Hunting With Dogs: Etiquette and Safety
For your first time hunting with gun dogs, you'll have to learn some rules and get used to some new gun handling techniques, but it's all worth it.
Hunting dogs make hunting better. They find more game, they get you better shots, and they recover downed birds that would otherwise be lost. And, it’s just fun to watch dogs work. You may own a dog of your own someday, but you’ll probably hunt over other people’s dogs first. If you’re invited on a hunt with dogs, there are adjustments you’ll have to make. The dog’s safety is everyone’s concern. A dog isn’t of any use if it stays behind the firing line, so you’ll have to learn some new gun handling habits. There’s etiquette to learn, too, and expectations to adjust. Not every hunt with dogs is a joy. Some are terribly frustrating. Learn to take it in stride. It may be your dog running wild some day. Basically there are four types of hunting dogs you may encounter.
Pointing dogs (English setters, German shorthaired pointers, Brittanys and may others) freeze when they get close to upland birds. Commercial lodges like pointing dogs because they create a controlled situation, allowing hunters to get into position before the bird flushes. Most pointing dogs retrieve, too.
Retrievers (Labs, Chesapeake Bay retrievers, etc) are used primarily for waterfowl hunting. They wait in the blind with the hunters until birds fall, then fetch them.
Flushers (spaniels, mostly, as well as retriever breeds like Labs and golden retrievers) roust upland birds out of cover instead of stopping to point them.
Hounds (beagles are the most popular) chase four footed game big and small, usually baying as they go. You may hunt deer, hogs, mountain lions or raccoons with hounds, although it’s most likely you’ll hunt rabbits with beagles.
Here’s what you need to know to have a safe, successful, enjoyable hunt with dogs.
1. Muzzles Up
The only way to carry a gun safely when you’re walking after dogs is with the muzzle up, usually in the port arms position.
Several years ago I hunted with a Marine, who carried his shotgun muzzle down as he’d been taught to carry his M4 carbine. The first time a bird flushed, he swept the muzzle right through the dog in front of him—a dangerous situation if you’ve got your finger on the trigger. I took him aside and told him he needed to keep his muzzle up, not down, for the rest of the hunt.
2. No Low Shots
Fully trained dogs are supposed to be “steady to flush,” that is, to not move when the bird goes up, but many are not. Some young dogs will chase the bird quite a ways, and a few will even jump to try to catch it. I know a hunter who put two or three pellets in his own dog when it surprised him and jumped to catch a flushing grouse. Wait until you can see sky underneath the bird before you shoot. If the bird stays low (as especially often happens with game farm quail) let it go. The dog will find it again and next time you might get a safer shot.
3. Don’t Compete
I hunted at a very upscale Orvis-endorsed lodge once with a guide who was a retired police officer. He gave the same safety talk to every group, and he’d say “the price for shooting one of my dogs is $5,000.” Every once in a while some rich jerk would say “I can afford that.” The guide would point to the revolver on his hip and tell him “That’s why I carry this.”
I asked him which clients made him the most nervous about his dog’s safety. “It’s the ones that get competitive and try to beat each other to the birds, or they start betting on who will shoot the most,” he said, “that’s when they shoot fast without paying attention to where the dogs are.”
Save the competition for clay targets. It’s safer and more fun to take turns shooting first, and backing each other up. Shooting fast risks a dog, a miss, or blowing a bird into inedible pieces, none of which are good outcomes.
4. Shoot Nothing On the Ground
You may see rabbits when you’re bird hunting, or, often at game farms, you’ll see birds running on the ground. Don’t shoot them even if you’re sure you know where the dog is. It’s not worth the risk. Rabbit hunting with beagles is the huge exception. If you don’t shoot rabbits on the ground, you’ll never shoot them.
Typically beagles will jump a rabbit and give chase. Rabbits usually circle back to where they started, and hunters wait for a shot. Pick a spot that gives you a clear view of the rabbit and what’s behind it, and be sure to positively identify your target.
5. Don’t Shoot Cripples Without Permission
This is mostly a rule for waterfowling, not upland hunting. It’s quite common to finish off crippled ducks and geese by shooting them on the water. If the dog is out retrieving birds, leave it to the dog’s owner to shoot any cripples, or ask before you shoot if you see a bird swimming away.
RULES OF ETIQUETTE
1. Their Dog, Their Rules
The dog’s owner is in charge. There are more hazards to dogs than getting shot. Heat, busy roads, snakes can be deadly, too. If the owner may not want to take the dog somewhere dangerous. They may need to end the hunt early if the dog is overheated or injured. That’s part of hunting with dogs.
Also, some owners only want birds shot over solid points, both for safety and for the benefit of the dog’s training. Some won’t want rabbits shot over bird dogs. Break their rules and they won’t invite you back.
2. Don’t Give Commands to Someone Else’s Dog
It’s bad manners and potentially confusing to the dog. Despite being a dog person myself, I will usually not try to pet someone else’s dog unless it comes to me for affection. The dog is there to hunt. Let it.
Likewise, a dog will usually retriever birds to its owner, no matter who shot them. Don’t call the dog to you. Let it bring the bird to the owner, then take it from them.
3. Don’t Criticize Someone Else’s Dog
It’s not done, period, and hard feelings may result. Hunting with an out of control dog can be frustrating, but it’s part of the deal. You will shoot far more birds with dogs than without them, but that doesn’t mean a dog can’t mess up a hunt. It can, and will.
Dogs have good days and bad days, just like we do. Roll with it.
GENERAL ADVICE FOR HUNTING WITH DOGS
One of the real pleasures of upland hunting with dogs is knowing when you’re near birds by reading the dog’s body language. And, if you’re paying attention to the dogs, you’ll be ready to shoot, too.
Many years ago my cousin owned good pointing dogs. One of his guests came upon Shaun’s dog on point and said, “Hey, there’s something wrong with your dog. It’s stuck.”
“No, he’s pointing a bird. It’s right in front of him,” my cousin said. The hunter didn’t believe him, and was completely unprepared when the pheasant flushed, and he missed it. Don’t be that guy.
When the tail gets going and the nose goes to the ground, something is about to happen. When the dog stops, the bird is (usually, “false points” of hot scent are a thing) right there.
Be Ready to Move
Birds will run ahead of a dog; sometimes they won’t sit long for a point. Be ready to walk quickly and safely to the dog. If the owner tells you to walk in front of a pointing dog to flush the bird, don’t tiptoe like so many do. Walk steadily to the bird.
You might even have to kick around the grass in front the dog’s nose. Be aggressive. You, not the bird, are the one with the gun, after all.
SHOOTING DRILL: Safe Shooting Over A Dog
Port arms (gun held in front of your body, muzzle angled up) is the safest way to carry as you approach a dog but it’s not the best position for bringing a shotgun into action. Going straight from port arms to shouldering the gun creates a lot of movement, puts the distracting barrel in your face, and it makes you bring the muzzle down when it should be moving up to mirror the bird’s flight path. Fortunately, you’ve got lots of time to mount the gun when a bird flushes at close range. It may not seem like it, in the excitement of the moment, but you do. Here’s a drill you can do to learn a kind of two-step gun mount, first, with an unloaded gun, then with loaded gun and a trap throwing going-away targets at your feet. Start with the gun at port arms. Imagine the bird flushes. The first move is to bring the muzzle down to just above horizontal to a ready position and pointing in the direction of the bird. The toe (bottom of the buttstock) is now almost touching the top of your hipbone. The second move is to bring the gun up to your face as you mount it, pushing the muzzle out toward the bird. Do this with an unloaded gun at home. Try a few shots standing still, then pretend you’re walking in on a bird. Once you’ve got the move down, go to the field and walk toward a trap, either a manual trap or, with the range owner’s permission, a trap on a trap field. Have a friend pull the bird first on your call, then pull randomly to take you by surprise and catch you mid-step.