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Wet and wild

If you listen to my podcast or watch my TV show, you know I’m big on public access. When I ask you in my Upland Index survey, you say finding suitable hunting grounds is the biggest challenge – and threat – to our sport. So, to the vocal dismay of some I tell you where to go and why.

Nope, you’ll never hear about latitude and longitude nor exact starting points. But you will have enough to go on, to start your own adventure and boot-leather investment. Case in point:

One of the biggest pleasures I get – in addition to finding birds on public land – is meeting and talking with fellow hunters. In that same survey, you tell me that is high on your list of reasons you go, too. Cabela’s brings me to their Pheasant Classic opening weekend in Mitchell, South Dakota to do just that. Two birds, one shot. “Scotch double,” say the clay shooters.

One of the joys of hunting South Dakota is, they know what side their bread is buttered on. They make it easy to visit, find accessible land, and even buying a license is one of the better online experiences of state wildlife agencies. Get the app or glom onto the hunting atlas, find the brown/green/blue spots, and go hunting.

South of Mitchell, state highway 37 puts you into six or eight parcels, from a few dozen acres to a whole quarter section.  But this story is about the hunt, not the hunting spot. Noon is the start time the first week, and Flick was beyond ready as the clock struck twelve. Damp, drizzly, but not enough to bitch about, especially after three days of driving and two days of retail.

Manny remembered his training, investigating every scent and objective on the quarter section we found. Head up, head down, covering ground nicely, with enough pauses to get my juices flowing. Of course, you know the problem: within minutes you’re already envisioning a quick find, steady point, and slow-flying bird that you put on the ground with a single, skillful shot.

It wasn’t quite that simple. Points in shelter belts went unanswered by this shooter. Points at 100 yards ended in wild flushes as I thrashed through CRP that was head-high and ankle-grabbing at the same time.

We rounded the circle (I like big round hunts – the wind is in your favor three-quarters of the time) and a bleep told me Flick was stopped within 40 yards. He was still on point when I caught up, but once I was in the picture he began tracking. Slow, methodical, head down and clearly on something.

That something was a rooster that had outrun Flick and I. Lesson learned. Wild roosters are not going to wait for a human holding a gun to catch up. I would stay closer to my dog. A couple more versions of the same, and things came together. Beep. Flush. Bang!

Good dog.

Bang! Fetch! Gulp!

I hope you’re having a fantastic season so far. We are off to a good start, with camaraderie, beautiful places, and some success finding birds. Now, if my shooting would match!

Flick is meeting or exceeding expectations so far this season in all but one category: retrieving. As you may recall, I’m experimenting with a gentle version of “force breaking,” without ear or toe-pinching, and e-collar vibration as the strongest “stimulus” when needed. He was pretty good about opening his mouth to take bumpers and birds as a youngster, which is what the pinching thing is often about. Once learned, and associated with the “fetch” command, things progressed smoothly.

We moved to out-and-back, off the training table, new locations, retrieving after tossed dead and ultimately shot birds … all with minimal problems. But on last weekend’s chukar hunt, the wheels came off. The few shot birds I put on the ground were a crap shoot. Would he bring it back? Run off? Both, then try to swallow it? All of the above, at one point.

Maybe you’ve been there.

It finally hit me. The “X” factor was my hunting partner Tom, and his dog Ruby. What I hadn’t trained for was a hyper-excited dog (Flick) working with “competition.” As a predator, he’s ready, willing, and able to keep his prey from others … simply by swallowing … sometimes, preceded by a few crunches. I was reminded of a previous dog and a club “fun” day that was anything but, when another dog tried to take Bill’s quail. Gone in sixty seconds … urp.

Well, we’re back to about Square Three now, working on that last few steps of delivering in spite of other dogs and people. I’m hoping it’s the happy ending to a pretty good training experiment, but I’ll let you know.

This blog post outfitted by Cabela’s

This particularly dry and hot (for many) early season, this advice first mentioned in my book is worth a re-read …

Even on his best day, Buddy’s a so-so retriever. But we’ve come to an understanding. On certain days, he, and most dogs, would rather share a kennel with a poodle than fetch. It’s not disobedience, funny smells, or early-onset Alzheimer’s’. It’s the heat.

Dogs cool themselves by panting. They can’t sweat, so it’s all about internal air conditioning, heavy breathing. Plug that system with a hot, dry, feathered obstruction, and it shuts down.

You can yell, scream, coax, and threaten, but you’re wasting your time. The self-preservation instinct trumps any training. So I cut my guys some slack when the shooting – and the temperature – are hot.

Be safe out there.

“Sit!” And I mean you.

Sitting or lying down will help keep your dog in one place for a little rest … better still if you do the same.

Early in the season, we’re “warming up” in so many ways. Dogs are applying skills honed over the summer, we are testing our shooting abilities once again. All those lessons learned during the off-season are being put into action … or are they? Sometimes, a friendly reminder of the more subtle aspects might help. Here’s one:

So, you made it to the top of that chukar hill. Or battled your way through that dog-hair thicket in search of ruffies … and now it’s time for a breather. You sip some water, swap stories with your buddy, maybe nibble a snack.

Your dog paces back and forth, circles you both, slaloms between our legs, and just won’t sit still. He looks, beseechingly, at his hero (you) for direction, a command, something that gives him purpose for the next few minutes. But you’re fully invested in a joke involving a duck, a rabbi and a waitress.

Eventually your dog wanders off unnoticed, and when you’re dropping shells into your shotgun he’s nowhere to be found. When you eventually do find him, he’s worn out because he didn’t rest when you did.

The solution is simple. “Sitting still” starts with sitting. And I’m thinking that maybe a dog isn’t convinced you’re resting unless you’re sitting (or lying down, but that may be going too far). That’s what he does, his littermates did, his pack does. It’s body language in its simplest form. Doggy see, doggy do. Or doesn’t, if you’re not sitting.

So find a tree to lean on, or at least a dry spot to plop yourself down. Your dog will too. It might take a leash to keep him there, but you brought one, right? Offer him water, maybe a snack too. Pick a shady spot if it’s warm, wind-sheltered nook if it’s cold. Once he’s stopped panting, he’s rested and cooled off, ready for the next covert. And you know exactly where he is.

This tip brought to you by the Dogtra T&B DUAL 2-dog training collar. Learn more here.

Many hands, yada, yada, yada.

Birds make a bird dog. So do new places, incremental training challenges, distractions, and peer “pressure.”

A small training group is the perfect laboratory: for measuring your own training progress, seeing how others train, for your dogs’ socialization and advancement. If you’re selfish, check out now. Because the rest of this blog is about mutual benefit.

Newbie or nimrod, if you’re not learning from everyone else’s successes and mistakes you’re simply not paying attention. Or don’t care (see previous paragraph and please check out). Or you’re dead (and permanently checked out). A group can simulate the mob scene of hunt test galleries/judges – your dogs need that conditioning and so do you. “Many hands make light work,” planting birds, gunning, holding a checkcord. Who doesn’t appreciate a sincere acknowledgment of a job well done by dog or human?

Unless you consider yourself the dog training equivalent of Stephen Hawking, someone will eventually say or do something that is pretty damn useful. And vice-versa. Perspective is a two-way street. Wisdom is not reserved for the mature, great ideas come from every quarter. Questions lead to surprisingly insightful answers, sometimes from unlikely sources. If you’re not pondering all that happened on the way home (or in our case, while draining an IPA together) you are not getting your money’s worth from your group.

Some things simply can’t be done solo. Realistic training on everything from steadiness to shooting, for example. How many training scenarios have you created, then wished you had one more hand? Or you need birds. Launchers. Bigger yard. Or a steady dog to back. Or someone to bounce ideas past. An answerer-of-dumb-questions. Maybe you just want to know you’re not screwing up your dog. You get the idea.

And that’s before you measure your contribution to your own circle, the sport, habitat and those just starting out. As was said many years ago, “lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.” Which are you?

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