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Archive for the ‘dog training’ Category

I had an enlightening conversation with well-known trainer George Hickox recently, and he’ll certainly be a guest on the upcoming (debut, August) Upland Nation podcast. Of the many topics we discussed, George reminded me of a phenomenon I’ll call “reward deflation.”

We’re all guilty.

We encourage and praise our puppies, and they are quite motivated by anything that resembles positive feedback. Food treats, squeaky voices, a scratch here and pat there … all work with young dogs. We provide these reinforcements frequently and at length for anything the pup does right. But we don’t often throttle it back, or not enough, as he matures.

At some point, George reminded me, a smart dog only wants two things: food when it’s hungry, and birds. That is inextricably linked to another observation: dogs don’t work for us any more than they have to, in pursuit of what they want. Obviously, that could be food, or birds, or to get outdside and find one or both of those. But remembering that a dog’s highest priority is his own wellbeing is worth its weight in kibble.

We can and should use this knowledge strategically, to teach desired behaviors. But …

Back to the deflation: It’s not a boy crying wolf over and over until nobody pays attention when a real canis lupus actually appears, but close. We are the culprits. Dog walks in, doesn’t surf the kitchen counter, gets a “good boy.” We race past on the way out the door, and out of habit utter “good dog.” A dog is sitting, staying out of trouble, gets a cookie tossed his way. Pretty soon, the treats and words have no meaning, because they were awarded for well, nothing. We hadn’t asked/commanded the dog, he simply existed and got what George calls a “paycheck.”

Kinda like unemployment compensation. Sit around. Watch TV. Taxpayer dollars show up in your mailbox. It doesn’t motivate recipients to go work and it won’t motivate your dog, either.

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About 4,000 per month. That’s how many questions I get from Facebook, Instagram, email, and when you enter my Take Your Friend Hunting contest here. Some are just too good to leave alone – they beg for a little embellishment, just for fun. If any of these questions look familiar, please know it is merely coincidental.

[Editor’s note: no dogs were harmed in the making of this blog post, though a few egos may be slightly bruised.]

Q: Do you ever hunt without a dog? Thanks, Kat Luver.

A: Why?

Q: My children want to help with dog training, but they are not very disciplined themselves, i.e., dirty rooms, lost homework, bad manners. Thanks, Terry Bulldad.

A: Try an electronic training collar. They are nowhere near as inhumane as they used to be, and speed up the learning process when used correctly. The vibration and tone features also give you a lot of flexibility when it comes to behavioral change. Start with a very low stimulation, and work up as necessary. I would take the collars off before you drop them at school, though.

Q: Help! My dog won’t come to me when called. Signed, Star Tinghout.

A: He doesn’t come when I call him, either. Try making a sound like a filet mignon and see what happens.

Q: How long does it take to train a dog? Thanks, E.Z. Wayout.

A: A year should be sufficient for me to tell you how long it will take to train a dog.

Q: My dog is in a constant state of shedding both in the house and truck. Can I do anything about it? Signed, Harry Holmes.

A: Despite the claims by some “doodle-type” or shorthair breeders, all dogs shed. A good diet and regular grooming will help, but the real solution is to own furniture, carpets and truck upholstery that match the color of your dog. If your dog is ticked, spotted, checked or striped, buy two homes and two trucks.

Q: How can I get to go hunting with you? Thanks, Nita Friend.

A: Thanks! I’m always looking for guest hosts on the show, especially if they shoot well and let me take credit. Please send me a detailed letter, written in the margins of as many $50 bills as you need to draft a detailed, lengthy, convincing proposal.

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Many years ago I received an interesting item from Fred Bohm, founder of Sage & Braker. He sent me a snakey-looking gizmo that ultimately became my go-to shotgun barrel cleaning device. I’m still using that same one today. (Hint, hint Fred … )

Bohm hasn’t been sitting on his hands since then. A vision for heirloom-quality gun care products started with that bore cleaner and expanded. Like your favorite chaps, most are wardrobed in waxed cotton canvas and leather, outwardly manifesting the long-lived properties not only of the package, but the ideas and products … Fred’s legacy becomes our problem-solvers and something to hand down to the next generation.

More important than cosmetics, though, is an extra dose of thought put into every product.

Whether you’re paddling your boat with an old Remington 870 during duck season, or have a safe full of vintage A.H. Foxes, eventually you’re gonna need to care for your shooting sticks. When you want to go beyond old t-shirts and toothbrushes, it might be time to invest in Sage & Braker gear.

[So, when I started working on my Upland Nation podcast, Fred was the first guy I called. He will be a sponsor starting in August and I couldn’t be prouder of our association. Read his “About us” page to learn why.]

Here’s the breakdown on his “whole enchilada” package, aptly named “Father’s Day Cleaning Bundle”:

A leather-and-canvas quilted gun mat keeps surfaces clean and protects your gun from scratches and dings. Integral pockets hold your cleaning/care gear and it all rolls up into a tidy bundle that will elicit questions from envious buddies. The extra dose: I have a very nice Craftsman tool box for gun cleaning, but lugging it on a long trip is not an option. This gun mat is simply another piece of (good looking) luggage.

Fred’s high-tech CLP (cleaning, lube, protect) liquid does everything you’d expect, and this extra dose is a chemical composition that creates an anti-static shield on metal parts so they don’t attract carbon, dust and dirt.

The product that started it all is the Sage & Braker Bore Cleaning Kit. Fred has taken the “snake” concept a step further – his extra dose is the ability to detach the buffing rope from the bronze brush, using it for deep cleaning after inadvertently using your prized Beretta as a walking stick in Montana gumbo mud. Re-attach the rope and buff up the bore to a mirror finish. Mine is next to ammo and shooting gloves in my hunting box – a couple minutes, one pull, and clean bore.

Brushes and picks stay home most times, reserved for deep cleaning at the end of a long road trip. But neatly ensconced in a waxed cotton and leather roll, they will probably accompany me to South Dakota this fall. Extra dose: pick tips are soft brass so when you’re scraping away at the week-old pheasant blood you won’t scratch your sweet-shootin’ Sweet Sixteen. The grips are sturdy stainless steel; two brushes have brass bristles for stubborn corrosion or gunk, two have nylon bristles to baby your old Dickinson.

I threatened to share his favorite pheasant hunting spot unless he helped you, the end result being Fred is offering anyone who reads this a hefty discount for Father’s Day. So if your spouse won’t bother, save both of you some angst, be gracious about that ugly tie, and order your own kit (with free shipping) here.

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Two steps forward, one back. It’s a familiar cliche’ in the dog-training lexicon. Actually, I’ll bet if you think about your own life, your teachers moved you both directions as needed: guitar lessons, typing, overhauling a carb, driving that car after the overhaul was done – again.

Plateaus are a nice resting point on a chukar hunt, a chance to take a breather. But in dog training, they are misleading. You think you’ve mastered a skill with your dog … until you slide off the edge. Worse than a backward step, hopefully not too damaging to your bones or your ego. A humbling learning experience.

Peaks are what we strive for, our aspiration. Sometimes simple (he actually came to the whistle!), other times monumental (passed his Utility Test), each is a chance to be grateful … for your own teaching abilities but more importantly for your dog’s incredible talent (and patience, with you).

Valleys are the dog-training equivalent of a baseball player’s slump. The walls are steep, we are all alone at the bottom. Our dog has either lost most of his brain cells or suddenly can’t understand the English language. It’s when we contemplate switching dog breeds, or buy a fly rod.

In almost all cases, we are the culprit. Sure, the dog might be a co-conspirator, but if you think long and hard about your challenge-du-jour, honestly, it’s about you.

It could be shortcuts you’ve taken, inconsistent language/word choice, laziness, not being observant (“thinking like a dog”) … but in most dog-human relationships the human has got to do most of the thinking and sometimes, well, we just don’t.

Here’s your assignment: What’s your dog training project this weekend? If you’re training any skill, be aware, think ahead, consider your dog’s point of view and analyze what’s really slowing or stopping your progress. Be brutally honest with yourself. Go back, experiment, and see if it helps. I will if you will.

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I’ve been reminded lately of a trait that good bird dogs have. If yours has it, you’re lucky. If not, you’re probably training for it, whether you know it or not.

It’s your dog’s “working to the front.” In most cases, you’d have to agree a bird dog working behind the hunter is little more than well, a loyal four-legged hiking partner. A dog earns its kibble by covering ground the hunter hasn’t already covered, questing to whatever distance both parties agree to, and searching out birds that haven’t been walked over – or walked past – by the human.

It’s been a source of wonder these days out on the desert where I run Flick. Being young, easily distracted by ground squirrels and chipmunks, he tends to dawdle where they dwell, despite my forward progress. I’ve been known to hack him in, whistle him to me then cast him off again in the direction I’m headed. Or give him the high sign or a yell so he knows which way I’m headed. In his younger days, I’d hide periodically so he would look for me, thus keeping in contact enough to figure out which way was which.

A NAVHDA judge decades ago told me a well-bred dog will usually work to the front instinctively, keying on his handler’s bright face as a beacon. Made sense then (thanks Phil Swain) and still does. Some dogs learn that if they’re not exploring the new territory ahead, the likelihood of finding birds is diminished.

And then there’s Flick. His age, boldness and curiosity (remember the rodents?) mean he’s often a dot on my GPS receiver rather than a gray-brown streak in front of me. But he’s got the right DNA, so lately I’ve just powered ahead and let him learn his own lesson … sometimes, the hard way.

I’ll watch on the GPS, and can almost predict his epiphany as he exhausts a particular chipmunk chase and wonders where I am. How he determines which direction to go to catch up to me is a mystery – does he track my scent? Vector in the same way a homing pigeon does? What do you think?

Whatever skill or instinct it might be, he’s polishing it. He’s learning that a foray into tiny critter territory is seldom worthwhile … because when we’re training, the birds are with me.

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(First in a series, if nobody takes too much offense!)

I get thousands of questions every year from viewers of my TV show. I try to provide helpful answers to all of them … on the show, in messages and emails, and on Facebook, where fans usually have much better responses than mine!

But some questions are just too tempting to let languish as written, let alone put to rest with good advice or an insightful comment. They are sincere and earnest, but for some reason they’re crying out for an insincere answer … if you take them with a grain of salt, tweak a word or two, or just have the right (or wrong) attitude. To those whose (altered) questions are answered below, thank you for your kindness – you are the Dean Martin to my Jerry Lewis. Don’t we all need a few more laughs in our lives?

Oh, and kids: don’t try any of this at home. Don’t let your parents try, either.

Q: For someone who is starting out with his first hunting dog, what can I expect to go wrong? Thanks, Clew Liss.

A: The editor says there are not enough bits or bytes here to answer your question in this blog. Please purchase my new 1,438-page book on the topic. Here is some advice from Chapter 367, “Minor adjustments to your lifestyle”:

Invest in a GPS collar – it’s good insurance should your spouse decide to leave you as she’ll be much easier to find. Practice sleeping on the couch. Don’t worry about other hobbies, non-hunting friends and relatives, as the laws of physics and the space-time continuum will eliminate any free time you had pre-puppy.

And from Chapter 762, “Economizing with your new dog”: buy paper towels by the truckload, but forego expensive chew toys as the leg of your wife’s heirloom Louis XIV armoire is already paid for. Go to veterinary school. Dog food is an expensive luxury as long as you leave the door to the walk-in pantry open.

Q: What is the best method to convince your children to not undo your dog’s training? Signed, Bigmis Take.

A: I would build outside kennels. While it may get cold and wet, they’ll get used to it, and the whining and yelping should cease fairly quickly. In the long run you’ll have fewer behavioral problems. Supply plenty of fresh water, offer some indoor time to socialize, and take your dog out periodically to visit them.

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Sometimes, things just work out. Those “best-laid plans of mice and men” actually are best. Maybe you have a similar story; here’s mine:

I’m working hard on Flick’s pointing the moment he hits scent cone, rather than creeping in to see the bird – or launcher. I’d say on training pigeons he’s 80% reliable, so we are getting there as long as my pigeon supply holds out!

But yesterday, it was the bonus during one training session that clinched things. After two good performances on training birds, Flick locked up again. Hmmmm.

As I approached, a valley quail skittered away in the sage brush. Flick stood, skitter-less in the face of temptation. At the little bird’s flight, he broke, eventually returning to stand again where he started.

It’s progress.

What’s your report?

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