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Posts Tagged ‘NAVHDA’

We got lucky here. Now, we’re practicing to make things more perfect.

Of all the things my new friend and NAVHDA judge Bob Farris pointed out on a recent visit, the most gratifying was how steady Manny was on flying birds. Not rock-steady, of course, but better than many of the other aspects of the Utility test. And I’m pretty confident he’ll get better, especially with the help Bob extended to us.

Bob acquainted me with his version of the ‘gut hitch,’ a variation on Rick and Ronnie Smith’s half-hitch around the dog’s waist. The basic concept is that a dog will stop – and stay stopped – when he feels pressure on his flank. The hitch applies it.

Bob’s rig goes from waist to collar, attaching at both points. A checkcord is clipped to the rail-like cord and gives the handler an easy way to apply that pressure to the flank. A tug, particularly upward, stops most dogs in their tracks. The advantage to Bob’s version is the dog need not drag the entire cord, just the hitch portion, which remains off the ground and attached to his waist and collar. When you want to stop him, simply attach the checkcord and tug.

No, it’s not really that easy, but the tools make it easier. Now, to put theory into practice.

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This was easy. Now, let’s hit the water.

I summarized to my wife the biggest challenge of a NAVHDA Utility test this way: you must train to the test, and you must use “tricks” to chain together the skills needed for each portion of the test, or you will not pass. It’s no wonder NAVHDA offers handler’s clinics – most of us will never understand the training challenges of this complex series of events unless broken down into components and trained for in bits and pieces.

And they are not the obvious, A-to-B-to-C string. There is a considerable amount of dog psychology and cheerleading (so to speak) in getting from start to finish. Understanding what really counts is a lot easier when you can pick the brains of experienced, wiser mentors … luckily, I have one.

The duck search portion of the test is my current nemesis. Problem number one: a dog doesn’t naturally know that there’s a bird in the water somewhere. You must convince him of that, then chain it to the expectation that he must seek it out and bring it back. Thanks to NAVHDA trainer and judge Bob Farris, I now have a series of exercises to prepare him mentally for the task.

Lucky for me, Manny is bird-crazy. Bob can use that to chain together the components of a successful duck search starting from Square One. First objective: get him to the far bank, where any search should begin. That’s a few steps from where we are but it’s coming together.

So for us, we begin with a swim for a visible, obvious bird in the water. Then get Manny to swim farther for the bird, possibly with the incentive of a rock splash, and then farther, with a bird thrown beyond the rock splashes to get him across the pond.

Then, let’s take him back from the water, possibly behind the truck, but make sure he knows there will be a bird, maybe show it to him before he’s taken away. Then, add a track on the far bank to get Manny to search beyond the expected hiding place. If necessary, have someone there to encourage him verbally, possibly toss a rock or two if he needs it. Eventually, he will find tracks all around the dry land, and with luck water, too. With the confidence of knowing there is a bird in there, we hope he will maintain the motivation to search high, low, and in between  …  for ten minutes come test day.

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Now, it becomes a “whoa” command.

Thanks to NAVHDA trainer, judge and Pudelpointer breeder Bob Farris, my eyes have been opened so wide, I’m gonna need Visine! Of the many things he’s enlightened me about, steadiness while on birds was perhaps the most useful to me, and maybe to you.

We all have our methods for teaching staunchness. Barrel, table, half-hitch, collar, place board, winch, tow truck … all have their merits. But those are merely practical applications of a theory I’d never quite grasped.

Think about the temptation, the challenge, the genetic motivators for breaking point. After all, a point is merely a pause prior to pouncing on prey (just watch a coyote working a field for mice). Sure, we can stretch the length of that pause, but at some point we must overcome instinct alone or he will pounce.

As a judge, Bob is asked to evaluate every piece 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 obedience (when he’s led to understand he must hold that point, indefinitely).

So, Bob says break the sequence into those two pieces: 1) the point … instinct; 2) staying staunch … obedience. That’s how they’re judged in a NAVHDA Utility Test, because that’s a good way to ensure reliable performance in the field (a dog that’s steady to wing-shot-fall).

Manny is catching on … now, if his handler can! 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, 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 that walks to the bird means the same thing as “whoa,” a hand signal, the sound of a flush, a gunshot or long whistle: do not move.

We love our dogs for their instinctive skills and how we can join them in the hunt, the two of us making a team that is stronger than either individual. There are plenty of times when the dog’s instincts are paramount. Others, when obedience and cooperation must trump those genetic signals.

What’s worked for you?

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None of this for a while, little guy.

The “V” in NAVHDA stands for versatile, which in many cases is synonymous with retrieving. As the saying goes “conserve game, hunt with a trained dog.” That dog must bring back anything you shoot, wherever it lands, every time. (In Europe, and even some NAVHDA tests if you choose, furred game can be part of the retrieving challenge.)

We’ve got a long way to go, Manny and me. The NAVHDA Utility test is complex, and in large part composed of skills that are, frankly, hard to train for. They are difficult because they require water. And most of us don’t have access to the right kind of water, if any. So this critical component gets short shrift.

So, to the water we went. Luckily, trainer and NAVHDA judge Bob Farris was willing to offer some tips. I spent part of my summer vacation – actually, one morning last week – working with Bob. To say it was eye opening would be an understatement.

As most pointing-breed owners ultimately figure out, their dog will pick up and bring back some things some times, but “natural retriever” is not a term that has much heft for us. Force fetch training is critical if we’re to live up to the “conserve game” credo.

And retrieving in all its forms is a gigantic part of the test. But Manny is not quite at the top of his game due to my lack of diligence. His force-training was good, to a point. But on birds, he’d often slack off prior to delivering to hand: stop, drop, or do a little dance prior to delivery. And I’d been remiss in requiring prompt completion of the transaction.

So, back to the training table and yard work. Starting with the “here” command, expecting full compliance no matter the distraction. Using the back-off, run-away method when necessary, augmented with e-collar tones and if necessary, stimulation. Then adding the fetch command and expecting full compliance with that last, crucial ten feet of delivery to hand. Then including water in the equation.

But no birds yet. Bumpers, sure. But I’m not ready to risk a slip of the finger on the red button while birds are in play.

Thanks Bob. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Time to substitute a magnum mallard for the pine cone.

I’m not much of a duck hunter. The occasional mallard that flies within range or that we jump while wandering near a pond or stream, sure. But my preferences don’t matter. Manny’s got to have duck-hunting chops for the NAVHDA Utility test.

He’s required to successfully complete a “duck search,” combing brushy water for a frantically escaping/hiding duck. He’s got to stand or sit still while shots ring out across a “duck pond,” eventually swimming through bobbing decoys to make a strong retrieve.

So, I’ve dusted off my floaters and silhouettes (geese too) and started acquainting the youngster with faux fowl.

He’s shown little interest in the plastic phonies while retrieving most everything that I’ve placed in, around, or beyond the blocks. His uncle, on the other hand, has retrieved several decoys to hand! Maybe he’s just trying to be helpful.

We’ve only just begun, and our work has been restricted to dry land. But I’m bullish. Many of you know, that’s a far cry from a full string dekes, plus gunshots, a real dead duck and a gallery of fellow test-takers and judges. Keep your fingers crossed.

Have you done much “decoy work” like this? Any advice?

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“Backing,” honoring, whatever you want to call it, there are at least two types I know of. The one we’re all familiar with,  where one dog points and the other dog slams into a pseudo-point when he sees the first dog. Eventually, Manny and I will get to that.

Beyond the Bumper to birds … with an audience.

I wonder if the other honor that teaches self-discipline, control and maybe even a better retrieve? As you know, we’ve been working on one dog watching, waiting patiently while his bracemate brings back my Real Bird Bumper and other stuff. But lately we’ve been using real birds. And it’s having the desired effect.

Both Buddy and Manny are more energetic on their runout to the bird, lusting for feathered prey. But (luckily) they are each disciplined enough to execute the command, and there is the envy factor: “gee, if I don’t get it, he will.” It’s a test of wills for all three of us.

So far, so good. It’s not in any NAVHDA test until the Invitational, but I’m wondering if the simple act of deferring to another dog (in addition to the human) adds another layer of complexity. And thus, perhaps, challenges their intellect.

While writing this, I realized how lucky I am having a pigeon loft just 34 steps from my dog-training area. As George Hickox so well put it: “No birds, no bird dog.” If you don’t have birds nearby, how do you do it? Where do you find them, what do you pay, how often do you get them?

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Good boy ... now "leave it" for later on the retrieve. Much later.

Manny backslid on the one part of retrieving on which we weren’t solid: a real bird, brought to hand without um, “tenderizing.” Yesterday, his retrieves were energetic and enthusiastic. Using my Real Bird Bumper, he was scooping, making a U-turn, and racing back. When a pigeon was substituted, the wheels came off.

Thankfully, I figured out why, in record time.

Immediately before, we’d been working on steadiness, close-in birds flapping and flying in front of a dog that had been too long in the kennel while was in New York making shows. The adrenaline was gushing in torrents in Manny’s little doggy body. When the retrieving practice commenced a couple minutes later, and CRUNCH.

It only took one night to sleep on it before it hit me (at about 4:30 a.m. to be exact): Divorce flushing, flying live birds from retrieving … completely … for a while. Most of us have had a corollary drummed into our thick skulls for years: training a dog to expect a retrieve upon every flush (or shot, for that matter) is verboten. The worse you shoot (like me), the deeper you sink into that mire. Manny is showing me that the less mature a dog, the farther apart flushes and retrieves should be, literally. So for now, we will put time – and distance – between the two skills.

Today, it worked. I’m still playing it safe, leaving my pigeons in the loft after they clock out on their flushing job. Our retrieving work will be limited to Real Bird Bumpers with chukar wings taped on. Not real, but real enough.

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