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More open choke, more birds in the bag.

In the days of silk fly lines, English fly anglers would utter “God save the queen,” before setting the hook. This gave the trout time to take the fly in his mouth and turn, setting the hook himself rather than the angler pulling it away too soon. I’m convinced it’s good advice for bird hunters too, for a slightly different reason. When it comes to shooting, I try to live by the axiom “Good things come to those who wait.”

Most shots on birds connect at 25 yards, maybe 30, tops. Doubt that? Step off the next five birds you drop (not the ones that get away) and see where they got hit. They may land farther away than 30 yards, but that’s physics, momentum, trajectory.

If you’ve patterned your shotgun, you know an improved cylinder choke at 30 yards only makes a pattern about three feet in diameter. At 20 yards, it’s tiny. With that condensed shot cloud there is little chance of actually hitting something. It’s why we can flock-shoot and still miss every bird … the holes between birds can be bigger than our shot pattern!

And even with more open chokes, it pays to wait a moment longer before mounting the gun and pulling the trigger.

When the birds fly, take a moment to focus, and I don’t mean just your eyes, but your head, too. Your pattern will open up, evening the odds a bit, and with more space between covey birds, you might not flock shoot … as often.

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Your response to last week’s post was most gratifying. So here are some more ideas and suggestions to make this season’s hunting more productive and more fun … for you and your dog.

– Chukar hunters should be loath to give up altitude. If you are finding birds at one elevation, stay there, sidehilling to cover ground. Unless there’s a good reason, don’t follow escaping birds down the hill only to have to climb it again.

– The best bedding in an outside dog kennel or house is grass hay. It breaks down slower than straw and makes less dust. Cedar shavings are pretty strong-smelling and might impact a dog’s scenting ability.

– Remove the entrails of shot birds immediately after they’re retrieved to help them cool quickly. In wintry conditions, stuff some snow into the body cavity. Scuff a hole in the dirt and bury the guts – unless your dog is riding in the back of the truck – bird innards are fart fuel.

– When fogged-over shooting glasses leave you stranded in a pea-soup of your own making, turn your hat around. Put the bill in back where it won’t catch your exhaled breath, hang around your glasses, and condense on the lens.

– Introduce all current and new dogs to each other on neutral territory. When picking up new puppies we meet in the breeder’s yard, not mine, and avoid turf battles. The same strategy works with dogs that are going to hunt together.

– Having trouble getting your dog to give up whatever he’s got in his mouth? Gently pinch the loose skin on his flank, or blow sharply right into his nose. If that won’t work, toss your hat or something else into his line of sight – he might chase after it, dropping the bird.

– Lost your dog? Track into the wind, as there’s a good chance he got a whiff of something attractive like a deer, possum or female dog. Notify mail carriers, etc. Put a shirt you’ve worn, along with a bowl of water, where you last saw him and check back in the morning.

– Burning eyes and fatigue are common early signs of dehydration in humans.

– As you approach a bird to flush it, don’t look where the bird is sitting – look in the general direction you expect it to fly. Your eyes (let alone your gun muzzle) can’t move as fast as a flushing bird and you’ll likely shoot behind it.

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Activate the remote reliably by holding so the prongs face the base of the beeper.

“Playing the game means treating your dogs like gentlemen, and your gentlemen like dogs.”
Ted Tally, Terra Nova

I am grateful to everyone who has taken me hunting: friends, club members, professional guides, dog trainers, outfitters, and lodge and preserve operators. From each, I’ve heard fascinating stories, seen some incredible country, and gleaned bits and pieces of information that I now share with you.

Next time you are lucky enough to be invited hunting, be sure to savor the experience, not just for the birds in the bag but for the knowledge and insights you’ll have gained. Acknowledge the provider appropriately with a quid-pro-quo, something in a bottle, or a heartfelt “thank you.”

Had I known I was going to write a book when I started jotting down these tips I could thank everyone personally. You know who you are, and please know that I appreciate your contributions to my, and now many others’, hunting experiences.

– If your dog is licking all the medicine off a wound, put something tastier on another accessible part of his body.

– Use small bits of uncooked hot dog as your food reward when training pup. Dogs swallow them after one quick chomp so aren’t distracted from your next command by noisy, crunchy chewing. They also emit quite an aroma so have long-distance reward value.

– Want another reason to approach your dog from the front? He’s not right under the muzzle blast and its deafening effect. He’ll have one less excuse for not hearing your commands.

– When training a complex command, start with the last part and add the other parts in reverse order. When you get to the beginning, it will be a downhill ride.

– As the day goes on and ground heats up, warm air rises from the bottom of draws, valleys, river canyons, creating an uphill or upstream breeze almost everywhere. As the sun rises, hunt from above the best bird hideouts and you’ll help your dog intercept scent as he leads you along a ridgeline or down a draw.

– Sports shows – especially on the last day – can be a bargain-hunters’ paradise, whether you’re shopping for gear or a guided trip.

– You might have better luck getting a lost dog returned to you if you change the information on his collar tag. Leave his name off – fewer bad guys are interested in stealing a dog whose name they don’t know because he will be less likely to respond to the thief’s commands. Avoid engraving “Reward,” then your phone numbers on the tag. It could encourage ransom requests. Instead, put “Requires daily medication.” Good-hearted folk will work hard to return your dog, and baddies will avoid a dog that might cost them money.

– Do you own a TriTronics Upland G3 Special? Turning on the beeper remotely from the collar is sometimes a sketchy situation. Try this: once you’ve pressed the button on the beeper to turn it on, hold the collar so the prongs on the battery unit face the base of the beeper. Then hit the green button on the handheld transmitter to turn it off.

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You’ve heard the phrase “less is more.” Does it have relevance to dog training? Did you study physics? Do you remember Newton’s Second Law of Motion (I think). Yes, they are related.

Buddy and I were deep into preparation for an upcoming NAVHDA Utility test. It’s a tough test, full of anxiety-producing drills. Both the field and water portions require a dog to be rock-steady in the midst of distraction shots, walking birds, flying birds, dead birds, shot birds, bobbing decoys, and swinging guns. Not to mention a small gallery of judges, gunners and handlers adding to the circus-like atmosphere. And did I mention the steadiness thing?

Wham! It hit me during a less-than-stellar moment when, with my wife’s help on the checkcord, Buddy lunged every time the bird flew and the gun popped. Here was the revelation: Buddy was reacting to her tensing the checkcord, holding on for dear life in anticipation of the bird’s flush and his rush. She was telegraphing that tension to him literally and figuratively. He felt both physical and emotional stress, and simply couldn’t focus on what he knew to be right.

It was the literal manifestation of Newton’s Second Law: for every motion, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

[An obedience trainer who’d worked with wolves once told me canines will almost always pull back when you do, for example, on a lead. We use this to our advantage when steadying a dog on point by pushing on his rump. In my case, just the opposite was taking place.]

None of this would have sunk in near as quickly had I not taken him out to remedy that night’s situation with a brush-up the next day, sans spouse. No wife, no checkcord, less tension in the air and voila! A steady dog throughout the sequence.

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Won’t get fooled again … or will he?

Every once in a while, I’m reminded that we are sometimes smarter than our dogs. Using that slight mental advantage when training might be of value to you. I’ll use sleight of hand to keep my guys on their toes, surprised, ready for anything. Or, to simply break up routines and avoid getting stuck in ruts. Either way, they’re thinking, situationally aware and paying attention. And those are good things. See if these magic acts make sense to you.

Dogs that jump up probably have a good reason. Often I’ve got a bowl of food in my hand. I want Manny to “heel” alongside me enroute to his crate where he eats as I deliver his bowl. But his walking is more like a series of hops, as he’s hoping to get at the bowl before we get to the crate.

Duh.

Yesterday I switched hands, put my body between bowl and dog, out of sight. I got a sequence of nice, polite walking at heel all the way to the crate. It’s not as flashy as a rabbit out of a hat, but it worked.

Sometimes at the glimpse of a training bird, a fired-up pup can’t contain himself, spinning, jumping, and whining out of control. So I keep the bird well hidden until I can spring it my unsuspecting dog. The shock factor is often enough to freeze him in his tracks – eliciting a point.

I can think of a number of ways to outsmart a dog some of the time. Hiding from a pup in the field encourages him to stay aware of your location. Put two planted birds in the same spot, then flushing one while the dog points the other could help him hold steady through the first bird’s flight.

Surreptitiously dropping a bird while out walking, then asking your dog to “hunt dead” gets the drop on him, too. Even walking to a shot bird to pick it up yourself rather than let your dog retrieve it could be considered a trick.

Hiding food treats so their provision is an unexpected surprise is almost a Magic 101-level trick, but it works. But don’t torment your trainee. If you praise with food treats, be upfront when you’re not using them. I show my empty hands to my dogs before I ask them to do something for which they are accustomed to getting a tidbit.

Manny gets an adrenaline rush when he spots his e-collar. He is wiggling so much, I can barely get the collar on him. So I’ll hide it in my vest, give him 60 seconds of unbounded joy outside the gate, then call him and slip on the collar without all the drama of a minute ago.

The list goes on and on. Think about how you need to dial down, change up or otherwise alter the status quo with your dog. A magic trick up your sleeve might be just what you need.

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Think about this as you mentally prepare for the coming season:

Dog points. You marvel. Then the fun begins, because you should flush the bird, not your dog. But how do you do that without buggering up your shooting?

  1. Choose your route with care. When approaching the birds, swing wide around the dog and you’ll cut off one of the bird’s escape routes.
  2. Two gunners performing a pincer movement means even fewer bolt-holes for a cunning rooster more inclined sprint than fly.
  3. If you can put the bird between you and the dog there’s a good chance it will fly, not run.

Flanking your dog also minimizes his chance of breaking point. “Allelomimetic behavior” is a highfalutin’ word for that flock of birds that jinks in unison, or pair of wolves on the hunt, trotting in parallel. Sauntering close alongside a pointing dog is an invitation to follow you into the flush – that’s how we teach “heel,” after all.

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By Scott Linden

Do dogs get bored? Boy howdy, they do! Howling, digging, whining, fighting, barking are all indicators of a dog with too much mental free time.

But boredom isn’t limited to lying around in the yard, waiting for the paperboy to ride by. Disobedience, unsteadiness, inattentiveness are more subtle evidence of a dog that has lost its motivation.

How do you get it back? Maybe a dog that backslides on his training is like the underachiever in class: he needs more challenges than his teacher is giving him.

I’ve watched my dogs go off the rails as if we’d never worked on retrieving, whoa, or simple obedience skills. Usually it’s me who’s gotten stuck in a rut – relentless repetition of the same skills at the same level that we both end up phoning it in.

Back to the class underachiever: your dog might resort to canine spitballs, resisting your commands, or worse, if you aren’t fully engaging his mind. And all of a sudden, you’re back to square one on skills you’d thought were mastered. Instead, why not bump him up a grade level?

Yes, there is risk in raising the bar. Dogs that are asked to go too far, too soon beyond their abilities may fail. Whenever possible you want to avoid that. But it’s worth the risk – when you see him losing interest – to help your dog reach for the stars.

Example: we were working on the NAVHDA Utility-level “duck search.” Ultimately, Manny would be required to swim and wade a brushy pond for ten minutes, trying to find a wing-shackled duck that is trying hard not to be found. The most valuable skill for this test is using his nose to suss out faint duck scent lingering in the air and on the water, sometimes on the water plants. It’s easy for Manny entering a small pond downwind of the duck – that’s his comfort zone at this time. But every once in a while, I’ll put him on the upwind side of the pond so he has to expand his search before hitting duck scent. It’s a stretch, literally, but when motivated he’s up for the challenge.

Wherever you are in your training, there are ways to take it up a notch. Has he mastered retrieving from the whoa table? Go somewhere else, or have him fetch something different. Working on “heel?” Have someone – or someone with a dog on a leash – stand nearby while you reinforce your command. The simplest way to up the ante is to practice previously mastered skills in new locations or with added distractions.

In field skills, often the challenge becomes proximity. My young dog holds a point well when birds flush at a distance of 15 feet or more. When shot birds drop at a distance, he’s also nice and steady. Putting dog and bird closer together increases the challenge to the point it might require a firmer hand. But eventually your dog will probably rise to it, if you’ve prepared him, one baby step at a time.

In the marsh, there are analogs: steady in the blind is easy without gunshots. Maybe you introduce the “big bang” from a distance, closely monitoring his reaction. When he’s rock-solid, bring that gun closer. He might be steady to one shot mallard splashing in front of the blind, to the point of ho-hum. Next chance you get, throw two.

Make a list of skills you think you have down pat. Then add a column next to it with ways to make them harder – in increments – and you’ll keep your dog firing on all eight cylinders.

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