In southeast Louisiana Cody Bruhl always grew up around retrieving dogs, so his introduction to waterfowl hunting came early. It was only 4-5 years ago that he started upland hunting while in Mississippi and became interested in quail. From there, he started traveling to the Dakotas and then moved to Colorado when he started going after pheasant, chukar and grouse, where the terrain is far more rugged and requires a different set of skills on both the dog and the hunter. He’s learned it from the ground up with help from his father-in-law and his yellow lab, Blue, who’ll be two in August.
“His typical role in upland hunting would be to flush birds,” Cody first told me when we started talking. “The pointers run around, quarter and locate the birds to point, then Blue comes in behind them and flushes the bird out for a shot.” But the more we talked, the more it sounded like Blue is a real fast learner. “Over the past six months or so, he’s evolved into more of an all-purpose dog where he can locate, point then flush the bird out and go and retrieve the bird to hand.”
Cody isn’t a professional gun dog trainer, but he and his wife Jolie have done all of the work with Blue themselves, and they’ve certainly had a highly successful first couple years. Cody attributes that to a few different reasons. His first rule is simple - start with the basics -- “If you have a dog that’s not obedient it’s going to be really hard to hunt with that dog, it’s going to take extra patience and can be stressful.” That means the dog’s got to have a strong understanding of the basics, especially sit, stay and heel. Also, to have patience, as most gun dog owners know, you’ve also got to be cautious around the 10-week mark -- or fear period -- to not discharge a firearm around the dog and potentially make them gun shy.
When Blue was about 1-year-old, Cody brought him on a waterfowl hunt in Louisiana. But instead of working him, Cody kept him in the blind where he could take everything in and watch a veteran dog work. “That’s a huge thing, too,” he says. “You don’t just want to throw them into a new experience.”
Cody started the heavier training for upland hunting after he realized Blue had the drive for it. He followed the same general approach most trainers will take using a check cord and adding in an E-Collar to help the dog learn the ins and outs of directional signals. In the early stages, Cody’s wife would occasionally accompany them to do the gun work so Cody could focus solely on working Blue.
From there, they did some tuning up on a preserve hunt. “He was doing probably 15 plus miles a day, retrieving anywhere from 15-20 birds for four days in a row.” But again, Cody’s buddies were with them, and so Blue had a group of mature dogs to learn from. “It’s always helpful to have a learning buddy out there with him,” Cody explained.
To keep Blue from turning into skin and bones on a hunt, Cody stresses that Blue gets several gallons of water while they’re in the field, and they always rotate the dogs in and out so they can do lots of small feedings with breaks in between.
For that first year, it was tough to hold Blue back because he was getting good so quickly. But according to Cody, this year they’ll be focusing on more quality reps and honing the skills. “Last year he was functional,” Cody says. “Retrieving and flushing, but he was having trouble sitting on the flush. This year we’ll try to be textbook.”
Many commercial hunters want the dog chasing the bird through the shot, but Cody is quick to point out the other side of the coin. “When the dog is pushing hard and chasing after that bird, if the bird doesn’t fly up and out and instead flies out in front and you miss the shot, the dog could be in harm's way. Blue’s a house pet first and foremost.” And that could be the difference -- for the many hunters who are out there to bond with their dogs and come home to their family at night, safety should be a priority. “With the dogs down range, I’ve heard horror stories of people taking a bad shot and the dog getting injured.”
Cody picked up some hunter orange Rex Specs as a safety measure, both to help see him from long distances and to protect his eyes from the severe brush they work in the wild hunts. “He’s not just my dog -- he’s my wife’s dog, too -- so if I bring him back in any other shape than perfect, I may as well be moving out,” he jokes.
With Blue turning two in August, it’s looking like a great hunting season ahead. They’ll be heading to North Dakota in early November for some heavy upland hunting, and in the meantime they’ll be out working obedience and doing tune up hunts on preserves. And through it all, they’ll be building that bond that makes a house pet into a great hunter. At this point, Cody’s often happy to let others do the shooting so he can focus on Blue. He echoes what so many gun dog owners say after years in the field -- “Working the dog’s the best part of it all.”