Starts on Pursuit Jan. 2.

Starts on Pursuit Jan. 2.

Get ready for Wingshooting USA on PURSUIT CHANNEL. Starting Saturday, Jan. 2, watch Dish Network (Ch. 393 “HUNT”) and DirecTV (Ch. 604 “PRST”) Saturdays at 9:30 p.m. eastern time for an entire six-month season.

What a line-up we’ve got, from a South Dakota hunt with seven wirehairs to a “real time” episode shot and aired without cuts or editing tricks. We travel from Florida to Kansas, Alabama to Minnesota. You’ll join us on hunts for ruffed grouse, bobwhites, chukars, Huns and plenty of ringnecks. Dog breeds? Everything from German Wirehaired Pointers to cocker spaniels, Labs to shorthairs.

Tune in – or DVR the show – every week. Bonus broadcast times and days to be announced soon.

Win a hunting trip to Kansas, YETI cooler, or any number of other prizes, learn from our “Buddy & Me” dog training tips, expert advice and even game bird recipes … all on Wingshooting USA starting Jan. 2 on PURSUIT.

KatiLike a Boy Scout, I prefer to be prepared when I give a command to my dog. If he’s also prepared, things generally go better for both of us. Often, preparation is simply the elimination of distractions more tempting than the command you’re about to give. If you believe, as I do, that dogs think – and act – linearly, in many cases, preparation means minimizing physical impediments.

When calling my dog to me, I wait until there is nothing blocking his route. Trees, shrubs, people, fence, other dogs, all increase the chance of distraction and his losing track of the original command and destination. Same for retrieves – a straight return route is the least distracting. You two can make eye contact, he’s literally focused on the end game.

Want your pup to power into his crate at night? Get everything out of the way first, from newspapers on the floor to your favorite recliner. Even another human making eye contact can cause Fido to veer off course. As a young dog masters kindergarten and you want to challenge him, adding physical as well as mental distractions hones their performance. But in the early stages of training any skill, less (distraction) is more (mastery).

Likewise, it helps in the early stages of training to go with the flow. A dog that is running in your direction is a good candidate for a “come” command. With young dogs, that’s exactly when not to deliver a “whoa.” Besides confusing him, you’re fighting momentum. Conversely, your odds of getting a half-trained dog that is racing away from you to reverse field and “come” are pretty sketchy.

Does their different way of thinking mean we should dumb down our dogs’ training? That wouldn’t be my choice of words. Rather, put yourself in his place, literally, imagine what he is seeing, reacting to, anticipating. Direct or correct accordingly. If you watch your dog carefully, you can often pre-empt him from doing the bad stuff, and guide him to do the good stuff simply by better understanding his linear – and literal – thought process.

Buddy point whites ranchAn old trainer once said “never give away a bowl of dog food.” I follow that advice religiously to this day because it helps my dogs be better hunters and citizens.

My dogs earn every speck of praise, edible or verbal. I’m constantly providing positive feedback when they deserve it. But an unearned treat or verbal reward does nobody good. It lowers the bar, sets back any progress you’ve made, cheapens the handler-dog transaction.

It starts with dinner time. Lucky for the neighbors, my wirehairs don’t have to sing for their supper. But they do whoa for it. Treats, from dog biscuits to water, are doled out for coming when called or doing a job well. Even verbal or physical praise is earned – phony “good boys” only mislead a dog from the real work at hand and water down the value of his work.

“One step at a time” is more than a 12-step program’s bumper-sticker. It’s a mantra for teaching complex skills to my dogs.

Virtually everything we ask of our dogs can be broken into a series of small skills, each one leading to the next. We don’t move ahead until the preceding skill is mastered.

For instance, a retrieve is many bits, assembled into a (hopefully reliable) whole: go out, pick up bird, turn around, return directly to me. Hold until commanded to release. Stay until told to resume hunting. Whew!

Drill, praise or correct each step. Then link it to the next. Use the same command word for the entire sequence, to avoid confusion on both dog and human’s part.

“Whoa” requires comprehension and mastery of the basic command, then further mastery through distractions, to rock steadiness anywhere, any time. It’s easy on the training table. Somewhere else, maybe not. So take him to the front yard when he’s ready. Add another dog and you might have to go back to basics.

Add the sight or smell of bird, and more conditioning is required. Taking the lead off or adding hand signals are other steps to be re-introduced at each level.

Sometimes, it’s back to Square One in the yard. Other times, a step or two back is all it takes. If a dog has been away from a particular skill for a while, my first go-round with him starts on the training table to ensure perfect execution.

Dogs learn gradually, in pieces. Once I break the skill into those pieces, we’re both happier.

Postscript: when I was a musician, I learned the hardest material from back to front, especially if we were required to memorize it. Starting with the grand finale and working backward in a training sequence means it only gets easier for your dog as you progress through the stages, all the way to “good boy.”

Sometimes it’s okay to spill


I promise to tell … sometimes

Fun, camaraderie, fellowship reward a sharing of “secret spots”

Most self-respecting hunters would rather give you their automatic teller machine’s PIN than put you in one of their secret spots. Here in the west where most of those spots are on public land, honey holes are as well-guarded as a bottle of 18-year-old single malt. Hey, it’s not selfish, it’s self-preservation.

Or is it? I recently learned a lesson that reminded me what goes around often does come around.

I’d invited a new friend to explore a patch of high desert that had intrigued me for 15 years. Some day, I’d stop at that old ranch and walk the wagon roads, see what was over that ridge. That some day was today, and David was willing to join me. I’d convinced him to rise before the sun with an offer to hunt one of my (shhhh!) secret, tried-and-true quail spots should the new place be a bust. Sure, taking him was a risk if you buy into the what’s-mine-is-mine philosophy of covert hoarders. I didn’t then and now have another reason not to.

The long drive was shortened by friendly banter – two former teachers now deep into dogs (which are better behaved than any school kid, we agreed). David was new to the region, seemed like the type to appreciate the magic spell it casts. Gracious and appreciative, he was shaping up into the ideal initiate to the confidential covert I had up my sleeve.

But before the first thermos of coffee was drained, David spilled his own bag of beans.

Did I know that spot, south of this place, but east of that other place? Yep, I did. Passed it regularly on my way to another classified hunting destination. Park, then walk east and south, he suggested. One of his favorite hunts since he was a teenager. Not many know about it, but now you do, he said. I made a mental note.

The dashboard thermometer read 12 degrees as shivering hands buckled a GPS collar on my four-year-old wirehair Manny. Fingertips already numbing, we joked about how short this hunt might be – we’d turn back when frostbite reached the second knuckle.

Manny didn’t seem to mind. Maybe your dog, too, is energized by cold. He bounded downhill, tongue out and smiling. He swapped ends then geared down to a skulk, nose to the ground. His scruffy muzzle tracked something delicious, weaving through humps of sage-covered lava, a methodical pace full of promise.

Two hundred yards ahead, buff colored specks against cobalt sky. Manny had found the route a chukar covey’s long march, but they were in no mood to wait for us. Within seconds another flock blossomed into the crisp desert air, still out of range.

All of a sudden, it wasn’t so cold anymore.

We followed the first bunch as it hooked around a point, typical chukar behavior. We hip-checked sagebrush and rolled ankles on lava rock in our haste, ending above a grassy flat denuded two years ago by fire. This was the covey’s landing place, and Manny was already on the job when we panted to a stop. Birds flushed in ones and twos. Flash points were all Manny could muster as he inhaled wisps of scent 50 or more yards downwind. Their “cree-cree” escape cry was a taunt.

Wild birds, uncooperative but exhilarating. Maybe they would behave better another time, in warmer weather. I was eager to show David my “happy place,” shot a compass bearing for the truck and trudged along a ridge in hopes of more accommodating valley quail 26 miles east.

A downhill glimpse stopped me mid-stride. It looked “quail-y” there: shoulder-high sage, bunchgrass, a few juniper trees and the final touch: folds in the landscape. A gully here, draw there, humps and bumps just screamed “birds.”

Warmer air rising from downslope convinced Manny, too. A short gallop over broken, lava-strewn ground and he was locked solid, quivering in anticipation. Humans moved to opposite sides of the young wirehair and a covey whirred into the brittle desert air. The one that jinked my way fell to a twisting, off-hand, lucky shot.

When Manny gently placed that bird in my outstretched hand, another surprise. In hand, the difference between valley quail and mountain quail is striking. The male valley’s (Callipepla californica) topknot drops forward, weighted by a feather “bubble.” This mountain quail (Oreortyx pictus) sported an upright feather plume. Even this color-blind, cross-dominant shooter saw other differences: mountain birds have chestnut-red breast feathers complementing bolder-striped breast plumage, and a red cheek. Valley quail display a scalloped look with their cream and black-striped breast, a black cheek in males, grey in females.

In a single shot, the morning became a Christmas gift – we knew there was something inside the bright, shiny wrapping, we just didn’t know what. The anticipation was palpable – a prospect of magical surprises ahead. Mountain birds will flock with their valley counterparts. They’ll also burble, chip and chat in habitat distinct from flatland quail, birds of a feather flocking together. Where there are quail there may be Hungarian partridge … or more chukar. We pursued, wondering what would fly next.

Manny, though, was focused, single-minded. All business. Birds in here. He drank in scent hanging heavily in the still air. His bearded muzzle next pointed straight downhill into a thicket of sage, a lone juniper tree at its apex. David and I approached from either side of the impenetrable brush.

The buzz of a mountain quail in flight is notably lower in pitch than its cousin. All I got was that audible clue, the bird peeling left toward David. His shot pierced the frosty air and the bird tumbled near the end of the grove. Manny raced for the retrieve, then slammed on the brakes, his eyes boring a hole in the base of a gnarled sagebrush trunk.

The wirehair trembled but remained staunch as I circled twice without eliciting a flush. It was worth a photo, if nothing else. As I kneeled to record Manny’s intensity, there was the delicate head plume. It was the only part of David’s first mountain quail unhidden under a tangled root, its final resting place.

Manny was soon poised at the base of another juniper, gazing up. A chestnut flash among the branches, and a bird rattled its way out the back door. Released with a tap on his head, Manny zigged left and zagged right in the tall sage. Then, he was gone.

Vanished. Quiet. Still. We held our breath, listening for clink of collar tag, panting dog or rustling brush. Anything that would assure us my dog was not hightailing it for the distant, busy highway. We tip-toed uphill and down a few dozen yards, squinting into the low sun hoping for a glimpse of tail, a hint of orange collar. I’ll bet you know the feeling. My heart is pounding just recalling that unnerving moment. Each second put Manny closer to the semi-trucks highballing west. Or so I thought.

I pulled out my GPS, finally exhaling when the screen showed Manny on point. We followed the arrow uphill 160 yards, approaching a rocky mound crowned with bonsai-like sage. Sight of my dog’s white-tipped tail set my mind at ease, and I circled farther uphill and found the rest of him, statuesque. His eyes followed my steps, paws still anchored to lava rock. The bird got a running start on the little slope and launched skyward, a blur against cloudless blue.

A sagebrush suffered the most damage, shotgun pellets deflected by leaves and branches. But hope springs eternal. Western quail will often plummet after topping a bush, then skitter into cover. Had I witnessed an evasive maneuver or the tumble of a dead bird?

Men and dog searched fruitlessly, combing the ground for feathers. My head convinced my heart it was a clean miss until Manny sidled up, eyes averted and tail slowly wagging. He seemed almost apologetic for taking so long to find the vividly-colored mountain quail. What a miracle dogs are! Invisible to our feeble eyes, quiet and still beyond reach of our pathetic hearing, alive or dead, birds await discovery by a canine nose dedicated to serving us. How can we ever reward them enough?

Quail ran, quail flushed. Whenever Manny pointed, there was a quail. The only question was would we get a shot, and if so, would we hit it? The answer for the rest of the morning was a resounding no. So with wistful over-the-shoulder glances we piled into the truck and hotfooted to my promised valley quail Shangri-La.

Parked and vests re-stocked, we followed meandering stream and racing dog and the birds flew. Breathtaking points, fluttering wings, and a few valley quail came to hand. The magic washed over us, entrancing David as it did me the first time I hunted this pocket paradise. That’s why I wanted to share it – as much for his reaction as the hunting.

Birds in the bag are scant evidence of this spot’s epic-ness; I seldom take more than a brace from this verdant rift in a lava flow hundreds of feet thick. Stark pinnacles, lush creekbed, golden leaves made every step an adventure. We shared an easy camaraderie.

A week later my dogs and I explored David’s boyhood haunt, a miles-long, gently sloping prairie ending in a sheer cliff. Pictographs were found, eagles flew, valley quail fell. A squadron of chukars escaped over the precipice. As I leaned over to watch their downward glide, I saw the road I’d driven so many times, intent on some other, “better” place. With a toast from my water bottle, I thanked David.

manny big nose

Okay, okay, four wirehairs and 25 years later I’ve learned there are innumerable ways to ruin dogs – just ask mine. But for today’s lesson, let’s focus on five that we can address in the short time between now and casing the guns at the end of opening weekend.

  1. Overtraining

Like a beer mug, there is a finite amount of knowledge you can pour into your dog’s head at any given time. When you overload your beer mug the casualty is your table, floor, and the tragedy of frosty, foamy goodness gone to waste. With your dog, it’s pushback, disobedience or shutdown … none of which get you closer to “fetch.”

A lengthy training session is fine, especially if you’re ramping up for the season’s debut. But you’d better mix it up, not dwelling on any one command too long. I’ve learned the hard way that two excellent renditions of a retrieve, “here” command, hard flush or solid point is about right. Get greedy and you’ll soon regret it.

  1. Lowered expectations

A bored dog is an unmotivated dog. You’ll know it when you give a command: tail down, walk instead of run, checking his text messages, etc. Worse, he backslides on skills you’re absolutely sure he knows. Time to raise the bar.

Fetching well from the training table? Go somewhere else. In fact, changing locations is often enough challenge – new sights, smells and distractions to help your pup bear down a bit and meet the task at hand. Put your retriever in a “blind” and throw in a few highballs to see if he’ll sit still. Spice things up with a carefully-managed dog or human spectator. Make that retrieve longer, throw something different than his usual bumper. Use whistle or hand signals without voice command … anything that takes it up a notch will force your dog to dig deeper into his memory bank, and I’ll bet he rises to the challenge.

  1. Forgetting that hunting is training

What happens opening morning might set the tone for the entire season. If the tailgate drops and your dog bolts for the far horizon, he’s pretty much showed you who’s boss. Reboot the agenda for the day – and the season – with a few drills before you whisper “hunt ‘em up.”

Start by training him to stay in his crate until you release him, then release him with a command. I might call him to me with a “here,” then heel him around the truck. A short retrieve of a thrown bumper, a “whoa” or “hup” will remind your dog that even in a new, exciting environment you still issue the paychecks.

While it’s harder than passing up the last piece of pizza, spend the first part of the hunt reinforcing hunting skills. Let a partner do the shooting while you steady your dog on point or help him “hup” to a sitting position. Hold your Lab’s collar until you command “back,” and insist on a retrieve to hand. A few passed-up shots may reward both of you all season.

  1. Not being in shape

It’s been said a fat dog is a sign you aren’t exercising enough. So true. Most tubby humans can regulate their in-field activity to match how out of shape they are, but dogs will run until they drop, and the consequences could be life-long if not fatal.

Heat is a dog-killer. Carefully accustom your dog to warmer weather, and watch him in the field for signs he’s overheated. Prolonged panting, seeking out shade, digging shallow holes to lie in, all are signs you should quit hunting and cool him down. The longer you’ve trained in warm weather, the longer he’ll hunt in it, but there is a limit. If your dog doesn’t die, heat stroke can damage him permanently.

If your dog is a tub of lard, he won’t hunt as long nor as intensely. A flabby dog will soon be waddling alongside you instead of reaching out for ringnecks. His recovery will take longer and you’ll lose hours – if not days – of valuable season.

Oh, the same goes for you.

  1. No bird contacts

Trainer George Hickox said it best: “No birds, no bird dog.” Think about #2, above: the most enticing training distraction for a bird dog is probably birds. If his first encounter is opening day, you probably can’t predict with certainty what will happen.

In a perfect world, you have a pen of game birds on your back forty, next to the carriage house where you store your fleet of vintage English sports cars. Back here in reality, you might keep a few pigeons (better than nothing). Maybe you can buy a few quail from a friend or game bird supplier. Perhaps there’s a nearby hunting preserve where you can pay for them to set birds at your direction.

What’s important is to stage-manage those bird contacts to ensure all goes right: aggressive flushes or staunch points. Steadiness on the flush, even with gun fire. Retrieves that are straight-out and back. A good friend to shoot, hold a check cord or boost the birds up is invaluable. Don’t forget to return the favor.

For some of us, the season starts next week. For all of us, it’s looming, and a dog that is ready will make every hour, every day, the entire season more fun and satisfying … for both of you.

“Whoa,” and I mean it

Buddy point Western WingsMy eyes have been opened so wide, I’m gonna need Visine. Of the many things I’ve been enlightened about during the dog training process, steadiness on birds is perhaps the most useful to me. Maybe it will also be of use to you.

We have a variety of methods for teaching staunchness. Barrel, table, half-hitch, collar, place board, winch, tow truck. All have merit, and are useful training tools. But they can’t be used in the field, let alone a hunt test or trial. Now what?

First, think about the temptation, the challenge, the genetic motivators your dog has for breaking point. In the wild world, a point is a pause prior to the predator pouncing on prey – watch a coyote working a field for mice. We can stretch the length of that pause in our domesticated dog, but at some point we must overcome his instinct or he will pounce.

You know the process: first, a dog instinctively slams into a tail-stiffening point. That part, we all get. A whiff of bird scent or sight of a bird should take care of that unless your dog’s pedigree was a hand-lettered “you pick” sign. The key is what happens next.

As a judge for the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association, Bob Farris is asked to evaluate every portion of the point-flush-shot-fall-retrieve process. There are different goals for each, the most important being the separation of instinct (the moment a dog smells the bird and points) from cooperative obedience (when he’s commanded to hold that point).

Bob (and his loyal disciple, me) breaks the sequence into those components: 1) the reactive point … instinct; 2) staying staunch … obedience. That’s how they’re judged in a NAVHDA hunt test, because it’s a good way to ensure reliable performance in the field: a dog that’s steady to wing-shot-fall.

My dog Manny (and I’d bet, all less-than-finished dogs) needs training to stay on point until I want him to 1) see the bird drop, getting ready for the retrieve or 2) continue to hunt after my release, because I missed … again. When he enters a scent cone, Manny assumes an elegant point, leg up and forward a bit. But a few moments of staring at the source of enticing smell, a walking, flapping bird or – worse – a flushing bird, will test any dog’s resolve. It’s just natural to chase, so the key is making it clear he’s been ordered to stand still.

Manny is catching on. Now, if only his handler can. Calling on his hunting DNA, he’s learning that a whiff of bird equals point. But he’s also learning that once I’m in the picture giving the whoa command, instinct is out and obedience is in. Eventually, the verbal command will become a hand signal, then simply a “look.” But by then, he’ll understand that a human walking to the bird means the same thing as “whoa,” as doe a hand signal, the sound of a flush, boot scuffed on the ground, a gunshot or long whistle: do not move.

This applies to you upland retriever and spaniel guys too, if you want a truly “finished” dog. The only difference is the cue for “hup” or sit, or stand still. Because you expect your dog to move with alacrity toward a bird to elicit a thundering flush, you don’t have the luxury of a leisurely approach to a quivering pointer. But you can use the flush of the bird, your verbal command, classic stag-horn spaniel whistle, even the roar of your 12-gauge, as the “enforcer” of your hup command (as it were).

We love our dogs for their instinctive skills and how they share them with us on the hunt. Together, we form a team that is stronger than either individual. You know well there are plenty of times when the dog’s instincts are paramount. But at other times, obedience to, and cooperation with the handler must trump DNA.

Actions speak louder than words, and don't spook birds, either.

Actions speak louder than words, and don’t spook birds, either.

At its most fundamental level the idea is to shoot birds over your shorthair’s point or within gun range of your lunging Springer. Maybe it’s putting a sneak on feeding mallards or decoying honkers to your pit. But if you sound like the circus coming to town, you’ll seldom get a decent shot.

Game birds may not be as spooky as whitetails (though late-season sharptailed grouse might get close), but they are still very cognizant of predators and the sounds they make. Just ask yourself why so many game birds roost in the thick, crackly vegetation, or why pheasant hunters don’t slam truck doors. So it behooves we apex predators to “stuff a sock in it,” so to speak.

I’ve snuck within inches of birds by treading more carefully, ghosting my way through brush instead of bulldozing it. I try to make my footfalls more like an elk hunter than a linebacker. Light steps on scree minimize rattling, deliberate wading, delicate paddling … all get you closer to a killing shot.

Even rattling whistles or duck calls, sloshing water bottles, or a ringing cell phone will put the kybosh on a stealthy approach to pressured birds. Reaching for that coffee mug (let alone dropping it) in an aluminum boat can resemble a clanging fire alarm to pintails dabbling around the next bend.

I often go a step further, taking the jingle-jangles off the dog’s collar. One of those riveted identification plates starts to make even more sense in the grouse woods. I own a half-dozen e-collars with beepers and an assortment of bells, but many times I’ll go unplugged.

Spoken, rather than shouted, directions are heard plenty well by most dogs. When possible, use hand commands instead of a voice or whistle. Just like any other skill, retrievers can be taught to sit still and quit whining in a blind. It might take a bag full of treats and many weeks, but all of it pays off when wings cup and landing gear deploy.

Oh, and here’s another good reason: while I like Monday-morning quarterbacking yesterday’s game as much as the next guy, when my mouth is shut, my eyes seem to open wider. I see and enjoy more of the dog work, catch on quicker to his birdiness, savor the scenery … and to me, that’s almost as much fun as nice, close shots.


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