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Windy? Sure, but it beats working.

Windy? Sure, but it beats working.

I don’t know about you, but here in Oregon we’ve had one of the windiest springs on record. I’ve been chasing hats across parking lots way too often.

Drilling for Buddy’s NAVHDA Utility test (and a segment on the new TV series Wingshooting USA), we braved gale-force winds yesterday at a local preserve. Mother Nature had her own ideas about our practice session, though. What do you make of this?

Buddy would lock up staunchly, I’d walk in, and about the time I would get in front of him he’d move. Sometimes, a creep, point, creep. More often, he’d move a lot, circling wide, heading far upwind of where I thought the bird was. I’d kick around, searching, but there was never a bird where it should have been.

According to the local TV weather guesser, the wind was screaming 30, 40 m.p.h. so I think I’ve got an idea: wind-diffused scent from dozens to hundreds of yards off sometimes hit his nose, other times a gust moved it out of his reach. When it went blank, he was off in search of it again.

What I’m most curious about is the circling. It was always to the right, swinging wide 50-60 yards in a counter-clockwise circle ending up about where he started. He’d hunt on from there, sometimes whiffing scent again, sometimes not. Any ideas?

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Well folks, see what you think. Here’s the first video/audio installment from the Road Trip, recorded in the field just after the hunt. Comments?

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Not to get all new-agey, but a great place to get "centered" and end the season

Not to get all new-agey, but a great place to get "centered" and end the season

We talk a lot about “closing the loop,” reaching a logical and finite ending to all things business, social, financial, etc. The term is appropriate for yesterday, the last day of wild bird season here in Oregon.

I began the season at a spot that holds history and pre-history (read: dinosaurs), fond memories, and a sweet spot in my heart for the peace it brings me. I closed the season in the same place. And once again, it didn’t take much to bring satisfaction.

Buddy hunted hard, making up for too many road miles and not enough field time. He tore from objective to objective along the little creek laced with beaver dams and head-high brush. Once the breeze finally stirred he worked it well, and soon the beeper’s hawk scream signaled a find.

Trembling on the opposite bank, nose vectored into a tangle of reeds and marsh grass, Buddy’s right front paw saluted the hidden birds. From the other side, I praised him then wondered how the heck I’d get across to make the flush: three feet deep if it was an inch, the dark water held no attraction in late January for an involuntary dip.

Rather, I staked out a brush-free spot on my side and hoped the bird would blink first, offering a shot through one of the corridors in the creekside vegetation. A fruitless search for rocks, sticks, or anything else to lob into the bird’s hideout led to my throwing an empty VitaCal tube, but no flush resulted and now I had a cleanup project following any shot I might get.

Buddy held steady, even when released to flush, and I reveled in my brilliant training methods (hah!). I wandered the bank, finding half a beaver dam that might lead to a hummock or sunken log to get me all the way across. The mud-and-stick barrier held – sort of – and I was three steps into the crossing when two mountain quail fought their way free of the tangle. One arrowed upstream through the tunnel of alders arching over the creek. The other buzzed, kamikaze-like, straight for my forehead before firing the afterburners and launching for the stratosphere. 

Pivoting on the muddy dam, I slapped the trigger and watched the most beautiful game bird in the world fall to earth, still as it landed, the silence returning to claim my attention and focus my gratitude, at the shot, the bird’s contribution of life, and for not falling in.

This mystical place, full of spirits from woolly mammoths to shamans, delivered to me a perfect end to a season full of challenge and beauty. I think I’ll start next season in the same spot.

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So sue me.

We are a year behind in the training schedule (ironically, because I’ve hunted with too many other people’s dogs in too many other states). But Buddy’s nemesis, the retrieve, is starting to shape up. Dare I jinx it by sharing my progress?

Suffice it to say the one universal, all-things-for-all-purposes motivator for Buddy is food. And I’d neglected to use it in training to retrieve. But recent posts have discussed our retrieving training without addressing why I do it the way I do, so here goes …

Sure, the force-breaking thing is all the rage, but not for me – what would it do to the roll-on-the-floor stretching routine, for example? So it’s all carrot and no stick on the backyard training table at my house. (Save your ire for another blog – force fetching is NOT an option.)

So far, so good. And here’s how we do it:

– Every good move (or non-move, when on “whoa,” for example) is rewarded. Note that I give treats and praise for Buddy’s NOT doing something wrong as often as for doing something right!

– Even baby steps in the right direction merit a treat

– Once a part of the retrieve is mastered, fewer treats are offset by more praise

Eventually, my pockets won’t smell like chicken or salmon and Buddy will continue to bring back birds. Until then, I don’t mind the occasional whiff of seafood when I reach for my truck keys.

– Scott 

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You want me to HOLD it, too?

Buddy: "Hold it!"

Once Buddy is solid on retrieving and holding a bird or bumper, it will be a matter of extending that hold indefinitely. Again, this is critical in almost every hunt test or field trial situation but more importantly in the field. Wing-clipped birds are highly motivated to scoot away given the chance, when a dog puts it down before the handler has his hands on it.

So, how have Buddy and I worked through this? Well, we are making progress. And as I said in an earlier post, it’s often more a test of my will than Buddy’s.

I have to resist giving the release command too soon, trying to pre-empt Buddy from a dropped bird. If he beats me, I give it back without repeating the retrieve command.

He’s to the point where when he drops early, a stink-eye look from me is enough to clue him into picking up again. I move away to encourage the pickup and a completed retrieve.

When Buddy is holding well, it’s my job to help by minimizing distractions or confusion. Confusion comes in many forms: leaning forward, premature praise (even reaching into the pocket I hide treats in), reaching for the bird, extending a hand, even if to praise with a stroke.

Instead, I’m using gestures to encourage holding, and distract Buddy from releasing until he hears that command. I will back up slowly, so he never knows when the retrieve is actually completed. I stand up straight, show empty hands (no treats, keep your mouth closed on the bird). I’ll wave one hand high to keep his head up (encourages holding). The other hand is ready below Buddy’s mouth for a surprise “thanks” when he least expects it.

I know professional dog trainers have other techniques, from toe pinch to e-collar “stimulation,” but I’m inclined to distance a bird in the mouth from any pain, emotional or physical

To this point, the jury’s still out. We’re getting closer by the day and that’s pretty good for us.

How about you? Especially when it’s time to “just add water,” and get a dog to hold once he’s emerged from a pond. Any suggestions?

Hey, some great shorthair-Lab tag team work at this excerpt from my show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSQ5OyCCjW4

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Buddy, before training got serious

Even this little guy could use a "cushion" in his retrieves

One of the many challenges in teaching Buddy to retrieve is holding the bird until told to release. I use “thanks” for the release command, just a quirk, but it works. I also use “get it” rather than “fetch” just because. So sue me.

Anyway, getting back to the task at hand (or paw): Buddy is reliably steady to wing-flush-shot-fall. He’ll even bring virtually everything almost all the way back to me most of the time. Birds are a bit of a challenge because they’re odd-shaped and still alive and kicking, literally. But he’s just … about … there. Mostly. I hope.

To get us across the finish line, I’m adding a buffer, or cushion, literally, at the end of each retrieve.

Many trainers suggest running away from the dog as he returns with the bird, sparking the “chase” instinct. I see it as extending the “buffer” between handler and dog indefinitely. It works but eventually you’ll have to quit as field trial and hunt test judges will mark you down once they stop laughing.

I’ve added my own twist on this strategy and it’s a helpful transitory step: I’ll run away, but let Buddy gradually catch up. As he gains ground, I reverse field, quickly close on him and grab the bird while giving the release command. The cushion has disappeared immediately, surprised Buddy, and he doesn’t have time to drop the bird prematurely.

Or, I’ll face him, slowly backing up (stretching the cushion) so he is encouraged to continue his approach (much like running away), but with a “soft” stop. I watch him carefully and if I see any hint of premature release, I’ll back up faster.

The real epiphany for me, though was using the whoa table in a new way. Most of our introductory lessons take place here. Buddy knows when he’s on the table, we’re all business. Sending him on a retrieve from the table, he knows to return to the table.

When he comes back, I’ve moved a couple feet away from the table and he’s forced to stop short of me. And, he can’t put the bird down because he’s at the edge of the table and it would fall further than he’s willing to reach to pick up again. Yet another “cushion.”

Once he’s stopped and holding, we’re on to a longer hold. This is more a test of my will than Buddy’s, and I’ll talk about that soon.

Hey, here’s an excerpt from one of my shows – watch these shorthairs! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ha0C-Z-okU

Meanwhile, has anybody else had similar “unorthodox” revelations? I’m especially interested in water retrieves as we’re training for a NAVNDA Utility test and it’s a big and complex part of that challenge.

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Dogs, like armies march (and think) with their stomachs

A crusty old trainer told me a crustier, older trainer once told him: Never give away a bowl of food.

And as I approach crustiness, I follow that advice religiously, because it helps Buddy be a better hunter.

Short of birds, food is the strongest motivator … for an un-neutered dog. So I’ve learned to use food strategically.

It starts with dinnertime. Lucky for the neighbors, Buddy doesn’t have to sing for his supper. But he does whoa for it. Talk about temptation!

I also dole out food treats for coming when called or other jobs well done, and early in the training, they are awarded even when Buddy only got an “A” for effort. As he masters a command, the treats are reserved for excellent work.

I never give away treats for free. Like all praise, food is earned – phony “good dogs” only mislead a dog from the real work at hand.

If you have two dogs, it doesn’t take long for one to want what the other gets when he does a good job. So go ahead and use food envy when you have to.

If you remember that food is a training tool, like me with Buddy, you’ll get more than just a dog with a full belly. Urp!

– Scott

PS: Watch some great springers in action in this excerpt from my show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zrsQWPHhsA

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