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So, maybe you’ve had the same problem. Often, we blame it on “planted” birds, and that much is true. But if your goal is a dog that stands a bird from a distance the moment it hits the scent cone, you can train it with “planted” birds.

There are at least two critical considerations: sight, and timing.

Timing: The advantage (usually) to wild birds is they will not hang around waiting for a young dog to slide in, relocate, nose around, get closer. They will flush. Hopefully, the dog learns from it. That’s the joy of wild birds, but if you don’t have them, what can you do? Don’t we all wish we could open the gate and find wild practice birds all year? That, or winning lottery numbers – I’ll take either one.

So save up your cans and bottles (or quit drinking so much!) Buy a remote launcher – or borrow your club’s launcher (you are a member of the local NSTRA/NAVHDA/NAHRA chapter, right?). A dog that cheats the scent cone just to watch a wild bobwhite fly off can learn the same thing with a pigeon: get too close and the bird goes away. No passing go, no collecting $200. And certainly no retrieve. The trainer needs to be ruthless, and willing to throw away a few birds. But simulating the uncompromising behavior of wild birds is possible, and the rewards are life-long.

Now, the other end of the equation: sight. If you didn’t buy a launcher and are simply hard-planting birds or using a harness, you’ve got another challenge. Birds won’t flush “wild,” so a dog can creep in when he hits scent, ultimately getting within inches of the restrained bird, if not actually picking it up.

Higgins Gun Dogs got me thinking about this. He uses the “Magic Brush Pile,” but as far as I can tell, in slightly different ways. It works, and more power to him. My brush pile’s “magic” is making the launcher or bird harness invisible. My dogs, trained without a launcher, quickly learned to hit the scent cone then search for the bird. When they saw it, they would point. Worse yet, sometimes they would simply go in and catch the bird.

Flick seldom sees a remote launcher, except on a shelf in the shop. They are now well hidden among the sage and bitterbrush so the only clue that there is a bird nearby is the scent. A well bred dog, brought into the scent cone from a 90-degree angle, will be startled into an immediate point. A tug on the check cord will help.

A strong breeze doesn’t hurt either. Enhancing your success with bottled scent does too. Put the bird/launcher out sooner, let that scent “marinate” and build up a goodly cloud in a wide downwind arc. Check-cord the novice into that scent cone and voila! Hit the launcher remote, and boom, you’ve got a “wild” bird scenario.

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… as long as the “old dog” is a human.

Every day, Flick trains me as I train him. Two overarching principles are now indelibly etched in my fore-brain:

  1. Even at 18 months old, he’s still a puppy.
  2. There’s more than one way to skin a cat (figuratively, of course).

As to #1: I’ve hunted with a goodly number of women dog handlers, some highly respected to the point where they judged European gun dog tests. They and their protege’s had one characteristic in common: they were the most upbeat, positive, encouraging handlers I’ve shared a field with. Squeaky mommy voices, clapping hands, over-the-top praise all melded to motivate and mold incredible gun dogs.

Working Flick a few weeks ago, a few of those actions fell into my own routine and boy howdy what a difference. Which also reminded me of some reading years ago that strongly suggested the only reason humans could domesticate wolves was by arresting their development at the puppy stage.

Give it some thought.

Related to that, is #2, especially when applied to “force breaking.” If you watch the TV show, you know what a rock star Manny was in this department. On land, water, blind and marked I’d put him up against any field-trial Lab. I had help from his breeder on him, and mainly used the traditional ear-pinch method.

Flick’s matriculation to retrieving is different. He’s a lot softer dog, so the risks of using pain are very real. More importantly, he probably doesn’t need it. Think about it: we use pain to get a dog to howl and open his mouth so we can jam a bumper in. If we can get the mouth open with painless methods, why not try it? With this guy, it was as simple as an index finger between his teeth while giving the “fetch” command. Following on, the usual techniques seem to work: move the held bumper, move him to it, on to the ground, etc.

Sure, he disobeys at times. We go back a few steps, put the finger in the mouth and work through it. Once he truly understands what “fetch” means, it’s about reinforcing – and rewarding – obedience to that command. And yes, high-value food treats work (I know some of you will cringe at that, but it works for us). Hot dog bits and chicken skin are the go-to positive reinforcers in my yard.

Yeah, the jury is still out. But as best I can tell, Flick is as far along or farther than most dogs training with the other methods. I’ll keep you posted, and appreciate your feedback.

 

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Now the fun begins, right? Hold it just a minute.
Reconnoiter the area as you approach your dog and there’s a better chance your feet and gun will be pointed in the right direction when your adrenaline flows and wings whir. Flushed, frightened birds often head for a ridge, point, or high spot of some sort, frantically trying to put that topographical barrier between them and the danger you pose. In their absence even ground-dwellers like chukars might bolt for a cover of trees or tall shrubs. Face it as you walk in on the point.
You should be in a slightly better position when the flush startles you and the dog … and we need all the help we can get!

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And now what?

By any calendar, in any state, bird season is over. Now, the wait begins.

But between now and the next opening day, we have time. Time to reflect, remember, gather in all the sights and sounds, the smells … how was your season? How many times have you showed someone a photo, re-told a story, bragged on your dog. Did you take credit for that easy bird that flew unscathed?

What’s on the docket for the off-season? Got a goal? What is it?

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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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