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Archive for the ‘What the Dogs Taught Me’ Category

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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If only he'd be this mellow on command.

If only he’d be this mellow on command.

I often joke about it, and so do others, but in my heart of hearts know it’s true. Dogs know when they are going hunting. At our house, it could just be a training run. My guys don’t know the difference. They’re just attentive. Our actions, routines, body language all provide clues that quickly become cues for them. If you doubt me, just watch your dog carefully for a couple days.

At our house, it might be just lacing up a pair of boots. The distinctive rattle as I take a whistle lanyard off the hook prefaces a run in the woods behind our house. Unless I’m careful, I’ll say something to my wife that includes the word “outside.” Then, it’s off to the races.

Like the Star Wars “Force,” cues have a light side and a dark side, and can be used for good and not-so-good. Timed incorrectly, our unwitting cues can amp up the energy level and create a free-for-all, setting back whatever training accomplishments we’d achieved previously. Used strategically, they can orchestrate your training session, even your hunt.

While excited dogs are often a good thing, when the intensity level gets too high, bad things can happen. Base instincts take over and rationale thinking goes out the window, leading to inattention or disobedience. We raise our voice, or resort to physicality. Like the cold war arms race, it can escalate with no end in sight, becoming a policy of mutually-assured destruction. All hope of a productive training session or relaxing day afield fly out the window when we, or our dogs, have a meltdown.

Mellowing the vibe is critical. But it’s easier said than done, and flies in the face of human nature. We expect dogs to “listen to reason,” see our point of view, or simply simmer down when we tell them to, often loudly and frequently. But a psyched-up critter is beyond the point of reason, so we need to take it down a notch via the same, baser level of communication. Using some of the same cues that set things off can set things right if they’re aimed at the desired goal.

Your voice and your actions can dial down your dog’s energy level. It requires discipline on your part, but the rewards are worth the effort: a calm dog, ready to take direction and less inclined to do something that could lead to embarrassment (for you) or injury (for him).

Try breaking your routine, and thus the visual and aural signals that lead to chaos. Rather than grab a leash and put on your coat preceding the usual nighttime walk, reverse the order, and put some time in between the two acts. At our house, the sounds of e-collars beeping to life mean time for a training run – the highlight of the day for my guys. Once beeped into whirling-panting-run mode, I can’t get them to hold still to put the darn collars on them!

When dogs frantically jump at a gate ready to explode with anticipation at being let in – or out – turn your back to them, rather than barging through and grabbing at them. If the chaos resumes when you reach for the latch, turn and walk away a few steps. If they want to get through the gate, they’ll eventually put two and two together. Barking dogs are often met with yelling by their owner, encouraging them to “be quiet” at maximum volume. What’s up with that?

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As in life,

As in life, “timing is everything.”

(What say you? Here, I reprise my thoughts on the topic that wouldn’t die.) Just as important as what you feed is when you feed your hunting partner. There are simple mechanical reasons not to feed your dog the morning of a hunt. An empty G.I. tract doesn’t hold anything that could rattle around in there.

Try this experiment: Take off your sock (representing your dog’s stomach and intestinal track), drop your car keys (ersatz “dog food”) into it. Hold it horizontally, and the dog food will settle in the heel. Then jiggle it, swing it back and forth, whip it around a little like a dog on the hunt would. All that weight will make the sock swing, bounce up and down, possibly even twist. Veterinarians call it gastro volvulus and it is often fatal.

Your dog’s athletic performance is another concern. Purina studies have shown than a dog with food in its gut runs slower, is less agile, and has less stamina than one hunting on an empty stomach.

Another good reason: the gut is not using the body’s finite allotment of energy to digest food when it could be fueling active muscles that are chasing birds.

No guilt trips here, your dog’s metabolism is unlike yours. Sending your dog into the field without breakfast will have no ill effects. Unless he’s got other health problems, he won’t develop “low blood sugar,” because dogs get their version of instant energy from fat.

If you can’t resist giving Gunner something during the hunt, give him a high-fat content snack that won’t fill his belly. You can make your own, or simply offer him some of your salami sandwich (just the meat). There are plenty of commercial versions out there in tubes, droppers and blocks. The key is low volume, high fat to keep the belly as empty as possible.

You can’t go wrong offering water frequently – it keeps a dog cool as well as hydrated. Make life simple on both of you by carrying a bota (wine skin) or the modern equivalent. Teach your dog to drink from it just like you, so there is no need to drag a bowl or sacrifice your hat as a substitute.

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Thankful for: genetics and something magic.

Thankful for: genetics and something magic.

It’s easy to get maudlin this time of year – family far away (or too close), the frantic shopping scene, lousy weather, not enough field time … the list goes on and on.

But seriously, as the Dalai Lama (I think) said, “keep a diamond in your mind,” and you can see the beauty in almost everything. Read this, then find the diamonds in your own memory, then tell us all about them at my Facebook page.

Mine include …

A sympathetic spouse who understands that I am feeding a raw, primitive hunger when I hunt. It’s a need that isn’t met in a grocery meat department or at the skeet range. Ortega y Gassett put it best: One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.

Sympathetic dogs that honor me simply by allowing me to hunt with them, despite their superior abilities. Dogs that embody the entire Scout Oath (trustworthy, loyal, etc.) in their too-short lives.

Loyal friends who put up with my bad shooting and worse cooking in camp. Buddies who share the same values: dogs rule, dirt is a cleanser when worn on clothes and under fingernails, in hunting is truth.

An incredible career serving you, helping you become better hunters and dog owners through television, blogging, magazine articles and my new book (feel free to buy two copies).

Co-workers who make me look smarter and thinner on TV than I deserve. Even they can’t do much about my bad shooting.

The incredible resource we have available. Millions of acres of public land that we own and access, plus friendly private landowners who let us on their property. I am also thankful for the care you take when using our precious lands.

New friends, that I’ve introduced to our sport. The wonder and awe they express after following a dog or enjoying a chukar dinner remind me that there is often more joy in taking someone else than in going alone.

The magical moments we experience in the field. A magazine-cover point, the conundrum of how DNA can be so exquisitely manifested. The willingness of our dogs to break ice, brave thorns, pant through the heat to serve us. The deep, primal connection we get when we team with our dogs to seek prey – literal and emotional sustenance for us both.

The small miracles we witness that non-hunters don’t: pear trees in the desert, arrowheads and petroglyphs, crystal-clear water burbling from lava rock, bobcat kittens tumbling among boulders, a blanket of stars that shrink us to the specks we are in this vast universe, friends that don’t mind if we walk without talking for a whole day.

Who needs jewelry?

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A well-deserved drink.

The weather girl had it right for a change: winter was starting right on time. So did we. Here in South Dakota you can’t start hunting until 10 a.m., to me and my crew, a most civilized statute. Departing Ringneck Retreat, we were in the truck and rolling a few minutes before the appointed hour, down a bumpy farm road past a feedlot and into the boondocks.

A light snow coated round bales and thistle blooms, adding magic to the morning – Tinkerbelle’s sprinkling of pixie dust – to our adventure. Gray skies weren’t enough to darken our spirits – a breeze from the west beckoned canine noses and human feet.

Buddy and Manny got the nod today. After too many miles in their Owens boxes they trembled with anticipation. Park – guns out – cameras rolling – rattle open the door. At the timber patch that was our starting line, Manny rocketed over logs, shimmied under bushes, snaked around the ancient elms’ alligator-skin trunks. The thick grass underfoot yielded not a bird.

Once out of the timber, he was on point within seconds. Bird up! And quickly down. The young wirehair had hit his stride, galloping toward the crumpled rooster, he snuffled it into his grip. A short race back and he relinquished it gently to hand. Fifty yards later, another lock-up, cackling flush and bird crashing into the ditch. Right-left-middle he coursed until the enticing aroma of birds arrested his forward progress. One got away clean. Another was warned with a surprise early shot then grounded with the top barrel. The last rooster in the strip jinked hard right, soaring over our blocker. The shot string from his first barrel drew feathers, but the rooster reversed field and soared three hundred yards over cut soybeans before rolling as he hit the ground.

Manny was off like a drag racer at the green light, quickly outdistancing the young Labrador stationed at heel with another blocker. Scooped up and trundled 900 feet back to me and the camera, the ringneck was relinquished from the tender grasp of a bearded muzzle. Maybe it was the pixie dust, a smidgen of fairy tale. Whatever the cause, it was an enchanting day.

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Good boy!

Good boy!

Whirrrrrrr! A long, dry slog down canyon went from relaxed camaraderie to high alert as four valley quail flushed wild on both sides of us. Manny’s attention was seized, he arrived at the scene of the crime quickly, snuffling the lingering scent like a starving man picks crumbs to ensure there were no stragglers.

The remainder of the downhill stroll was like a night patrol in a Vietnam jungle, eyes and ears wide open for every peep and rustle in the pungent sage. Our Texas visitor thought birds had hooked left, so we sidehilled in that direction a hundred feet above the swampy creek bottom, sometimes on hands and knees. Then, barely perceptible, a rustle in the juniper preceded the bird’s fleeting escape, downhill and over the cattail swamp at the bottom of the ravine.

One shot, bird down. Right in the middle of a football-field-sized tangle of mud, creek, beaver dams, cattails and berry vines … the sharp, thorny kind. The graveyard of forever-lost quail, I thought. The shooter marked the bird and stayed put, eyes glued on the spot where the bird had fallen.

Hmmmm. This looks familiar. A classic NAVHDA duck search, sans duck. Manny and I slid to the bottom and I sent him into the mess with a “dead bird – fetch!” He was daunted by the head-high stalks that fought back, mud that sucked at his feet and berry canes that tore his hide. A few minutes and he emerged, dirty, wet, birdless. But he stood calmly facing the web of vegetation, waiting for direction. I sent him again.

It was then I remembered training advice from an Idaho trip. I scrambled to the canyon wall before finding throwing-sized rocks, whose plunks and plonks tempted Manny farther and farther into the mire. We all listened, intent, to brush rattling, panting dog, mucky footfalls. Sometimes he was so deep in the vegetation all we saw was the faint quivering of cattail tops marking his route.

Then, nothing.

Stillness.

Rustle of stalks, splash of feet, but no panting … but I soon breathed easier. A long two minutes later Manny emerged with – I swear – the most humble look on his fuzzy face I’ve ever seen on a dog. Maybe because he was gently holding the quail in his mouth.

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Sometimes, it's just the companionship of a tired hunting partner that makes your trip.

Sometimes, it’s just the companionship of a tired hunting partner that makes your trip.

When I ask you in my surveys why you go hunting, you cite dog work, friends and being in beautiful places. You seldom mention the journey, the getting there, the Road Trip. Maybe it doesn’t belong in the Pantheon of those reasons, but for me (and I’ll bet you) there is value in the voyage.

My last trip is typical. I left early enough not to rush – smelling roses along the way was easier with a distant deadline. I detoured to scout a trout stream, caught up with the wildlife refuge manager, had coffee at the café whose town’s population swells to ten when I visit. Each pepped up my ho-hum drive, planted mileposts of variety along the endless ribbon of asphalt.

A dog in the front seat, the right license plate frame or window decal spark conversations with strangers in small towns and gigantic parking lots. If you keep an open mind you come away with insights into people and places. A new camping spot, landowner with ringnecks on his property, and if you’re lucky, a brother and college friend who intersect at one of your stops.

Kevin Bacon’s six degrees of separation are whittled to a couple in the Upland Nation. That guy in the next booth has a cousin who hunted with the guy you’re going to visit. The clerk behind the counter reads your magazine column, and his brother shot sporting clays with you last year. You only know and appreciate these family ties by stopping, breathing deep and opening your mouth and your mind.

So what makes your hunting trip more than a hunting trip?

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