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Shhhh! Results of a quieter, more observant human.

Shhhh! Results of a quieter, more observant human – and dog.

I think we all agree, the basic idea is to shoot birds over your dog’s point. But if you sound like the circus coming to town, you’ll scare away every bird in the county. Game birds may not be as spooky as whitetails (sharptailed grouse might get close), but they are still very cognizant of predators and the sounds they make. So stuff a sock in it.

I’ve snuck within inches of birds by treading more carefully and taking the jingle-jangles off the dog’s collar. Even though I own a dozen e-collars most times I’ll go unplugged. I try to ghost my way through brush, not bulldoze it down. Commands are by hand, not voice or whistle. My footfalls are those of an elk hunter, not a linebacker.

Sure, I like Monday-morning quarterbacking yesterday’s game as much as the next guy, but when my mouth is shut, my eyes seem to open wider. I enjoy more of the dog work, catch on quicker to his birdiness, savor the scenery and shoot more birds.

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Wait for it ... until well after the hunt, that is.

Wait for it … until well after the hunt, that is.

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.

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Intense. Loyal. You're the man.

Intense. Loyal. You’re the man.

Well, you are ten years old, at least chronologically.

Your muzzle is grayer, your gait slower. At times, there’s a hitch in your getalong. Luckily, you can’t say the same about me because you can’t talk.

Based on your behavior, I’d consider you a mere puppy – levitating, bouncing, hopping, barely containing your squeals of delight. You are effervescent, hoping it’s time for birds, a hell-bent streak through the desert, or maybe just coffee on the couch.

But there’s also anxiety in your world. You worry about my leaving, or who’s going to hunt first. There is concern in your eyes when the door opens and you’re not invited to race outside, or when you’re outside, not allowed in. Thank goodness for Penny the Corgi, your apprentice. She calms you with an ear lick, doleful eyes aimed your way. Or she pulls on your lip, mouths your elbow, yips in invitation to – what? Puppy mojo washes over you, magically stealing back the years that have taken their toll.

I hope that my touch, my soothing words, calm you too.

At night, we exchange moans lying on the couch together, fluently communicating in the secret language of the tired, old and sore. We share stone bruises and scratches, painkillers and sometimes, dinner. But in the morning, you are ready for action so I will be too.

Your grand nephew Manny now looks to you with kind eyes, finally secure in his own skin and ready to be a member of the pack. You might even hunt together this fall.

You sleep deeply, chasing rabbits with muted howls. I stir in the night, wishing I was following. In the morning we’ll foray into the desert, intent on following our dreams.

What do you want for your birthday, Buddy? If you wished for a whole bag of food, rawhide bones, or a fluffier bed I’d rush out today, credit card in hand. Luckily, we agree that the perfect birthday gift is a long drive, lunch in a small town café, camp where the only light is from stars, and waking to a glorious day in the field full of finds and flushes.

I promise a season-full this fall. Happy birthday.

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Remember in the movie “Cool Hand Luke,” where the sneering, brutal prison warden says to Paul Newman’s character “what we have here is a failure to communicate?” It’s a new low in not getting what either of them want, simply because they can’t – or don’t want to – make their respective points clearly.

When it comes to your dog, being clear and concise is critical to success. If your dog understands precisely what you want from him, he will be more likely to perform well in the field, in the yard and in your home. If you know what your dog needs, you can help him better understand you.

Better performance starts with better communication

Better performance starts with better communication

I give seminars and talks at events all over the country, and a recent talk at Pheasant Fest generated some spirited feedback and fascinating stories of other dog owners’ trials, tribulations and triumphs. The most intriguing discussion in the aisle had to do with which words to use for which commands, and why. Here’s my take:

In my mind simple is better. According to the U.S. Army, your pup could conceivably understand over 200 different commands. But not at my house. I give my dogs easy to yell names . . . one or two syllables. That way, they learn their unique signal faster. Furthermore …

Sound-alike conflicts are a major bugaboo. Many of our commands can sound like names. Call your setter “Beau,” and he might “whoa” when you want him to hunt on. Rover sounds like “over,” a common command among retriever handlers. And “no” sounds like Beau or whoa, adding to the confusion.

I strive for distinctive words for each desired action. Momma dog uses “aagh” when she disapproves . . . why not take advantage of genetics and use it too? (It may be academic. At our house, most dogs’ first names end up being “goddammit,” at least early in their careers.)

“Here” is easier to yell than “come.” But “heel” and “here” sound the same, so my “heel” command is “walk.” I don’t use “over” when I want my dog to change direction, I use “way” as the command, often accompanied by a hand signal. My release command can’t be “okay,” or there’ll be more confusion. And he might think I’m asking him to hold still … “stay.”  ”Alright” is safe and sounds like nothing else in the lexicon.

I have a theory that most times, dogs simply hear the vowel and ignore the consonants. Testing this theory on Buddy probably doesn’t prove much besides I’m a bad trainer, but it seems to ring true. At Pheasant Fest, one of my new friends disputes this theory and offers various command words and tricky situations where he has tested his dogs and they have learned the difference. More power to ya, Andy. But as I said, for me and Buddy at least, simple is better.

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Another good job.

Another good job.

Today is your fourth birthday, Manny. And as many have said before, that’s about when a wirehair actually matures enough to be a good hunting partner. Actually, you’ve been a good hunter since your first season – not disciplined, untrained – but still, a joy to watch.

Lately, though, it is clear you have evolved into a strong bird dog. “Honest,” as some put it. Maybe this year we’ll find a spot on the calendar for our NAVHDA Utility Test, which you are undoubtedly ready for.

You’ve matured in important ways. You follow direction well. You handle birds right. You’re tolerant of your great-uncle Buddy, almost ambivalent (and that’s a good thing).

In other ways you’re still a pup. Your look at life is energized, a wide-eyed innocence that makes every day, every bird a pleasant surprise. Bird contact starts with a high-speed tail wag, and I know when it stops, so will you … holding as long as I need. And that’s a good thing too.

Your fans have watched you grow up on the show, I hope they‘ve learned as much as I have from training you. Maybe their dogs benefited as a result.

When I picked you up at ten weeks, your dark face and darker coat stunned me. I’ve learned to appreciate it – unique, easy care and just different enough from most wirehairs to remind me that you are a special dog.

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