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Bang! Fetch! Gulp!

I hope you’re having a fantastic season so far. We are off to a good start, with camaraderie, beautiful places, and some success finding birds. Now, if my shooting would match!

Flick is meeting or exceeding expectations so far this season in all but one category: retrieving. As you may recall, I’m experimenting with a gentle version of “force breaking,” without ear or toe-pinching, and e-collar vibration as the strongest “stimulus” when needed. He was pretty good about opening his mouth to take bumpers and birds as a youngster, which is what the pinching thing is often about. Once learned, and associated with the “fetch” command, things progressed smoothly.

We moved to out-and-back, off the training table, new locations, retrieving after tossed dead and ultimately shot birds … all with minimal problems. But on last weekend’s chukar hunt, the wheels came off. The few shot birds I put on the ground were a crap shoot. Would he bring it back? Run off? Both, then try to swallow it? All of the above, at one point.

Maybe you’ve been there.

It finally hit me. The “X” factor was my hunting partner Tom, and his dog Ruby. What I hadn’t trained for was a hyper-excited dog (Flick) working with “competition.” As a predator, he’s ready, willing, and able to keep his prey from others … simply by swallowing … sometimes, preceded by a few crunches. I was reminded of a previous dog and a club “fun” day that was anything but, when another dog tried to take Bill’s quail. Gone in sixty seconds … urp.

Well, we’re back to about Square Three now, working on that last few steps of delivering in spite of other dogs and people. I’m hoping it’s the happy ending to a pretty good training experiment, but I’ll let you know.

This blog post outfitted by Cabela’s

This particularly dry and hot (for many) early season, this advice first mentioned in my book is worth a re-read …

Even on his best day, Buddy’s a so-so retriever. But we’ve come to an understanding. On certain days, he, and most dogs, would rather share a kennel with a poodle than fetch. It’s not disobedience, funny smells, or early-onset Alzheimer’s’. It’s the heat.

Dogs cool themselves by panting. They can’t sweat, so it’s all about internal air conditioning, heavy breathing. Plug that system with a hot, dry, feathered obstruction, and it shuts down.

You can yell, scream, coax, and threaten, but you’re wasting your time. The self-preservation instinct trumps any training. So I cut my guys some slack when the shooting – and the temperature – are hot.

Be safe out there.

“Sit!” And I mean you.

Sitting or lying down will help keep your dog in one place for a little rest … better still if you do the same.

Early in the season, we’re “warming up” in so many ways. Dogs are applying skills honed over the summer, we are testing our shooting abilities once again. All those lessons learned during the off-season are being put into action … or are they? Sometimes, a friendly reminder of the more subtle aspects might help. Here’s one:

So, you made it to the top of that chukar hill. Or battled your way through that dog-hair thicket in search of ruffies … and now it’s time for a breather. You sip some water, swap stories with your buddy, maybe nibble a snack.

Your dog paces back and forth, circles you both, slaloms between our legs, and just won’t sit still. He looks, beseechingly, at his hero (you) for direction, a command, something that gives him purpose for the next few minutes. But you’re fully invested in a joke involving a duck, a rabbi and a waitress.

Eventually your dog wanders off unnoticed, and when you’re dropping shells into your shotgun he’s nowhere to be found. When you eventually do find him, he’s worn out because he didn’t rest when you did.

The solution is simple. “Sitting still” starts with sitting. And I’m thinking that maybe a dog isn’t convinced you’re resting unless you’re sitting (or lying down, but that may be going too far). That’s what he does, his littermates did, his pack does. It’s body language in its simplest form. Doggy see, doggy do. Or doesn’t, if you’re not sitting.

So find a tree to lean on, or at least a dry spot to plop yourself down. Your dog will too. It might take a leash to keep him there, but you brought one, right? Offer him water, maybe a snack too. Pick a shady spot if it’s warm, wind-sheltered nook if it’s cold. Once he’s stopped panting, he’s rested and cooled off, ready for the next covert. And you know exactly where he is.

This tip brought to you by the Dogtra T&B DUAL 2-dog training collar. Learn more here.

Many hands, yada, yada, yada.

Birds make a bird dog. So do new places, incremental training challenges, distractions, and peer “pressure.”

A small training group is the perfect laboratory: for measuring your own training progress, seeing how others train, for your dogs’ socialization and advancement. If you’re selfish, check out now. Because the rest of this blog is about mutual benefit.

Newbie or nimrod, if you’re not learning from everyone else’s successes and mistakes you’re simply not paying attention. Or don’t care (see previous paragraph and please check out). Or you’re dead (and permanently checked out). A group can simulate the mob scene of hunt test galleries/judges – your dogs need that conditioning and so do you. “Many hands make light work,” planting birds, gunning, holding a checkcord. Who doesn’t appreciate a sincere acknowledgment of a job well done by dog or human?

Unless you consider yourself the dog training equivalent of Stephen Hawking, someone will eventually say or do something that is pretty damn useful. And vice-versa. Perspective is a two-way street. Wisdom is not reserved for the mature, great ideas come from every quarter. Questions lead to surprisingly insightful answers, sometimes from unlikely sources. If you’re not pondering all that happened on the way home (or in our case, while draining an IPA together) you are not getting your money’s worth from your group.

Some things simply can’t be done solo. Realistic training on everything from steadiness to shooting, for example. How many training scenarios have you created, then wished you had one more hand? Or you need birds. Launchers. Bigger yard. Or a steady dog to back. Or someone to bounce ideas past. An answerer-of-dumb-questions. Maybe you just want to know you’re not screwing up your dog. You get the idea.

And that’s before you measure your contribution to your own circle, the sport, habitat and those just starting out. As was said many years ago, “lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.” Which are you?

By Scott Linden, Wingshooting USA TV

You’re a dedicated hunter. Or field trialer. For all I know, you do agility too. Maybe, all of them … plus a bench show once every while. When you need a boost, it’s easy to guzzle a Red Bull, or stop at Starbucks. Maybe it’s a Snickers bar. And if you’re smart, you’ve been going to the gym regularly.

But your dog can’t do any of those. And on the second day of a hunt or at call-up time in a field trial he needs a boost. But none of your go-to solutions will help, and may even hurt, your dog’s performance.

I hunt chukars for fun and have learned the hard way. When you’re in the middle of nowhere, you and your dog are on your own.

Of course, good physical conditioning is first. You are developing an elite athlete. Get him in shape and he’ll hunt longer and better. But when “go time” comes, what you put into him – and when – is critical.

Out there in the field, you both are at the mercy of your physical fitness and fuel. It’s too late for the former, but as for the latter, here’s what I do. It might just help you and your dog, too.

  1. In the bowl

Alright, what do you feed your dog?Any two hunting dog owners will probably offer three opinions on the subject. With the dog food industry constantly changing along with their products, it pays to stay on top of things. Ingredients, formulas, additives, all are worth a long look. Consider some things I’ve learned:

Hunting dogs need protein. At least 30 percent. In most high protein dog food formulations, fat will usually run in the 20-22 percent range and it’s critical for energy (they use fat much like we use carbohydrates – more on this later). Some of us feed higher ratios of each, but a discussion with your vet, and careful monitoring of your dog’s waistline are in order before you go much above those ratios.

Grain, or grain-free? Hunters have been feeding corn and wheat-based food for decades to good effect. Talk to your vet if you’re concerned about grain. There are plenty of other carbohydrate sources, from potatoes to rice and most food will have one or more that fit your dog’s needs.

If you plan to ramp up the fat and protein pre-season, start feeding the good stuff at least 60 days prior to the first hunt so all the nutrients have time to positively affect muscles, skin and bone.

Good protein sources include the various fresh meat or fish meals, “real” meat, fish, or eggs. Lower-quality and less-digestible (more waste) versions include meat and chicken byproducts, bone meal, corn and other grain products. If you find your dog has frequent ear infections, rash, or is constantly scratching, consult a vet and look at food allergies (often, a protein source or grain) as well as the other causes.

  1. When to feed

Just as important as what you feed is when you feed. There are simple mechanical reasons not to feed your dog the morning of a hunt. An empty gastrointestinal tract has nothing that could rattle around in there.

Try this experiment: Take off your sock (representing your dog’s stomach and intestinal track), drop your car keys (ersatz “dog food”) into it. Hold it horizontally by it’s top and toe, and the dog food will settle in the heel. Then jiggle it, swing it back and forth, whip it around a little like a dog on the hunt would. Jump a fence or two. All that weight will make the sock swing, bounce up and down, and possibly even twist. Veterinarians call it gastro volvulus and it is often fatal.

Your dog’s athletic performance is another concern. Studies by Purina and others have shown than a dog with food in its gut runs slower, is less agile, and has less stamina than one hunting on an empty stomach. Run a marathon after gobbling a pizza, and you’ll get the idea.

Another good reason: the gut is not using the body’s finite amount of energy to digest food when it could be fueling active muscles that are chasing birds.

  1. During the hunt

No guilt trips here, because your dog’s metabolism is unlike yours. Sending your dog into the field without breakfast will have no ill effects. Unless he’s got other health problems, he won’t develop “low blood sugar,” which is really called “hunting dog hypoglycemia.” The symptoms are disorientation, weakness, and, in some cases, seizures taking place generally after one or two hours of vigorous exercise and usually avoidable by limiting feeding in the morning, and offering protein during the hunt.

Because dogs get their version of instant energy from fat, if you can’t resist giving Gunner something during the hunt, offer a high-fat snack that won’t fill his belly (minimizing the risk of stomach twist). You can make your own, or simply offer him the innards of your sandwich. The problem is, even the greasiest corned-beef sandwich only has 19% fat. (If you’re reading this, you know there is a much better solution – my Dog Energy Bar.) The key is low volume, high fat to keep the belly as empty as possible.

Of course, you can’t go wrong with offering water frequently – it keeps a dog cool as well as hydrated, facilitating blood flow to the muscles where it replenishes red cells and maximizes stamina. Make life simple on both of you by carrying a bota (wine skin) or the modern equivalent. Teach your dog to drink from it just like you, so there is no need to drag a bowl or sacrifice your hat as a substitute.

  1. After the hunt

What dog food brand you feed, I’ll leave to those who inhabit the online chat rooms. It’s the other stuff you put in your dog’s belly at the end of the day that might be the difference between a boot-polisher and a superstar the next day.

A number of studies (on sled dogs and bird dogs) and some long discussions with research vets and field trialers have convinced me that what you do at the end of the hunt day is critical if you want maximum performance from your dog the next day, and the next.

Unlike during the hunt when fat is critical, your objective at the end of the day is to give your dog’s muscles the cell-repairing glycogen (a carbohydrate) they need. Done right, research shows your dog’s muscle cells can achieve up to a 95% recovery rate overnight. Based on current science and practical experience, here’s a strategy:

  1. Immediately after your dog is done hunting (within 15 minutes) provide water mixed with maltodextrin (see package directions for dosage). Maltodextrin is a tasteless white powder (a derivative of corn) that a dog’s body converts to glycogen. One brand I like is “Glycocharge.” It’s liver flavored and quite palatable to a dog, I’m told – no, I didn’t taste-test it!
  2. Do not add it to food. The fat in dog food inhibits the uptake of the nutrients in the maltodextrin. Waiting to feed also minimizes risk of stomach twist.
  3. Feed your regular dog food 90 minutes after the water/maltodextrin is ingested.
  4. I’ll feed another dog-food snack just before bed to make up for some of the calorie loss from skipping breakfast. That gives a dog a good eight hours to process a bellyful and as you know well, empty the leftovers first thing in the morning. He’s ready to go without extra “baggage.”
  5. Want a superstar on four legs the next day? Bed him down in a warm crate on a thick, soft mattress or plenty of grass hay that prevents bones and joints from contact with hard surfaces. How would you hunt if you slept on the floor the night before?

CAUTION: Unlike humans, dogs shouldn’t “carbo load.” High-carbohydrate diets can contribute to a condition called “exertional rhabdomyolysis,” or “tying up,” which causes muscle pain and cramping, watery stool and dehydration. Feed a dog food that is “complete and balanced,” little if any junk food, and you shouldn’t have that problem.

Do you have more questions about the Dog Energy Bar? Nutrition information, how it works, and why, are all available at www.dogenergybar.com.

Hard to get mad at him. It’s probably “operator error.”

At the time, I thought it was a red herring … an excuse … a pro trainer’s nomenclature to make us feel um, well, less professional than them. But time and time again, I am reminded (and often humbled) that “place learning” is, as Millennials say, now a thing. Probably has been forever, if you harken back to your own training experience. Are you familiar with the term?

The basic concept: A dog learns a command on the training table. Give the same command on the ground, or in a different yard, or another time zone, and it may have been given in a foreign language. I’m a slow learner, but eventually I do learn that you may have to start over, or at least backpedal a bit. Maybe you, too, have learned this from the cruel mistress of experience.

More so (in my experience) in the agility, obedience, Schutzhund and other non-hunting dog worlds, it’s one reason trainers recommend a dog be trained in so many different places. The number varies, but the concept is sound: a dog associates the command with the location. Only by “re-training” it in other spots does he finally, accurately, do what you want no matter the “place.”

For many it’s the best reason to send their dogs to a prairie “summer camp.” Or, a pro trainer. Or, to attend training days. Anyplace (else) is better than the same-old, same-old.

I was jarred into remembering this simple concept again today – maybe I need to practice dog handling in more locations! Flick is a rock star, steady to wing-shot-fall anywhere within 100 yards of his training yard. Our yard adjoins public ground, where we train a lot. For steadiness, Flick’s “bailiwick of excellence” is about a football-field’s length from my back fence. There are trails and abandoned dirt roads clearly defining that space, but I didn’t believe it was as obvious to him until an experiment today.

Having learned the hard way in recent days, I planted one pigeon within the zone of compliance. Result: as expected, a textbook point through the downed bird … even a bonus retrieve to hand. Chest puffed and head held high, I hied him across the old road where I secreted another bird in a shrub. Flick worked into the scent cone, crossing the dirt track, from familiar territory into the danger zone. The point lasted all of a few seconds and then all hell broke loose. The only good news was, Flick didn’t catch the bird.

So we weren’t set back to Square One. But we are starting again at about Square Three … checkcord and half-hitch, stage-managed so yours truly is always holding or stepping on it to ensure compliance. I can’t be lazy and plant birds at my convenience – longer walks are the order of the day – but with luck Flick will remember most of his training when he’s in new territory.

So next time it seems like your dog has been replaced by an evil twin, don’t necessarily blame him. Blame your location.

Admit it, you too woke up in a cold sweat one recent night. “MY GOD! There’s so much left to do and there’s only (blank) weeks until opening day!”

Here, it’s polishing Flick’s steadiness: when he hits scent, when the bird flies, falls, or just stands there as the pup rounds a corner and gets a glimpse before he hits scent. My gentle version of force-fetch training is going well, and only a wild bird situation on a high chukar hill will prove (or disprove) my theory.

Your dog(s), your plans, may be different. But we are fast approaching the “triage” time of year, when shortcuts and compromises become part of our thought process. Are you there yet? I am trying not to settle yet for noncompliance in the above areas yet, but am mentally prepared for an all-hell-breaking-loose scenario on that first morning. It’s the best reason to open a season hunting solo.

In our little training group, every dog is at a different point in their career and that makes things interesting. We all get a new perspective, can see where our dog stands in the evolution toward “finished.” Watching a pup grow mentally and physically is therapeutic. Many of us, I’ll bet, breathe a sigh of relief at being even just a little farther along with our own dog.

We can help by sharing success stories and horror stories so someone else moves forward faster – or doesn’t do the silly things we all did! We get encouragement and feedback, and a few beers over good conversation.

So, what are you working on? And more importantly, HOW?

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