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Ho ho ho.

Ho ho ho.

Before New Year’s Day, there’s another holiday. We hope, we wish, we make lists and check them twice, and it all culminates with the requisite gift-giving and receiving.

But as we discussed a while ago, our hunting life – and mental calendar – marches to a different drummer.  So if we’re going to make hunting-season new year’s resolutions, we might also make a “Christmas” list. It’s not very long around here, but it is full of important items …

A functional tether for my collar transmitter and GPS. Wicking underwear that doesn’t stink after a couple washings.

A good hatch. No more forest fires. Healthy dogs. Friends I haven’t met yet but will, in a diner somewhere in pheasant country. Cool weather when the dogs are on the ground,  but warm enough to hang around a campfire at night.

That’s the extent of it. What’s on your list?

Food, praise, your companionship or birds ... every dog has a motivator

Food, praise, your companionship or birds … every dog has a motivator

“Never give away a bowl of dog food.”

That’s what a grizzled old trainer said, almost off-hand, decades ago. Being a bit slow on the uptake, I asked what he’d meant with that tossed-away comment. His explanation drove home the best bit of advice I’ve ever been given: dogs expect something for everything they do … or don’t do.

Your hunting partner is learning all the time. If their DNA contains anything, it holds the chromosome for cause and effect. Deep in their canine genetic legacy is an innate ability to tie actions with consequences. Scramble more aggressively, get more mother’s milk. Run faster and catch more dinner. Fight hardest, and earn the chance to reproduce.

These fundamentals guide a dog’s entire existence. If he gets nothing for his efforts, he’s probably not going to do it again. If he does, he’ll repeat the behavior. When he does it for food or praise, a bird or even your companionship, it becomes a training strategy.  That observation still guides my training today.

Have you been enlightened?What was that advice?

Who shared their wisdom with you, and why? Most importantly, what did you do with that hard-won knowledge?

The best shot I ever made

Yep, right about here.

Yep, right about here.

Having one leg longer than the other is said to help you when chukar hunting. You’re often side-hilling a steep incline, the ground covered with loose rock. You’ve burned lungs and legs getting there, because the devil birds run up the hill, then fly down again. So you must as well.

The covey scrambled up a gully after watering in the trickle of creek at the bottom of the draw. We hadn’t seen enough to take a pass on this bunch, so up I went.

When the birds blew like a party popper at midnight, I was still trying to find a place for my left foot. As they scattered  above me, I spun on my right foot (conveniently perched on a round-bottomed rock) and pointed toward the lead bird, with hope propelling my gun mount.

As you probably guessed, recoil, rock and gravity combined. But as I went ass-over-teakettle I saw the bird stutter, spin, tower up, then drop straight down. By the time I scraped the gravel off my face, Buddy was back with the trophy, gently dropping it at my feet.

That was my best shot – the most memorable, to date at least. What was yours? Or your strangest, luckiest, funniest outcome … you do have one, don’t you?

This one, easy. Frozen, not so much.

This one, easy. Frozen, not so much.

Ice cream headache. Did you ever think your dog might have one?

If you train with frozen birds, he might. He’ll never admit it, but the outward manifestation might be lousy retrieves. Thanks pro trainer Larry Lee, for pointing out the obvious – to everyone, apparently, but me. I was lamenting the goofy way Manny would approach a frozen pigeon, then daintily pick it up by a wing and drag it back, sort of.

It was Larry who asked what I would do in a similar situation.  I pondered that. Now, so will you: open the freezer, pull out an ice cube and hold it between your teeth for oh, say the length of a 200-yard retrieve.

It’s no wonder Manny was less than enthusiastic. So was I. Carrying a pigeon by one wing isn’t easy.

More of this please ...

More of this please …

The traditional version comes at the wrong time of year. We are putting things away and reminiscing about past months when we are encouraged to reveal our hopes for the coming 12 months. Thanksgiving, Christmas, then poof! There they are, at the bitter end of our favorite time of year.

Instead, my resolution is to make resolutions for our “new year,” Opening Day. Record my dreams and dreads wrapped in blaze orange and dog hair in the weeks leading up to the fresh season. They started on closing day and marinated until the opener was an actual, real date on the new calendar circled in red. Then, aspirations for shooting, desires for favorite coverts and of course, miracles for our dogs are voiced over beers (or in our heads).

Mine? Trivial, some might say. Steadiness from Manny on covey flushes. Stamina from 10-year-old Buddy. New places and friends in the field. Some green among the thousands of acres of ash and soot here in the West. And hope, for a safe season, strong legs, happy dogs.

What are yours?

Acoustics and obedience

Monolith … and echo chamber

Whistle blasts, yells, nothing was getting Buddy back to me. It looked like he was actually running away – each command got the opposite reaction from what I wanted.

One more toodle on the whistle and the echo hit me in the face, the problem now quite obvious. Sound waves left my mouth, traveled the hot dry canyon and bounced off the massive basalt walls. That’s what Buddy heard. No wonder he streaked away – he was eagerly trying to please me but headed for the nearer source of the command – the rock, not me.

Wow, that sure changed the way I look at (er, hear) dog commands. Further experimentation showed that knolls, thick forest, even water will all affect what your dog hears, and where he thinks that sound is coming from. It’s a wonder they ever come back to us!

These days I’ll sometimes turn and call or whistle in the opposite direction from my dog so the original sound – and any echoes – are both coming from the vector I want him to take. Other times, lower volume precludes an echo. By default, my dogs have learned that a beep from their collar means the same as “here,” so that works also.

Now that I know this, my dogs seem to be much more obedient.

So, what’s the best approach for you, the bird, and Buddy?

Here’s a lesson I’m learning almost weekly this time of year. Maybe you, too. You trudge up the hill to find your dog on point. He’s steady. Birds cooperative. Until you take over, that is.

Once he’s pinned a bird, I try to help Buddy do a great job handling it. I approach from at least an oblique angle, not striding right past. He’s less likely to break point. If I can, I get birds to hold instead of run by squeezing them between Buddy and me.

Want another reason to approach your dog from the front? He’s not right under the muzzle blast and it’s deafening effect. That way, he’ll have one less excuse for not hearing my commands. Even when I miss. Which is often.

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