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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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In this country, rush hour is a herd of whiteface cattle who refuse to stay in their own lane. There are more cows than people here, so we usually yield right of way to them. Besides, what’s the rush?

enchanted canyon on the horizon

Through the windshield: enchanted canyon is at the end of this asphalt rainbow

It’s easy for me to say, when I actually choose to end my hunt early because it was so good.

I don’t mean a vest overflowing with birds, not even close. But enough, in the right places. Dog work to match. Both left a satisfying heft in the bag and the mind.

A creek bed thicket offered one covey of valley quail, a bird dropping into a small forest of alders and willows only Buddy could negotiate, dropping it gently in my palm. A single against the steeply dropping bank, again, only found thanks to the marvelous canine nose I’m privileged to feed twice daily.

No, this trip ended early because the senses were sated, all of them, in very special ways.

I pointed the rig north beyond familiar canyons and draws, looking for new coveys. My eye turned west, drawn to a brilliant yellow vein of aspens snaking downstream, tracing a small creek’s route out of a towering rock cleft straight from Lord of the Rings. The road ended at the lava gateway to this mountain range, and we hunted every inch of the watercourse.

Not a single wingbeat interrupted our visit to this enchanted place, and after the fact, I’m grateful. Yellow, gold, red and amber leaves formed an unbroken ceiling above and covered the desert floor. The stream bottom was similarly paved, deserving of a magazine cover (and me without my camera!). It was as a Narnia-like world, where fantasy meets reality, and you’re not quite sure which is which.

But my camp was still miles away. A small desert lake, void of anglers this time of year, was my destination. I reveled at the chance to cherry-pick my spot, and headed for the far side. The tallest fault block mountain on the continent dwarfed our little camp. A fan of bare sand forms my personal beach, and soon a fire is crackling and the Scotch is poured.

Buddy roams, unfettered by neighbors or responsibility. He doesn’t quite know what to do, unleashed and free, so stays close to me and the warming fire. Together, we watch a flock of Canada Geese graze in undulating lines toward the lakeshore, stalked by a coyote. He hides, they move, he creeps, they adjust the distance. Eventually, the geese prevail, reaching the water, well fed and safe for the time being.

From both ends of the lake, mule deer materialize in ones and twos. Soon, two dozen are drinking. At the far south end the dominant buck emerges, four points on each side, regal in his aloneness. Stars soon carpet the sky, a few shooting, all sparkling.

In the morning coffee’s sharp jolt kindles a brief memory, leading to the only logical conclusion: how could you top that?

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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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For me, it's all in the dogs. How about you?

For me, it’s all in the dogs. How about you?

… about bird hunting?

Yep, we talk a good game about the wonders of the natural world, cycle of life, camaraderie, miracles large and small performed by our dogs. But if you had to narrow it down to a single, specific item that would stop you from hunting any more if it were absent … what would it be?

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Good boy!

Good boy!

Whirrrrrrr! A long, dry slog down canyon went from relaxed camaraderie to high alert as four valley quail flushed wild on both sides of us. Manny’s attention was seized, he arrived at the scene of the crime quickly, snuffling the lingering scent like a starving man picks crumbs to ensure there were no stragglers.

The remainder of the downhill stroll was like a night patrol in a Vietnam jungle, eyes and ears wide open for every peep and rustle in the pungent sage. Our Texas visitor thought birds had hooked left, so we sidehilled in that direction a hundred feet above the swampy creek bottom, sometimes on hands and knees. Then, barely perceptible, a rustle in the juniper preceded the bird’s fleeting escape, downhill and over the cattail swamp at the bottom of the ravine.

One shot, bird down. Right in the middle of a football-field-sized tangle of mud, creek, beaver dams, cattails and berry vines … the sharp, thorny kind. The graveyard of forever-lost quail, I thought. The shooter marked the bird and stayed put, eyes glued on the spot where the bird had fallen.

Hmmmm. This looks familiar. A classic NAVHDA duck search, sans duck. Manny and I slid to the bottom and I sent him into the mess with a “dead bird – fetch!” He was daunted by the head-high stalks that fought back, mud that sucked at his feet and berry canes that tore his hide. A few minutes and he emerged, dirty, wet, birdless. But he stood calmly facing the web of vegetation, waiting for direction. I sent him again.

It was then I remembered training advice from an Idaho trip. I scrambled to the canyon wall before finding throwing-sized rocks, whose plunks and plonks tempted Manny farther and farther into the mire. We all listened, intent, to brush rattling, panting dog, mucky footfalls. Sometimes he was so deep in the vegetation all we saw was the faint quivering of cattail tops marking his route.

Then, nothing.

Stillness.

Rustle of stalks, splash of feet, but no panting … but I soon breathed easier. A long two minutes later Manny emerged with – I swear – the most humble look on his fuzzy face I’ve ever seen on a dog. Maybe because he was gently holding the quail in his mouth.

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What, if anything, do you say now?

What, if anything, do you say now?

I’m pretty well whoa-trained. When telling a dog to stop, I slam on the brakes too. It’s one of the funny things about that word that got me wondering how differently we think – and act – about the whoa command than we do about other commands.

Along with the barrel, gut hitch, place board, half-hitch, training table, pinch collar, e-collar on the flank or whatever strategy you use, something often gets lost – our ability to speak. If you subscribe to the belief that once a dog scents a bird “whoa” is an obedience command, why do we clam up once the dog obeys?

Check yourself: Fido is coursing a field and slams into a point. If you’re me, you’d also lock up, eventually realizing you’re in charge and need to do something – hopefully while the dog remains staunch. You might skulk toward the dog and bird, or stride purposefully, but how many of us proceed silently, hoping against hope that our dog holds still?

Meanwhile, the dog considers his options: he’s done what comes naturally (point) and wants to do what next comes naturally (pounce). He might have been taught a pounce is verboten, but without feedback, there’s a fifty-fifty chance he’ll get what he wants.

Is that okay with you?

Instead, quit expecting your mouth to “whoa” when he does. After all, Gunner heels in the yard, you praise. Coming back with a bird in his (soft) mouth merits a scratch behind the ears. But that end-swapping point on sketchy bobwhites is met by a silence as heavy as the moment between sermon‘s conclusion and congregation’s “amen.”

To a young dog torn between primitive passion and desire to please you, a word of praise may mean all the difference. I know Manny’s steadiness improved once I began delivering positive feedback instead of zipping my lips.

How about you? Does a cat get your tongue when your dog scents a bird?

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