For the birds …

If you’re serious about hunting and training, here are two bird-related skills you should master. One “temporary,” the other quite permanent … for the bird, that is.

Deliver the coup de grace on a wounded bird: Here’s one method: Hold the bird (wings tight against the body) with your dominant hand. Face it away from the broad, flat portion of your gun stock or other hard object and swing his body with a snap to conk his head against the hard object.

Wringing a bird’s neck quickly and cleanly is more difficult than it appears. “Cervical dislocation” is much more humane: Grasp both of the bird’s legs in your non-dominant hand. Wrap your dominant index finger and thumb around the bird’s neck just below the head, so the back of the bird’s head is in the crook of the finger and thumb. As you stretch your dominant arm straight out you will put tension on the bird’s body. When you reach the limit of stretching the bird bend the head back and increase tension so that the vertebrae is separated from the skull.

The “taxidermist’s squeeze” is another method: Hold the bird by its breast, fingers and thumb in its “armpits.” Squeeze – hard – and hold until you’ve stopped both breathing and heartbeat.

Plant a training bird: There are a variety of ways to “dizzy,” or “sleep” a bird. This one works for me most of the time. Hold the bird in both hands and swing the body in short quick arcs (a few inches) so its head swings back and forth. Some prefer a circular motion – if you like that, use it. The key is getting the bird’s head to swivel.

After 10-20 seconds, tuck the bird’s head under one wing, hold the wing and thus the head with one hand while holding the bird’s feet with the other. Lay the bird on its side with the head down and tucked under it, and while continuing to hold it gently pull its legs straight back (away from the head). Hold legs and bird down for a second or two, then sneak away.

Vocabulary lesson: M-N

As my english teacher used to say, some new words for that proverbial cocktail party you will attend and be at a loss for, um, words …

Mark: 1) An item a dog sees thrown for it to retrieve. Usually a game bird or a training bumper; 2) the act of watching the item as it is thrown.

MH: Master Hunter, AKC title for which a dog must receive qualifying scores at six licensed or member tests. If the dog has already received a Senior Hunter title (SH), the dog need only qualify 5 times.

Memory Bird: Any item in a multiple mark situation, other than the last item, a dog has seen thrown for it to retrieve.

MHR: Master Hunting Retriever, an NAHRA title.

NA: Natural Ability, the NAVHDA test for dogs up to 16 months of age.

NADKC: North American Deutsch Kurzhaar Club, affiliate of the Deutsch Kurzhaar Verband (DKV).

NAFC: National Amateur Field Champion, an AKC title.

NAHRA: North American Hunting Retriever Association.

NAFC: National Amateur Field Champion, a prefix title or designation conferred on a dog that has won the National Amateur Championship field trial for its breed.

NFC: National Field Champion, a prefix title or designation conferred on a dog that has won the National Championship field trial for its breed when handled by a professional trainer.

NAVHDA: North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association.

NAPBA: North American Pudelpointer Breeders Alliance, breed testing and training group.

Not until you’re seven, Manny er, 21 in dog years.

I know, they aren’t hunting skills, per-se. But they are part-and-parcel with a great day afield. These skills might be the difference between a ho-hum hunting trip and an epic one. Sure, there are other ways, some might even be better. But if you’re looking for help, you might start here.

Cook a game bird: Generally speaking, fast and hot, just to rare is a good plan. Birds will continue cooking once removed from heat, and an overcooked bird is dry and tough. An overcooked duck or goose becomes “fishy,” or tastes like liver. Whole birds seldom turn out right because the legs and thighs will be done cooking before the breasts. Unless you love that magazine-cover presentation, break a bird into pieces and cook separately. If you like to cook low and slow, add plenty of liquid. Impress non-hunters and hunters alike by serving birds with a little apricot jam or cherry compote on top.

Open beer bottle without an opener, and pour it the right way: Grasp the beer bottle’s neck with your non-dominant hand like a baseball bat, so only the cap shows above your grip. With your other hand, insert a spoon, cigarette lighter base or other rigid tool (even the cap edge of another beer bottle) under the cap edge, using the base of your topmost (index) finger as a fulcrum. Carefully lever the cap off.

To pour, use a clean glass – ideally, chilled. Angle your glass at about 45 degrees, and pour from the bottle (you are buying good beer, right?) to hit the glass about an inch from the top. If there is little or no “head” (foam) once you’ve poured a half-glass, turn the glass to upright and pour directly into the center of the beer. With practice, you’ll achieve the ideal: an inch or so of head. Now go out and practice!

Stay warm in a sleeping bag: Wear dry sleeping apparel – the clothes you wore all day are full of your perspiration and will wick all the heat from your body. Eat or drink something warm before bed (I prefer hot buttered rum). Wear warm socks and a stocking cap. Buy a sleeping bag that has enough room in the foot area – toes compressing insulation are a sure route to misery.

Use a sleeping pad to insulate you from the cold ground or air circulating below your cot. Put a waterproof ground sheet (vapor barrier) under you or your tent to prevent bone-chilling moisture from seeping into your sleeping bag. If it gets extremely cold, wrap yourself in another vapor barrier (leave room for your head to ensure you can breathe!).

Once he slams the point, it’s all about obedience.

Electronic training collars have many uses, but until recently I avoided using one around birds like a dog avoids baths. But once you figure out that steadiness on birds is a two-part process, your outlook might change. Mine did. First, a dog instinctively slams into a tail-stiffening point. That part, we all get. A whiff of bird scent or sight of a bird should take care of that unless your dog’s pedigree included a cardboard box and hand-lettered “you pick” sign.

The second part of the sequence (“steadiness”) is where I’ve just become enlightened, thanks again to Bob Farris, trainer and NAVHDA judge.  In the hunt test judging process, the point is the first stage of judging – i.e., does the dog have the genetic programming to point when prey is upwind of him. But the judging criteria change the moment the dog sees you in the picture, literally or figuratively. That is where the canine rubber meets the obedience road.

Manny (and I’d bet, all “finished” dogs) needs training to stay on point until I want him to 1) see the bird drop, getting ready for the retrieve or 2) continue to hunt after my release, because I missed again. When he enters a scent cone, Manny assumes an elegant point, leg up and forward a bit. But a few moments of staring at the source of enticing smell, a walking, flapping bird or – worse – a flushing bird, will test any dog’s resolve. It’s just natural to chase, so the key is making it clear he’s been ordered to stand still.

Some use the usual verbal or hand signal. Some transition to a secret-code heel shuffle other noise or gesture that field trial judges might overlook. I’m figuring that for us the key is treating that part of the point-steady drill for what it is: an obedience situation. Until this revelation, I was loathe to use any “enforcer” stronger than a checkcord, gut hitch or tap on Manny’s flank. I feared an e-collar might sour a dog to birds – especially if I had to use it.

But if he’s been thoroughly drilled in “whoa” with many and different distractions, birds simply become another distraction from the command he knows so well.  Tempting, sure, but just a sidebar to an obedience test. Now that I’ve gotten over that, we’ve made some quantum leaps.

So far, Manny’s only been lit up (gently) a couple times. These days, merely seeing me holding the transmitter is enough to keep him steady with birds flapping in his face, “covey flushes” at his feet, and even birds perching on his back. Today, twice, we had flawless training sessions. Tomorrow, who knows? But I feel like we’re on the right track.

I’ll never forget watching someone’s tent wheeling its way across the blustery desert because the guy ropes were tied with granny knots. It was another reminder of the practical value of basic outdoor skills. Spending a chilly night under the stars was probably a valuable lesson to that hunter!

As with most things in life, there is usually a right way to do a task, and a number of wrong ways to do it, then re-do it. Even if you were a Boy Scout, useful skills and indispensable knowledge have a way of falling out of your mental filing cabinet. Some of them might save a life, or avoid serious injury. Others are simply helpful and will make your day afield – or training your dog – more productive or enjoyable.

Here’s the first in a series of skill-building (or skill-reminding, for you experts) suggestions. Hope you find them useful.

That nice, warm feeling …

Fire: Nothing caps the day like a bright, cheery campfire. Building one that doesn’t smoke, lights quickly, and burns a long time is not difficult, if you start with the right ingredients and a little fundamental knowledge.

Unless you plan to signal the International Space Station, a small- to mid-sized fire (a couple feet in diameter) is plenty for warming, cooking and camaraderie. Search out three kinds of burnable material: tinder, kindling, and fuelwood.

Tinder is dry, light, small-diameter or fluffy materials. Leaves, grass and some types of bark are common examples. If you can crush it in your hand and it crunches, it’s probably good tinder. Get several big handfuls.

Kindling is pencil-diameter wood: twigs, small branches, slivers from larger pieces of wood. I like my kindling to have “edges,” rather than all rounds. It seems to better catch the flame from tinder – the fire has somewhere to “start.” A couple good handfuls, 4-12 inches long, should do.

Fuelwood is anywhere from an inch to a foot in diameter. Downed branches and pieces of split logs are common. A foot or two in length is plenty.

Clear the area down to mineral soil, and build a circle of stones to contain it. Don’t build under overhead branches that might be lit by a wind-blown spark or drip melted snow. Then, pick your architecture. I like the “modified log cabin” style of architecture: two fuelwood “walls” forming a right angle, a big ball of tinder nestled in the corner. Kindling is laid against the walls over the tinder, and a few pieces of fuelwood above it all. Leave plenty of room for air – a smokeless fire is equal parts heat, fuel and oxygen. Touch a match to the tinder, and get out the marshmallows.

Life is complicated. Why not capitalize on the tips and sage advice from those who have already been there and done that. Here are some suggestions that may come in handy next time you’re afield …

– Use as low a volume to deliver your voice commands as will work in your situation. Dogs hear better than us and may construe unnecessary volume as anger.

– If you carry one of those Mylar “space blankets” in your survival kit, check it every year for age-related rips. I opened mine once and found that every fold had become a full-length tear. Luckily, it was at home, not in the woods on a cold, rainy night.

– Set out and light your camp lantern before dark. You may have a hard time finding it after the sun sets.

– Permethrin is the most effective tick spray, if you use it right. That means applying it to your clothing before you venture out. Hang, spray, and let dry for at least two hours before you put it on. In formulations for clothing, it is not appropriate for dogs.

– One of the best fire starters is a tangerine-sized ball of duct tape.

– Warm up by fueling your internal furnace. Carbohydrates burn fastest, proteins slowest. Best is a snack food that offers both for sustained energy.

– Buy a bandanna. Silk or rayon, get the big ones that real buckaroos wear, available at farm supply and western stores. Keeps your neck – and the rest of your body, in turn – warm. A multitude of other uses around camp from sweatband to oven mitt.

– Gates are designed to keep cows in, or out. Leave open gates open, closed gates closed.

– For quick energy, change your socks in the middle of the day. Your feet sweat eight ounces a day. Fresh, dry socks mean a happy hunter.

– Move cows off a road with slow, gradual “body language.” Don’t get too close, but walk toward them slowly, arms outstretched scarecrow style and pushing in the direction you want them to go. There is a sweet spot – not too close – that will push cattle without splitting the herd. Yelling, running, waving your hat will induce panic and a potential stampede – usually in the wrong direction. With several hunters, set up a picket line all moving together. If you’re driving and want to split a herd to get through, be mindful that calves will blindly follow their mothers so go slow and use your peripheral vision to avoid surprisingly-nimble youngsters.

The questions I get …

I love getting your questions. They make me think, and often start quite a discussion at Facebook. Here are a few for you to ponder …

Q: Where do you start in finding a good bird dog for purchase?

A: Join a club, and attend meetings and training sessions where you can get to know local owners and breeders. Ask them where they get their dogs. Attend hunt tests and meet breeder-trainers. Most national groups have a data base of hunt test results – another great source – showing you which dogs (potential parents of your new dog) and breeders are excelling in the field.

Q: Scott, my dogs have only hunted and trained with quail. Will they point other upland birds such as grouse and Huns? I want to take a trip out west, but don’t know if they will perform as well as they do here in Alabama.

A: I’d say they’ll probably do just fine. I’ve never seen any science on this, but believe a gun dog reacts to the volume of scent (bigger bird, more scent?) and so will recognize the similar scent of Huns or grouse. I’d pay money to see his face when a gigantic “quail” flushes!

Q: We have a German shorthair that gets sore paws but will not hunt correctly with boots on. Any tips?

A: Try duct tape instead of boots – instructions at my website. Tape or boots, most dogs get used to them pretty fast but I’d still practice at home a couple times before a hunt.

Q: Is a 30 foot or 60 foot check cord more appropriate for a Vizsla pup?

A: Both seem a bit long for me. That’s a lot of weight for a little guy to be pulling around. 20-30 feet should be plenty.

Q: Hello Scott, we have five GSP’s.  Our two boys (14 and 9 ages) love helping to train them.  Any suggestions or techniques that will encourage them to keep doing this?  We do not use any force break training, just positive reinforcement techniques.

A: Take them hunting. While training can be a lot of fun, at some point, you’ve got to get out of the weight room and play some football. Same for our sport. Hunt tests or field trials are another “final exam” for your training assistants.

Q: Is it better to let kids use lighter adult guns or to try tracking down a youth gun?

A: It’s not so much weight as gun fit. A shorter-stocked gun for smaller hunters will come up to the shoulder better, create the right sight picture, and lead to more successful shooting.

Q: I hunted as a kid with my father, back when it was free. Our dog Buster was from my Grandfather’s old matriarch Queenie, and the quail were wild and small but tasty. Can it still be enjoyed as much as it was back then?

A: Yes. You might have to drive farther or pay a bit, but it sounds like you already know why those are minor inconveniences.

Q: I have a GWP puppy that loves water. She runs down to the lake every chance she gets. Splashes around, drinks her fill, wades into her chest, but will not swim. I have tossed bumpers, balls and toys etc., but she just jumps around and barks.

A: Try real birds and get ready for one motivated swimmer.

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