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Beeper, bell, brush … it may not be disobedience as much as noise!

Next time your dog disobeys you, don’t jump to the inevitable conclusion. It may not be recalcitrance. He may not be stubborn. There’s a chance he’s not disobeying. Did you ever think he may not be able to hear your commands?

When I attached a video camera to one of my dogs, it was clear from the playback that there are vision challenges when looking to a tall human for direction. Thanks to the microphone on that camera, I’ve learned that it’s an audio circus down there, too.

Depending on who you believe, dogs hear up to ten times better than us. So, many of the annoying little pops and crackles we hear sound like a freeway accident to him. Think about what he encounters down there: tags jingling from his collar, or a bell, brush crashing, screeching wind, footfalls on dry leaves, maybe a beeper collar right behind his ears, his own panting. All might be overpowering your frantic commands yelled into that auditory chaos.

Or, your Lab’s ears might be hammered by a flock of Canada geese honking, or the churn of moving water as he looks to you for a line. Maybe there’s another whining dog in the blind, or at a hunt test there could be dozens of barking dogs staked out nearby. It’s no wonder dogs bungle their job once in a while … they can’t hear our commands for all the chaos at ground level.

If there’s doubt in your mind about whether your dog can hear you, why not add hand signals or a whistle just in case? Or, call his name and wait for acknowledgement before giving the command. Then you’ll be able to recognize the difference between disobedience and distraction, and he’ll be a better hunting partner.

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Zero. Zilch. Nada. He doesn’t, but we DO pay.

In every speech, at all the presentations I do, it is still surprising to learn how few of us know this, so bear with me as we delve into ancient history for a moment. Back in the depths of that “real” depression in the 1930’s hunters banded together (anglers followed a parallel path) and begged Congress to tax us. Yep, tax us, when millions were out of work and the country was languishing.

We succeeded when the Pittman-Robertson Act became law in 1937, and created the Federal Aid to Wildlife funding mechanism. It has since raised 12 billion dollars that goes from the Feds, back to state wildlife management agencies to pay for staff, land, management, equipment, and related projects. Here’s how it works:

Guns and ammo are levied with a 10-11 percent excise tax when they are transferred from the manufacturer to the dealer or distributor, so we end-buyers never actually see it. But you’d see the damage if that tax wasn’t imposed. Ditto if fewer of us bought hunting licenses, paid the upland surcharge or waterfowl tag.

There’d likely be no game wardens enforcing our laws. Biologists would be history. Walk-in hunting would simply go away. Trap-and-transplant programs, gone. In most states, P-R funds make up 75 to 85 percent of a game department’s budget, so all we’d have left is a few pencil-pushers at the state capitol, riding herd on a few do-nothing staffers. It would be the Wild West again, and wildlife would lose.

Because the ugly truth is, mountain bikers don’t contribute a nickel and the guy shooting calendar photos of deer and ducks hasn’t paid a dime. Foodies who rave about “wild game” cuisine, hikers, wildlife watchers and kayakers pay zilch to support the wildlife they swoon over while complaining about us getting in the way of their view.

Sometimes I say it just to get their hackles up, but if those Audubon Society members want to really help their ruby-throated hummingbirds, if the little old ladies in tennis shoes want to ensure there are always cuddly critters to amuse them in the woods, they should buy a hunting license. And a duck stamp. And a shotgun or two.

But ultimately, we all know that ain’t gonna happen. It’s up to us. So turning more couch potatoes/harried parents/interested observers into hunters is the only way there will be game to chase and critters to marvel at. But there’s more than one way to skin that cat (pun intended). I’ll make your life easier, in the next installment.

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Not all bad news

A threatened specie: access.

I’ve got bad news and good news

The bad news is we are losing hunters every day as they “age out” of the sport or worse (for them, at least), they die. Just five percent of U.S. residents consider themselves brothers (and sisters) of the hunt. Between 2011 and 2016 alone, we lost 16 percent of those who pursue quail behind pointers, pheasants flushed by Labs, ducks in the marsh and deer in the woods.

The good news is that we as individuals, and many groups we belong to, are going balls-to-the-wall to recruit new participants.

This new-fangled “R3” – recruiting, retaining and re-activating people to hunting is a thing, and it’s not going away. Minorities, Millennials, women, single-parent households, and youth … all have their champions. Entire departments are being formed and staffs hired to turn those people into hunters.

Some might think that’s bad news too – more trucks in the parking area, more guys in our favorite spots. Hey, I’d love fewer people in the fields and coverts I hunt. Probably sounds great to you too, on a bluebird day as you pull into that “Welcome to Hunt” area.

But if the trend persists, eventually there won’t be a field or a covert to visit … or if there is, it will be barren of game, songbirds, avian predators and most other critters. If you hear anything, it will be the sound of crickets, not the cackle of roosters. Because hunters are the only people funding most conservation efforts.

Yep, the bird watchers, hikers, wildlife photographers, backpackers and cross-country skiers may love seeing a fawn and doe nuzzling, or a majestic bald eagle perched in a snag, but they don’t fund management of those critters or much of the land where they dwell. Only two states have a teensy-weensy dedicated tax to help. The other 48 send  a paltry few income tax dollars to help wildlife.

The facts are: fewer hunters, fewer dollars for land acquisition. When purchases of guns and ammo plummet, so does funding to state wildlife agencies. If sales of hunting licenses and tags drop, so do the number of biologists and habitat managers. A downfall in duck stamp purchases means fewer acres acquired for new or existing federal wildlife refuges, and smaller staffs to manage them.

Like the GPS route to your favorite covert, the way is clear. Bringing more hunters into our fraternity ensures that our kids have fields to explore and wildlife to pursue. And their kids, and their kids. The questions are how, why, when, and most importantly, who?

That is the subject of a future essay. In the meantime, keep hunting, join a conservation group, and buy more gear. And stand by for more good news in the next installment.

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That nice, warm feeling … knowing you’ll be found

Okay, it happened again just west of town. Idiots headed into a closed watershed on their snowmobiles, got lost, broke down, and nearly froze to death. Two skiers did it the week before, with fatal results for one of them.

We hunters are smarter than that, right? Wrong. Wait until fall and you’ll read about somebody wandering into the woods only to be found the next spring, mouldering at the bottom of a treestand or their bleached bones picked clean by vultures on a lonesome prairie.

We might be able to tough it out with our survival skills when lost, but at some point wouldn’t it be great if someone came looking for you? A survival plan will boost the chances you’ll be found.

A friend and I once counted seven “Deer Creeks” we’d fished and five different “Grouse Mountains” in our hunting bailiwick. You can imagine the confusion had someone been searching for us. Besides telling someone where you’re going, mark it on a map and leave it with them.

Make a print of your boot soles. Searchers have a head start with this telltale evidence. This goes double for kids, any time of year, in any outdoor setting. Put a sheet of aluminum foil on soft ground or carpet, and step on it – with both feet.

I’ve made an informal study of search and rescue reports over the last few years. It’s clear to me that just a few recurring errors are to blame for many of the volunteer callouts. Avoid them and you could save lives or at least the time, effort and risk of the worthy volunteers who end up bailing you out. Take a few minutes to …

Charge your cell phone battery. Avoid bucking snowdrifts on a road – they only get worse the farther uphill you go. Take a map and compass and learn how to head toward a major road if you get lost. Bring water. Tell someone where you’re going and when to expect you back. Take a waterproof layer of clothing. Learn how to build a life-sustaining fire.

And as I tell my dogs when I leave them in the cab of my truck: don’t do anything stupid.

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It’s kinda like Disneyland for bird hunters. And like the breathlessness and overwhelmed-by-it-all sensory overload of that theme park, Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic (I shorthand it “P-Fest) can overwhelm attendees (and, exhibitors like me!). It’s a once-a-year opportunity to learn, earn, burn and churn, so plan ahead and consider these suggestions:

SAVE some dough: Often there are discounts on admission fees (check here) and in years past, even on Groupon. Many lodges and hunting preserves offer show discounts … as do those selling gear. Be prepared to pay cash for the best price, and if you can bring a few friends on the trip, the chance of a discount is even higher. Take the family, because kids probably get in cheaper too.

LEARN from the experts: Attend the seminars by folks you usually only read about in the magazines. Pick the brains of professionals exhibiting on the show floor. Get up close with gear you’re interested in. Booths can get crowded with many vying for the attention of exhibitors, so be assertive but polite. Simply joining an ongoing conversation is a good way to make known your interest, and ask your question.

GET OUT OF THE WAY: The aisles are like roads. If you’re stopping or slowing to get a closer look at something, move off the road. And please, please, try to keep up with “traffic” and dawdle in the booths not the aisles. Finally, like our roads, stay on the right side for best traffic flow.

BE DAZZLED: Often, the new guns that debuted last month at the private SHOT Show are making their first public appearance at P-Fest. Try them out. Same for innovative gear of all types, from dog crates to apparel.

SAMPLE THE BOUNTY: Try the tasty tidbits, drop brochures and dog food samples into your tote. Test-drive gear. Even if for just a few minutes, sit down in the back row of a seminar (speakers and audience appreciate the courtesy of not being a visual distraction in the middle of a show).

MEET & GREET: Technical experts in everything from shooting to electronic training collars are in residence and ready for your toughest questions. So are legends from the Smith cousins to culinary pro Hank Shaw.

PLAN YOUR WORK: Then, work your plan. Get the most up-to-date directory of exhibitors right at the front door of the show. Scan for your “go-to” destinations and hit them early, before the crowds surge. Hint: most people enter, then go to the right. They then slowly work from front to back of the hall. ‘Nuff said. Once you’ve hit your must-see booths and people, work the aisles methodically because you will inevitably be glad you covered it all.

MOST IMPORTANT: Dogs. Lots of dogs. A source for your next pup, rescue, or training. Uncommon breeds from Airedales (yup) to Deutsch Langhaars. Take pictures and collect business cards. And finally, bring your checkbook and upgrade or start your PF or QF membership.

Safe travels. Enjoy yourself. See you there.

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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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