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Illinois hunting and fishing

Dan Griffith uses homing pigeons to train his German wirehaired pointer, Greta, near Family Park in Sioux Falls, S.D., Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012. (AP Photo/The Argus Leader, Emily Spartz)

Homing pigeons help train dogs for hunt duties

December 15, 2012 at 10:12 AM

The Associated Press

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — The bird is under a wire basket in some grassy cover on an acreage west of Sioux Falls.

About a dozen paces distant, Greta, a gorgeous 10-year-old German wirehair, is scenting around, circling ever closer to the basket. Suddenly she stiffens, back rigid, and zeroes in on her target.

She waits to hear the command from her owner, Dan Griffith.

“She’s as steady as the Rock of Gibraltar,” Griffith said, laughing.

Then he upends the basket and the bird — a homing pigeon plucked from his coop of 21 birds — hops out, head darting, and flies away. Greta tracks its flight as it wheels east toward home.

“I can go any place within 300 miles and my pigeons will come home,” said Griffith, who grew up with hunting dogs and racing pigeons. He doesn’t race birds anymore, but he’s one of several local trainers who keep a coop of “homers” to train hunting dogs.

Greta is his star pup, an AKC master hunter that has whelped nine litters of prize-winning puppies and once guided former vice president Dan Quayle on his first hunt, Griffith said.

“For as far back as I can remember, I’ve wanted something that points,” said Griffith, owner of Griff’s Grassland Kennel. “It’s so beautiful to see birds flush off a point ... What I see is a very gentlemanly hunt.”

The biggest advantage to using homing pigeons is that they’re reusable, he said. And puppies aren’t intimidated by the smaller birds, so it’s a good way to introduce them to basic fieldwork before moving on to larger game birds.

Homers seem to be more popular for training pointing breeds. Shane Olean, owner of Smoken Dakota Kennels in Sioux Falls, works with retrievers and mostly uses wing-clipped shooter pigeons and other, larger game birds such as pheasants and ducks.

Homers can come in handy for specific types of upland training, though.

“We train dogs every single day, and we only use homers probably 10 times a year,” he said.

Griffith helped get George Bosma started a few years ago. Both men are members of the local chapter of the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA).

“A guy told me, if you really want do it right, you’re gonna train your own dogs, then you’re going to need some homing pigeons,” said Bosma, a carpenter from Garretson. “It’s just cost-effective to get your own birds.”

He told Griffith he was considering starting a coop — “just considering it” — but the next thing he knew Griffith had given him some birds. Now Bosma keeps a handful of Brittany spaniels and a coop of about 60 homers.

In training his dogs, one strategy he’s used involves placing a quail in a metal cage beside the homer. Because the dog’s sense of smell is so keen, the dog will actually point on the quail though the action comes from the pigeon.

“And you still have to use wild pigeons, because eventually they have to kill something,” he said.

Unlike others whose heavy dog-training schedules don’t allow them to race their pigeons competitively, Bosma does both. That means he sometimes finds himself simultaneously working his pigeons for racing and his dogs for hunting. He acknowledged that balancing his two hobbies can be a challenge.

“You’ve got to set your priorities,” he said. “There are weekends when I’m sending my birds to races and don’t have as many as I’d like for training.”

He gets the miles on his pigeons over the summer — a well-trained homing pigeon can fly several hundred miles a day — and he reserves his best birds for races, not canine fieldwork.

“I’m not going to take birds that are worth that kind of money and take a chance on the dog getting hold of them,” he said.

Each year he stops his pigeon training around duck season, because hawks following the ducks’ migration path have been known to zero in on coops.

“Once they find your loft, they just sit there and it’s easy pickings,” he said.

In one respect, rural NAVHDA chapters like the one Griffith and Bosma belong to are lucky, said Jim Applegate, one of the organization’s directors.

Many of NAVHDA’s members are clustered in urban areas in the Upper Midwest; some trap wild pigeons from under viaducts and other places where the birds gather, but few have the space to raise their own coops.

“A lot of our people live in an area where they can’t really raise homing pigeons. ... (But) if you’re out in the country, you can set up a pigeon house and all you’ve got to do is feed them,” he said.

Griffith echoed this sentiment. Once a coop is established, the birds are pretty low-key to maintain, he said, shooing the birds out of their loft and sending them fluttering into nearby trees, a few venturing farther afield.

“The real advantage of training with pigeons is that you’re not killing anything,” he said. “It’s very pleasant to train dogs with birds that are also my pets.”


Information from: Argus Leader,

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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