For Safety's Sake: Communication the Key to Safe Hunting with Dogs (and Hunters)

Avid hunters hear about it all the time—hunters accidentally shooting their dog. It is a tragedy and in reality it should never occur. The outcomes of such horrible accidents range from the obvious loss of good companions to the utter extremes: hunters actually dropping out of their beloved sport.

For years I traveled only a short distance to the best bird hunting preserve I had ever visited. The owners proved themselves repeatedly to be professional bird farmers and dog handlers. To add icing to the cake, the father-son management team were very personable guys who loved the outdoors and relished providing the best bird hunting experiences their clients had ever enjoyed.

The preserve stayed busy providing hunts, both guided and unguided. Training their own dogs as well as dogs of others kept the owners working long hours.

The last call I made to the preserve to book a hunt proved unsettling. I gasped in disbelief as the son, who had become a dear friend, described how a careless hunter had shot a prime dog when he fired at a low flying chukkar. To make matters worse, the valuable dog belonged to a client who had left the dog with the preserve owners for further training. Training often included live hunts, which in this case turned out tragically for everyone involved.

I could not believe what I heard as my friend described the situation that lead up to the accidental shooting of the dog. The owners began every hunt with a safety talk, explaining to hunters in depth what the ground rules were and how they should conduct themselves in the field. Low flying birds had always been off limits at the preserve.

My heart ached for the preserve owners and my heart ached for myself when my friend broke the news that they were shutting the preserve down. They had experienced too many close calls with hunters who had exhibited carelessness while hunting. Poor gun handling practices lead to incidents of both dogs and other hunters almost being injured.

Every hunter has a responsibility to himself and others to always be safe any time he has a gun in his possession. Following are some basic rules, which every hunter must follow to keep hunters and their best friends safe around firearms.

Anyone taking up the hunting and shooting sports should first take a hunter education and safety course. They are readily available from most state conservation or natural resources departments. Or you can take a hunter safety course through the National Rifle Association.

Go to NRA.org to check out the many services available. The NRA trains more people in firearms safety than any other organization.

Hunters will learn from the courses that everyone should always assume that a gun is loaded. People and dogs are injured every year because someone mistakenly assumed that a gun was unloaded. You must check, check and recheck a firearm, in a safe manner, to make sure it is unloaded as soon as the hunt is over. To do so, point the gun in a safe direction. Work the action to expel all shotshells. Once the last shotshell has been extracted, work the action a few more times just to be sure.

As an added safety feature, you and your hunting partners should develop the habit of asking one another if your firearm is in fact unloaded. Ask to visually check one another’s firearms. And don’t be offended if you do make a mistake and are corrected by a buddy. Everyone of us are capable of making a mistake. I once had an individual at a sporting clays range ask if my gun was unloaded. I assured him I had unloaded. However, my action was not open. He gestured for me to pass the gun to him. Lo and behold, a single round remained in the chamber. That is the only time in my 60 years that an incident like that has happened, but, it only takes one mistake to kill or injure a hunting partner or a dog. I thanked my shooting mate for checking my gun.

One should always keep the muzzle of their gun pointed in a safe direction so that if it is fired accidentally the discharge has no chance of injuring anyone or doing property damage. Hunting situations in particular often require different types of gun carrying techniques. You will learn those in your safety classes. Do not get in the habit of continuously carrying your gun in one position. Field conditions change constantly and require a change of carrying techniques to accommodate safety.

Hunting dogs are constantly on the move. Hunters must know where the dogs are at all times. This fact is a key feature in the prevention of dogs being shot. Dogs can be hidden between the hunter and the quarry, or suddenly appear out of nowhere. Bells have long been used to give away a dog’s location. Today, many devices are available to help hunters keep up with the location of their dogs.

Competition among hunters is another leading cause of dogs being shot by accident. Competition should be left at the firing range. There is no place in the field for shooters trying to out perform one another. Shot scenarios should be discussed before the hunt. Try to cover every imaginable shot scenario. Who will shoot at birds that flush on the right, left, center, etc. In most cases, their should only be one shooter per flush, with a designated back up shooter if it is safe. In the case of multiple birds flushing, everyone has to be keenly ware of the position of every other hunter and the dogs. Dogs become especially vulnerable when there are multiple shooters.

Accidental shootings of dogs often take place when there are multiple hunters, multiple dogs and the action becomes fast and furious with lots of rising birds or birds that are running causing dogs and hunters to change positions in rapid succession. Hunters should continuously caution one another about the location of dogs and shooters in such scenarios.

Pausing for a short break when the action is hot is hard to do, but may be one of the best safety precautions for a group of hunters. It’s a good time to mention the importance of safety, debrief about what you saw, what you might see, what you can do better etc.  The dogs need watering, too.   Basically a “regrouping” of your party reinforces the reason you are all together – to have fun and blast some birds without anybody getting hurt.

Shooting at low flying birds is another major cause of hunters shooting dogs. Establish firm rules among your hunting group about how low you can shoot. A dog can be hit by stray pellets from low shots. Dogs often blend into the cover and low shots are bad choices. Some dogs will jump to try to catch flushing birds. Be aware of your dogs habits and inform your partners accordingly.

Train your dogs to the best of your abilities. They should remain tight until instructed to make retrieves. I have heard of several dogs being shot over the years when they broke from a boat position to retrieve downed waterfowl. Most often, hunters were taking second shots when the dogs crossed into the line of fire. Train your dog to sit tight until released, but always be aware of the possibility that it might break without command.

Placing a blaze orange collar or vest on your dog is another way to prevent accidental shootings. The bright collars make the dog far more visible and less likely to become a victim of an accidental shooting.

Experiment with what works best with your hunting situation and act accordingly. But, never, ever compromise safety. It may save your dog’s life and a lot of grief for you as a dog owner.

The shooter of my friend’s dog happened to be a 14-year-old boy on his first bird hunt. He had passed his hunter safety course and became eager to hunt. He wanted to prove his abilities, but his youthful exuberance brought about an error in judgment. It only took a second to make a mistake that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Take the responsibility to keep your hunting dog safe.

(Photos courtesy of Reno Tahoe)

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