I think you will agree that when you get a new hunting dog all you can think about is getting out hunting. When I get a new dog, day one I’m already dreaming about early September goose and the opening of grouse season. Then I have to slam on the mental breaks, grab my calendar and wondering if I will be able to hunt the pup this fall. I remember with my first pup I was questioning, how old should my hunting dog be before it can hunt?
You can take a puppy hunting as early as 6-8 months. Some could be hunted earlier, some later as dogs mature at different speeds. As long as the dog has been conditioned to gun fire and introduced to game (animals you will be hunting), take the dog hunting. Bird hunters often repeat the mantra, birds make bird dogs, the more exposure the dog can get to real hunting situations the better. But, make it a positive experience for the dog. Check your expectations and slow down your pace, make this first season all about the dog.
Most breeders plan litters to be born in the early spring, usually February to April, so the puppies are ready to experience their first hunting season that fall at 6-8 months old in September. Alternately, some breeders also produce a fall litter, so these dogs would be close to or at 1 year old for their first season. Here is a quick table to tell your dogs age during hunting season by looking at their birth month.
|Birth Month||Age in September||Age in October||Age in November|
|January||8 Months||9 Months||10 Months|
|February||7 Months||8 Months||9 Months|
|March||6 Months||7 Months||8 Months|
|April||5 Months||6 Months||7 Months|
|May||4 Months||5 Months||6 Months|
|June||3 Months||4 Months||5 Months|
|July||2 Months||3 Months||4 Months|
|August||1 Month||2 Months||3 Months|
|September||12 Months||13 Months||14 Months|
|October||11 Months||12 Months||13 Months|
|November||10 Months||11 Months||12 Months|
|December||9 Months||10 Months||11 Months|
At this point you might be discouraged as you realized your pup might realistically be too young to hunt the opener this year. Don’t sweat it, remember when you hunt the opener it’s only resident ducks on the ponds, there are so many leaves you can’t see the grouse and squirrels, and it’s too hot to run just about anything except in the mornings. A pup born as late as April would be 6 months in October, one born in May makes 6 months in November. However, after getting a new puppy and spending the summer training and bonding, you will be chomping at the bit come the opener, so how do you know if the pup is ready?
How Do you Know if Your Puppy is Ready to Hunt?
Age as a measure seems natural to use when trying to decide if you should take your puppy hunting, but don’t get hung up your pups age as the definitive way to tell if the pup is ready to hunt. Let’s jump to humans for an analogy to put things into perspective. Some kids can walk at 6 months others not until 15 months. Its obvious when pointed out but the 15-month-old is over twice the age of the 6 months old and hitting the same milestones. That variability can be extended to dogs as well. Your buddy’s pup might have been ready hunt at 4 months but yours might not be ready until a year. Here are some important milestones to make sure your puppy is ready to for their first hunt.
Your dog must be conditioned to gun fire. If you have not conditioned your dog to gunfire, do not take the dog hunting until you do. A quick way to get a gun shy dog is to introduce your dog to gun fire on their first hunt by having you and your buddies unload on the first duck that flies by or pheasant that jumps up. Gun shyness is very hard to fix and is best avoided.
You should have introduced your dog to game in a controlled manner before the dogs first real hunt. This does two important things: one it flips the dogs prey drive switch; the dog will be fired up about game. Second, it helps the dog understand what you are out doing together.
Make sure you have the correct mindset and expectations for what your pup is capable of. This is important to give your pup a solid first season to build on and not do something to wreck the dog. For example: someone who is willing to go slow, watch the dog and quit early before burning out the dog, could take a younger dog out, while someone who wont be happy and case the guns until they have their limit, might want to wait until the dog is old enough and has the strength and energy to keep up with them.
Tips for taking your pup hunting:
- Make it about the dog’s development, not about filling the bag.
- Don’t expect to much from the dog
- Go by yourself or with a trusted hunting partner who is on the same page about putting the pup first.
- Be ready to quite early.
- Go somewhere that has a good chance of holding game.
- Go somewhere you are familiar with; it will be easier to keep the situation under control.
- Pass on shots that will result in retrieves outside of the dog’s skill.
- Take killing shots to decrease the chance the dog will be bitten, scratched, spurred or otherwise roughed up by the track or retrieve.
- Go slow.
- Avoid making corrections to the dog (save the training for the training field).
- Make trips short to start.
Mindset for Your Dog’s First Season
Your dog’s first hunting season is an investment in hunting seasons to come. Put your puppy first when approaching the pup’s first season and don’t do anything that would turn the dog off to hunting. This means being willing to quite early if your dog is tired. It means taking shots you know you can make and let your pup build confidence on easy retrieves instead of casing cripples across the lake. This means only taking clean shots on roosters, so your pup doesn’t get a spur to the face from a still very alive pheasant on their first retrieve.
Start out each hunt recommitting yourself to making this season about the dog. Don’t be overly critical and quick to correct the dog. Take inventory of any mistakes or room for improvement and save that training for the training field, where you can better control all the variables and set the dog up for success.
Reasons You Would Not Hunt a Young Dog
There are many reasons to bring your young dog hunting: great exposure for the dog, exercise, tons of learning; there are also some things that might cause you to decide not to hunt a young dog.
Setting bad habits – hunting a dog too early without a proper training foundation might set bad habits in the dog. With training you can undo these habits, but it is often easier to not let them form in the first place. An example of this is duck hunters often want their dogs steady before hunting the dog. This makes sure the dog isn’t flying out of the blind at every shot, or even before a shot is fired. A dog that is not steady is a safety concern as well as a nuisance as it can scare birds off. Instead of finding themselves ready to throttle the offending dog; or putting the dog in a situation that could impact its safety or future effectiveness as a hunting companion, they opt to keep the dog at home until has been trained steady.
Negative conditioning – There is a lot in hunting that can negatively condition a young dog if they have not been properly introduced to it. The obvious example is gunfire. But there are many others: water, game that fights back, weather, long days, long car rides, heat, … Loading so many new or challenging experiences on a dog in a single outing could overload the dog and cause them to shut down. This may negatively condition them not only to the direct source of the stressor but also to hunting in general. Through training sessions, you can isolate and introduce each one of these experiences in a controlled and positive manner to build the dogs confidence. A particularly bad hunt where a young pup is exposed to too many new negative or challenging experience might leave you wishing you had left the pup at home until you had time train more.
Safety – If the dog is too young to safely hunt you should not take the dog. What is safe will differ from one hunting scenario to another but here are some examples: If you dog has not yet learned a solid recall command. If you hunt in areas where venomous snakes are common and you have not done snake aversion training with the pup.
Is It Better to Get a Puppy Born in the Spring or Fall?
Spring is the best time for puppies to be born. The magic window would be litters born January to April. It easier to be outside in the spring and summer with the pup. The days are longer giving you time to get out and train before and after work. Dogs born in the fall work out well for to be ready to hunt season the following year, but fall puppies have other drawbacks. Mainly, if you live in a cold climate you have to potty train the snow, and introduction to water can be tricky if everything is froze over. You might miss some of your season raising your new puppy if you get the dog before the seasons close in the fall.