Two steps forward, one back. It’s a familiar cliche’ in the dog-training lexicon. Actually, I’ll bet if you think about your own life, your teachers moved you both directions as needed: guitar lessons, typing, overhauling a carb, driving that car after the overhaul was done – again.

Plateaus are a nice resting point on a chukar hunt, a chance to take a breather. But in dog training, they are misleading. You think you’ve mastered a skill with your dog … until you slide off the edge. Worse than a backward step, hopefully not too damaging to your bones or your ego. A humbling learning experience.

Peaks are what we strive for, our aspiration. Sometimes simple (he actually came to the whistle!), other times monumental (passed his Utility Test), each is a chance to be grateful … for your own teaching abilities but more importantly for your dog’s incredible talent (and patience, with you).

Valleys are the dog-training equivalent of a baseball player’s slump. The walls are steep, we are all alone at the bottom. Our dog has either lost most of his brain cells or suddenly can’t understand the English language. It’s when we contemplate switching dog breeds, or buy a fly rod.

In almost all cases, we are the culprit. Sure, the dog might be a co-conspirator, but if you think long and hard about your challenge-du-jour, honestly, it’s about you.

It could be shortcuts you’ve taken, inconsistent language/word choice, laziness, not being observant (“thinking like a dog”) … but in most dog-human relationships the human has got to do most of the thinking and sometimes, well, we just don’t.

Here’s your assignment: What’s your dog training project this weekend? If you’re training any skill, be aware, think ahead, consider your dog’s point of view and analyze what’s really slowing or stopping your progress. Be brutally honest with yourself. Go back, experiment, and see if it helps. I will if you will.

I’ve been reminded lately of a trait that good bird dogs have. If yours has it, you’re lucky. If not, you’re probably training for it, whether you know it or not.

It’s your dog’s “working to the front.” In most cases, you’d have to agree a bird dog working behind the hunter is little more than well, a loyal four-legged hiking partner. A dog earns its kibble by covering ground the hunter hasn’t already covered, questing to whatever distance both parties agree to, and searching out birds that haven’t been walked over – or walked past – by the human.

It’s been a source of wonder these days out on the desert where I run Flick. Being young, easily distracted by ground squirrels and chipmunks, he tends to dawdle where they dwell, despite my forward progress. I’ve been known to hack him in, whistle him to me then cast him off again in the direction I’m headed. Or give him the high sign or a yell so he knows which way I’m headed. In his younger days, I’d hide periodically so he would look for me, thus keeping in contact enough to figure out which way was which.

A NAVHDA judge decades ago told me a well-bred dog will usually work to the front instinctively, keying on his handler’s bright face as a beacon. Made sense then (thanks Phil Swain) and still does. Some dogs learn that if they’re not exploring the new territory ahead, the likelihood of finding birds is diminished.

And then there’s Flick. His age, boldness and curiosity (remember the rodents?) mean he’s often a dot on my GPS receiver rather than a gray-brown streak in front of me. But he’s got the right DNA, so lately I’ve just powered ahead and let him learn his own lesson … sometimes, the hard way.

I’ll watch on the GPS, and can almost predict his epiphany as he exhausts a particular chipmunk chase and wonders where I am. How he determines which direction to go to catch up to me is a mystery – does he track my scent? Vector in the same way a homing pigeon does? What do you think?

Whatever skill or instinct it might be, he’s polishing it. He’s learning that a foray into tiny critter territory is seldom worthwhile … because when we’re training, the birds are with me.

(First in a series, if nobody takes too much offense!)

I get thousands of questions every year from viewers of my TV show. I try to provide helpful answers to all of them … on the show, in messages and emails, and on Facebook, where fans usually have much better responses than mine!

But some questions are just too tempting to let languish as written, let alone put to rest with good advice or an insightful comment. They are sincere and earnest, but for some reason they’re crying out for an insincere answer … if you take them with a grain of salt, tweak a word or two, or just have the right (or wrong) attitude. To those whose (altered) questions are answered below, thank you for your kindness – you are the Dean Martin to my Jerry Lewis. Don’t we all need a few more laughs in our lives?

Oh, and kids: don’t try any of this at home. Don’t let your parents try, either.

Q: For someone who is starting out with his first hunting dog, what can I expect to go wrong? Thanks, Clew Liss.

A: The editor says there are not enough bits or bytes here to answer your question in this blog. Please purchase my new 1,438-page book on the topic. Here is some advice from Chapter 367, “Minor adjustments to your lifestyle”:

Invest in a GPS collar – it’s good insurance should your spouse decide to leave you as she’ll be much easier to find. Practice sleeping on the couch. Don’t worry about other hobbies, non-hunting friends and relatives, as the laws of physics and the space-time continuum will eliminate any free time you had pre-puppy.

And from Chapter 762, “Economizing with your new dog”: buy paper towels by the truckload, but forego expensive chew toys as the leg of your wife’s heirloom Louis XIV armoire is already paid for. Go to veterinary school. Dog food is an expensive luxury as long as you leave the door to the walk-in pantry open.

Q: What is the best method to convince your children to not undo your dog’s training? Signed, Bigmis Take.

A: I would build outside kennels. While it may get cold and wet, they’ll get used to it, and the whining and yelping should cease fairly quickly. In the long run you’ll have fewer behavioral problems. Supply plenty of fresh water, offer some indoor time to socialize, and take your dog out periodically to visit them.

Sometimes, things just work out. Those “best-laid plans of mice and men” actually are best. Maybe you have a similar story; here’s mine:

I’m working hard on Flick’s pointing the moment he hits scent cone, rather than creeping in to see the bird – or launcher. I’d say on training pigeons he’s 80% reliable, so we are getting there as long as my pigeon supply holds out!

But yesterday, it was the bonus during one training session that clinched things. After two good performances on training birds, Flick locked up again. Hmmmm.

As I approached, a valley quail skittered away in the sage brush. Flick stood, skitter-less in the face of temptation. At the little bird’s flight, he broke, eventually returning to stand again where he started.

It’s progress.

What’s your report?

Right now. Hurry up.

Timing really is everything. So is “thinking like a dog.”

Look up “immediate gratification” in the dictionary (it’s a fat, heavy book with a lot of words in it – look it up, er, well, you do remember those, right?) and you’ll see a picture of my dog Flick. I’ve written and spoken many times about how I believe dogs think in a linear fashion, and how timing any command/praise/correction is critical, must fit into the tiny niche allowed in the dog’s thought process.

Virtually every good trainer knows or at least senses this. Among the pro’s I’ve worked with, most will use it to their advantage, whether they know it or not. But a recent conversation with Brad Higgins of Higgins Gun Dogs put an exclamation point on the topic. See if it might help you both train a little better …

It is the belief of many, including me, that a dog only has room in his head for one thing, a single next step, solitary priority. In most cases, that priority is in his best interests, not ours. Bird, food, safety, comfort, love, come to mind (hey, we’re talking dogs here!). When Flick gets what he wants, he has then cleared his mental inventory and has room for the next need/want/priority. And maybe, just maybe, your command.

Would it help if we fit our priorities into our dog’s logistics? Probably. Of course, if you’re a master trainer with different methods/motives, or have access to unlimited cooperative wild birds year-round, you can ignore my suggestions. But for the rest of us, just sayin’.

Example: Flick is working on locking up the moment he scents bird. No “roading,” creeping, or dilly-dallying until he actually sees the bird or the bird launcher. On bare chukar slopes or behind a covey of scampering valley quail, we might get one more safe shot per day with him pointing sooner rather than later.

Instinctively, he will do this. Or, enough “wild” birds may teach him. Unless he’s gotten away with the sneaky behaviors noted above or worst, caught a planted bird. Which Flick did, several weeks ago. So, we are back to Square One, carefully stage-managing his search to ensure he hits the scent cone hard and with nearby adult supervision. Once he’s pointing, the bird flies ASAP and so does a dead bird he can redeem as his reward for a job well done.

Point-flush-retrieve is 5-10 seconds total because well, he’s a puppy, and an instant payoff is the fastest way to learn. In other situations, the dog’s goal may be different – food, girls/boys, going home … and we need to keep that in mind and use it to our advantage – we are supposed to be smarter than our pupils.

Yes, we are extending the length of each portion and some day, (some day!) it will be a leisurely approach to a steady dog, some picture-taking, loading and closing the fine English SXS, and finally, a flush. Once the smoke has cleared, the still-quivering-but-otherwise-solid Flick will be released to retrieve – to hand, of course. I just hope my baseball-catcher’s knees hold up until then!

The point is, thinking about what a dog wants is one thing. Thinking about what a dog wants right now, is a different kettle of fish. Speed up your thinking process and you may speed up your training, too.

What’s your plan?

One of our goals – retrieve to hand, every time.

On a long drive back from the last TV shoot of the season yesterday, I reflected on a number of priorities for this spring and summer … anticipating fall with a mature Flick, more “fun” hunt time than usual, and a chance to explore the west a bit more than most years.

Rising above it all were my expectations for Flick’s training and how I could help rather than hinder. You know that feeling, too, I’ll bet. There are times we might be better off letting the birds teach our dog!

Toward that end, to help me and perhaps you, here are some random thoughts for “training season.”

  1. Think like a dog. Understanding his perspective (literally and figuratively) might be a sound foundation on which to build expectations and teach skills. He really is all about pleasing himself, not you. The sooner you understand that his goal is bird-in-mouth, not a pat on the head from his human, the better. And if you’re thinking fear of the e-collar is the best motivator, please stop reading and sell your dog.
  2. Be consistent. New command, new word. Always use the same one. In my own mind, I’m trying to work through the command and outcome before I start teaching it. I’ve played with some pretty famous musicians, and none of them ever regret a dress rehearsal.
  3. Raise the bar. If a dog is “phoning it in,” he’s not challenged enough. Yes, repetition is how dogs learn. But why not raise your expectations and forestall boredom for both of you? Retrieves from the table, blind retrieves and dead bird searches are all similar, but incrementally more difficult versions of the same command/skill.
  4. Baby steps. Dogs only have room for the next thought. Pile too many on top of that, and he might retrieve your cat. Classical musicians learn the hard parts first, no matter where they are in the score. I take that a step farther and start at the last portion so it gets easier as we learn.
  5. Think twice before you set up training scenarios. Who doesn’t love a dog slamming into a rock-solid point, then maintaining that rigidity through the wing-shot-fall? Consider the worst case before you bring your dog into the picture and stage-manage it for flawless execution. In this case, know the wind direction, use a checkcord if you need to, ensure the bird can’t be caught, and if necessary, have a gunner drop that bird so you can concentrate on the dog.

You have your own list and I wish you luck. Add to this one, if you like, in the comments section or on Facebook. Maybe we can compare notes in the field this fall.

This week on the show …

This week on Pursuit Channel “We Deliver The Outdoors” Monday 10 p.m. Pacific, Tuesday 8 a.m. Eastern and Saturday at 9:30 PM Eastern …

Southwest Kansas has seen some good hatches, and “Wild West Country” had one of the best last year. We explore Horsethief Reservoir’s pheasant habitat with shotgun world record holder Dave Miller of CZ-USA, get a look at a new CZ shotgun, and learn a lot about shooting and wild ringnecks.

Learn more about dog training, public-land access, win a hunting trip to Ruggs Ranch, get shooting tips and wild-game cooking advice too!

Pursuit is available on Dish Network Ch. 393 and DirecTV Ch. 604, and a ton of other streaming, FIOS and other set-top and online devices.

Wingshooting USA is made possible by: Fiocchi Ammunition CZ-USA YETI Cabela’s

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