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As in life, "timing is everything."

As in life, “timing is everything.”

Just as important as what you feed is when you feed your hunting partner. There are simple mechanical reasons not to feed your dog the morning of a hunt. An empty G.I. tract doesn’t hold anything that could rattle around in there.

Try this experiment: Take off your sock (representing your dog’s stomach and intestinal track), drop your car keys (ersatz “dog food”) into it. Hold it horizontally, and the dog food will settle in the heel. Then jiggle it, swing it back and forth, whip it around a little like a dog on the hunt would. All that weight will make the sock swing, bounce up and down, possibly even twist. Veterinarians call it gastro volvulus and it is often fatal.

Your dog’s athletic performance is another concern. Studies have shown than a dog with food in its gut runs slower, is less agile, and has less stamina than one hunting on an empty stomach.

Another good reason: the gut is not using the body’s finite allotment of energy to digest food when it could be fueling active muscles that are chasing birds.

No guilt trips here, your dog’s metabolism is unlike yours. Sending your dog into the field without breakfast will have no ill effects. Unless he’s got other health problems, he won’t develop “low blood sugar,” because dogs get their version of instant energy from fat.

If you can’t resist giving Gunner something during the hunt, give him a high-fat content snack that won’t fill his belly. You can make your own, or simply offer him some of your salami sandwich (just the meat). There are plenty of commercial versions out there in tubes, droppers and blocks. The key is low volume, high fat to keep the belly as empty as possible.

You can’t go wrong offering water frequently – it keeps a dog cool as well as hydrated. Make life simple on both of you by carrying a bota (wine skin) or the modern equivalent. Teach your dog to drink from it just like you, so there is no need to drag a bowl or sacrifice your hat as a substitute.

IMG_1610I became a bird hunter because I watched my first wirehair work a field, putting up a pheasant hen after a solid point. I’d never owned a gun before, but decided if he would do that for me, the least I could do is shoot the bird for him. Little did I know that was the start of a (late) life-long series of dazzling performances by a series of magical dogs I was privileged to observe. Lucky for me, the relationship continues, and the awe I felt from that first point returns every time I send a dog into the field.

Any excuse for sharing time with a dog is legitimate. But for me, it is clear: we become a team linked by DNA, a modern version of a prehistoric wolf pack coursing the uplands for sustenance – literal and emotional.

In the digital age we pretend to communicate with gadgets. The talking we do at each other via smartphone is shallow, ephemeral and self-centered. Contrast that with the deep genetic link between hunters. Words are unnecessary when instinct guides predators linked by common purpose.

I’m honored when my dogs invite me to share this primitive thrill, accepting me as equal, calling on the most basic of instincts to feed our pack and sustain our souls. We are one, thinking and acting as a single being with a single goal, to find prey. The act is violent and primitive, ugly and beautiful, the most complicated transaction in the universe: lives taking life to sustain life.

Neither of us will starve if we aren’t successful in the common definition of the term. The size of our bag is a sidebar to a bigger story: flow of adrenaline, deep passion, panting and slobber, the tang of sage and if we are lucky, the coppery smell of blood.

Our dogs tolerate human missteps and bad shots. They put up with poor noses and slow, creaky joints in their human packmate. At the end of the day they ask little except a warm place to sleep near their hunting companion, forgiving missed shots and misplaced anger.

We should be flattered

Keep it on the Q.T. and he won't hold it against you.

Keep it on the Q.T. and he won’t hold it against you.

I like to maintain a positive relationship with my wife, friends, co-workers, and my dogs. Like the rest of them, my guys don’t appreciate “constructive criticism” from me. So I let them think it’s coming from somewhere else.

Sure, some times the “master” has to assert himself over the dog. But most times, you simply want him to do – or not do – certain things at certain times. Why not let your training tools take the blame?

The leash keeps Buddy at heel, not my constant haranguing. A checkcord becomes the bad guy when Buddy doesn’t “whoa.” With both, avoid eye contact as you yank for an extra dose of depersonalizing.

When he’s distracted, the tone feature on the electric collar breaks his train of thought and I’m not the party pooper. And in rare cases, the e-collar’s stimulation comes from out of nowhere, not from me! I even try to hide my hand while holding the e-collar transmitter.

With this strategy, at the end of the day we’re still friends, and plenty of learning has taken place. Isn’t that what counts?

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Pay attention to him, and score more often.

I was recently reminded of how working with our dogs, thinking like they think, can produce better shooting from us. In South Dakota, a less-experienced companion was so nervous (or was he dazzled at my dog’s performance?) the ringneck had almost five minutes to fly wild or scoot out from under the point. This guy snuck, skulked, minced and tiptoed over 100 yards – it seemed to take eons for him to flush the dang bird!

The rest of us were going batty, urging him to step on it. I was hoarse from yelling across the stubble. My dog stood on trembling legs, eyes bugging out as he searched for someone, anyone, to push that bird into the air. Luckily the pheasant held and the outcome was fatal for him.

Sure, that situation was the exception. But the lesson was clear: ignoring your dog’s critical role might negatively affect your shot. Consider these tips next time you’re lucky enough to find your dog locked up on a bird:

  1. To ensure a safe, sure shot, ensure a solid point, and a bird that holds still rather than a scampering off unscathed, be punctual. Once your dog stands the bird, walk in with alacrity. The longer you dawdle or admire his stunning good looks, or take photos, the greater the chance a bird will flush wild, run off or the dog will do the flushing for you.
  1. Then, assert yourself. Over many years in many fields one thing is clear: both birds and dogs hold better when the gunner moves with confidence. Once your dog shows you the bird, stride right in and everyone will likely do what’s expected of them. This is the time to show you are in charge. Be confident.
  1. Choose your approach route with care to maximize your chance at a solid, killing shot. Swing wide around the dog and you’ll cut off one of the bird’s escape routes. Two gunners performing a pincer movement means even fewer bolt-holes for a cunning rooster more inclined to sprint than fly. If you can move to the front and circle back so the bird is between you and the dog there’s a good chance it will fly, not run.
  1. Flanking your dog also minimizes his chance of breaking point … one less thing to worry about when you should be preparing for a flush and a shot. “Allelomimetic behavior” is a highfalutin’ word for that flock of birds that jinks in unison, or pair of wolves trotting in parallel. Sauntering close alongside a pointing dog is an invitation to follow you into the flush – that’s how we teach “heel,” after all.

Okay, so you hunt a spaniel or retriever in the uplands. You could still apply many of the same principals:

  1. Focus on the dog, not the puffy clouds or a deconstruct of last night’s game. Stick as close as possible to your hound, and look for the “tells” that indicate he’s getting birdy. Be as ready as you can be for a shot.
  2. Use your “hup” command (you DID train for that, right?). It might instill confidence in the dog … you’re in charge, a situation he’s accustomed to, and comfortable in.
  3. When you sense your dog’s birdiness, start maneuvering for a safe shot. Use your peripheral vision to suss out birds’ likely escape routes. Set up as best you can for a shot in that direction. As with pointers, two hunters working in sync can stage-manage a bird’s flight to some degree. Now’s the time to talk to each other.

Shorthair, Lab, Small Munsterlander, Boykin, whatever breed you’re running these days, keeping your eye on the dog and not on your smart phone should put you in a better place, literally and figuratively … when it comes to shooting.

The ties that bind

Find great tethers in the hardware store's key department.

Find great tethers in the hardware store’s key department.

If you’re hunting along that ridge … you know, where the dead cow has been reduced to a bone pile … alongside the only gravel state highway, in that big boulder field and just south of that town, population 9 … well, watch for my e-collar transmitter. I left it there after taking a couple photos of me and my buddy on a chukar hunt.

That transmitter was the proverbial final straw and my camel’s back broke on that desolate desert slope. Like a compass, a whistle, and (almost) the camera I used for those pictures, so much of my gear is small and unnaturally mobile when it shouldn’t be. Maybe yours is too. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to lose any more of it.

Now I tie everything to me or my hunting vest. Loops, belts, D-rings, zipper pulls, there are plenty of anchor points. And these days, lanyards, cord and retractors of all sorts are available … often free for the asking if you’re willing to sport someone’s logo.

You’d be surprised how often in the heat of the hunt you literally drop everything. Okay, maybe you don’t, but I do. Every third or fourth training session, I’ll be walking along and something will bump against my leg. Sometimes, it’s a loyal dog, checking in. More often it’s a collar transmitter hanging from its lifeline … which is way better than buried in some clump of brush, lost to the ages.

At a recent training day I spent almost an hour searching the tall grass for a bird launcher control. On a grouse hunt, a GPS grew legs and escaped until a friend stepped on it. Once, one of my dogs actually sniffed up a pair of shooting glasses that had tumbled from my vest pocket.

Now, the glasses are leashed around my neck every time I lace up my boots. My training pistol has a line that goes through a belt loop. Whistles dangle around my neck, and water bottles are held fast by  a carabiner.

Yes, at times I can look like the receiving end of one of those old-time telephone switchboards, cords sprouting all over me. But most are easily managed, slack tucked into pockets until that tool is utilized. A couple hunts and you’ll work out the logistics too.

Maybe your mother told you what mine told me: you’d lose your head if it wasn’t screwed on. Tether it, and she’ll be happier and so will you.  And you won’t spend the better part of a morning on your hands and knees when you should be roaming the hills or prairie behind your dog.

Three Devils Yankee's Buddy ... age 11.

Three Devils Yankee’s Buddy … age 11.

Thank you for eleven years of wonderment and adventure. Without you, I wouldn’t have gone so many of the places we’ve hunted. You were the original star of our TV show, and are still going strong on the small screen and in the field.

Age has slowed your body but not your spirit. You are a true hunter and that spirit has become mine. Seventy-seven human years … wow. I hope to be as optimistic, energetic and wide-eyed at your age!

We’ve seen dozens of states, joined hundreds of dogs and people in the field, but none have touched  my soul like you have. Tolerant of children, strangers, your grand nephew and your running mate Corgi, you are a fine representative of your breed.

You politely endure the poking of vet techs, prodding of doctors, and the aches and pains of “senior dogness.” Your beard is thinner, your gait more deliberate. You’re happy with an hour in the field and a soft bed after.

A late morning, a couch-potato evening, plenty of sunbathing in between … you deserve the life usually reserved for vacationers.

You’ve earned it.

Manny as tim conwayThose crossed front legs say it all. You are unflappable, Manny. At ten weeks old on the vet’s table, you laid down, crossed your forelegs and surveyed your new domain. In the crate this morning it’s how I found you.

You knew I’d soon open the door with a creak and turn you loose on the limitless prairie. You were polite enough to let me open your great uncle’s box first and let him stretch his soon-to-be eleven-year-old legs. You are good in that way. For a while.

So you’ve learned a variant of patience in five years.You’ve taught me that as well.

You’ve roamed the woods, prairies, scablands and cultivated fields of a dozen states. Covered more miles each season than most dogs do in a life. And you’re always ready for more.  You’ve learned that my lacing tall boots and the smell of Hoppe’s #9 means birds, and that a long drive always means hunting at the end – at least in your book.

You’ve brought me woodcock and ruffies from Wisconsin, ringnecks in six different states. You are magic on valley quail, and thankfully, an eager hill climber for elusive chukars. Bobwhites, sharptails, Huns … you have gently delivered them all to my waiting hand.

You’ve panted through tules, trembled on icy bluffs, and given your all in more habitats than I can count, but by morning you are up and at ’em, ready for another day on anything that flies.  In the meanwhile, you’ll roll over and snore. Loudly.

Our first five years together were a rural-road’s-worth of ups and downs, some deep dips and towering peaks. But we made it, and you’ve become a fine bird dog in spite of your owner’s mis-steps.

Where you got your positive attitude and hopeful lust for doggy life, I’ll never know. I’m just grateful you have it, because it rubs off on me. To some, it looks more like bafflement (that beard helps), but I know deep inside it’s wonder … at the entire world, but especially at anything with feathers.

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