The idea that dogs and bird watching could go together is sort of like the idea that chocolate and peanut butter could go together. One's salty and one's sweet, one's soft and one's hard, both are delicious... but, wait. You probably didn't come here to read about dessert. You want to know what kind of a crazy person would take her dogs bird watching with her. Dogs love to be outdoors, get exercise and see the humans in their lives happy. Bird watching is outdoors, hiking to birding locations is exercise and watching feathered creatures usually makes humans happy. So it certainly seems that dogs and bird watching could indeed go together like chocolate and peanut butter.
Birding isn't for all dogs but is easy to train the skills needed for your dog to wait quietly while you gaze into the trees. Patiently waiting is a dog skill that isn't just useful for birding but for travel and multitudes of other social situations. Wilhelm, Brychwyn and Huxley all began learning to "hang out" on their leashes in their puppy kindergarten classes. Obviously, just waiting nearby while I do whatever gets more difficult in higher distraction environments. So start slow. Inside your house, treat your dog for just hanging our near you with a loose leash. Give lots of treats!* Next, try loose leash hanging out at the house of a friend or family member. Be sure your dog has mastered patiently waiting near you in controlled environments before you up the ante to uncontrolled environments, like out in public or outdoors. Continue to give your dog a lot of treats just for hanging out politely near you especially if you are testing out higher distraction environments. I prefer not to keep track of formal "stay" commands while I am talking with a neighbor, eating
The quietly part of hanging out can be a bit more difficult for a lot of dogs especially in high distraction environments, like around birds. Training a "quiet" is also a life skill that can benefit your dog beyond seeking out feathered critters on the beach. To train your dog "quiet," you should first train your dog "speak." For most dogs, training "speak" is as simple as getting your dog excited about a toy or treat and rewarding the "speak." Once your dog knows "speak," as soon as your dog stops the "speak," reward the "quiet." Go very slowly with training "quiet" and only use the command in low distraction, controlled situations until you can work your way up to higher distraction, less controlled environments. Your dog will not learn the command if you're repeatedly saying "quiet" to a wildly barking dog. In fact, your dog will likely learn the opposite of the word. I have also taught Wilhelm, Brychwyn and Huxley a "quiet" hand signal so I can convey to them the need for silence when a bird is close by.
If you would like to try birding with your fit dog, here's some important rules to follow:
- Always, always, always keep your dog on a leash. I could go on and on about all of the very obvious reasons for this but instead I will just say it again: always keep your dog on a leash.
- Make sure the area you are going bird watching in is dog friendly. Most wildlife refuges, which are great birding spots, do not allow dogs. We often find dog friendly trails near wildlife refuges and have had wonderful species spotting luck. And even if no leashes are required, keep your dog on a leash!
- Give other birders a lot of space. It has been my experience that most birders are animal lovers and are happy to see the dogs on the trail or in a hide but this isn't always the case. Many birders think the dogs will frighten the birds (which has never been my experience) so keep a distance that allows others to continue to enjoy their birding (and prove them wrong about the dogs scaring away the birds.) We usually travel to lesser known and less popular birding areas. Most of these areas require a long or difficult hike in which means you'll have a tired dog while you look and listen for birds.
- Come equipped: Bring treats (to reward good behavior,) water and a first aid kit for your dog. I highly recommend birding with ahands-free leash so you have both hands to hold your binoculars. If you are planning to wait in one spot or a hide for a while, you might want to pack a light blanket or something for your dog to rest on. Make sure that you and your dog are both dressed for safety especially if there is hunting in or near the area you are bird watching.
Technology has made taking up birding easy. There are a lot of smart phone birding apps available (I use Audubon) and there are even some bird watching groups with regional bird trail apps. I have the Washington State Audubon Society Birding Trail app on my smart phone. Other Cascadian birding information is available at Oregon Birding Trails, Guide to Idaho Birding Trail, Birding in British Columbia, Montana Audubon and Juneau Audubon. Find a North American birding trail near you at the American Birding Associations website or simply by searching "birding trail [your areas name.]"
Dogs always enjoy being outdoors. They may not care whether or not their glance into the bushes helped you spot a rare thrush but they will know they have pleased you. Birding with my dogs is just another reason to get us all outdoors, get in fit dog time and enjoy the world side by side. Similar to how cocoa beans and peanuts seemed to be grown to be in tandem, I believe appreciating nature is what humans and canines do best together.