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

Training time: huh?

Beeper, bell, brush … it may not be disobedience as much as noise!

Next time your dog disobeys you, don’t jump to the inevitable conclusion. It may not be recalcitrance. He may not be stubborn. There’s a chance he’s not disobeying. Did you ever think he may not be able to hear your commands?

When I attached a video camera to one of my dogs, it was clear from the playback that there are vision challenges when looking to a tall human for direction. Thanks to the microphone on that camera, I’ve learned that it’s an audio circus down there, too.

Depending on who you believe, dogs hear up to ten times better than us. So, many of the annoying little pops and crackles we hear sound like a freeway accident to him. Think about what he encounters down there: tags jingling from his collar, or a bell, brush crashing, screeching wind, footfalls on dry leaves, maybe a beeper collar right behind his ears, his own panting. All might be overpowering your frantic commands yelled into that auditory chaos.

Or, your Lab’s ears might be hammered by a flock of Canada geese honking, or the churn of moving water as he looks to you for a line. Maybe there’s another whining dog in the blind, or at a hunt test there could be dozens of barking dogs staked out nearby. It’s no wonder dogs bungle their job once in a while … they can’t hear our commands for all the chaos at ground level.

If there’s doubt in your mind about whether your dog can hear you, why not add hand signals or a whistle just in case? Or, call his name and wait for acknowledgement before giving the command. Then you’ll be able to recognize the difference between disobedience and distraction, and he’ll be a better hunting partner.

We pay, they don’t

Zero. Zilch. Nada. He doesn’t, but we DO pay.

In every speech, at all the presentations I do, it is still surprising to learn how few of us know this, so bear with me as we delve into ancient history for a moment. Back in the depths of that “real” depression in the 1930’s hunters banded together (anglers followed a parallel path) and begged Congress to tax us. Yep, tax us, when millions were out of work and the country was languishing.

We succeeded when the Pittman-Robertson Act became law in 1937, and created the Federal Aid to Wildlife funding mechanism. It has since raised 12 billion dollars that goes from the Feds, back to state wildlife management agencies to pay for staff, land, management, equipment, and related projects. Here’s how it works:

Guns and ammo are levied with a 10-11 percent excise tax when they are transferred from the manufacturer to the dealer or distributor, so we end-buyers never actually see it. But you’d see the damage if that tax wasn’t imposed. Ditto if fewer of us bought hunting licenses, paid the upland surcharge or waterfowl tag.

There’d likely be no game wardens enforcing our laws. Biologists would be history. Walk-in hunting would simply go away. Trap-and-transplant programs, gone. In most states, P-R funds make up 75 to 85 percent of a game department’s budget, so all we’d have left is a few pencil-pushers at the state capitol, riding herd on a few do-nothing staffers. It would be the Wild West again, and wildlife would lose.

Because the ugly truth is, mountain bikers don’t contribute a nickel and the guy shooting calendar photos of deer and ducks hasn’t paid a dime. Foodies who rave about “wild game” cuisine, hikers, wildlife watchers and kayakers pay zilch to support the wildlife they swoon over while complaining about us getting in the way of their view.

Sometimes I say it just to get their hackles up, but if those Audubon Society members want to really help their ruby-throated hummingbirds, if the little old ladies in tennis shoes want to ensure there are always cuddly critters to amuse them in the woods, they should buy a hunting license. And a duck stamp. And a shotgun or two.

But ultimately, we all know that ain’t gonna happen. It’s up to us. So turning more couch potatoes/harried parents/interested observers into hunters is the only way there will be game to chase and critters to marvel at. But there’s more than one way to skin that cat (pun intended). I’ll make your life easier, in the next installment.

Not all bad news

A threatened specie: access.

I’ve got bad news and good news

The bad news is we are losing hunters every day as they “age out” of the sport or worse (for them, at least), they die. Just five percent of U.S. residents consider themselves brothers (and sisters) of the hunt. Between 2011 and 2016 alone, we lost 16 percent of those who pursue quail behind pointers, pheasants flushed by Labs, ducks in the marsh and deer in the woods.

The good news is that we as individuals, and many groups we belong to, are going balls-to-the-wall to recruit new participants.

This new-fangled “R3” – recruiting, retaining and re-activating people to hunting is a thing, and it’s not going away. Minorities, Millennials, women, single-parent households, and youth … all have their champions. Entire departments are being formed and staffs hired to turn those people into hunters.

Some might think that’s bad news too – more trucks in the parking area, more guys in our favorite spots. Hey, I’d love fewer people in the fields and coverts I hunt. Probably sounds great to you too, on a bluebird day as you pull into that “Welcome to Hunt” area.

But if the trend persists, eventually there won’t be a field or a covert to visit … or if there is, it will be barren of game, songbirds, avian predators and most other critters. If you hear anything, it will be the sound of crickets, not the cackle of roosters. Because hunters are the only people funding most conservation efforts.

Yep, the bird watchers, hikers, wildlife photographers, backpackers and cross-country skiers may love seeing a fawn and doe nuzzling, or a majestic bald eagle perched in a snag, but they don’t fund management of those critters or much of the land where they dwell. Only two states have a teensy-weensy dedicated tax to help. The other 48 send  a paltry few income tax dollars to help wildlife.

The facts are: fewer hunters, fewer dollars for land acquisition. When purchases of guns and ammo plummet, so does funding to state wildlife agencies. If sales of hunting licenses and tags drop, so do the number of biologists and habitat managers. A downfall in duck stamp purchases means fewer acres acquired for new or existing federal wildlife refuges, and smaller staffs to manage them.

Like the GPS route to your favorite covert, the way is clear. Bringing more hunters into our fraternity ensures that our kids have fields to explore and wildlife to pursue. And their kids, and their kids. The questions are how, why, when, and most importantly, who?

That is the subject of a future essay. In the meantime, keep hunting, join a conservation group, and buy more gear. And stand by for more good news in the next installment.


That nice, warm feeling … knowing you’ll be found

Okay, it happened again just west of town. Idiots headed into a closed watershed on their snowmobiles, got lost, broke down, and nearly froze to death. Two skiers did it the week before, with fatal results for one of them.

We hunters are smarter than that, right? Wrong. Wait until fall and you’ll read about somebody wandering into the woods only to be found the next spring, mouldering at the bottom of a treestand or their bleached bones picked clean by vultures on a lonesome prairie.

We might be able to tough it out with our survival skills when lost, but at some point wouldn’t it be great if someone came looking for you? A survival plan will boost the chances you’ll be found.

A friend and I once counted seven “Deer Creeks” we’d fished and five different “Grouse Mountains” in our hunting bailiwick. You can imagine the confusion had someone been searching for us. Besides telling someone where you’re going, mark it on a map and leave it with them.

Make a print of your boot soles. Searchers have a head start with this telltale evidence. This goes double for kids, any time of year, in any outdoor setting. Put a sheet of aluminum foil on soft ground or carpet, and step on it – with both feet.

I’ve made an informal study of search and rescue reports over the last few years. It’s clear to me that just a few recurring errors are to blame for many of the volunteer callouts. Avoid them and you could save lives or at least the time, effort and risk of the worthy volunteers who end up bailing you out. Take a few minutes to …

Charge your cell phone battery. Avoid bucking snowdrifts on a road – they only get worse the farther uphill you go. Take a map and compass and learn how to head toward a major road if you get lost. Bring water. Tell someone where you’re going and when to expect you back. Take a waterproof layer of clothing. Learn how to build a life-sustaining fire.

And as I tell my dogs when I leave them in the cab of my truck: don’t do anything stupid.

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