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Posts Tagged ‘bird dog’

Here I am trying to explain to Buddy why not finding any birds is okay, once in a while.

Here I am trying to explain to Buddy why not finding any birds is okay, once in a while.

My Little League team lost every game one season. I know a bit about being skunked. So when not a single primer burns, no feather clouds drift with the breeze … well, that’s when you dig deep for something – anything – to justify your trip.

And that’s before the spouse greets you at the door with a snarky “You went all that way and didn’t shoot anything?”

That’s your cue to tote up the balance sheet, hoping for um, balance. Sometimes it’s easy. Other times, you gotta get creative, gin up a rationale out of the irrational.

Or do you?

I’m a firm believer in the “less is more” philosophy when there’s nothing in the ice chest. Maybe you too. We can focus on the other things, often as (or more) important than obtaining free-range protein.

Pro’s: the dog still got some exercise; it was a beautiful spot; I still got some exercise; the birds will be there “for seed;” I found an owl skull; time spent with new (or old) friends; no ammo was harmed in the making of the hunt (cha-ching!); it wasn’t raining; no birds to clean; I can cross that spot off the list; no gun to clean … well, you get the idea.

Con’s: no birds to clean.

Yep, it’s a pretty short “con” list. Or am I missing something?

When nothing flies, the adrenaline stays firmly in its glandular garage, and the game bag is empty, what do you put on your mental balance sheet?

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What, if anything, do you say now?

What, if anything, do you say now?

I’m pretty well whoa-trained. When telling a dog to stop, I slam on the brakes too. It’s one of the funny things about that word that got me wondering how differently we think – and act – about the whoa command than we do about other commands.

Along with the barrel, gut hitch, place board, half-hitch, training table, pinch collar, e-collar on the flank or whatever strategy you use, something often gets lost – our ability to speak. If you subscribe to the belief that once a dog scents a bird “whoa” is an obedience command, why do we clam up once the dog obeys?

Check yourself: Fido is coursing a field and slams into a point. If you’re me, you’d also lock up, eventually realizing you’re in charge and need to do something – hopefully while the dog remains staunch. You might skulk toward the dog and bird, or stride purposefully, but how many of us proceed silently, hoping against hope that our dog holds still?

Meanwhile, the dog considers his options: he’s done what comes naturally (point) and wants to do what next comes naturally (pounce). He might have been taught a pounce is verboten, but without feedback, there’s a fifty-fifty chance he’ll get what he wants.

Is that okay with you?

Instead, quit expecting your mouth to “whoa” when he does. After all, Gunner heels in the yard, you praise. Coming back with a bird in his (soft) mouth merits a scratch behind the ears. But that end-swapping point on sketchy bobwhites is met by a silence as heavy as the moment between sermon‘s conclusion and congregation’s “amen.”

To a young dog torn between primitive passion and desire to please you, a word of praise may mean all the difference. I know Manny’s steadiness improved once I began delivering positive feedback instead of zipping my lips.

How about you? Does a cat get your tongue when your dog scents a bird?

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They do work miracles sometimes.

They do work miracles sometimes.

At least three times in the past few days, while typing “dog,” I’ve typed “god.”

No, I don’t have dyslexia. I doubt it is a Freudian slip. I’ve been typing since 10th grade. I know how to spell. But somewhere, deep inside my subconscious, there is a kernel of truth in this recurring typographical error.

Maybe you’ve transposed the same letters in the same way. Or thanked your dog for leading you to a revelation. Or put your faith in his nose. While in the field with him, perhaps you had an epiphany. Or simply hoped – prayed – he would hold that bird while you huffed and puffed up the hill to his point.

I’m not advocating you abandon your current spiritual beliefs. Nor do I equate a dog (even a staunch, finished wirehair) with a Supreme Being.

But don’t you think our hunting partners have many admirable qualities? More importantly, don’t hunting dogs bring out the best in us?

Amen to that.

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A little help, please.

A little help, please.

WANTED: Training partner. Age, gender, shooting skills unimportant. Necessary attributes include patience, tolerance for dog slobber and pigeon poop. Must appreciate burrs in socks and rips in pant legs.

I’m tempted to run an ad like that. I suspect I’m not alone. Someone else, somewhere, is probably drafting a similar blog post right now. Maybe it’s you.

It’s not that friends and acquaintances don’t want to help. There’s a matter of schedules, a difference in priorities, possibly they favor a different dog breed. Or maybe they just haven’t been asked.

But seriously, what do you want in a training partner? And what can you bring to the party?

Patience and tolerance, of course. Everyone – and everyone’s dog – has a bad day. But what else would help you and your dog be all you both can be? Is it hard-won experience that can be called on when you haven’t got it? I’d imagine ideas would be welcome, from left field or the school of hard knocks. That’s where the quid becomes pro quo – I graduated with honors from that school.

I’d hope they have a dog, any breed, any skill level. I’m an equal opportunity training partner. Even retrievers are welcome. Someone who’s been there and done that would shorten the learning curve, especially when it comes to hunt tests, woodcock and field trials.

But a fresh perspective might be helpful, too. Wide-eyed innocence, honest questions that cause one to think differently, could be just what is needed on a given day.

If they brought their own pigeons they might be invited for a beer. If their dog will stand a bird indefinitely while me and mine maneuver clumsily into an honor merits a second bottle. Bird launchers, stakeout chain, blank ammo rattling around in their pickup ensure a barbecue invitation.

Flexible schedule, got it. Down-the-block availability, check. Stellar shooting skills, a bonus. The wisdom to know when to offer suggestions and when to shut the hell up merits a wee dram of very old single malt.

You know where to find me.

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Not ready for retrieves yet - this is from last season. But soon, soon enough.

Not ready for retrieves yet – this is from last season. But soon, soon enough.

One step at a time, the saying goes, and the steps are encouraging. Despite two TV seasons of breaking at the shot, Manny is making progress on his steadiness to wing, shot, and fall.

We had a few setbacks without it, so we are back to using Bob Farris’ “gut hitch,” a variation on the Smith cousin’s flank half-hitch (thanks to all of you). It is the defining factor. That little tug on Manny’s waist may as well be an anchor chain for as solid as he stands the bird. A whiff of pigeon and he’s staunch, foot up and tail twitching into a straight and high twelve o’clock posture.

Then the gut hitch goes on, I mutter a quick reminder of “whoa,” and move in for the flush. Boom goes the blank pistol (we’ve graduated), and a wirehaired statue watches the pigeon fly toward the desert, disappearing through the trees and out of Manny’s sight – and mind. A wiggle in the tail as the bird vanishes, but four feet remain firmly planted on the sandy soil. Ten more repetitions and I’ll take off the hitch.

So, how’s your training going? What are your goals for this spring and summer?

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Yep, this works. But what else does?

Yep, this works. But what else does?

As Shakespeare aptly pointed out, man does not live by bread alone. Neither does your dog. At some point in training a young dog, you’ll need to go beyond food treats for practical reasons if nothing else. I don’t always have a hot dog around, and I’ll be darned if I’m giving up my last pretzel if there is still beer in the glass! Personally, I’m not grossed out by the next best thing: whatever residue is left on your fingers after cleaning a bird. After all, dogs are scavengers! Some old-school trainers proffer the head of the well-retrieved bird as a food treat.

But what else can a guy use? What else do you use to motivate your dog?

For me, often it’s the more personal touch, literally, that becomes the perfect payoff after a stellar bit of dog work. A scratch behind the ear says “good job.” Rubbing the chest is most welcome by a dog, and most will come right to you if they know you’re going to offer that. And no dog can refuse the firm, slow stroke down his backbone … if he arches his back to match your hand’s pressure you know you’ve provided the ultimate in physical rewards.

Much more handy than a scratch, clicker or food treat are your vocal cords. Tell your dog he’s a good boy, over, and over and over. Have a catch phrase if you need one, a secret language or nonsense word he knows means he’s doing well. Be consistent with it – simple is better. Avoid using your dog’s name – it has better uses, such as getting his attention prior to another command.

“Face time” is not just a business-speak cliché. A dog that can get right up to your head is a happy dog. As a puppy your dog licked his dam’s face in the hopes of some regurgitated food. I’m not suggesting you go quite that far, but usually he’ll settle for the first half of the transaction. Anyone who doesn’t let their dog lick their face once in a while probably likes cats.

Sometimes, the best reward is the most subtle; simply being around you is what your dog wants. This often works well as a discipline or correction tactic – withholding your attention by backing away from a gate will stop a dog’s frantic circling, for example. Turning your back on a dog that’s jumping on you will often halt it. Temporary banishment can be as effective as any e-collar.

Evolutionary biologists tell us the only reason dogs were domesticated, the sole reason they serve us, is because we’ve arrested their development. They contend (and I agree) that even adult dogs are in a state of perpetual puppyhood. They seek attention, positive reinforcement, and contact with the alpha pack member in their lives, and that is us.

Yes, you do attract more flies with honey than with vinegar and the same holds true for your dog. I’ve made a practice of asking every pro trainer I meet how much praise he delivers compared to the number of corrections. It averages about seven rewards to every correction. As a rule, more (much more) praise is always better.

A little demonstration you can try at home might help. (Thanks to trainer George Quinlan for putting me on the right track with this.) Ask another human to help by being the “dog.” Now, imagine (but don’t tell them) you’ve hidden a treat somewhere in the room and you want your “dog” to find it. In the first attempt, your communication is limited to “no” whenever your dog is moving the wrong way. In the second, you can only say “good boy” when he’s moving the right way. In the third, you can use both “no,” and “good boy.” Which worked best for you both?

Finally, note that praise is not a release: ‘Good boy’ can easily be misconstrued by your dog as ‘hunt on’ without discipline on both your parts. Pause between praise and releasing him to resume hunting, or before he’s allowed to goof around, for that matter. Have a release word, and be consistent about using it. Being permitted to resume hunting is reward enough for most dogs, but save yourself some aggravation by insisting he stand still until all the praise is delivered and a new command is issued.

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Ready for training … one at a time, in control of all variables.

As I continue to learn almost daily, successful dog training is about control. Sure, control of your dog’s actions, but also control of every situation. Delmar Smith said “never give a dog a chance to fail.” By eliminating variables in a training situation, you minimize the chances he’ll have to fail. And I need all the help I can get!

A dog progresses down the learning path by being introduced to skills, then mastering those skills in the face of growing distraction. But those distractions should be introduced by you, at the right time, in the right place. Linear thinkers that dogs are, it makes sense to carefully lead them (sometimes literally) from point A to point B to point C, rather than hope for the best.

Think about it: the whole concept of “yard training” is, fundamentally, a way to introduce concepts with minimal distractions before taking them to the field and the chaos that reigns there.

I talk elsewhere about having all the required tools on-hand prior to training. Now, let’s talk about what to get rid of.

For a while, leave out other dogs and people. Being a social animal, your dog will be as interested in other beings in his line of sight as he is interested in you. Despite your pleadings and their best intent, spectators will invariably do something that’s not part of your training strategy: talk, move, bark, reveal the bird’s location, shoot too soon or not at all, to name a few. There will come a time for people and dogs – as distractions in a long-term training strategy – but early in the development of any skill is not one of those times.

More subtly but even more important, are the surroundings and gear you use.

The day you haven’t got a checkcord on your dog will be the day he bolts at the sight of a whitetail when he’s supposed to be on point. If you haven’t determined wind direction, this will be the time you release your dog from upwind and he crashes into the bird launcher.

My electronic collars are always charged up, so if or when I need one, I have it. I’d rather not improvise or cut corners. When training the retrieve, I put bumpers along a fenceline. My pup is helped to run a straight line out and back. If I want him to find a bird or bumper quickly to instill confidence and reliable performance, I make sure it lands where it’s visible to him. During dicey retrieving or search challenges, I carry an extra “throw bird” so if a young dog’s intensity lags, I can turn the situation into a “win” quickly.

”Heel” is a simple obedience command, but early in the learning process I use curbs, fences, and a Wonder Lead to ensure it is easier to comply than not.

Birds complicate matters exponentially. They are probably what inspired the cliché  “what can go wrong, will go wrong.” Gabbing with your training partner while you reach into the bird box almost guarantees an escaped bird and chasing dog. Dizzy a pigeon and hope for the best, and today will be the day he walks off or flies away before you can checkcord your pup into his scent cone. Plant a bobwhite without flagging tape and odds are you’ll forget its location and a controlled find-point-flush becomes a Chinese fire drill.

Quail waiting in the “bullpen” for later use are out of sight and smell from my dogs. What about those “strong flyers” you bought from a local bird raiser can’t seem to get airborne and your dog scoops one up because you forgot your bird launcher? Or my nemesis, pigeons that fly to the nearest tree, where they unknowingly taunt my freaked-out dog baying and pacing underneath.

I confess, I overuse my training table. My dogs probably get bored with the warm-up drills they go through before their minds are truly challenged in other locations. But setting the stage gets us all in the training mode, and helps me maintain control over many of the wild cards we will surely be dealt.

So, what’s the key to a happy training scenario? Define what you want to accomplish. Anticipate the gear and situation you need to succeed. Maintain control over as many of the variables as possible.

“Hope for the best and plan for the worst” is another shopworn cliché that has earned a place on every trainer’s kennel wall for good reason. If you can carefully orchestrate training situations, you’ve done both.

Don’tcha think?

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