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Even if you’re not a hunter, you know that “skunked,” as in many other pursuits from cribbage to baseball, means you didn’t score. Birds one, hunter zero.

And while we often console ourselves with the cliché, “it’s not about shooting birds,” blah, blah, blah, it really is about shooting birds. Or is it?

A birdless trip opens your eyes to the rest of the outdoor world, from the merganser brood bobbing past, to the subtle whiff of pastel green as you brush against a sagebrush. You may sulk for a while, putter in your vest, but soon you actually do find better things to think about.

Like the play of sunlight on moving water. Blue sky contrasted with snowcapped peaks. The earnestness with which your dog performs his age-old job. How about the fact that you can visit such places, stand on a rocky mountain top and marvel at a three-state view?

Or something simpler, like spotting a Bohemian Waxwing for the first time, and knowing there are still places and things awaiting your discovery. Come to think about it, who needs a shotgun?

I’ll bet last time you were skunked, you got something memorable out of the trip. What was it?

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I once did an entire hour-long radio show about advice … from professionals, listeners, newcomers and seasoned sportsmen and women. Boy howdy, did I learn stuff! And their advice about advice is time-tested and evergreen.

No matter what your area of expertise, passion, level of skill (or lack thereof) you will become a better, safer, more helpful and possibly even more insightful sportsman if you …

  • Go today. Don’t wait for the perfect day, weekend or for better weather.
  • Go beyond the “sporting” act to the culture, lore, and history by reading books, joining a group, or finding a local expert.
  • By learning to use a map and compass; you open up brand-new territory.
  • Hone your skills like they do in medical school: watch, do, teach.
  • Make your next big-ticket investment foul-weather gear. Everything is more fun when you’re warm and dry.
  • Learn via the microwave method: investing in a lesson or pro guide is money (and time) well spent.

See you somewhere outdoors!

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I was recently reminded of how working with our dogs, thinking like they think, can produce better shooting from us. In South Dakota, a companion got so nervous (or was he dazzled at Buddy’s performance?) the bird had ample opportunity to fly wild or scoot out from under my dog’s point. This guy snuck, skulked, minced and tiptoed over 100 yards – it seemed to take eons for him to flush the dang bird!

The rest of us were going batty, urging him to step on it, I was hoarse from yelling across the stubble. Luckily the bird held and the outcome was fatal for him. Here’s the lesson:

First, ensure a solid point and a bird that holds still rather than a scampering off unscathed. Start by being punctual. Once your dog stands the bird, walk in with alacrity. The longer you dawdle, or admire his stunning good looks, or take photos, the greater the chance a bird will flush wild, run off or the dog will do the flushing for you.

Then, assert yourself. Over many years in many fields one thing is clear: both birds and dogs hold better when the gunner moves with confidence. Once your dog shows you the bird, stride right in and everyone will likely do what’s expected of them. This is the time to show you are in charge. Be confident, flush that bird, and things will work out for the best.

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Go ahead, have some fun out there

(This first hit me years ago, but with this being hunt test season, I thought it might help someone else besides me and Flick!)

I’ll bet you never did your best work for a cranky, grouchy boss. That’s how your dog might feel if your training is all negative.

Bosses have to give us money to do jobs we don’t like. But dogs can’t open a bank account, so that strategy just won’t work. Instead, the paycheck has to be more subtle. (And, more frequent.)

I don’t mean jumping-up-and-down, tail-wagging fun all the time. I mean satisfaction, affection and appreciation, your dog knowing that his good work is recognized.

For a recent hunt test Buddy and I had been training – hard – for quite a while. I was stressed, so he was too. The pressure was on, and I wasn’t showing my confidence in him – just the opposite. And his work was, let’s face it, less than stellar. You’d think we’d just met, rather than worked together for five months.

I arrived a day before the trial to explore the grounds, and by sheer luck, got grounded myself. Like a pheasant flushing at my feet it hit me: no dog will do his best work for a grumpy owner … it’s just not fun! And when we affect the balance of correction and praise, a dog can shut down.

So we warmed up with lots of praise and an upbeat attitude. It was more fun than work, full of positive reinforcement and plenty of play time. We spent extra time on the things Buddy does well. When he did well, he knew it. We both got psyched, and the next day, he took the highest score possible.

Good luck everyone!

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DSCF2472Flick’s NAVHDA Natural Ability test is Sunday and there’s no doubt he has all the skills and “natural abilities” required. But that doesn’t mean he’ll pass. As I’ve learned the hard way, a rock-star-of-a-dog can go off the rails any time. In Manny’s case, wet weather meant birds that didn’t fly and the one he caught ended up in pieces. Based on the forecast, that will be the least of my worries.

A good trainer would have anticipated that scenario. “Hope for the best, plan for the worst” may have started as a war-time strategy but it’s relevant in dog testing as well. As me and my crew learn on every trip shooting every episode, other dogs, birds, livestock, camera-shy or camera-hogging guests, unusual terrain … any or all of these variables will affect a dog’s performance. Bearing in mind the axiom, I’m confident Flick could ace this test on any given day … or not. Why?

1. I’m a better trainer and have been guided by many gurus from the Smith cousins to Larry Mueller to Bob Farris and the Monks of New Skete. Remember, Flick is my “by the books” dog.

2. Flick is the result of decades of genetic refinement, the sine qua non of wirehairs from Three Devils Kennels. Buddy was good. Manny is great. Flick could be phenomenal.

3. As in my music career, I am adhering to one adage over all others: perfect practice makes perfect. Training is strategic, stage-managed and orchestrated to ensure, as Delmar Smith first said, that I “never give a dog a chance to fail.”

4. My pigeon inventory is at its peak, and being used generously. As George Hickox said, “no birds, no bird dog.” The corollary is “more birds, better bird dog.” Nothing builds desire, hones skills, and wakens instinct like the smell of birds.

Make no mistake, the natural ability test requires training and practice. Sure, much of the “testing” is of instincts including pointing, prey drive, water love and use of nose. But it’s the getting from one to the other where cooperation and obedience are critical (remember Manny’s bird deconstruction). These things you must train, period.

And even though the “natural” abilities are supposedly baked into a good pup, careful training awakens them. I saw this again at our club’s final training day prior to the test. The dogs that excelled had been exposed to a ton of birds, acre-feet of water, many other dogs and people. There were no surprises when the lead was unclipped, so the pup could focus on the important stuff.

He’s ready. So as in most other dog-related activities, if Flick doesn’t score well, it will likely be due “operator error” … me.

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B.B. King sang “the thrill is gone,” lamenting a love lost to indifference. Luckily, Flick isn’t howling the same tune – but his thrill has changed.

I’m a big believer in food treats, especially for a pup. Virtually anything elementary is possible with hot dog bits, from “here” to “fetch” to “kennel.” But nobody I know carries a vest-full of doggie delectables on a hunt and some commands simply don’t lend themselves to food bribes. Mainly those where you want a pup to do something away from you, such as “whoa.” It’s counterproductive to expect a dog to slam on the brakes 50 feet from you, then wait patiently as you trot over to deliver a liver tidbit.

So, what to do?

All those other things: verbal praise and touch have been higher on the menu here. I’ve also found that (perhaps) as a dog matures, food has less allure than a pat on the back, literally. Maybe pups’ emotional needs evolve as they grow, and a more “man to man” reward system has value to them.

No matter what we are trying to accomplish, careful observation of Flick before, during, and after the command and it’s execution have guided me. Do a drill, praise with a scratch behind the ears on completion. Do it again a few minutes later, see if he’s complying with gusto. If not, try a firm stroke along the backbone. Or a quiet “good boy” as he rests his chin on my knee. Or a treat – he may simply not be ready to forego the goodies just yet.

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So, my commitment to Flick is to get him to the NAVHDA utility test. And pass. Hopefully with a Prize 1. I also want him to be safe when he pins birds.

To me, that means steady to wing, shot and fall. (Everyone has their own definition of “finished dog,” so I won’t go there today.) Sure, it’s hard. It’s also not what is always appropriate in all hunting situations. But once mastered, it would seem logical that you could always “unlearn” it, adjust to the current conditions … or do nothing and enjoy your version of a “steady” dog. Those who have Invitational Champions do it, “meat hunters” too. But many start with the bar at it’s highest level.

I choose that.

But it’s easier said than done, especially as a one-person training staff. Especially the “fall” part of the equation. But I’ve been experimenting with something that may be of value to you – let me know what you think.

I have two remote-controlled bird launchers, and plenty of pigeons. The basic set-up involves them, a checkcord, and a puppy. Flick is check-corded into the yard and whoa’d. I fly the first bird (ensuring the launcher shoots it away from us to eliminate temptation) while enforcing steadiness with a half-hitch or soothing touch and words. If he behaves, Flick then sees a wing-clipped or dead bird hit the ground (from the other launcher, shooting it toward us a bit). Compliance earns an occasional retrieve and (always) massive praise. Then back into the crate to contemplate his good work. Goofs are downplayed, but as they say on Seinfeld: “No (pigeon) soup for you!”

Add gunshots, different locations, scent cone or wild flushes as cues, and (I hope) we’re on our way to steadiness. And maybe away from it. Eventually. In some cases.

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