Mike Spies wrote a nice piece back in early August about approaching a dog on point -- and with opening day past for just about everyone, it seems like we should probably revisit it while we're all still (perhaps a little too) excited by fall. With the distinct possibility of doing some guiding at one of our local preserves, I have thought and re-thought how I would want clients (especially those who may have very little gun experience) to treat me and my dogs so that we can all come away with a smile on our face at the end of the day.
I'll be honest and say that if you're working over pointing dogs and have a break-open gun, whether over-and-under or side-by-side, then that gun should remain broken until the bird is about to be flushed. I have a belt-and-suspenders mentality which says that gun safety catches just aren't enough insurance against an accidental shot -- and a broken gun in the field is almost as safe as it comes. And if you are working over pointing dogs, there's no need to rush maybe even anything. Personally, I close my gun only when I'm about 6' from my dog, walking in from the side. The safety catch only comes off in advance of the flush once I've passed him.
In preparation for hunt tests, or if I am running the dogs for friends to shoot, and depending on cover, I'll position the gunners roughly parallel with the dog and about 6-10' on either side. Clarify where their shooting zones are -- and especially if the birds are not flushing high, I will kneel as soon as the bird goes up. The picture here is from the VCCNE Fall Hunt Test with Ivan's Fruska on point waiting while the gunners on either side dispatch the bird (in the middle of the pic); in MH, the handler has to simulate shooting at the bird, but for safety reasons isn't permitted to shoot. For me, when hunting or training, no bird is ever shot on the ground without an explicit request to do so - and once dogs and others are secure. And no flushing bird is ever shot if the dog isn't absolutely steady.
Now I do have a slightly different approach to the gun mount than many. For me, the mount is merely a prelude to the actual shot -- in theory, at any point during the mount, I should be able to pull the trigger and hit the bird. For other folks, they carry the gun barrel high (which is nice and safe) at a port-arms -- however, when a bird flushes, they are very often bringing the barrel down as the bird flies into their sight plane requiring them to stop that motion and change direction. For safety reasons, I will walk in to flush a bird with the barrels at the lowest safe angle -- at least 2' above my dog's head in the unlikely situation that either one of them goes bonkers and decides to jump after the bird as it flushes. This means that I don't have to change direction with the barrel, and generally gives the bird enough time to get to a distance that I won't pulverise it and to a height that the dog is at no risk.
And as soon as the bird is flushed and down, I break open the gun while I send the dog to retrieve or hunt dead. I missed a second bird when we were out hunting with Brisztow Jones the other weekend, but my dog means a lot more than a hasty shot ever could. If it happens to you, mark the second bird down and hunt it up once your trusty canine retrieving machine has brought you back your first prize.
There's no need to rush. For all the adrenaline that does get flowing during a hunt, direct it at the bird once it has left the ground and reached safe cruising altitude (for you and your dogs, at least). Never let your barrels drop below waist height -- and especially if it's a pheasant, let the bird flush up and level out before pulling the trigger.