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I get over 4,000 questions per year from viewers of my television show. Hands down, the most common one has to do with choosing a first hunting dog. In almost all cases, my answer is the same.

Get a Lab.

They're all cute so don't rely on that for your first dog.

They’re all cute so don’t rely on that for your first dog.

Order in the court! Calm down everyone! For many fans who see me hunting with my own wirehairs, a mixed bag of other pointing breeds and more and more often spaniels, my answer is a bit of a shock. (You pointing breed fans please bear with me – and don’t worry – I still believe wirehairs rock!) But my rationale is pretty simple.

  1. Training dogs is hard, especially the first few you own. Frankly, most of us risk owning a “pancake dog” – like the breakfast food, we often throw out the first one because we’ve screwed it up. Why not hedge your bets?
  2. The whole point is for you – and the dog – to have fun, bring home some game, and turn the dog-bird thing into a life-long passion. That happens sooner with a retriever.
  3. There are so few things you need to train a well-bred Labrador to do (or a good Golden Retriever for that matter), you can be hunting the pup’s first season (with some caveats).

Need more incentive? Watch one of my shows when my wirehairs were young. You’ll become a flushing-dog convert after a couple episodes. My gray hair was dark brown when I started running wires.

I remember trainer Rick Smith once saying there are really only three things you need a dog to do:

  1. Go away when you want him to.
  2. Come back when you want him to.
  3. Stand still when you want him to.

A Labrador’s entire reason for living is summed up in those three items. Loyal, affectionate, with a fanatical desire to please its human, this breed (again, also true for good Goldens) is hard-wired to perform the tasks outlined above. Thousands of generations of selective breeding put the odds in your favor, as does the sheer number of well-bred pups on the market.

So, what do you add to the dog’s DNA to hunt that first season?

  1. A healthy respect for the young dog’s joint health – no jumping, very little hard running, very short hunts.
  2. Some “fun retrieves” in the yard, and appropriate expectations in the field. Most Labs will take to retrieving naturally, one of the more prominent reasons I favor them for a first gun dog.
  3. Basic obedience training (see Rick Smith’s three basic skills, above).
  4. Training him to work close in the uplands. A dog that flushes birds out of gun range is not a hunting dog – it’s a lawn ornament.

There is one more good reason a retriever might be your best opening gambit in the bird-dog game: if it washes out as a hunter, you’ve still got a fantastic pet and lovable family member, content if he never sees the inside of a duck blind or roams a South Dakota prairie.

Why do YOU go?

scott_dogs-56Like you, I live for fall: crisp temperatures, colored leaves, the breathless anticipation. On opening day we make our quests to familiar places, reunions with friends and family, and wide open country never seen before.

We go for the camaraderie, and to be in beautiful places. Our passion runs deep for one bird, or all of them. We eagerly anticipate a return to that little café at a country crossroads, the wisdom in a farmer’s advice, that creek bottom where we shot our first ringneck. Long into the night, we debate the merits of block-and-drive versus stealth, single malt versus Canadian, pump-versus-semi-auto-versus double gun, and in the morning all is forgiven.

But whatever our proclivity in birds, guns or football teams, there is one constant. A fellow hunter spots your dog box, and a new friendship begins. A question about his breed becomes a game of who-do-you-know? We may discover a shared hometown or alma mater, but it always comes back to dogs.

As it should. Dogs add texture to our lives, punctuate our humdrum days, amuse and comfort us, remain loyal companions through thick and thin. They are there for us when we need them, and (we hope) vice-versa.  As Roger Karas said, if you don’t have a dog, there’s nothing wrong with you, but there is something wrong with your life.

We know that. When all is said and done, we have one common denominator. Fuzzy, slick, galumphing like a pachyderm or elegant as a gazelle, we love our dogs. They are why we hunt. When they take the field, we are transported to another era. We tap our genetic heritage, recalling a time when our four-footed companions helped us feed the tribe. We are functioning on the deepest, primordial level.

But you know that, too. You proved it when you entered our “Fiocchi Friends” photo contest, or voted for one of the entries. Or when you took a newcomer on their first hunt, knowing they would marvel at the magic of your dog’s skills and enthusiasm. You are reminded every time you unsnap your dog’s lead and turn him loose in the marsh, on the prairie, or the deep north woods. His passion envelops you; two become one in pursuit of game. Together, you revel in the circle of life, the chance to find wild food, and in so doing, find a little bit more of ourselves.

As Ortega y Gassett said, we needn’t kill to hunt, but the prospect of killing must be part of the bargain. Should we be presented with a chance to take game, we are honor-bound to make a clean kill. A careful shot with the right ammunition, and a good dog to retrieve our quarry ensure our pursuit is honorable. For me, it is countless rounds of skeet, Fiocchi Golden Pheasant, and my German Wirehaired Pointer, Manny. For you, well, you know the answer.

When the sun sinks below the horizon and guns are stowed, it is time for stories, friendship, and once again, to remember our dogs.

A place for everything, and everything in it's place ...

A place for everything, and everything in it’s place …

Florida, Georgia, Alabama, New York, Kentucky, Michigan, Illinois, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, California, Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin. That’s 22 states I’ve hunted, many more than once and several, dozens of times. It is a daunting list, not just because of the road and air miles invested but because so many of these states are full of wonderful people and places I’d like to visit more often than time and funds allow.

In all of them, I’ve made new friends. I’ve shared truck cabs and wall tents with good old friends. My dogs have banked enough windshield time to get their own driver’s license. What have I learned from so many border crossings, time zones and area codes? Here’s the short list:

  1. Keep things ship-shape in the vehicle. Everything in its place, every time. When you stop for gas, check the oil, diesel exhaust fluid, and clean the windshield because next stop, it might be cold or raining.
  1. Feed the dogs on schedule. It’s one of the few constants they have on a road trip.
  1. Cram in as many warm clothes as you can. Bring extra rain gear for someone else. Carry a bottle of something from Scotland and leave it with your hosts. Save your back, invest in those fabric fold-up dog kennels for pet friendly hotels.
  1. Call ahead and stop to visit friends along the way, even if you don’t think you have the time. Send thank you notes. When you stop, water the dogs first. Find off-the-beaten-track places to park so dogs are safe and unstressed. I like high school athletic fields and county fairgrounds. Bring tie-out stakes.
  1. Carry water for your dogs and yourself. Refill at every opportunity. Same for your fuel tank; there are a lot of empty spaces on the map. Bring bowls for your dogs.
  1. Eat at local joints instead of chains. Be nice to wait staff. Carry a thermos. Buy your groceries and fuel close to your destination – in many communities you are economic development. Learn a little bit about the place you’re visiting. Pronounce place names correctly. Visit with kitchen staff at the lodge.
  1. A place for everything: Dog boxes’ doors are easy to reach through the canopy window, their water is near the tailgate. Hunting license in vest back-pocket. Dog bowls near dog food or water; ammo packed near guns, shooting glasses in vest. Windshield ice scraper under seat, water bottle in cup holder. Camera always in left-hand lower pocket of vest.
  1. Find something to compliment: your buddy’s dog, a good shot, a well-managed covert, fine booze, a special dinner. Think positive and see the beauty in all things (a great philosophy of life, by the way).
  2. Bring extra batteries and owner’s manuals for everything. And reading glasses so you can figure them out!

None of this will help you shoot more birds or make your dogs steadier. But in the long run, you will be enriched by the memories you make, the friendships forged. The journey will rise a notch or two on your life list. Whether across the county or the country you will be a better hunter. And person.

He's ready ... are you?

He’s ready … are you?

We are down to the wire. For most of us, the opener is a matter of days away, with all the joys and trepidation that come with the start of a new bird hunting season. We’ve waited, planned, practiced, anticipated, maybe dreaded, everything from the alarm clock’s buzz to the smell of Hoppe’s Number Nine, to the post-hunt celebration.

Okay, I’ll say it: kind of like Christmas Eve.

But ensuring a fantastic opener takes more than trusting to luck. Relying on a wing and a prayer is not a strategy. Orchestrate your first day afield to ensure a safer, more enjoyable start for you and your dog. Here’s how:

Gear: Like any athletic event, half the game is in your head … familiar gear and mastery of it creates a level of confidence in both hunters. Shoot the gun you shoot best, even if you bought a new one last year. Then, pack a spare shotgun and extra ammo. Are you wearing your broken-in boots and lucky hat or vest? You’ll have plenty of time to dial in your new stuff but on that first day you want to feel comfortable literally and figuratively. Ditto for the new e-collar or GPS, or at least bring the user’s manual.

And you packed it all into your truck last night, right?

Place: Who doesn’t love new hunting spots? The joy of discovery is addicting. But to start the season on the right foot, hunt a spot you know. Again, you will be more confident (read: shoot straighter) and you’ll have a better chance of finding birds (read: happy dog). If you simply couldn’t resist the siren song of a new covert, you’ve already done your research, talked to the regional biologist and brought that topo map, right?

People: You invited the right hunting partner – the one who helps buy fuel and brings a spectacular lunch. He guns while you handle the dog if necessary, holding off when you are working on steady to wing and shot. He knows not to shoot bumped birds if that’s your preference. You’ve already secured permission to hunt private property or “open to hunt” lands. You’ve left a responsible party with a note of your destination and a map of the place. They know when to call the sheriff if you’ve not returned.

Dogs: To enhance performance and stamina, and guard against the risk of stomach twist, you didn’t feed him this morning. You will run him through a quick drill of obedience and field commands before you unclip the lead. He gets to run solo for a while, free of competition and distraction from another dog. You’ve brought plenty of water for him, and a high-fat snack for quick energy in the field. And please, please, promise you’ll carefully monitor his behavior in the opening-day heat. When the guns are cased you’ll give him a nose-to-tail check for cuts, seeds in eyes, broken nails, etc.

It looks like a lot, but you’re in it for the long run. In many states, bird season is four or five months long. As the saying goes, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” Might as well make it the right step, in the best place, with a good partner and a dog that will be able to work for you all season.

 Do you remember how to operate one of these? GPS will fail. Maps are always there for you.

Do you remember how to operate one of these? GPS will fail. Maps are always there for you.

I’ll never forget watching someone’s tent wheeling its way across the blustery desert because the guy ropes were tied with granny knots. It was another reminder of the practical value of basic outdoor skills. Spending a chilly night under the stars was probably a valuable lesson to that hunter!

As with most things in life, there is usually a right way to do a task, and a number of wrong ways to do it, then re-do it. Even if you were a Boy Scout, useful skills and indispensable knowledge have a way of falling out of your mental filing cabinet. Some of them might save a life, or avoid serious injury. Others are simply helpful and will make your day afield – or training your dog – more productive or enjoyable.

Wayfinding: While a GPS can be a lifesaver, map and compass skills will bail you out when batteries fail. At a minimum, know how to find a “catchline” that will lead you back to a known location:

Study, then bring along a copy of a map of the area you will hunt. Make note of a stream, road, ridgeline or other long relatively straight feature in relation to where you park or make camp. That’s your catchline. You will hunt away from that location, and as long as you know which direction you went in relation to the catchline, you’re home free.

Example: I’m camped along a river that runs north-south. I hunt away from camp to the east. When I want to head back, I simply walk west until I reach the river. Camp is either left or right along my catchline. If I’m really smart, I’ve overshot camp on purpose (say, to the north) so I know to walk south when I hit the stream.

Stay warm in a sleeping bag: Wear dry sleeping apparel – the clothes you wore all day are full of your perspiration and will wick all the heat from your body. Eat or drink something warm before bed (I prefer hot buttered rum). Wear warm socks and a stocking cap. Buy a sleeping bag that has enough room in the foot area – toes compressing insulation are a sure route to misery.

Use a sleeping pad to insulate you from the cold ground or air circulating below your cot. Put a waterproof ground sheet (vapor barrier) under you or your tent to prevent bone-chilling moisture from seeping into your sleeping bag. If it gets extremely cold, wrap yourself in another vapor barrier (leave room for your head to ensure you can breathe!).

Drive a muddy road: Go slow. Avoid braking as it will lock your wheels and you’ll slide. Use a low gear and four wheel drive. Look ahead on the road to anticipate a good “line” and maintain momentum. Move steering wheel left to right as you negotiate ruts – the tire tread will grip the rut walls. Avoid sharp steering wheel movement and turns – the weight and momentum of your vehicle will carry the day, not tires on a slick surface.

If you get stuck, more weight on the drive wheels might generate additional traction. Put your friends in the truckbed over each wheel. Place branches, brush, floor mats or small rocks in front of drive tires to create some traction. “Rocking” back and forth by going from forward to reverse gears might get you out, but spinning wheels at high speed just digs you deeper. Sometimes, all you need are a few inches of movement to get out of a rut – a small log, shovel handle or other lever pushing on the bumper might be enough.

Break up a dog fight: Never grab dogs by the collar – you are not strong enough to keep two fighting dogs apart for very long and a fighting dog has no regard for even the best of owners and could inadvertently bite you as you reach for him.

With two people, one person grabs the back legs of each dog and pulls them in a backward-circular motion like a wheelbarrow. This makes the dog sidestep with his front feet or fall, so he has little incentive or ability to bite you. Do not release the dogs – keep pulling them into separate rooms, yards, etc.

If you are alone, find a leash, loop it around the waist of one dog by threading the clip end through the hand loop. Pull that dog to a post, pole or other secure object and tie the leash to it. The fight, of course, will continue. Then, grab the other dog by the back legs and circle as above, isolate it in another yard or room. Release the tied dog only when the other one is safely isolated in a secure location.

It's all packed the night before.

It’s all packed the night before.

We are down to the wire. For most of us, the opener is a matter of days away, with all the joys and trepidation that come with the start of a new bird hunting season. We’ve waited, planned, practiced, anticipated, maybe dreaded, everything from the alarm clock’s buzz to the smell of Hoppe’s Number Nine, to the post-hunt celebration.

Okay, I’ll say it: kind of like Christmas Eve.

But ensuring a fantastic opener takes more than trusting to luck. Relying on a wing and a prayer is not a strategy. Orchestrate your first day afield to ensure a safer, more enjoyable start for you and your dog. Here’s how:

Gear: Like any athletic event, half the game is in your head … familiar gear and mastery of it creates a level of confidence in both hunters. Shoot the gun you shoot best, even if you bought a new one last year. Then, pack a spare shotgun and extra ammo. Are you wearing your broken-in boots and lucky hat or vest? You’ll have plenty of time to dial in your new stuff but on that first day you want to feel comfortable literally and figuratively. Ditto for the new e-collar or GPS, or at least bring the user’s manual.

And you packed it all into your truck last night, right?

Place: Who doesn’t love new hunting spots? The joy of discovery is addicting. But to start the season on the right foot, hunt a spot you know. Again, you will be more confident (read: shoot straighter) and you’ll have a better chance of finding birds (read: happy dog). If you simply couldn’t resist the siren song of a new covert, you’ve already done your research, talked to the regional biologist and brought that topo map, right?

People: You invited the right hunting partner – the one who helps buy fuel and brings a spectacular lunch. He guns while you handle the dog if necessary, holding off when you are working on steady to wing and shot. He knows not to shoot bumped birds if that’s your preference. You’ve already secured permission to hunt private property or “open to hunt” lands. You’ve left a responsible party with a note of your destination and a map of the place. They know when to call the sheriff if you’ve not returned.

Dogs: To enhance performance and stamina, and guard against the risk of stomach twist, you didn’t feed him this morning. You will run him through a quick drill of obedience and field commands before you unclip the lead. He gets to run solo for a while, free of competition and distraction from another dog. You’ve brought plenty of water for him, and a high-fat snack for quick energy in the field. And please, please, promise you’ll carefully monitor his behavior in the opening-day heat. When the guns are cased you’ll give him a nose-to-tail check for cuts, seeds in eyes, broken nails, etc.

It looks like a lot, but you’re in it for the long run. In many states, bird season is four or five months long. As the saying goes, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” Might as well make it the right step, in the best place, with a good partner and a dog that will be able to work for you all season.

A few run-throughs before opening day ensure a productive start to the season.

A few run-throughs before opening day ensure a productive start to the season.

You’ve picked your opening-day destination, purchased ammo, got your license and cleared your calendar. You’ve been busting clays for weeks to ensure you’re ready when that first bird towers into the sky. But what about your dog?

Trained or tyro, your four-footed companion could use a tune-up before that first hunt of the season. Whether you’ve trained all summer or usually trust to dumb luck on opening day, be fair to your dog and begin a short a refresher course now.

Consider incorporating these activities into your dog’s daily regimen in the weeks before you head for the woods, marsh or prairies.

  1. Every session, whether training or exercise, starts with a quick drill through some basic obedience skills. When the season starts, we continue this practice the moment the tailgate drops. My dog heels, gets a “whoa” command or two (you flusher guys can “hup”), and is called back with a “here.” It reminds the dog that hunting is work, and I’m the boss.
  2. We often neglect what I’ll call “alternate commands” until hunting season. Whistles and hand signals aren’t really necessary in most training situations, but could be vital – even life-saving – in a bird field. Run through them a few times in the weeks before you head for South Dakota.
  3. Re-introduce birds. I don’t care how much experience a dog has, if his last bird contact was closing day, I hope you carry a rabbit’s foot, cross yourself, and light a candle at church. Stage-manage a few flushes or points in the yard and training field. Use a checkcord for insurance. Your dog’s memory will be re-kindled, he’ll be starting on the right foot. Don’t forget to add gunshots – they can trigger disobedience as much as a rooster rattling into the air.
  4. Ditto retrieves. We start on the training table, moving quickly from bumpers to birds, then blinds. We focus on fundamentals at every step so each pre-season execution is close to perfection. When you pile out of the truck, his memory is of a well-executed “fetch” instead of the sloppy one of closing day.

The early season is full of stress: travel, new faces, new places, altered daily routine, you’re your dog’s feeding schedule. Most stress is based on fear of the unknown. You can eliminate much of that for your dog, and thus for yourself, with these basics before you turn the truck key at dawn on opening day.

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