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“At six months old on our first hunt he was steady to wing, shot and fall … and delivered the bird gently to hand. At the end of the day, he mixed the perfect dry martini.”

You’ve all seen or heard this one. I only wish I’d said or written it, but not so lucky, I guess. There probably are versatile dogs that come out of the womb “finished,” but I’ve never met one and likely never will – I own wirehairs.

NAVHDA sees the occasional year-old or younger pup passing a utility test; AKC probably does as well. I doubt American Field or NSTRA have many, either – the demands of preparation for high-level performance are simply not conducive to a pup’s bones and joints, let alone his intellect. What that pup has been through to get to that point, we’ll never know. Maybe it all came naturally, but I’d suspect a lot of pressure and a less-than-ideal puppyhood, where the life-long bond between man and dog is supposed to be created … a connection based on trust, respect, measured tolerance of a young dog’s abilities and human’s expectations.

If you have a savant puppy who does it all, congratulations. You are among the storied few. I can’t wait to read your post and see your test results. If you aren’t in possession of a super-pup, welcome to my world.

I bring this up and scrape it off my chest because yesterday I was reminded – again – of a concept called “place learning.” Most have heard of, or experienced, the phenomenon: a pup is an all-star at recall … heeling … steadiness, when you’re on the training table or next to the big pine in your yard. Move to the small rhododendron or beyond the gate, and it’s as if you’re speaking a foreign language.

I’m saying this as a reminder to myself. If you benefit, all the better. From now on, in all skills, at all levels, the “baby steps” of progression will include geography: From the front walk, to the grass next to the front walk. From the front yard to the back yard, from the yard, to the driveway next to the yard, yada, yada, yada.

Professional trainers often suggest a dog hasn’t mastered a skill until he performs it flawlessly in seven places. With me and Flick, it will be a hundred and seven.

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I was fortunate enough to attend our local NAVHDA chapter’s training day and even help out a bit. It was a very positive and supportive session. The young dogs all exhibited strong potential and as the upcoming test implies, natural ability. And of course, our leadership did yeoman’s duty on organizing the event and the logistics leading up to it.

fter having been away from puppy training for many years, what was striking was how many of the fundamentals of young-dog training are still the most important. The challenges young dogs faced yesterday haven’t changed since I ran Bill, Yankee, Buddy and Manny in NA:

1. Obedience – sure, it’s a puppy test, but consistently following basic commands not only aids in succeeding at the rest of the training challenges, it bonds owner and dog.

2. Socialization – whether with other dogs or humans, a young dog will perform better in the field and at a test when it is comfortable around others.

3. Bird contact – a dog that knows what a bird is and what to do around one, will be more confident in the field and apt to better follow directions. The NA test shouldn’t be their first exposure to birds.

4. Water – most of us may rationalize that we own an upland dog, but I guarantee the time will come for a water retrieve and if you are a true conservationist, it’s either you or your dog swimming in that icy pond.

Yes, it’s easier said than done. It’ll cost us time and money and more than a little aggravation. There are plenty of legitimate reasons these basics don’t get enough attention.

And it’s easy to say, not as easy to do these things – just ask Flick. But our commitment to our hunting partner requires them if both parties are to lead fulfilling lives in the field and at home. We hold all the cards, it is our responsibility. Going the extra mile to get our dog exposure to all four pays dividends for their – and our – entire life.

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There is a phenomenon we all know but can’t name: that reaction a dog has when we pull on their leash. They pull back.

I was battling that recently with Flick as we sorta heeled along a desert path, until I remembered the sage advice of so many professional trainers and quit the steady pulling and went to short, gentle tugs. It helps keep a pup in line, literally. It also helps a stubborn older dog get off the dime, so to speak, and move from the couch to the crate. It also beats the “reeling in” we often do with young dogs on retrieves. You might try it too.

But thinking about the other end of the leash really went to another level when I put it in my pocket. It’s a risk, sure, and not for all dogs all the time, or even some dogs some of the time. At early stages of teaching heel, whoa, come, and other commands, it is vital. But once there, why not unclip it periodically?

I’m seeing some interesting developments, from a better walk-at-heel, to steadier holds on pointed birds and flushes. It may be related to the pulling reaction I noted. It may be totally distinct. I’m going to experiment some more.

Have you?

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Buddy in a rare moment of repose.

At puppy class what seemed like eons ago, an instructor said something like “still learning to run,” referring to a young dog toddling/careening across the room. I watched Flick carefully for days after and came to the conclusion he was still learning to run, too. Like a cartoon character, he’d crash headlong into brush, glance off knees, tangle what seemed like five limbs, and trip over imaginary logs … all while going hell-bent for election.

I’ve joked for years about Manny’s field coverage: he’s a linebacker without grace but with plenty of desire, blitzing the field and birds like Dick Butkus. No Baryshnikov, but he gets it done, the polar opposite of his great uncle Buddy. In his prime, wirehair #3 moved with grace, floating over the terrain as if on wings. He more resembled a pronghorn, often racing over the same terrain as those elegant plains animals.

Yesterday Flick took me back a decade to the plains and Buddy in his prime. Stretching for the horizon like a greyhound, rear legs reaching, almost catching his front legs. Watch a National Geographic program on cheetahs hunting zebra and you’ll know what I mean.

He’s learned to run.

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There’s been a lot of water over the dam for both of us, Flick’s been a part of our kennel for just seven months and the number of skills he’s acquiring – at least partway there – is stunning. Maybe you’re living this too, or hope you will be soon. Sure, I provide the structure, but as many of you know, well-bred dogs will basically teach themselves and their humans, if only we pay attention.

It’s time to give a shout-out to some of the kind folks who have influenced my meager training efforts and assuredly made them better. And some of the gear that is indispensable to the process.

The point-of-contact method of direction, and quiet compelling of a dog to do right are mainstays of Rick and Ronnie Smith’s philosophy. They help a dog teach itself, minimize stress on owner and dog.

As Flick matures into a retriever, Larry Mueller’s suggestion that a dog should believe virtually every flush leads to a retrieve has merit when extending the pointing portion of the sequence.

In Bob Farris’ new book, he mentions that a dog doing something right in a training session is the cue for us to put him back on the chain or in the crate … let him “think about it.” My lovely wife reminded me that a crate should never be a jail for screwing up in training. Always end on a high note, a well-executed skill … even if it’s “here.” Then, “kennel up!”

Many, many NA tests ago, NAVHDA judge Phil Swain pointed out that a dog wants to see your face, and will maneuver to the front so he can. Using that knowledge gets a pup started on a strong field search.

The monks of New Skete, in their book, constantly remind me that training is bonding. It tempers my temper, so to speak, when I think about how much force-discipline-frustration should be part of the interaction.

Breeder Jeff Funke left me with one bit of advice as we loaded Flick into the truck for home: practice retrieving every day with a young dog. While it is more play than work for a pup, it sets the stage for force-fetching.

So, what tools am I using most these days? Checkcord, to guide Flick into a scent cone, or set up a steadiness drill using the Smith’s half-hitch. Farris’ version – belly cinch is his term – is a more portable version of the half-hitch. Bird launchers – ultimate control of where and when a bird is found and flushes. The Smith’s “command lead” introduces and reinforces their point-of-contact approach. Paper plates are handy, cheap and portable … the perfect bird surrogate when you have a pup on a training table and want to teach steadiness. My own Real Bird Bumper acquaints a young dog with all the challenges of retrieving a dead pheasant without having to stow a dead pheasant in your pocket. GPS collar (thanks Laelaps) relaxes me in the big fields where I am constantly afraid Flick will head for the far horizon. If he does, at least I can find him!

And of course, the unsung heroes of bird dog training, pigeons. Thanks George Hickox for reminding us “no birds, no bird dog.”

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So, yesterday Flick’s chase on a redtail hawk during our hike was a few steps, not hundreds of yards. As we are learning steadiness on “pointed” birds, that’s a win. He also delivered two solid points – on meadowlarks. Steady on the training table as paper plates “flushed” in front of him … and same for pigeons from a launcher: solid, albeit with the Smith’s half-hitch. After all, he just turned nine months old.

Alright, little stuff. And tomorrow, who knows? But if you have a puppy you know what I mean.

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Okay, so at some point Flick will be steady to wing, shot, and fall. A “finished” pointer. At least in my book. Others have their own definition of finished, their own expectation for a dog standing his birds, or very good reasons for a dog to “break” at some point in the flush-shot-fall sequence.

That’s fine. But I’m finding more and more reasons for a dog that holds his birds even when they thunder off, unscathed. Hunt tests and field trials, of course. Safety when hunting with um, let’s call them eager shooters. A better mark on birds, or the chance for a second flush undisturbed by a dog careening through what’s left of the covey. All are valid and part of my rationale.

[Can I editorialize for a minute? Let’s just agree that “finished” is what each dog’s owner wants it to be. Yes, to many of us, a quivering pointer, feet nailed to the ground as a 15-bird covey rockets into the air is our standard. For others, a dog that flushes after a brief pause is the perfect dog. If you think that person and that dog are inferior, keep your opinions to your own blog and feel free to quit following this one.]

So we are on the way. Again, everything in small doses and with goals that are age-appropriate. Flick turned nine months old yesterday, so a polished performance isn’t my expectation. I want to see the right overall behavior and at nine months, it’s pretty basic. (Note that many trainers and hunters like to let their pups run and chase flushed birds to their heart’s content, building desire. If their dog needs that, fine.)

Today, our goal is NOT to chase, but to stand calmly either by “whoa” command or scent. Then, stand in the same spot as a pigeon trampolines into the air from a launcher. He doesn’t have to remain frozen to the ground … in fact, he can turn to “mark” the flushing bird. And then to stay there, relaxed and calm before being heeled away from the flush location. My theory is, the longer he can stay peaceful after a flush, the better. He won’t learn to chase, flush on his own, or creep, and I won’t have to un-teach those habits.

So here’s the “Slow”: I’m walking him slowly on a lead, and stopping him where he can see the bird flush (but not the launcher). It is barely visible in the distance for the first couple weeks of learning. The wind is going away from the dog so no scent complicates matters. As he gets some miles on him, I’ll bring him closer to the birds. When he is holding well, I’ll bring him in downwind, but at several dozen yards away and getting him closer over the weeks. Eventually, the birds will be loose, wild, walking around, in groups, different species or waved in front of his fuzzy face.

The “Steady” is just that: our long-term goal.

Wish us both luck.

 

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