Robert Milner’s Flight Pen Retriever Training Method


There are many ways to develop a calm, focused retriever, but Robert Milner of Duckhill Kennel has a unique method. (Photo courtesy of Robert Milner)

Waterfowlers wince when their labs stop to retrieve a downed mallard while another herd makes its final approach, or worse yet, rushes in before prey is in range. This is what makes stability so valuable in hunting dogs. There are many ways to develop a calm and focused retriever, but Robert Milner of Duckhill Kennel has a method that is unique. Milner works his labs in flight enclosures laden with birds. Although this method is unconventional in America, it is common in the UK for a reason: it works.

A thinking hunting dog

“The first time I saw a trained dog in a flying pen was in England over 30 years ago,” said Milner, the Eukanuba professional trainer, said. “I was working with Labs Robin Watson of Tibea Gun Dogs and Golden Retrievers with the late June Atkinson of Holloway Kennels. What struck me most was how the two developed retrievers capable of making independent decisions to retrieve an injured duck while running through a field full of live pheasants. For me, stability means a dog that is in control and focused on the task at hand. To reach this level of discernment, dogs must be able to figure things out on their own. It is best to cultivate this behavior when they are a puppy.

The flight pen

“The British use multi-acre flight enclosures per 1,000 birds,” Milner said. “The side fences of the paddock are chicken wire, they’re about six feet high and they have a warm bottom. Electricity at ground level keeps predators away, and as the UK has few avian predators, their enclosures are left open.”

Before the birds are released into the enclosures, their wing feathers are clipped so that they cannot fly away. Add regular feeding and watering and the birds associate the enclosure with their roosting site. Those wing feathers will grow back in a few weeks, and when they do, the ducks, pheasants and grouse will fly out of the enclosure. After spending their day in the wild, the majority of birds return to the enclosure at night. Birds that do not return are rounded up with retrievers, and this training technique is called “bringing the birds in”. It’s like a collie herding sheep.

Milner’s Double Barrel Bird Enclosure

Milner has two bird pens, one for young dogs and one for puppies. “The enclosures are similar, with the puppy enclosure being smaller in size. I mostly followed the UK model to save extra juice at the bottom to keep raccoons out. I also added a two inch nylon netting top to keep hawks and owls away. I then placed 8 foot high stakes every 30 feet or so. These stakes elevate the net so handlers can comfortably walk around the enclosure while working with the dogs. This extra height also gives the birds more airspace in which to fly.

The inside of the pen looks like a natural environment. There is a spring-fed pond in which Milner has planted duckweed, knotweed, and rice. He also planted peas, beans, millet, and Bermuda coastal grass. “I like Bermuda grass as a cover crop,” he said. “It’s a perennial with a strong root system and is durable enough to withstand the pressure of regular dog training. I’ve added chicken coop tunnels used by delta waterfowl in their grassland conservation projects for resting places. The birds use them for nesting in the spring, which means I have a new stock of birds every year. It’s a big help in reducing my bird costs.

Milner has guinea fowl and ducks in his puppy pen. Its large enclosure is home to a wider variety of birds, including ducks, guineas, pheasants, geese and a few peacocks. Variety is important for puppies and young dogs for two reasons. Birds look and behave differently, and this introduction is important for hunters targeting different species.

labrador retriever puppies with chickens
Robert Milner adds hen rolls for ducks to breed, ensuring there is never a shortage of birds for flight pen training. (Photo courtesy of Robert Milner)

Flight Pen Training Time

When her puppies are six weeks old, Milner introduces them to the birds in the small enclosure. “The sight and smell of birds helps puppies develop relaxed confidence,” he said. “I want puppies to learn that birds aren’t dangerous, and when they’re relaxed and confident around live birds, they won’t get excited or nervous when blindsided by a large flock of ducks flying by. Puppies who associate live birds with the natural environment see them as part of their normal daily life.Puppies or dogs who don’t see many birds get excited, and when excited, they lose concentration or misbehave.

Around the same time, Milner worked on teaching puppies his five critical behaviors. These five critical behaviors are the skills he wishes all retrievers had. He will begin this training at six weeks of age and continue until the behavior is automatic. “Automation means the behavior is a natural response,” he said. “The dog doesn’t have to think about it, he just does it.

These five behaviors are:

• Recall

• Hand delivery

• Sit and stay

• Memory retrieval to know where the bumper/bird fell without being able to see it.

• Stop whistle—and search for a command.

Advanced training in the large dog enclosure

When the pup has mastered the five critical behaviors, Milner introduces the pup to the large pen. “I watch as many different types of birds as possible to increase the possibility of distraction,” he said. “I expect the pup to stay on task despite the fact that there are walking and flying birds. I introduce them slowly and in a controlled manner. foot and then walk them around the enclosure.While the birds are running or flying, I will calmly and quietly talk to the puppy and ask him to hold on to the foot.Once the puppy has shown calm demeanor, I will move on to another task like sit and stay I will stand next to the pup while another trainer walks around the pen rinsing the birds I want to make sure the pup stays seated in the middle of this distraction Another task is to toss bumpers into the middle of a group of live birds and send the pup to retrieve, I expect them to come back with the bumper without chasing the birds. they can stay focused in the pen, they will have no problem staying seated s in a store on opening day when many ducks will be flocking. They are conditioned to this kind of excitement and it has become normal behavior. They also know that they will be rewarded with a fetch if they ignore live birds that they won’t be able to catch anyway.

labrador retriever puppies with chickens
Robert Milner’s flight pen retriever training method encourages puppies to develop stability in the face of some very attractive distractions. (Photo courtesy of Robert Milner)

Milner says a similar technique is used in the UK when developing foxhounds. As foxes encounter many different game during a chase, the pack needs discernment to stay focused on the fox. Dog handlers introduce fox puppies to a wide variety of animals. They will walk the puppies through cattle pens, horse corrals, sheep, goats and birds.

If you’re looking to train your retriever in a bird enclosure and you have plenty of land, consider building your own enclosure. Another option is to consider training in a bird enclosure during a commercial hunting operation. Try Milner’s Bird Enclosure. This is another innovative method for developing calm, focused and deliberate dogs.


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