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Posts Tagged ‘bird dog’

Hard to get mad at him. It’s probably “operator error.”

At the time, I thought it was a red herring … an excuse … a pro trainer’s nomenclature to make us feel um, well, less professional than them. But time and time again, I am reminded (and often humbled) that “place learning” is, as Millennials say, now a thing. Probably has been forever, if you harken back to your own training experience. Are you familiar with the term?

The basic concept: A dog learns a command on the training table. Give the same command on the ground, or in a different yard, or another time zone, and it may have been given in a foreign language. I’m a slow learner, but eventually I do learn that you may have to start over, or at least backpedal a bit. Maybe you, too, have learned this from the cruel mistress of experience.

More so (in my experience) in the agility, obedience, Schutzhund and other non-hunting dog worlds, it’s one reason trainers recommend a dog be trained in so many different places. The number varies, but the concept is sound: a dog associates the command with the location. Only by “re-training” it in other spots does he finally, accurately, do what you want no matter the “place.”

For many it’s the best reason to send their dogs to a prairie “summer camp.” Or, a pro trainer. Or, to attend training days. Anyplace (else) is better than the same-old, same-old.

I was jarred into remembering this simple concept again today – maybe I need to practice dog handling in more locations! Flick is a rock star, steady to wing-shot-fall anywhere within 100 yards of his training yard. Our yard adjoins public ground, where we train a lot. For steadiness, Flick’s “bailiwick of excellence” is about a football-field’s length from my back fence. There are trails and abandoned dirt roads clearly defining that space, but I didn’t believe it was as obvious to him until an experiment today.

Having learned the hard way in recent days, I planted one pigeon within the zone of compliance. Result: as expected, a textbook point through the downed bird … even a bonus retrieve to hand. Chest puffed and head held high, I hied him across the old road where I secreted another bird in a shrub. Flick worked into the scent cone, crossing the dirt track, from familiar territory into the danger zone. The point lasted all of a few seconds and then all hell broke loose. The only good news was, Flick didn’t catch the bird.

So we weren’t set back to Square One. But we are starting again at about Square Three … checkcord and half-hitch, stage-managed so yours truly is always holding or stepping on it to ensure compliance. I can’t be lazy and plant birds at my convenience – longer walks are the order of the day – but with luck Flick will remember most of his training when he’s in new territory.

So next time it seems like your dog has been replaced by an evil twin, don’t necessarily blame him. Blame your location.

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Admit it, you too woke up in a cold sweat one recent night. “MY GOD! There’s so much left to do and there’s only (blank) weeks until opening day!”

Here, it’s polishing Flick’s steadiness: when he hits scent, when the bird flies, falls, or just stands there as the pup rounds a corner and gets a glimpse before he hits scent. My gentle version of force-fetch training is going well, and only a wild bird situation on a high chukar hill will prove (or disprove) my theory.

Your dog(s), your plans, may be different. But we are fast approaching the “triage” time of year, when shortcuts and compromises become part of our thought process. Are you there yet? I am trying not to settle yet for noncompliance in the above areas yet, but am mentally prepared for an all-hell-breaking-loose scenario on that first morning. It’s the best reason to open a season hunting solo.

In our little training group, every dog is at a different point in their career and that makes things interesting. We all get a new perspective, can see where our dog stands in the evolution toward “finished.” Watching a pup grow mentally and physically is therapeutic. Many of us, I’ll bet, breathe a sigh of relief at being even just a little farther along with our own dog.

We can help by sharing success stories and horror stories so someone else moves forward faster – or doesn’t do the silly things we all did! We get encouragement and feedback, and a few beers over good conversation.

So, what are you working on? And more importantly, HOW?

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Nom nom nom. Good dog!

Whether this works for you, you’ll have to decide. If a more experienced trainer has an opinion, I’m sure I’ll hear via Facebook. But at least one of those, pro trainer George Hickox, thought enough to bring it up in a recent conversation:

1. Dogs work for themselves, not us. If they choose to cooperate with us, “obeying” our commands, it is a means to an end.

2. The end is quite often food (especially in young dogs) or prey (in our situation, usually birds).

Makes sense to me. Think about it for a couple days as you train, and see what you think.

So, how do we adjust our training philosophy and practice in light of those observations? I’m using the prospect of holding a dead bird as a much more frequent reward with Flick than with past dogs. So far, so good.

In steadiness training, when he slams on the brakes the moment he scents birds, he gets to retrieve one. Almost every time at first, and as quickly as practicable after a flush/shot. Then, he learns to wait a while from point to flush to fall to retrieve command.

In a gentle version of force fetch training I’m testing, a variation. Obviously, he “gets” the bird when he’s sent to retrieve it. But – and I’ve seen this countless times on the TV show and at training days – the moment a dog arrives at the human, the bird is yanked from his mouth.

Not Flick. He gets a moment or two to savor it. Maybe more, if he doesn’t start chewing! I’ll often heel him back to the yard or training table as he carries the bird – that’s a lot of savoring! And once he releases on command, he gets another chance to snort-sniff-lick it while I hold it.

A bird in hand may be worth two in the bush. But a bird in the mouth is worth two hundred in the bag … if Flick can enjoy it for a bit.

I’ll keep you posted.

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This is Manny, in a long-ago image combining the Smiths’ “half hitch” with Bob Farris’ “belly hitch.”

I’m working pretty hard on steadiness with Flick. Here, that means hitting the scent cone and slamming on the brakes, holding through the flush, shot and fall. Maybe you are faced with some of the same challenges on that one!

But another dimension of steadiness is “sight pointing.” Derided by some as cheating by a dog that should have whiffed bird scent prior to seeing the bird, it is a fact of hunting life. A dog can approach from upwind, birds can run from cover, and here in chukar country they can be seen skylined on a ridgetop, skitter across a rock field, or otherwise vex a dog. And that’s not counting the valley quail perched on a fencepost for all the world (and Flick) to see. Eventually, Flick will also screech to a halt on the sound of a flush – I hope!

It’s pretty simple: you either expect nothing from your dog and he chases/flushes them wild; or, you want the same performance as if he’d scented the bird/covey. I prefer the latter. We get more shots, the process is virtually the same for the dog so he gets the same reward, it’s safer, and if there are more birds around they aren’t accidentally flushed.

Easy to say, hard to train.

I am spending a lot of time secreting birds in my vest and surprising Flick with them as he roams the yard and field. It’s not the same as rounding a corner and finding one pecking on the ground, but it’s a start. A stop-to-sight is rewarded with a “flush” and a retrieve of the dead bird I also hide in my vest. A few good versions, and next time I put the bird on the ground after the “point.” Sometimes, when I’m confident of his steadiness I will dizzy a bird and let it waddle around a bit until it gains its senses and flies off. Next is anchoring birds out of sight, then bringing Flick around a corner to see them and lock up.

We are making progress – are you doing anything like this?

The peaks are often accompanied by a valley or two – Flick will crash in on the unsuspecting bird and we head back immediately to Square One: on the training table, belly hitch/checkcord are my retrograde training tactics for steadiness. I am a real believer in the flank-pressure method pioneered by Delmar Smith and taken to the next level by son Rick and nephew Ronnie. (Bob Farris has a more “portable” version, illustrated above, that has a detachable dragging cord if you like, but it’s only effective if you’ve already used the cord and the Smith’s “whoa post” method with the cord through the dog’s back legs to the post.)

Ronnie recently explained some basics about pressure/contact/”Silent Command” that resonate (hope I get them right – if not, someone please comment): neck pressure is used to get a dog to move, go forward, change direction … all motion-inducing commands. Flank pressure is to stop a dog, or keep him still once stopped.

The revelation is, a checkcord going to the collar will certainly yank a dog if he breaks a point. But it will not really have a lasting effect. E-collar on the neck, ditto, which is why you often seen field trialers’s photos (especially) of a collar on the dog’s waist. Per Rick and Ronnie, “stop” comes with flank pressure: half-hitch, e-collar, even a hand tap.

I’ll keep you posted.

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I had an enlightening conversation with well-known trainer George Hickox recently, and he’ll certainly be a guest on the upcoming (debut, August) Upland Nation podcast. Of the many topics we discussed, George reminded me of a phenomenon I’ll call “reward deflation.”

We’re all guilty.

We encourage and praise our puppies, and they are quite motivated by anything that resembles positive feedback. Food treats, squeaky voices, a scratch here and pat there … all work with young dogs. We provide these reinforcements frequently and at length for anything the pup does right. But we don’t often throttle it back, or not enough, as he matures.

At some point, George reminded me, a smart dog only wants two things: food when it’s hungry, and birds. That is inextricably linked to another observation: dogs don’t work for us any more than they have to, in pursuit of what they want. Obviously, that could be food, or birds, or to get outdside and find one or both of those. But remembering that a dog’s highest priority is his own wellbeing is worth its weight in kibble.

We can and should use this knowledge strategically, to teach desired behaviors. But …

Back to the deflation: It’s not a boy crying wolf over and over until nobody pays attention when a real canis lupus actually appears, but close. We are the culprits. Dog walks in, doesn’t surf the kitchen counter, gets a “good boy.” We race past on the way out the door, and out of habit utter “good dog.” A dog is sitting, staying out of trouble, gets a cookie tossed his way. Pretty soon, the treats and words have no meaning, because they were awarded for well, nothing. We hadn’t asked/commanded the dog, he simply existed and got what George calls a “paycheck.”

Kinda like unemployment compensation. Sit around. Watch TV. Taxpayer dollars show up in your mailbox. It doesn’t motivate recipients to go work and it won’t motivate your dog, either.

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About 4,000 per month. That’s how many questions I get from Facebook, Instagram, email, and when you enter my Take Your Friend Hunting contest here. Some are just too good to leave alone – they beg for a little embellishment, just for fun. If any of these questions look familiar, please know it is merely coincidental.

[Editor’s note: no dogs were harmed in the making of this blog post, though a few egos may be slightly bruised.]

Q: Do you ever hunt without a dog? Thanks, Kat Luver.

A: Why?

Q: My children want to help with dog training, but they are not very disciplined themselves, i.e., dirty rooms, lost homework, bad manners. Thanks, Terry Bulldad.

A: Try an electronic training collar. They are nowhere near as inhumane as they used to be, and speed up the learning process when used correctly. The vibration and tone features also give you a lot of flexibility when it comes to behavioral change. Start with a very low stimulation, and work up as necessary. I would take the collars off before you drop them at school, though.

Q: Help! My dog won’t come to me when called. Signed, Star Tinghout.

A: He doesn’t come when I call him, either. Try making a sound like a filet mignon and see what happens.

Q: How long does it take to train a dog? Thanks, E.Z. Wayout.

A: A year should be sufficient for me to tell you how long it will take to train a dog.

Q: My dog is in a constant state of shedding both in the house and truck. Can I do anything about it? Signed, Harry Holmes.

A: Despite the claims by some “doodle-type” or shorthair breeders, all dogs shed. A good diet and regular grooming will help, but the real solution is to own furniture, carpets and truck upholstery that match the color of your dog. If your dog is ticked, spotted, checked or striped, buy two homes and two trucks.

Q: How can I get to go hunting with you? Thanks, Nita Friend.

A: Thanks! I’m always looking for guest hosts on the show, especially if they shoot well and let me take credit. Please send me a detailed letter, written in the margins of as many $50 bills as you need to draft a detailed, lengthy, convincing proposal.

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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.

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