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… as long as the “old dog” is a human.

Every day, Flick trains me as I train him. Two overarching principles are now indelibly etched in my fore-brain:

  1. Even at 18 months old, he’s still a puppy.
  2. There’s more than one way to skin a cat (figuratively, of course).

As to #1: I’ve hunted with a goodly number of women dog handlers, some highly respected to the point where they judged European gun dog tests. They and their protege’s had one characteristic in common: they were the most upbeat, positive, encouraging handlers I’ve shared a field with. Squeaky mommy voices, clapping hands, over-the-top praise all melded to motivate and mold incredible gun dogs.

Working Flick a few weeks ago, a few of those actions fell into my own routine and boy howdy what a difference. Which also reminded me of some reading years ago that strongly suggested the only reason humans could domesticate wolves was by arresting their development at the puppy stage.

Give it some thought.

Related to that, is #2, especially when applied to “force breaking.” If you watch the TV show, you know what a rock star Manny was in this department. On land, water, blind and marked I’d put him up against any field-trial Lab. I had help from his breeder on him, and mainly used the traditional ear-pinch method.

Flick’s matriculation to retrieving is different. He’s a lot softer dog, so the risks of using pain are very real. More importantly, he probably doesn’t need it. Think about it: we use pain to get a dog to howl and open his mouth so we can jam a bumper in. If we can get the mouth open with painless methods, why not try it? With this guy, it was as simple as an index finger between his teeth while giving the “fetch” command. Following on, the usual techniques seem to work: move the held bumper, move him to it, on to the ground, etc.

Sure, he disobeys at times. We go back a few steps, put the finger in the mouth and work through it. Once he truly understands what “fetch” means, it’s about reinforcing – and rewarding – obedience to that command. And yes, high-value food treats work (I know some of you will cringe at that, but it works for us). Hot dog bits and chicken skin are the go-to positive reinforcers in my yard.

Yeah, the jury is still out. But as best I can tell, Flick is as far along or farther than most dogs training with the other methods. I’ll keep you posted, and appreciate your feedback.

 

Now the fun begins, right? Hold it just a minute.
Reconnoiter the area as you approach your dog and there’s a better chance your feet and gun will be pointed in the right direction when your adrenaline flows and wings whir. Flushed, frightened birds often head for a ridge, point, or high spot of some sort, frantically trying to put that topographical barrier between them and the danger you pose. In their absence even ground-dwellers like chukars might bolt for a cover of trees or tall shrubs. Face it as you walk in on the point.
You should be in a slightly better position when the flush startles you and the dog … and we need all the help we can get!

And now what?

By any calendar, in any state, bird season is over. Now, the wait begins.

But between now and the next opening day, we have time. Time to reflect, remember, gather in all the sights and sounds, the smells … how was your season? How many times have you showed someone a photo, re-told a story, bragged on your dog. Did you take credit for that easy bird that flew unscathed?

What’s on the docket for the off-season? Got a goal? What is it?

Just finished a fun interview for the Project Upland podcast. Enjoyed every minute because host Nick Larson let me spout off on multiple subjects at length! Cheaper than therapy, podcasts may be the new Primal Scream.

One topic we discussed and I’ve done speeches on before is (as I’ve been told) a little politically incorrect. But now that “R3” is all the rage (recruit, retain, re-activate) and we are trying to save our sport it deserves more attention, again. I won’t go into the reasons we should be boosting hunter numbers – that’s a subject for another day. But who we recruit deserves scrutiny.

I’m not against trying to turn urban dwellers, youth, Millennials, minorities, women, single-parent households or anyone else into hunters. More power to those making that effort. Every dollar they spend on gear begets excise taxes that pay for habitat and wildlife management. Good on ’em.

But sheesh, folks, the lowest-hanging fruit is ready to drop on our unsuspecting heads like Newton’s apple: people just like us.

Think about the barriers to hunting that every outlying demographic has: tough to get to hunting areas, lack of disposable income, little free time, prevalent anti-gun/anti hunting culture, no dog, little knowledge and nobody to introduce let alone sustain a pro-hunting effort with them – a “coach.” Imagine trying to drag a Millennial from his parents’ basement, confiscate his phone, put a gun in his hands, make him walk ten miles and kill something. The odds are not in your favor, are they?

Instead, think about your neighbor, co-worker, the guy who sits next to you in church, a fellow Rotarian.

Same values, similar age and income, more free time (empty nest), and as your friend he’s (she’s) interested in many of the same things you are. For all I know, he’s asked about your hunting trips, your dog, what quail tastes like.

Bada boom, bada bing.

Take the hints. Offer a hunting trip (or an observational opportunity sans shooting). You’ve got the dog, the gun, the ammo, the spot. You two already get along. Chat about all the things you have in common on the drive, plus safety, how dogs work, what to expect, how you’ll cook anything you actually hit.

What are you waiting for?

My annual survey of viewers asks your opinion on what needs changing to preserve and grow our sport. The number-one need is access to huntable ground. The funny thing is, there is a lot more land open to hunting than you may think.

Virtually every state has a program that pays landowners (usually with your license/fee/surcharge/tax dollars) who unlock their gates and let you in. It has a different name in each state, and the rules and procedures also differ. But the fact is, some sleuthing on the Internet, a drive here and there, a little bit of boot leather, and you’re in. Literally. While most seasons are over or winding down, it’s a good time to start laying plans for next year … on private land open to hunting.

Start here, in Kansas. Or Google “walk in hunting areas (state)” and good luck!

The joy of getting skunked

Even if you’re not a hunter, you know that “skunked,” as in many other pursuits from cribbage to baseball, means you didn’t score. Birds one, hunter zero.

And while we often console ourselves with the cliché, “it’s not about shooting birds,” blah, blah, blah, it really is about shooting birds. Or is it?

A birdless trip opens your eyes to the rest of the outdoor world, from the merganser brood bobbing past, to the subtle whiff of pastel green as you brush against a sagebrush. You may sulk for a while, putter in your vest, but soon you actually do find better things to think about.

Like the play of sunlight on moving water. Blue sky contrasted with snowcapped peaks. The earnestness with which your dog performs his age-old job. How about the fact that you can visit such places, stand on a rocky mountain top and marvel at a three-state view?

Or something simpler, like spotting a Bohemian Waxwing for the first time, and knowing there are still places and things awaiting your discovery. Come to think about it, who needs a shotgun?

I’ll bet last time you were skunked, you got something memorable out of the trip. What was it?

I once did an entire hour-long radio show about advice … from professionals, listeners, newcomers and seasoned sportsmen and women. Boy howdy, did I learn stuff! And their advice about advice is time-tested and evergreen.

No matter what your area of expertise, passion, level of skill (or lack thereof) you will become a better, safer, more helpful and possibly even more insightful sportsman if you …

  • Go today. Don’t wait for the perfect day, weekend or for better weather.
  • Go beyond the “sporting” act to the culture, lore, and history by reading books, joining a group, or finding a local expert.
  • By learning to use a map and compass; you open up brand-new territory.
  • Hone your skills like they do in medical school: watch, do, teach.
  • Make your next big-ticket investment foul-weather gear. Everything is more fun when you’re warm and dry.
  • Learn via the microwave method: investing in a lesson or pro guide is money (and time) well spent.

See you somewhere outdoors!

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