Archive for the ‘What the Dogs Taught Me’ Category

Flick is growing so fast, physically and mentally. The physical part requires one set of challenges, including how do you keep him worn out so you get a little peace and quiet? I’ll save that for another day.

There is also the mental aspect of his growth. We have a lot of young animals around the house right now, and you can measure their growth by simply trying to hold their head in your  hand. Not scientific, but helpful. So while Flick’s head gets bigger by the day (as do our kittens’), it’s what’s inside that counts.

He’s smart. He’s impatient. He’s creative. I need to keep pace. That little wirehair brain is working overtime, figuring out this big world. And every day, he gets a little wiser. So, something that was a challenge yesterday is boring today … unless I’m on the ball. A bored dog is a disaster waiting to happen, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep the puppy on his toes – adding dimensions to the tasks he’s mastered, folding in new skills, incorporating another command word, putting distractions and texture to his day.

Now that I think about it, why confine this to young dogs?

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Read any of the good books, ask any of the good trainers, watch the good videos, and you will see the same thing over and over: much of the critical learning takes place very early in a puppy’s life. And that learning – and teaching – pays off for a lifetime. I would only add, we humans can also learn and benefit as much as the pup.

As you can imagine, I am hypersensitive to puppy talk these days and some of what I hear and read is about stuff you and I have lived through, maybe over and over again. So much of the chatter laments a problem that I fear may turn into a long-term conundrum for owner and dog if it’s not handled now.

I may be a slow learner but eventually I do learn, thanks to Flick and the many mentors formal and informal that I’ve had. While there are many ways to accomplish these goals, the key is to recognize that the discipline and mental rigor (on both participants’ parts) it takes now will pay off for many years. Here are some of them:

  • Respect doors and gates, wait to be allowed through them.
  • Know what is chewable and what is off limits.
  • Hold still before anything fun happens (leash, collar, go out, come in, go eat).
  • Other beings are good – humans of all shapes, sizes and colors, friendly dogs and horses, even the occasional cat.
  • Crate is good. Go in willingly, stay in quietly, come out only when permitted.
  • Come when called because then good things happen.
  • Leashes and checkcords = fun ahead, so no pulling, biting, fighting (corollary to the stand still rule).
  • Some behaviors are verboten – “NO” is the signal.

Finally, five pups ago I learned that most behavior problems can be solved with more exercise. Maybe a cockapoo is physically satisfied with a walk around the block, but a bird dog needs a full-out run twice a day. If I were you, I’d find a safe place, keep a checkcord on him, and save yourself some angst – now, and down the trail.


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He waited patiently in his crate for Uncle Manny to return from his first chukar hunt of the day, no yips, yelps, or whining. Manny once again did a stellar job, finding and holding birds for our sorry shooting. Everything shot was picked up and returned – I do not deserve that dog.

I’m still taking it easy with him as his broken toe is still vulnerable, so after an hour, Flick is up. New country, new hunter in my friend Joe, and hopefully, a chukar to acquaint the pup with the wonderful world of game birds. Flick covers ground in a miniature version of his uncle’s style – investigating objectives, moving to the front, and checking in visually often enough to keep me somewhat confident he’s not going to run off into the sage.

Feather piles, old scent and distant birds all did what they should, prompting puppy points. More questing and eventually, the real thing: a quivering, leg-up point – for a moment. Bird up! Bang bang! A clean miss and the perfect training scenario. Even with a 20-foot checkcord, I couldn’t get to Flick fast enough to forestall a chase, so I was glad Joe had blanked. Flick was reminded he could not catch birds he busted.

But he’d met his first chukar. His pace quickened, steely puppy eyes searching for more objectives and his little nose up and inhaling scent as if he’d just discovered breathing.

A couple more similar scenarios and eventually the pieces fell into place. Little tail up, leg cocked, nose telling us exactly where the bird hunkered. Checkcord grabbed, hand-over-hand to the pup, firm grip and belly rub, and explosive flush ending in a dropped the bird. Released to retrieve, Flick effected a spirited dead bird search and after another point, got an up-close snort and taste of chukar.

Welcome to our world, Flick.

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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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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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