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It’s been seven years since I ran a dog in the NAVHDA Natural Ability Test. And that one was worth forgetting thanks in large part to “operator error.”

But part of my “by the book” approach to bringing up Flick includes testing – not for the score itself, but for the discipline of meeting a set of test criteria that are designed for hunters, by hunters. Knowing what’s expected, and training for those expectations, you will ultimately have a good hunting dog no matter what your score on test day.

So, I signed up.

Even though NAVHDA tests are objective, with dogs scored against a standard rather than the other dogs running that day, a test is not without its angst. There are plenty of witnesses. Judges and those standards are demanding, even at the Natural Ability level. And to that point, “natural ability” is not quite as simple as watching a puppy romp around in the field.

As many (including me) have learned the hard way, showing up at an NA test with a young, untrained dog is a guarantee of disappointment. Many of the components are really about a dog cooperating with a human, albeit at a basic level. But on a rainy day when birds only fly a few feet before being caught by the pup, and the chase that ensues while the bird is parted out by the puppy … well, it’s not all beer and skittles when scores are read that afternoon. (Don’t ask how I know this.)

Much of the natural ability being tested is also about how a pup handles various situations: water, running birds, (hopefully) pointed birds, interaction with other people. And while the bar is set low, it is not lying on the ground. Only because I’ve experienced them all at one time or another can I bring up some of the faux pas: not teaching a male to stand quietly as judges count teeth and testicles, not doing enough swimming before being asked to jump into an icy pond in the rain, a gallery of people and dogs watching every move of every test component, not enough exposure to birds – let alone following the track of a running pheasant. All are hard-earned lessons I hope to have learned from.

It may sound intimidating, and it can be. But don’t let that discourage you from trying a test, of any kind. The right attitude helps a lot. At another NA test, I’d realized a few days before that we had “overtrained,” the stress at red-line levels for dog and human. On test day, I loosened up, he got the message, and we aced it. So can you.

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I think there’s a school of philosophy (or should be) advocating for a minimalist approach to life: spare surroundings, few material needs, uncluttering the mind. For all I know, there’s also a religion.

I get it. And when it comes to dog training, I get it times two.

In my experience, young dogs – heck, all dogs – tire of the same old, same old, a lot faster than we do. Miniscule attention spans and maximum distractions tug at a dog’s mental capacity.

So, what have I learned from learning that? Shut up, for one thing. A run up the mountain and back requires some direction by human to dog … but not a constant dialog. Periodic “here’s” and change of direction commands, when delivered strategically, have their desired effect – they remind Flick what he learned in the yard and keep him on track. But yell too many commands and they start losing their desired effect.

So I save my words for critical points in the field when they are really needed.

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Yipping and yapping, selective hearing loss at commands, who are you and what did you do with my puppy? Those are some of the ways we realize there are good days and a helluva lot of bad ones. But just when it is darkest, here comes the dawn.

No matter the pupil, regardless of the skill, there are peaks and valleys and a lot of plateaus. The former is a sweet, sweet experience to savor. Coping with the latter two are critical to maintaining sanity. In recent days the balance has been tipping toward plateaus with a slight chance of valleys, but I get a reminder every so often of the sweet side. And that’s what keeps both of us going.

I was trimming toenails today, the Dremel set to high-pitched whine. Flick stood, stoic. It wasn’t fun but it wasn’t what sounded like waterboarding a few months ago. Retrieves that last month were a rodeo are now orderly and almost like the books say they should be (hah!). Hand signals in the field are acknowledged and often followed … a far cry from the hell-bent-for-election runaways of age five months.

Yep, it’s all about the long view.

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We are a team, but. 1) We need to maintain a a primarily-positive relationship with our dog built on trust, respect and consistency. 2) But sometimes, you just gotta use some force, correction, punishment, “stimulation.”

So how do you shape an obedient and fired-up hunting dog without impinging your budding relationship?

Keep #2 as far away as possible from #1. The bonus to this approach is a puppy that to some degree teaches himself. Great trainers know this and use it without much thought. We mere humans, on the other hand, without benefit of capes and tights or magic dust, must make a conscientous effort.

Pup walks at heel for four steps, then strays far left. We simply head a different direction and let pup think the lead did the dirty work of yanking him into line again. Pup rushes the gate to get out. The gate closes on his nose. He knows what “here” means,  but today there’s a deer skull that’s more fun than paying attention … until his neck is nicked electronically.

In all three cases, he thinks in his little puppy way about what happened. Action – reaction. Him and an inanimate object and he lost each time. A few more repetitions and it starts to sink in.

And we are still his best buddy.

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I think Vince Lombardi said it: “Perfection is unattainable, but in pursuit of perfection, we can achieve excellence.” And I think that’s how he said it. (But if not, let it go, quote nerds.)

But in the world of puppy training perfection is a matter of opinion. We adjust our expectations every day – heck, every hour – and help our protege’ to reach that goal-of-the-day. We adjust expectations every few minutes, based on the pup’s maturity, mood, distractions and our patience.

So today it was retrieving. Lots of preparation: checkcord attached, long narrow fence-way to guide him, and a bumper devoted only to retrieving, not play.

The first few were um, less than stellar in some people’s eyes. But for his first tries, he did a lot right: went straight out, picked up the bumper upon arrival and made an immediate turn toward me. No tug on the checkcord required, he powered his way right back … and then some. Four-for-five is pursuing perfection in my book.

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He’s eight months old. A human wouldn’t even be in kindergarten yet, but I see long legs, growing body and think Flick should behave like his uncle Manny. Luckily, I’ve been given some helpful mantras from the Smith cousins (www.huntsmith.com).

Rick Smith reminds me over and over in their DVDs to “don’t get mad, don’t get frustrated.” Coupled with Ronnie’s regular use of the term “little puppies” I stay grounded. Their wise words inform my thinking every day. Sometimes it’s harder than others, but I persevere.

Like when Flick tells the neighborhood he wants to be part of the action when I train Manny. Tantrums are part of childhood, even canine childhood. Or when walking at heel is a breeze … until it becomes a rodeo. But Rick and Ronnie’s words soothe me even when Flick is gnawing away at a wifely item.

So I breathe deep and count to ten, not getting mad, not getting frustrated … at the little puppy.

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So, I’ve told you I’m trying hard to raise Flick “by the book,” by which I mean Rick & Ronnie Smith’s videos, Larry Mueller’s book, and the Art of Raising a Puppy by the Monks of New Skete. Surprisingly, on many issues all three are in agreement … including letting a pup chase flushed/flying birds to build his prey drive.

On that, I respectfully disagree.

The Flick Plan includes steadiness to wing, shot and fall. From boom to bounce, and then some. Do not pass go, do not collect 200 dog biscuits. Stand still until told to do something else (hunt on, retrieve, heel away). So, why start by teaching him to break the rule?

I guess if you got a pup from hinky stock, questionable parentage, or he’s a Spinone (it’s a JOKE, people), you might need to build that intensity thing. But my Three Devils dogs haven’t had a problem being “birdy.” So, again, if they’re already fired up about birds, why not skip the chasing and get down to brass tacks? (I am open to your thoughts on this, especially as we are at Square One with my theory.)

I’m not going to gloat, but am seeing indications we might be on the right track, which often means it’s time to slide off the rails! But with help from Bob Farris’ gut hitch (a variation on the Smith’s half-hitch), Flick is standing his birds and not bolting when he winds training pigeons.  Once they are launched, he’s firmly anchored on the ground like a big boy dog. The ravens he used to race after as they flew overhead are now a minor distraction. Today, tweety birds on our training run were tempting (especially the mystical, magical, dazzling gems, mountain bluebirds), but a few steps and back to business.

A work in progress, for sure. But maybe it will save a little angst (for him) not unlearning the chase, and time (for me). Your thoughts?

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