A few years ago, a man asked my opinion regarding an upland dog’s ideal hunting range. If there was ever a loaded question, that was it, especially when he added he hunted ruffed grouse and woodcock in his home covers, but each year loaded his dogs and traveled west for pheasants and prairie grouse, then south for quail. Ideal range? For which birds or, more to the point, which habitats? After a brief discussion, I discovered he wanted a cold, hard number, a one-size-fits-all range for the covers and birds he hunted.
This man’s range question is a common one, though most hunters don’t expect such impossible precision; they understand woodcock cover is quite different from sharptail habitat and demands a different approach. Indeed, there’s no all-encompassing answer to what range is best: It’s a matter of breed, individual dog, training, cover, birds, and—no small thing—owner preference or comfort level.
Range, the distance a hunting dog quests for birds in front of the gun, is a product of genetics and training. On any given day, other factors—habitat density or openness, wind conditions, numbers of birds and adaptability to cover—can influence how far afield a dog hunts; but, overall, a gun dog will range as its instincts compel it and its training guides it.
In large part, this means a pup from a line of big-running dogs will likely carry that trait, which, in turn, means an owner seeking a shorter-ranging dog will have to train the pup early on to hunt close, adjust to the dog’s innate style or attempt to moderate its running at a later time. The reverse of a wide-going dog is an inherently close worker that rarely ranges to any great degree, sometimes to the point of pottering underfoot. Consensus among dog trainers holds that it’s generally easier to pull in a dog’s range than to push it out.
What’s A Good Range?
One of the difficulties with gun-dog terms like “close worker” or “big runner” is their meanings are as variable as those of us who use them. A “good” range, particularly for pointing dogs, is a matter of personal perception. For some hunters, 75 yards is “way out there,” while others see that same distance as much too close. Cover type must also be considered: In dense, early season woodland vegetation, somewhere around 50 yards might be considered a good working range for a pointing dog; on the prairies, 200-plus yards could be seen as an appropriate distance in front of the gun.
Flushing dogs are a separate issue. To be effective, spaniels and retrievers must hunt within shotgun range, which is typically dictated by the skill of the shooter and the confines of the cover. That brings up another option: Hunters who want a 25-yard dog that’s always near them and always in sight are often better served by a hardworking springer spaniel than by a pointing breed. What is considered excessively close hunting for a pointer might be the proper range for a flusher.
A widely held—and likely correct—assumption is that an overwhelming majority of bird hunters are more comfortable with pointing dogs that stay within 50-75 yards than they are with wide rangers that consistently push out to 150 yards and beyond. A good many sportsmen believe that close workers are an asset, particularly in thicker cover, because, they reason, jumpy birds won’t stay put in front of big-running pointing dogs for the time it takes to reach them. Whether that’s true—many game birds hold better than we think—reality might be that hunters don’t trust their dogs (often with justification) to reliably maintain a point for any length of time.
It’s In The Training
Sportsmen who have properly trained dogs and are confident they’ll remain solid until they’re approached for the flush usually aren’t bothered if their dogs run out of sight from time to time. In addition, smart hunters pay attention, as best they can, to where their dogs are and what they’re doing. They don’t cut dogs loose, start gabbing with hunting partners, then wonder where their dogs have gone after they disappear. You ignore your dog at the risk of it learning to ignore you.
Hunters who own but don’t appreciate big-running dogs—again, whatever that means to them—often discover their dogs are more versatile than they think and will adapt range to different habitat conditions. Other owners persist in looking for methods to rein-in big runners. Screaming commands at a dog, barraging it with nasty names and blowing incessantly on a whistle are common errors and won’t make a whit of difference; without follow-up consequences, a dog will tune you out. Nor, in the long run, will check cords, log chains or fumble balls attached to its collar slow it down. An electronic collar can be an effective tool for aiding in the establishment and control of range, but it must be used cautiously and only after a dog has been through appropriate collar conditioning, then range and pattern drills. Never slap a collar on an unknowing dog and light it up when it pushes beyond your comfort zone. Your dog won’t relate the punishment to its range, but, rather, to what it’s doing—which is hunting—at the moment you zap it.
Birds, Birds and More (Or Fewer) Birds
As with many facets of gun-dog work, birds can be range training’s ace in the hole. Birds not only turn a pup into a hunter, but can be used to condition it to hunt at a desired distance, thus forestalling potential range issues before they become a problem. For example, flushing-dog trainers have long followed the maxim that a dog will learn to hunt at the distance from its handler at which it consistently finds game birds. If it always flushes planted birds at 15-20 yards, it won’t push beyond gun range seeking them.
Another general rule of thumb for virtually any birdy gun dog, whether pointer or flusher, is if you want that dog to extend its range, don’t give it many birds. In other words, the fewer birds it finds, the farther it will push out searching for them. The converse of this rule, often used as a training aid, is that to establish or reduce a dog’s range you must let it find a lot of birds, preferably, as I said above, close in.
There’s no right or wrong to preferences of how far dogs range in front of the gun as long as that range meets an individual hunter’s needs. The problem comes with unrealistically rigid folks, like the man I mentioned, who want one perfect range for all covers and conditions; an impossible hope that dooms them, and likely their dogs, to perpetual frustration. The best such people can hope for is that their dogs will adjust to different covers as they see fit—if allowed to do so—by pulling in or pushing out their range.
In a nutshell, don’t try to put absolute yardage on range. Across the bird-hunting board, there’s no graven-in-stone distance from the gun that’s always good or always bad. If, under typical conditions, your dog performs confidently and consistently at a certain range—whether 50 or 150 yards, or much closer for flushers—and that range is within your personal comfort zone and produces game, then it’s appropriate.