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Pet him? Give commands? Hmmm.

Pet him? Give commands? Hmmm.

The questions I get constantly amaze and often, inform me. Maybe they will do the same for you. To read the previous Q&A I did, click here. Otherwise, read on…

Q: What is proper etiquette when hunting your dog with someone else’s dog for the first time?
A:
Most of the time, everyone is happier when you hunt dogs singly. Alternate them, then compare and contrast their styles at the end of the day over a tall cold one. Dogs need to be trained to hunt as a brace, must honor each other’s points and retrieves, and obviously need to get along. If you must hunt them at the same time, try spreading out–way out–and effectively hunt by yourselves. If that doesn’t discourage you, introduce the dogs on neutral ground with leashes loose so they are not feeling your stress, and if possible hunt dogs of opposite sex together.

Q: What are the pros and cons of a pointer versus a flushing dog?
A:
Both have their advantages and disadvantages. A flusher will probably be ready to perform reliably a season sooner than a pointer, because you don’t have to work on steadying the dog while on point. They are also the style of choice for running roosters who will drive a pointer batty.
If you are dazzled by a staunch point, you’ll be willing to wait a season while your dog learns the ropes. On the other hand, few feelings match the constant adrenaline flow following a close-working flusher. Both need training to retrieve reliably.

Q: I have a 10-month-old German shorthaired pointer with a lot of energy. We don’t have a good off-season place to train. What are some good tips for yard training that would not promote any bad habits?
A:
The only thing you can’t do in the yard that you can do in the field is extend the distance your dog covers to perform his duties. I’ve found that yard-training problems start when dogs get bored. Too much repetition is often the problem. How about developing circuits of several skills and rotate through them at a relatively fast pace, like the weight training we do at the gym? A couple repetitions for each skill are plenty in any session. Challenge the dog by going a little beyond his comfort zone for each skill.

Q: With the long-haired dogs you run, how do you keep the burrs from building up on your dog?
A:
Burrs are a fact of hunting life, but luckily, my guys aren’t as long-haired as some. A good comb-out is all it takes for my wirehairs, and they get that at the end of the day along with a thorough check of eyes, ears, toes, and bellies, to make sure there are no seeds, cuts, scrapes, or bugs. Longer-haired dogs will need more of the same, or a good haircut prior to the season. Some owners use “Show Sheen,” a spray-on horse product that makes most stuff slide off hair pretty easily.

Q: How do you teach your pointer not to bump or get too close when pointing?
A:
Two separate challenges, two solutions. Once a dog knows what birds smell like, you need to insist that he stops immediately upon sniffing one. Walking him into the scent cone while on a checkcord and stopping him upon his first indication of smelling birds will help him point farther from the birds. I add a “gut hitch” to apply a bit of pressure to his flank as insurance, once he’s used to the checkcord. With a remote-controlled launcher, you can fly birds if he tries to sneak in after scenting them. Steadiness–not bumping once he’s on point–is an obedience skill. Once a dog indicates he’s found a bird by pointing, your job starts. Through any number of signals, you need to teach him that he should stand still (“whoa!”) until you tell him to move again to retrieve, hunt on, or heel away.

Q: At what age should you introduce live birds to a pup?
A:
Early, in controlled situations so he can’t get scared or injured by flapping wings or claws. Lately, though, I’m becoming a believer in the old-school strategy: once your pup demonstrates interest in birds, work on pointing and steadiness, obedience, and possibly retrieving. You avoid the biggest banes of pointing dog owners: dogs that chase flying birds into the next time zone, and breaking on the flush. While birds are a great motivator and reward for dogs, they probably shouldn’t be the reason he holds once he hits a point … that’s an obedience skill.

Q: I have a 10-month-old German shorthair that hunts well. How do I get her to stop trying to get other dogs’ retrieves?
A:
Yard work. A retrieve and bird-in-mouth shouldn’t be the natural result of every point (or flush, for retrievers and spaniels). In training, it should be a rare treat, with the handler picking up most birds. This breaks the chain of expectation inherent in the sequence of find-point-flush-break-retrieve. Once she learns that not every flushed bird is hers, introduce other dogs and make her remain steady while they retrieve. Again, it’s an obedience challenge.

Q: I just started upland hunting last year in Colorado with my GSP Remy and was wondering what advice you can offer about dealing with rattlesnake bites. We haven’t had any run-ins yet but I’ve seen quite a few while out scouting the areas we plan on hunting this year.
A:
My strategy includes snake-aversion sessions (only with a pro), annual vaccinations, and carrying an antihistamine like Benadryl. If your dog gets bit, open the Benadryl capsule and pour the powder under his tongue, hold his mouth shut until it dissolves. Keep the dog as quiet as possible, carry him if you can to your truck, and hightail it to the nearest veterinarian for observation, fluids, antibiotics, and antivenin if necessary. If your area is particularly snake-prone, wait until the weather is cold to start your season, and most snakes will be denned up for winter. Just a reminder: the new vaccine holds promise, but only works on some types of rattlesnakes. It won’t hurt, and it could help.

Q: My Lab is a bit wild when she doesn’t get out to play and run. Any suggestions for when you want to try and train her but she is just too wild?
A:
Many guys joke about letting their dog out of the truck five miles before a hunt or training session so it settles down a bit. But you won’t always have that opportunity, so your dog must learn that work is work. Get back to obedience basics, and add some clear signals that it’s time for learning, not playing: load up on the training table or clip the leash on, for example. Keep your energy level down, set a vocal tone that’s a bit more down-to-business. Start each session with some fundamental obedience skills to set the mood.

Q: I have a female GSP that is currently six years old. I feed premium food but can not keep weight on her when hunting season begins. I’ve tried satin balls, cans of food, soft food, etc., in addition to her dry food but she always loses weight. She is healthy and happy and has energy but I worry about her being so skinny. What can I do?
A:
I’ve got a young wirehair with the same problem, and many of the same solutions have been tried at my house! First, check with your veterinarian to make sure it’s not a medical issue and she really is underweight (visible ribs are not necessarily a bad thing, for example). Then, shop for a higher-protein and higher-fat food, and look at products without grain. Many of us add fat to dry food. Some like butter, others coconut or olive oil. There are also powder versions of the same (pork fat, for example) available. Be cautious about how much added fat you use though, as there is a slight risk of pancreatitis.

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Make blind retrieves less blind

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Waterfowl guys have a term called “blind retrieve.” It describes the situation where the dog doesn’t actually see the bird drop, yet is required to streak right to the duck and bring it back. After watching video footage from a camera I mounted on my dog, Buddy, I feel obligated to redefine this term. It looks like virtually every retrieve is blind to a dog.

It’s a matter of trigonometry. Recall your lessons on sines, cosines, and tangents? Well, a dog is low to the ground. His line of sight to something else on the ground is easily obstructed by bushes, rocks, even high spots in the terrain. The obstruction doesn’t have to be very tall—a few inches—and your bumper or dead bird is virtually invisible.

Buddy’s perspective is too darn low to see beyond even short cover. The tall stuff, I’m just glad he has a good nose. Doubt me? Try it yourself some time. Lob a bumper, kneel down and see what you can—and can’t—see.

There’s not much you can do about minimizing these obstructions, but you’ll get your dog on more “blind” retrieves if you recognize his visual limitations and appeal to his sense of smell, instead of relying so much on his sense of sight.

In the future when I send Buddy for any dead bird, I’m sending him to the downwind side of where I thought it landed, to give him every chance for a successful retrieve – blind or not.

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Timing is almost everything

Timing is almost everything

Dogs are not humans. Obvious, right? But when it comes to fueling a four-footed hunting machine, we often default to our own nutrition needs. While this motive may be well-intentioned, a misguided feeding strategy can negatively impact your dog’s performance—and could kill him.

I’m no nutritionist. But my study of the literature and discussions with the veterinarians who have conducted much of the research have led to a few truths, at least for me:

1. Unlike humans, dogs shouldn’t “carbo load.” High-carbohydrate diets can contribute to a condition called exertional rhabdomyolysis, or “tying up,” which causes muscle pain and cramping, watery stool, and dehydration.

2. Hard-working dogs derive much of their readily accessible energy from fat, not carbs. Giving your dog candy, corn syrup, or half of your sandwich makes you feel better, but won’t help your dog during a hunt.

3. Feeding before a hunt has more physiological downside than emotional upside. Keeping his “blood sugar” level steady is less an issue than in a human marathoner. And in most cases, the nutrients that fuel a hunt on a given day were consumed and metabolized 12-18 hours prior to the hunt. There is very little you can do on the day of a hunt to boost a dog’s energy (more on that later). Don’t worry about your dog being hungry during a hunt. As scavenger-predators, they are quite used to feasting, then fasting.

4. Then there’s the practical side. Think about your own performance after a big meal. Studies have shown that a dog (or human, I believe) with food in its gut runs slower, is less agile, and has less stamina than one with an empty stomach. Precious energy (and blood supply) can support muscles and respiration, not digestion. Fluids required for digestion are then available to hydrate those muscles. And most importantly, the soggy, heavy wad of food isn’t bouncing around inside his body, zigging when he zags and possibly causing “gastro volvulus” or stomach twist–a frequently fatal condition.

Think about it. What’s the first thing a hunting dog does when you let him out of the crate for a hunt? He takes a dump. It’s nature’s way of ridding the body of excess baggage that impedes his hunting abilities.

So, what’s a guy to do? Here’s my strategy. Adapt it as you wish.

1. I feed a high-quality (and often high-cost) ration year-round. We hunt part of the year, but train all year, so my dogs’ nutritional needs don’t change all that much. A good dog food has meat or meat meal as the first ingredient. It has at least 20 percent fat content, 30 percent protein. You can experiment with quantity and protein source for best results for your own dog. Expect to pay a buck or two per pound for the good stuff, but he’s worth it, right?

2. I feed morning and evening except when he’s hunting the next day. The morning of a hunt, and throughout the day I offer plenty of water.

3. As much to assuage my guilt as to give him a nutritional boost during the hunt, I offer my dogs a high-fat, low-volume snack every hour or so. Some people carry butter or cooking oil (messy). I like a product called Kronch Pemmikan that is like a giant candy bar, and contains almost 60 percent fat content. I’m fueling the dog without overloading his gut.

Beyond our own perceived guilt for “starving” our dog before a hunt, there’s no downside to this strategy…and plenty of upside. Try it next season and see if it works for both of you.

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Cheatgrass, foxtails ... watch for them.

Cheatgrass, foxtails … watch for them.

This is the best time of year for humans, but the worst time of year for our dogs. Maybe I’m not telling you anything new, but just in case …

Everything out there can cut, irritate, scratch or otherwise damage man’s best friend. (I remember the first porcupine encounter like it was yesterday!) Just a reminder to keep minor problems minor, and minimize major problems with a careful going-over after each outing.

Foxtails, cheatgrass and other weed seeds (“awns” is the more scientific term, I believe) are some of the worst offenders. They will get in your dog’s mouth, eyes, nose, between his toes or pads, and lodge in ears. I know someone who lost a great shorthair to an inhaled foxtail that infected a lung and went undiscovered until it was too late to save it. Any seed can burrow into the skin, migrate to internal organs and kill a dog, so teach your pet to stand for an inspection, and gradually accustom him to ear-poking, toe holding, and eyelid lifting.

Even minor cuts and scratches can become infected, so check your dog for blood, watch for persistent licking (often a sign of pain or blood), and dig deep into thick coats for a visual inspection of his skin. Foot pads, especially the accessory carpal pad (a dog’s “thumb”) are particularly prone to cuts and bumps.

Other signs something may be wrong with pup include head shaking, favoring one foot or leg, pawing at eyes or ears, and rubbing against furniture. If you observe any of these signs, take another look or head for the vet – like the commercial used to say, you can pay the vet now (cheaper) or later (cha-ching).

Hey, after all your dog’s done for you, it’s the least you can do for him.

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Fear the beard, embrace the eyebrows.

Fear the beard, embrace the eyebrows.

I get a lot of questions, and relish them all. They run the gamut, for sure, from ridiculous to sublime. Here are a few that may be of use to you:

Q: I have a three year old Lab that loves life. My problem with her is that I cannot calm her down in the field or other unfamiliar situations until she burns herself out. Do you have any tips on how I can work on this with her?

A: I wonder if this is an obedience issue? Practicing “sit” or “whoa” when she meets people or the doorbell rings, might help if that’s a problem as an example. It might be as simple as gradually exposing her to more unfamiliar situations, from shopping to walking on the sidewalk. In the field, a high-strung dog should still obey your commands, so go back to the yard or house and start over, expecting total conformity to your commands. Try a few warm-up drills involving obedience commands before you turn her loose in the field to remind her she’s working. I still put my young dog through some obedience drills before and during a hunt.

Q: Why are heavier loads needed for wild birds as opposed to club birds?

A: Wild birds often fly faster flush farther from the gun, so shots are usually at longer distances.

Q: I see you have a German wirehaired pointer. I am interested in getting a pointer. My question is several of my friends have flushing breeds, how hard and what kind of problems can a person run into hunting these different breeds together?

A: It usually doesn’t work well. A pointer will quickly get jealous of a flusher crashing into the birds he’s standing. He’ll start breaking point, fights will take place, prom dates will be broken, etc. Hunt very far apart (say 300 or more yards) and it might work.

Q: Both my wife and I are gun enthusiasts but have never hunted birds. We are both in the autumn of our years and would like to get a bird dog. Where do we start?

A: What a great way to spend your retirement! A dog is a life-long commitment, so before you make the emotional and financial investment be sure you really want a dog and will spend enough time in the field with it. Hunt at a preserve a few times with their guides and dogs, find a club and help out at training days. Attend some hunt tests and club events. “Borrow” a well-behaved dog for a day and night or two, to see if it fits into your lifestyle. If you’re still high on a dog and hunting, you’ve already done much of the research for a dog that might fit your hunt style, locale, birds you’ll be shooting at, and personality.

Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of getting a started dog versus a puppy and which would you recommend for someone new to or returning to the sport of bird hunting?

A: I’m bullish on buying started dogs. I’ve always gotten pups, but that’s just my preference. A started dog means no midnight potty runs and obedience classes. And the started, adopted and rescued dogs that I know have bonded just fine with their new humans. Puppies are magical beings, and the experience of raising one is special but it’s not for everyone.

Q: I have a seven-month-old field bred Springer. She is very high octane and has a hard time listening until she has had some exercise. Is there anything to do other than keep working with her and let her mature?

A: Nope.

Q: Is it necessary for a dog to have a beard, wire hair, and a docked tail in order to be a good hunting dog? I have noticed from watching your show with your friends “Buddy” and six month old “Manny” that you prefer German Wirehaired Pointers. I live in South Carolina and my son and I utilize our State Dog, Boykin Spaniels, but they have health issues. I was wondering why you prefer the wirehair breed? And do they have any unusual health issues like Boykins with ear problems and thyroid issues?

A: Those physical attributes do have function, but for me they’re just a personal preference. All well-bred hunting dogs will deliver in the field and at home, so find a breed and breeder you like and go for it! Some wirehaired breeds may have ectopic or entropic eyelids but it’s not much of a worry. Most breeds have health issues unique to them, so do some research.

Q: Which western state would you consider the best for multiple types of upland bird hunting.

A: That’s like asking me which of my dogs I like most! Every state has terrain, bird species, scenery that make it unique. Some that fit your request include Montana (Huns, sage grouse, sharptails, pheasants, forest grouse), the Dakotas (all of the above plus prairie chickens) and all three of those have great public access programs too.

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Like a phoenix, chukars rose from the ashes

Like a phoenix, chukars rose from the ashes

As I huffed and puffed my way to the top of a lone, rocky butte in northern Nevada, my wirehair Manny slammed a point. Tail quivering, nostrils flaring, his bugged-out eyes followed my move to the base of a lava outcropping where a cloud of valley quail scattered in all directions.

It wasn’t what I was expecting – this was chukar country after all – but most surprising wasn’t the species that flushed, but the fact that the entire butte, excepting those giant volcanic boulders, was cloaked in two feet of snow.

It was the most recent lesson involving unlikely habitats, many we simply drive past, written off for one reason or another. Whether it’s “natural” disaster, weather, or even past experience that crosses spots off our list, maybe it’s time to re-think our tried-and-true rules. Here are five examples:

I opened the season in my go-to canyon. Unfortunately, a devastating prairie fire had blackened the walls from the summit to the slim band of riparian area on each side of a gurgling stream. When I couldn’t find Manny, I pulled out the GPS. Before I could hit the “dog” button, chukars rattled their way through the streamside willow thicket, rocketing downstream. One fell to my snap shot, cuing another covey to launch from the next bend upstream. Fortunately, the slow learner in that bunch came my way, and soon Manny was delivering both to hand.

A 100-year-old hardwood shelterbelt in northeast South Dakota resembled a Louisiana bayou, four inches of water covering the rich black soil. But that’s where the dogs found every ringneck – splashing ahead of the Labs, battling the gnarled branches as their wake subsided. With nowhere else to hide, they were willing to risk wet feet rather than the hordes of orange-clad pursuers in the adjacent fields.

Deep in a Nevada range we slogged our way across a bleak, featureless snowfield toward the next draw. That small fold in the landscape offered protection from the howling wind, some bare ground, and we hoped, some chukars. Before we could get 25 yards into the football-field-sized expanse, a covey ran across what would have been the 50-yard line, well ahead of our dogs and our guns. We found others in similar locations, hunkered on a foot of snow they couldn’t possibly scratch through for feed.

A drenching rain forced us to shelter under an overhanging cliff in southeast Oregon. Dave’s pocket rocket Missy (half beagle/half Lab) didn’t cotton to our wimpiness, continuing to course the muddy slope below us in the maelstrom until chukars burst into the air. The stunted sage offered no shelter from the storm for them … were they traveling to better digs?

We once slogged our way up a desert canyon gray with ash from a range fire. Only the crated dogs’ frantic behavior clued us in to the chukars scattering like, well, ashes in the wind. We were out of the truck in record time, dogs so scent-drunk it was more like a Keystone Kops episode than a hunt. Only when the dogs were finally corralled could we kneel to find the tiny green shoots of cheatgrass thriving in the nitrogen-rich soil. That’s what was in the crop of every bird we shot.

Every season, I add another example to my mental checklist of upland birds and habitat anomalies. I well remember sitting in a crossroads bar as the old timer in all seriousness muttered “birds are where you find them,” chuckling to myself at his naïveté’. That well-worn boot is now on the other foot.

I guess this little story could be boiled down to a few simple lessons:

1. All birds won’t leave an area unless conditions are dire – epic fire, drought, man-made disturbance, overgrazing.
2. If there’s food, water, or roosting cover at some point, there is also a chance birds will visit, at least temporarily.
3. Hunting or predator pressure will sometimes drive birds to territory they would normally shirk.
4. In early season, water trumps almost every other factor. Find a stream, stock tank or pond and it can become a bird magnet when temperatures skyrocket.

Think hard and long enough, and I’ll bet you can recall a similar experience. The pro guides, local yokels, books, videos and seminars will put you in the right place 90 percent of the time. But that other ten percent? Those birds are where you find them.

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Want to get up here? Start working on it now.

Want to get up here? Start working on it now.

By my calculations, it’s only about 120 days until we can start chasing birds again. With the opener come all the joys and trepidation of a new bird hunting season. We’ve waited, planned, practiced, anticipated, maybe dreaded, everything from the alarm clock’s buzz to the smell of Hoppe’s Number Nine, to the post-hunt celebration.

Okay, I’ll say it: kind of like Christmas Eve.

But ensuring a fantastic opener takes more than trusting to luck. Relying on a wing and a prayer is not a strategy. Orchestrate your first day afield to ensure a safer, more enjoyable start for you and your dog. Some has to wait until the night before, but some you can start working on now.

Gear: Like any athletic event, half the game is in your head … familiar gear and mastery of it creates a level of confidence in both hunters. Now is the time to learn your way around your stuff. Then, you’ll be shooting the gun you shoot best, even if you bought a new one in the off season. Get to know that spare shotgun, too. New boots? Break them in now, when you have plenty of time to dial in your new stuff. On that first day you want to feel comfortable literally and figuratively. Ditto for the new e-collar or GPS, figure out all the bells and whistles now, so you can manipulate those buttons with your eyes closed.

Place: Who doesn’t love new hunting spots? The joy of discovery is addicting. But to start the season on the right foot, start doing your homework now. Often, it’s best to start the season hunting a spot you know. You will be more confident (read: shoot straighter) and you’ll have a better chance of finding birds (read: happy dog). If you simply can’t resist the siren song of a new covert, do your research, talk to the regional biologist now, when he is a little less harried, and hang that topo map on your office wall to study. Now’s the time to secure permission to hunt private property or “open to hunt” lands.

People: You might have an opening weekend tradition – I do. I invite the right hunting partner – the one who helps buy fuel and brings a spectacular lunch. He guns while I handle the dog if necessary, holding off when I’m working on steady to wing and shot. He knows not to shoot bumped birds. But the selection process takes a while and might be done best with some “practice” during dog training season.

Dogs: No baseball player skips spring training. No football player shirks the weight room. Neither should your dog (or you, for that matter). Make a list of what you want to fix from last season, setting both training and fitness goals. “If you’re dog’s fat, you need more exercise” is an apt cliché, not matter how hard you plan to hunt. Fit hunters handle opening day heat better, can hunt longer and more efficiently. Oh, so can your dog. Mobilize some buddies and meet weekly to work on pointing, retrieving, etc.

It looks like a lot, but you’re in it for the long run. In many states, bird season is four or five months long. As the saying goes, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” Might as well make it the right step, in the best place, with a good partner and a dog that will be able to work for you all season.

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