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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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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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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Is it that first shopping trip?

Is it that first shopping trip of the season?

Hiking in the desert, of all places, it hit me when I noticed the dried leaves carpeting the sandy ground. Last fall’s remnants kindled anticipation of this fall’s hunts. Wrong leaves, wrong place, but the die was cast – I’m ready for hunting season.

What is your trigger-tripper? A training milestone? Weather change? Test season? Youth hunt?

Something pushes you over the edge, inescapably heralding the Most Important Time of Year. But do you know what it is? And if you don’t have one, you have several months to pick one.

Go.

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