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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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Read on, because this might change your mind …

GPS will fail. Maps are always there for you.

GPS will fail. Maps are always there for you.

“Don’t leave home without it” was a popular advertising catch phrase a couple decades ago. While originally for a credit card, as a bird hunter’s maxim it still holds true. Over the years, I’ve forgotten shotguns, sleeping bags and on a particularly hectic day I almost left a dog in the front yard. Starting on the long drive following one of those debacles, and then over the years on my blog with help from fans (thanks everyone!), I created what is now the “Ultimate Upland Checklist.”

If you’ve ever left your ammo languishing on the porch or beer in the fridge, this list is dedicated to you. NASA doesn’t launch a space flight without a checklist, neither should you start a hunt without the confidence that comes from knowing you have all the necessary gear. When the nearest town is 254 miles away and your dog is bleeding, I hope you will see the wisdom in this document.

A free download of the whole list is available here. Meanwhile, here is a sampling of some of the gear you might not have thought of … but should.

For your dog:

He's ready ... are you?

He’s ready … are you?

Our dogs often get short shrift when it comes to so-called “luxuries,” but think about how much better he’ll perform if he is safe, well-nourished, warm, dry, and rested. Bring a high-fat, low-volume supplement for quick in-field energy. Dogs process fat like we do simple carbohydrates. A full gut not only impedes performance, it brings some risk of bloat and stomach twist. Carry something that delivers a lot of fat calories and little bulk.

Tie-out stakes give dogs a change of scenery and a chance to safely stretch their legs at lunch stops or final destinations. A big envelope contains a “Lost Dog” kit including records of his microchip number, photo, license number and flyers to post in the area with your cell phone number prominent (add a home or local where cell service is spotty). Duct tape is the cheapest dog boot you’ll find.

Camp:

Folding lawn chairs make campfires more comfortable. A vapor barrier under your tent floor adds ten degrees of warmth by preventing moisture from seeping into your aging bones. Zip-style plastic bags hold dog snacks, cleaned birds, choke tubes and those wild strawberries you found along that grouse ridge.

On to the hunt:

If you’ve ever been 143 miles from home with a broken firing pin, you know to pack a spare shotgun. A soft gun case or sock protects my shooter when I’m too lazy to break it down for stowage in a hard case. Stash a spare truck key somewhere on the vehicle and a partner. A headlamp trumps hand-held flashlights while plucking, cooking and answering Nature’s call in the wee small hours (pardon the pun).

For the record, everyone should be carrying the “ten essentials”: duct tape, paracord, map and compass, waterproof matches and alternate fire starter, space blanket, aluminum foil, water purification tabs or filter plus container, whistle and multi-tool. Find a spot in the truck for chargers, 12-volt adapters and user manuals for all your electronics. No explanation required, right? Add reading glasses if you’re over forty.

Your own kit:

You’ll be the envy of bird camp when you break out a boot dryer. Brush chaps are handy when you need them and easy to stow when you don’t. A real bandanna of silk or rayon (from a western or ranch store) performs as a neck warmer, pot holder, sling, bandage, and sweatband. “Town shoes” are like wearing pillows on your feet after a day in the hills, and add a touch of panache to your big night out in Hobson, MT, pop. 214.

Your vehicle:

The newest generation of rechargeable jump-starters will fit in a glove compartment. Last season, I learned the hard way that even the most up-to-date GPS may not have your destination in its database, so pack paper maps. A recovery or “jerk” strap takes you from zero to hero when someone else’s truck is stuck in a ditch.

Why not bring it?

You may not need all of this gear, maybe not even most of it. But when I’m not making television shows, I often hunt the darkest spot on a night-time satellite photo of the continental U.S. It is an unforgiving landscape, where everything scratches, bites or stings you, and a false step could be your last. In that desolate place, you are farther from a hospital (and a Starbucks) than anywhere in the lower 48. I’d rather bring it and not use it than limp, shiver or bleed while wishing I had.

So download the list (here), customize it to meet your needs, and the next time we pass on the highway, we’ll both be headed toward a birdy covert rather than home again to grab those gosh-darned tent poles.

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From last week’s trip … learn more about this fascinating bird and how to hunt it.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou make lists, check them twice … and no, it’s not Christmas, it’s the opening of bird season. Pile stuff in a corner or right into the truck, check off the last training goals. Make plans, book trips. But as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

Here are 13 reminders that might come in handy somewhere in the field or along the way. Have a great season!

– If your dog is licking all the medicine off a wound, put something tastier on another accessible part of his body.

– As the day goes on and ground heats up, warm air rises from the bottom of draws, valleys, river canyons, creating an uphill or upstream breeze almost everywhere. As the sun rises, hunt from above the best bird hideouts and you’ll help your dog intercept scent as he leads you along a ridgeline or down a draw.

– Do you own a TriTronics Upland G3 Special? Turning on the beeper remotely from the collar is sometimes a sketchy situation. Try this: once you’ve pressed the button on the beeper to turn it on, hold the collar so the prongs on the battery unit face the base of the beeper. Then hit the green button on the handheld transmitter to turn it off.

– The best bedding in an outside dog kennel or house is grass hay. It breaks down slower than straw and makes less dust. Cedar shavings are pretty strong-smelling and might impact a dog’s scenting ability.

– Remove the entrails of shot birds immediately after they’re retrieved to help them cool quickly. In wintry conditions, stuff some snow into the body cavity. Scuff a hole in the dirt and bury the guts – unless your dog is riding in the back of the truck – bird innards are fart fuel.

– When fogged-over shooting glasses leave you stranded in a pea-soup of your own making, turn your hat around. Put the bill in back where it won’t catch your exhaled breath, hang around your glasses, and condense on the lens.

– Burning eyes and fatigue are common early signs of dehydration in humans.

– Having trouble opening that barbed-wire gate? Can’t get the post into the wire loop? Before you pull the gate toward the post that’s anchored in the ground, stretch the top strand of the gate wire by pulling from the middle to stretch it. If that doesn’t help, make sure you’ve put the bottom of the post as far as possible into the wire loop located at ground level. If you’re lucky enough to find a short pole anchored by a length of wire to the nearby post you’re trying to reach, loop it through the gate and apply some leverage.

– All the modern electronic gizmos we take outdoors these days are worthless without instructions, so pack them in your kit as well. Don’t forget your reading glasses either (equally useful when doctoring dogs).

– If you carry one of those Mylar “space blankets” in your survival kit, check it every year for age-related rips. I opened mine once and found that every fold had become a full-length tear. Luckily, it was at home, not in the woods on a cold, rainy night.

– Permethrin is the most effective tick spray, if you use it right. That means applying it to your clothing before you venture out. Hang, spray, and let dry for at least two hours before you put it on. In formulations for clothing, it is not appropriate for dogs.

– Warm up by fueling your internal furnace. Carbohydrates burn fastest, proteins slowest. Best is a snack food that offers both for sustained energy.

– Buy a bandanna. Silk or rayon, get the big ones that real buckaroos wear, available at farm supply and western stores. Keeps your neck – and the rest of your body, in turn – warm. A multitude of other uses around camp from sweatband to oven mitt.

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scott_dogs-56

Thanks for all your questions. They make me think (a lot) and prompt even more questions in my mind. If my answers help you, all the better. Here are some of my favorites:

Q: Scott, I love the dogs that you hunt. I personally hunt German Shorthairs. I was wondering about the range of the Wirehairs. I really need a dog that covers more ground than my Shorthair. That way the wide running dog would complement the close dog.

A: Before you make that investment, think about your close-working dogs … are they close because they find birds close? In more open country, with sparser bird concentrations, do they range farther? Probably not a wire in your future, then. Mine will stretch out in sparse cover if the birds are scattered, but they’ll also hunt close in the puckerbrush or when birds are thick. Wires are not typically big runners; in fact, your shorthairs may run bigger. If you want more range than that, maybe an English Pointer is in your future.

Q: How suitable are Brittany’s for quail hunting? Are they too energetic to halt and hold point?

A: Some of the best quail dogs in pro Rick Smith’s string are Britts. Energetic is an asset; uncontrolled chaos is not. Like any pointing breed, a Brittany can be taught that he must find and point birds, staying steady until asked to move on or retrieve.

Q: Scott, what are some methods to try with a dog that has a hard mouth or who is prone to chomping a bird on the retrieve? (not eating, just zealous death chomps).

A: Usually, I’ve been content to get a bird back, period. “Zealous death chomp” is not only a great name for a heavy metal band, but tolerated at times by this trainer. If it’s not truly “hard mouth” resulting in torn-up or swallowed birds, try shooting better so all the birds are good and dead before your dog retrieves? (That’s a little joke – I’m the last guy to be making suggestions like that.) But seriously, a live bird that flaps, flops, squawks or scratches is a bummer for your dog, no wonder he wants to quiet it down. Practice with dead birds for a while. The ultimate solution, though, is force training – the entire retrieve becomes an obedience skill with no tolerance for chomping.

Q: What is the best way to break a dog from jumping into the air to catch a bird on the flush?

A: If it’s a pointing breed, go back to steadiness training and “whoa.” If it’s a flushing breed, give him a dog biscuit for his spirit. Then, teach “hup,” with verbal and whistle commands – the dog should sit on the flush or command, or the shot, and not retrieve until commanded. No matter the breed or the weight of your game bag, don’t shoot low birds.

Q: I am an older hunter and am interested in getting a calmer-bred upland bird dog. Which one would you recommend?

A: Some of the versatile breeds may be just what the veterinarian ordered. “Ugly dogs” like the Spinone Italiano or Wirehaired Pointing Griffons generally hunt closer and slower than other breeds. The Clumber Spaniel is like a Springer in slow motion. Or, a field-bred cocker spaniel, once trained, will hunt close, and with such little legs, they can’t get up much speed!

Q: Scott, how and what have you found to help with the passing of one of your own dogs after they have celebrated their hunting career with you?

A: This one is tough and I’m sorry if you lost a dog recently. I’ll never get over the companionship, hard work and loyalty my dogs showed me. That’s the principal reason I make my TV show. To show my gratitude and respect, I wear my dogs’ collar tags on my whistle lanyard. I know someone who puts their dogs’ collars under the driver’s seat of their truck. Paintings, impressions of pawprints, you’ll find something that reminds you of the good times you had hunting with them.

Q: How can you overcome a young dog that seems lethargic when yard training? My six-month-old wirehaired Vizsla has all the energy in the world in the field but when training in the yard he tends to have a lot of quit in him.

A: Usually, yard work is booooooring to a dog. Remember your worst job? It’s like that, which is why they gave you money to do it. Offer praise, treats or whatever reward serves as your dog’s “paycheck.” Yard training is especially dull if it moves slowly, with little challenge or progression in skill level. Or worse, when birds aren’t part of the equation. Bring birds and I bet he’ll perk up. Be methodical in how you progress from basic skill to more advanced work, but keep it moving forward, even if you experience setbacks periodically. Raise the bar, challenge your dog regularly, and make it fun.

Q: I have a one-year-old Lab. She is very smart and well behaved until we have guests. She will jump up, bark, and whine when she normally doesn’t. What are some ways of correcting this behavior?

A: At least you didn’t mention crotch sniffing! Short answer: gradual conditioning, baby steps. Identify and eliminate triggers (doorbell, for example). Teach obedience: sit, stay, quiet. Keep the energy level low. Put some distance between the dog and the guest, working closer and closer as the dog remains calm and on task with the command. Be ready to correct, i.e. praise when she obeys, and move guest and dog closer together over many practice sessions. I’ve found that yelling doesn’t help – it actually can raise the excitement level and things spiral out of control faster.

Q: Do you typically recommend pet insurance for a hunting dog?

A: I’ve looked at this question frequently (usually after a spendy vet visit), and if you have ready access to cash, the short answer is no. If you can’t afford an expensive emergency but can afford a monthly premium, invest in it. One consumer magazine I read studied the question and found it seldom pencils out in the long run.

Q: I am working with two English Pointers. A two year old male that is a natural and a three year old female that has some issues. If both dogs are working the field together the male takes the lead and the female tends to sit back and not hunt. In addition, when the female is hunting with the male she is very aggressive toward the birds and tends to not hold point. Is there a way to train them to hunt together? And will the female learn from the male?

A: I’d hunt them separately – maybe forever. The female will learn from the male, acquiring both good and bad habits. She will never be bold and independent if she can let the male do the heavy lifting. And as you’ve learned, she has a competitive streak that causes her to break point. That probably isn’t doing the male any good either. He might start busting birds too. Save yourself some anxiety and hunt them one at a time.

Q: What is proper etiquette when hunting your dog with someone else’s dog for the first time?

A: Most of the time, everyone is happier when you hunt dogs singly. Alternate them, then compare and contrast their styles at the end of the day over a tall cold one. Dogs need to be trained to hunt as a brace, must honor each other’s points and retrieves, and obviously need to get along. If you must hunt them at the same time, try spreading out – way out – and effectively hunting by yourselves. If that doesn’t discourage you, introduce the dogs on neutral ground with leashes loose so they are not feeling your stress, and if possible hunt dogs of opposite sex together.

Q: What are the pros and cons of a pointer versus a flushing dog?

A: Both have their advantages and disadvantages. A flusher will probably be ready to perform reliably a season sooner than a pointer, because you don’t have to work on steadying the dog while on point. But if you are dazzled by a staunch point, you’ll be willing to wait a season. On the other hand, few feelings match that of the constant adrenaline flow following a close-working flusher. Both need training to retrieve reliably.

 

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Now would be a good time to give a command - he's looking at you, and not distracted by something more fun.

Now would be a good time to give a command – he’s looking at you, and not distracted by something more fun.

In the past I’ve talked about “tells,” those little signs that clue you to when your dog is getting birdy, or ready for direction, or in need of correction. I’ve also mentioned timing your commands, praise and correction for that “golden moment,” when he’s amenable to them. But just like those indicators of readiness, there are times when you’re wasting your breath and your emotional energy. You can yell, scream, jump up and down, or do cartwheels and your dog will steadfastly ignore you.

It think it was legendary pro trainer Delmar Smith who said “never give a dog a chance to fail.” I take that to mean don’t expend training capital – or sanity – giving commands that are destined to be ignored. The dog still learns, but not what you hoped to teach. He learns he can get away with murder.

As a dog matures and training progresses, he will be more likely to listen to you and pay less attention to the siren song of roadkill. It is a gradual and cumulative process but early on, keep your expectations at an appropriate level.

What kind of clues should inspire you to stow your whistle? Some are obvious. My guy Buddy is a digger. When he’s bored and there are no birds he’s happy enough hunting ground squirrels. Once he’s digging, there is no point in my asking, telling, imploring or threatening. He’s in predator mode, single-minded and focused on the critter that is frantically tunneling away at warp speed.

Virtually any distraction has the same effect on a dog brain. They are linear thinkers after all, one idea at a time. Run. Stop. Pee. Run. Smell critter. Run toward it. There’s no room for other thoughts during this process, so don’t try to intervene. A dog in hot pursuit of a whitetail is not going to “whoa.”

Other dogs, people, and sounds can distract a dog and flummox a command. Breath deep, give it a minute, wait for your opportunity, then deliver your direction once there’s an open niche in the thought process. Right after he pees and before his hiked leg hits the ground is a perfect time. Following a good shake is another. While howling at a neighbor jogging past is not.

Hunger or anticipation of a meal is another deal breaker. Once a week I catch myself wondering why Manny won’t listen, let alone follow my clear direction. Then I look at the wall clock – it’s dinner time.

Or something in the wind will entice … and it doesn’t need to be bird scent. Dogs often react first to what their noses tell them. If you don’t give that new scent a beat or two to “sink in,” your command will fall on deaf furry ears. If you don’t catch him before that shoulder tuck, you probably won’t forestall a roll in that stinky dead critter.

With a dog, learning is a gradual progression of baby steps, leading to mastery of commands to the point of flawless obedience in the face of compelling distractions. The yin of your direction is constantly buoyed by the yang of sweet temptation. Only with repetition and gradual introduction of distractions can you tilt the balance in your favor. Even then, you’ll almost always lose out to roadkill.

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Want to get up here? Start working on it now.

Want to get up here? Start working on it now.

By my calculations, it’s only about 120 days until we can start chasing birds again. With the opener come all the joys and trepidation 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. Some has to wait until the night before, but some you can start working on now.

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. Now is the time to learn your way around your stuff. Then, you’ll be shooting the gun you shoot best, even if you bought a new one in the off season. Get to know that spare shotgun, too. New boots? Break them in now, when you have plenty of time to dial in your new stuff. On that first day you want to feel comfortable literally and figuratively. Ditto for the new e-collar or GPS, figure out all the bells and whistles now, so you can manipulate those buttons with your eyes closed.

Place: Who doesn’t love new hunting spots? The joy of discovery is addicting. But to start the season on the right foot, start doing your homework now. Often, it’s best to start the season hunting a spot you know. You will be more confident (read: shoot straighter) and you’ll have a better chance of finding birds (read: happy dog). If you simply can’t resist the siren song of a new covert, do your research, talk to the regional biologist now, when he is a little less harried, and hang that topo map on your office wall to study. Now’s the time to secure permission to hunt private property or “open to hunt” lands.

People: You might have an opening weekend tradition – I do. I invite the right hunting partner – the one who helps buy fuel and brings a spectacular lunch. He guns while I handle the dog if necessary, holding off when I’m working on steady to wing and shot. He knows not to shoot bumped birds. But the selection process takes a while and might be done best with some “practice” during dog training season.

Dogs: No baseball player skips spring training. No football player shirks the weight room. Neither should your dog (or you, for that matter). Make a list of what you want to fix from last season, setting both training and fitness goals. “If you’re dog’s fat, you need more exercise” is an apt cliché, not matter how hard you plan to hunt. Fit hunters handle opening day heat better, can hunt longer and more efficiently. Oh, so can your dog. Mobilize some buddies and meet weekly to work on pointing, retrieving, 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.

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