Archive for the ‘bird hunting’ Category

Once he slams the point, it’s all about obedience.

Electronic training collars have many uses, but until recently I avoided using one around birds like a dog avoids baths. But once you figure out that steadiness on birds is a two-part process, your outlook might change. Mine did. First, a dog instinctively slams into a tail-stiffening point. That part, we all get. A whiff of bird scent or sight of a bird should take care of that unless your dog’s pedigree included a cardboard box and hand-lettered “you pick” sign.

The second part of the sequence (“steadiness”) is where I’ve just become enlightened, thanks again to Bob Farris, trainer and NAVHDA judge.  In the hunt test judging process, the point is the first stage of judging – i.e., does the dog have the genetic programming to point when prey is upwind of him. But the judging criteria change the moment the dog sees you in the picture, literally or figuratively. That is where the canine rubber meets the obedience road.

Manny (and I’d bet, all “finished” dogs) needs training to stay on point until I want him to 1) see the bird drop, getting ready for the retrieve or 2) continue to hunt after my release, because I missed again. When he enters a scent cone, Manny assumes an elegant point, leg up and forward a bit. But a few moments of staring at the source of enticing smell, a walking, flapping bird or – worse – a flushing bird, will test any dog’s resolve. It’s just natural to chase, so the key is making it clear he’s been ordered to stand still.

Some use the usual verbal or hand signal. Some transition to a secret-code heel shuffle other noise or gesture that field trial judges might overlook. I’m figuring that for us the key is treating that part of the point-steady drill for what it is: an obedience situation. Until this revelation, I was loathe to use any “enforcer” stronger than a checkcord, gut hitch or tap on Manny’s flank. I feared an e-collar might sour a dog to birds – especially if I had to use it.

But if he’s been thoroughly drilled in “whoa” with many and different distractions, birds simply become another distraction from the command he knows so well.  Tempting, sure, but just a sidebar to an obedience test. Now that I’ve gotten over that, we’ve made some quantum leaps.

So far, Manny’s only been lit up (gently) a couple times. These days, merely seeing me holding the transmitter is enough to keep him steady with birds flapping in his face, “covey flushes” at his feet, and even birds perching on his back. Today, twice, we had flawless training sessions. Tomorrow, who knows? But I feel like we’re on the right track.

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Life is complicated. Why not capitalize on the tips and sage advice from those who have already been there and done that. Here are some suggestions that may come in handy next time you’re afield …

– Use as low a volume to deliver your voice commands as will work in your situation. Dogs hear better than us and may construe unnecessary volume as anger.

– 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.

– Set out and light your camp lantern before dark. You may have a hard time finding it after the sun sets.

– 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.

– One of the best fire starters is a tangerine-sized ball of duct tape.

– 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.

– Gates are designed to keep cows in, or out. Leave open gates open, closed gates closed.

– For quick energy, change your socks in the middle of the day. Your feet sweat eight ounces a day. Fresh, dry socks mean a happy hunter.

– Move cows off a road with slow, gradual “body language.” Don’t get too close, but walk toward them slowly, arms outstretched scarecrow style and pushing in the direction you want them to go. There is a sweet spot – not too close – that will push cattle without splitting the herd. Yelling, running, waving your hat will induce panic and a potential stampede – usually in the wrong direction. With several hunters, set up a picket line all moving together. If you’re driving and want to split a herd to get through, be mindful that calves will blindly follow their mothers so go slow and use your peripheral vision to avoid surprisingly-nimble youngsters.

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More open choke, more birds in the bag.

In the days of silk fly lines, English fly anglers would utter “God save the queen,” before setting the hook. This gave the trout time to take the fly in his mouth and turn, setting the hook himself rather than the angler pulling it away too soon. I’m convinced it’s good advice for bird hunters too, for a slightly different reason. When it comes to shooting, I try to live by the axiom “Good things come to those who wait.”

Most shots on birds connect at 25 yards, maybe 30, tops. Doubt that? Step off the next five birds you drop (not the ones that get away) and see where they got hit. They may land farther away than 30 yards, but that’s physics, momentum, trajectory.

If you’ve patterned your shotgun, you know an improved cylinder choke at 30 yards only makes a pattern about three feet in diameter. At 20 yards, it’s tiny. With that condensed shot cloud there is little chance of actually hitting something. It’s why we can flock-shoot and still miss every bird … the holes between birds can be bigger than our shot pattern!

And even with more open chokes, it pays to wait a moment longer before mounting the gun and pulling the trigger.

When the birds fly, take a moment to focus, and I don’t mean just your eyes, but your head, too. Your pattern will open up, evening the odds a bit, and with more space between covey birds, you might not flock shoot … as often.

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Your response to last week’s post was most gratifying. So here are some more ideas and suggestions to make this season’s hunting more productive and more fun … for you and your dog.

– Chukar hunters should be loath to give up altitude. If you are finding birds at one elevation, stay there, sidehilling to cover ground. Unless there’s a good reason, don’t follow escaping birds down the hill only to have to climb it again.

– 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.

– Introduce all current and new dogs to each other on neutral territory. When picking up new puppies we meet in the breeder’s yard, not mine, and avoid turf battles. The same strategy works with dogs that are going to hunt together.

– Having trouble getting your dog to give up whatever he’s got in his mouth? Gently pinch the loose skin on his flank, or blow sharply right into his nose. If that won’t work, toss your hat or something else into his line of sight – he might chase after it, dropping the bird.

– Lost your dog? Track into the wind, as there’s a good chance he got a whiff of something attractive like a deer, possum or female dog. Notify mail carriers, etc. Put a shirt you’ve worn, along with a bowl of water, where you last saw him and check back in the morning.

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

– As you approach a bird to flush it, don’t look where the bird is sitting – look in the general direction you expect it to fly. Your eyes (let alone your gun muzzle) can’t move as fast as a flushing bird and you’ll likely shoot behind it.

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Activate the remote reliably by holding so the prongs face the base of the beeper.

“Playing the game means treating your dogs like gentlemen, and your gentlemen like dogs.”
Ted Tally, Terra Nova

I am grateful to everyone who has taken me hunting: friends, club members, professional guides, dog trainers, outfitters, and lodge and preserve operators. From each, I’ve heard fascinating stories, seen some incredible country, and gleaned bits and pieces of information that I now share with you.

Next time you are lucky enough to be invited hunting, be sure to savor the experience, not just for the birds in the bag but for the knowledge and insights you’ll have gained. Acknowledge the provider appropriately with a quid-pro-quo, something in a bottle, or a heartfelt “thank you.”

Had I known I was going to write a book when I started jotting down these tips I could thank everyone personally. You know who you are, and please know that I appreciate your contributions to my, and now many others’, hunting experiences.

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

– Use small bits of uncooked hot dog as your food reward when training pup. Dogs swallow them after one quick chomp so aren’t distracted from your next command by noisy, crunchy chewing. They also emit quite an aroma so have long-distance reward value.

– Want another reason to approach your dog from the front? He’s not right under the muzzle blast and its deafening effect. He’ll have one less excuse for not hearing your commands.

– When training a complex command, start with the last part and add the other parts in reverse order. When you get to the beginning, it will be a downhill ride.

– 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.

– Sports shows – especially on the last day – can be a bargain-hunters’ paradise, whether you’re shopping for gear or a guided trip.

– You might have better luck getting a lost dog returned to you if you change the information on his collar tag. Leave his name off – fewer bad guys are interested in stealing a dog whose name they don’t know because he will be less likely to respond to the thief’s commands. Avoid engraving “Reward,” then your phone numbers on the tag. It could encourage ransom requests. Instead, put “Requires daily medication.” Good-hearted folk will work hard to return your dog, and baddies will avoid a dog that might cost them money.

– 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.

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Won’t get fooled again … or will he?

Every once in a while, I’m reminded that we are sometimes smarter than our dogs. Using that slight mental advantage when training might be of value to you. I’ll use sleight of hand to keep my guys on their toes, surprised, ready for anything. Or, to simply break up routines and avoid getting stuck in ruts. Either way, they’re thinking, situationally aware and paying attention. And those are good things. See if these magic acts make sense to you.

Dogs that jump up probably have a good reason. Often I’ve got a bowl of food in my hand. I want Manny to “heel” alongside me enroute to his crate where he eats as I deliver his bowl. But his walking is more like a series of hops, as he’s hoping to get at the bowl before we get to the crate.


Yesterday I switched hands, put my body between bowl and dog, out of sight. I got a sequence of nice, polite walking at heel all the way to the crate. It’s not as flashy as a rabbit out of a hat, but it worked.

Sometimes at the glimpse of a training bird, a fired-up pup can’t contain himself, spinning, jumping, and whining out of control. So I keep the bird well hidden until I can spring it my unsuspecting dog. The shock factor is often enough to freeze him in his tracks – eliciting a point.

I can think of a number of ways to outsmart a dog some of the time. Hiding from a pup in the field encourages him to stay aware of your location. Put two planted birds in the same spot, then flushing one while the dog points the other could help him hold steady through the first bird’s flight.

Surreptitiously dropping a bird while out walking, then asking your dog to “hunt dead” gets the drop on him, too. Even walking to a shot bird to pick it up yourself rather than let your dog retrieve it could be considered a trick.

Hiding food treats so their provision is an unexpected surprise is almost a Magic 101-level trick, but it works. But don’t torment your trainee. If you praise with food treats, be upfront when you’re not using them. I show my empty hands to my dogs before I ask them to do something for which they are accustomed to getting a tidbit.

Manny gets an adrenaline rush when he spots his e-collar. He is wiggling so much, I can barely get the collar on him. So I’ll hide it in my vest, give him 60 seconds of unbounded joy outside the gate, then call him and slip on the collar without all the drama of a minute ago.

The list goes on and on. Think about how you need to dial down, change up or otherwise alter the status quo with your dog. A magic trick up your sleeve might be just what you need.

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If you’re lucky, you hunt frequently. If you’re real lucky, your dog stays healthy and well-conditioned all season. I don’t trust to luck alone, though.

What you put into them, and when, is critical.

What you put into them, and when, is critical.

At the end of a hunt, I want to help my dog recover for the next day in the field. 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.

I give my dogs’ muscles the cell-repairing glycogen (a carbohydrate) they need. Done consistently, research shows muscles can experience up to a 95 percent recovery rate overnight. Based on current science and my practical experience, here’s one way:

  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. Any nutritional supplement store catering to body builders will have the plain stuff; one dog-specific brand I like is “Glycocharge.” Its liver flavored and quite palatable to a dog. I’ve never seen a dog refuse to drink this concoction.
  2. Do not add maltodextrin to food. The fat in dog food inhibits the uptake of the nutrients in the maltodextrin.
  3. Give it time to be absorbed. Wait at least another hour and a half before feeding. I feed close to a full daily ration in a single feeding because I don’t feed my dogs the morning of a hunt. And when I feed, I’ll add a powdered pork fat supplement and mix it all with plenty of water. This should help with the calorie deficit sure to develop over weeks of hunting.

There are a number of bars, powders and other forms of glycogen or protein to be given before or during a hunt. Being low volume, they probably don’t do any harm, and may do some good. But if you think about the physiological processes, particularly how nutrients are absorbed and metabolized, most won’t do much good until the next day if they haven’t been pooped or peed out before then.

Yes, your dog will lose weight during a long season, in part from his hard work and partly because you’re not feeding him on the morning of a hunt day. But the added fat and larger portion in the evening should keep him firing on all eight cylinders until you both get home and return to couch-potato status until the next trip.

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