We’ve got a handful of dogs that can go on our falconry hunts because it takes a little bit more time and training.” He also prizes these particular breeds because he takes the dogs home at night. “They tend to be better house dogs,” he says.

For the past 25 years, Labrador retrievers have been the most popular breed in America, according to the American Kennel Club. Labradors are favored by many hunters as well. “The biggest reason is their temperament and their trainability,” Goodner says. “They are easygoing, reliable, and they enjoy their work.”

On the Hunt

Broadfield’s pheasant shoots involve the birds being released from a tower with shooters stationed around the release point; dogs retrieve the downed birds. On Broadfield quail hunts, Schlosser often uses English pointers, which work well in the Georgia climate, as well as an English cocker or a Labrador. “The pointers will look for the quail,” he explains. “When they smell the covey, they’ll point by locking up. They look like statues.”

Next, the guide positions two hunters on each side of him, readying them to shoot. For safety, only two hunters are allowed to shoot at one time; groups rotate shooters. “Then I’ll send in the little cocker or the Labrador to flush the quail,” Schlosser says. After the hunters fire, the English cocker or Labrador retrieves the game that has been brought down. Others might use breeds such as golden or Chesapeake Bay retrievers to gather game. “Everyone has their preference,” Schlosser says. “A bunch of people love Brittany spaniels for pointers while others gravitate to setters.”

While hunting season is only a few months long, Schlosser says that participants who work with dogs can take advantage of the off-season time to focus on training, therefore making the sport a year-round activity.

Mann believes dogs benefit from the experience, too. “If you’ve got a pet and he stays in the house or the pen all the time, he doesn’t get to use his natural instincts,” he says. “If you’re a hunter and you don’t have a dog to participate with, you’re missing a great experience.” 


Join the Hunt at Broadfield

Whether a novice or a veteran hunter, guests of Broadfield, A Sea Island Sporting Club and Lodge, can enjoy quail, pheasant and falconry hunting alongside a variety of trained hunt dogs. Game management and sustainable practices amid Broadfield’s lush 5,800 acres make these traditional outdoor activities memory-making experiences, enhanced by watching the hunt dogs in action.dog-1

Full and half-day plantation-style quail hunts and continental pheasant shoots include all equipment as well as a mid-day meal. The Falconry Experience program provides three
different hunting styles using three different raptors, and dog and bird working together to bring down prey.

Corporate and group events, including pheasant shoots and round robin activities, can be arranged for up to 100 participants. Following the outdoor adventure, gather together for a Southern-inspired feast such as a low country boil.

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