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He walked, alone, in the cathedral stillness of the shelterbelt. We’d hung back, me and my camera operator, to let Ben gather his thoughts on this, his first bird hunt. We did it again as the trees opened to a field of waist-high grass, gathering the rest of our party on the dirt road and ultimately cheering as he doubled on ringnecks, solo.

It was a study in what the shooting and hunting “industry” (yes, that’s you, me, and us) now calls “R3,” Recruit, Retain, Re-activate.

Ben was part of the first “R,” and should be a case study in how it works, a lesson here for all of us. Bruce, his across-the-street neighbor, was an avid hunter unlike Ben’s father. An 16-year-old baseball player who plans to be an Army Ranger, he pitches in when something heavy needs lifting, or there are too many groceries for one person to carry. In the course of that neighborly behavior (if only it was more common!), he was acquainted with Bruce’s dog, taxidermy, and passion.

Soon, Bruce was taking Ben to the range, teaching firearms safety, ethics, and shooting skills. Ben had his challenges – right-handed and left-handed conflict that I can relate to, sports and academic distraction, teenage life in general. But he persevered, and so did Bruce. If you’re ever taught someone to shoot, you know of the hills and valleys, the roller-coaster ride of triumph and frustration.

When Bruce won my CZ-USA “Take Your Friend Hunting” contest, there was no question who was going with him to Grand Ciel Lodge in Plankinton, South Dakota. Permission granted, travel arranged, and Ben’s first pheasant hunt would soon be a reality.

The day dawned cold and crisp, blue sky and puffy white clouds. My camera operators were ecstatic, and so were we. Dave Miller of CZ-USA (fresh from another world record-setting effort with four youth shooters) transferred Ben’s clay-target skills to wingshooting; the rest of us laid plans. Bruce’s teaching manifested in safe, skillful shotgunning by Ben, polished by Dave. Then, we were into the field.

It wasn’t long before Brad Boisen’s two Braque Francais skidded to a halt, then cat-danced down a soybean row. Hand on his shoulder to ensure a safe gun mount and swing, I urged Ben ahead of the next point. A stillness in the air … then three roosters cackled skyward.

You know what happened next. And it didn’t include a retrieve. But so it goes – who wasn’t as rattled by their first pheasant flush?

Initial jitters over, we re-grouped and skirted standing corn, finding a point here, a bird there, and a lot of holes in the air as everyone including our newbie dialed in a new CZ “all terrain” gun (you’ll get your preview soon), new birds, and an adrenaline overdose.

What Ben was thinking when he made his solo forays, we’ll never know. Do you remember your first hunt? I can tell you one thing. He’s now a hunter.

Even the blind hog finds the occasional acorn, and we get it right some times, introducing newcomers to our world. That’s the lesson I took away from our visit to Grand Ciel. Bruce’s lessons could be our own: be visible, open and frank about your hunting lifestyle. Interested kids, neighbors, friends, co-workers will inquire. Be situationally aware, sensitive to their questions and interest in your weekend plans, your dog, your wild food.

I know it’s hard as giving up your secret spots, but share your knowledge, tell stories. Like Freemasons, the interested ones will ask more questions, including if they might join you. Then, it’s about firearms safety, skills, ethics, and practical application of each on trips to the dog-training yard, range and into the field. Most will wash out, some will stick.

Forever.

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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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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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Actions speak louder than words, and don't spook birds, either.

Actions speak louder than words, and don’t spook birds, either.

At its most fundamental level the idea is to shoot birds over your shorthair’s point or within gun range of your lunging Springer. Maybe it’s putting a sneak on feeding mallards or decoying honkers to your pit. But if you sound like the circus coming to town, you’ll seldom get a decent shot.

Game birds may not be as spooky as whitetails (though late-season sharptailed grouse might get close), but they are still very cognizant of predators and the sounds they make. Just ask yourself why so many game birds roost in the thick, crackly vegetation, or why pheasant hunters don’t slam truck doors. So it behooves we apex predators to “stuff a sock in it,” so to speak.

I’ve snuck within inches of birds by treading more carefully, ghosting my way through brush instead of bulldozing it. I try to make my footfalls more like an elk hunter than a linebacker. Light steps on scree minimize rattling, deliberate wading, delicate paddling … all get you closer to a killing shot.

Even rattling whistles or duck calls, sloshing water bottles, or a ringing cell phone will put the kybosh on a stealthy approach to pressured birds. Reaching for that coffee mug (let alone dropping it) in an aluminum boat can resemble a clanging fire alarm to pintails dabbling around the next bend.

I often go a step further, taking the jingle-jangles off the dog’s collar. One of those riveted identification plates starts to make even more sense in the grouse woods. I own a half-dozen e-collars with beepers and an assortment of bells, but many times I’ll go unplugged.

Spoken, rather than shouted, directions are heard plenty well by most dogs. When possible, use hand commands instead of a voice or whistle. Just like any other skill, retrievers can be taught to sit still and quit whining in a blind. It might take a bag full of treats and many weeks, but all of it pays off when wings cup and landing gear deploy.

Oh, and here’s another good reason: while I like Monday-morning quarterbacking yesterday’s game as much as the next guy, when my mouth is shut, my eyes seem to open wider. I see and enjoy more of the dog work, catch on quicker to his birdiness, savor the scenery … and to me, that’s almost as much fun as nice, close shots.

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Your dog can’t say “huh?” or he often would, because when he disobeys it’s likely the owner’s fault, according to author and TV host Scott Linden. He’ll share his ideas with fans on the 3rd annual “Cabela’s Awesome Upland Road Trip … destination Kansas.”

Linden’s observed and tested his theories on the more than 250 dogs he’s hunted with on his TV show, Wingshooting USA. He says thinking about how dogs process information can elicit better cooperation and performance, in the field and at home.Last year's appearance at the Mitchell, SD Cabela's was also captured on Tom Brokaw's

Last year’s appearance at the Mitchell, SD Cabela’s was also captured on Tom Brokaw’s “Opening Day” TV special.

He – and his own hunting dogs – will be answering dog- and bird-hunting-related questions, meeting fans and signing books at stops between filming episodes of the show, which airs on NBC Sports, Pursuit Channel and eight other TV networks. The schedule includes:

Sept. 9-11 Produce show from Invitational Hunt Test, North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association, Ohio

Sept. 21 Meet & greet: Cabela’s, Billings MT 4-6 p.m.

Oct. 16-17 Meet & greet: Cabela’s, Mitchell, SD Pheasant Classic 10-3 Friday, 8-11 Sat.

Oct. 21-22 Produce Wingshooting USA episode at Ringneck Retreat, Hitchcock, SD

Oct. 24-25 Produce Wingshooting USA episode at Prairie Sky Ranch, Veblen, SD

Oct. 29  Meet & greet: Cabela’s, Rapid City, SD 4-6 p.m.

Nov. 18 Meet & greet: Cabela’s, Sidney, NE

Nov. 21 Goodland KS, Governor’s Ringneck Classic (also producing an episode)

Nov. 23 Produce Wingshooting USA episode at Carlson’s Choke Tubes, Atwood, KS

Dec. 8 Produce Wingshooting USA episode at Ruggs Ranch, Heppner, OR

Dec. 17 Meet & greet: Cabela’s, Reno, NV

Feb. 19-21 2016 Pheasant Fest, Kansas City, MO

“Communicating with our spouse is much easier. Listening rather than just hearing smoothes the way,” Linden said. With dogs who can’t say “What was that dear?,” body language, behavior, and attitude shows whether they understand their owner’s direction – or not.

On the other hand, er, paw, Linden says the dog’s owner can be more clear in his signals to the dog. That’s usually where – and by whom – the ball is dropped. From easily-confused command words, to conflicting hand signals, he says many dog problems are really “operator error.”

At Cabela’s appearances, the first question is often about the dog on the table with Linden. Bushy eyebrows and beards, and a friendly demeanor make Linden’s German Wirehaired Pointers ideal ambassadors for the sport of upland bird hunting.

The “Cabela’s Awesome Upland Road Trip … destination Kansas,” is Linden’s annual foray into hunting territory to make episodes of the program. Over the years, it’s become a chance for him and his dogs to meet fans who earlier provided input on everything from tires for the official vehicles to Cabela’s dog gear for his hunting partners. Road Trip vehicles are displayed at the stores so fans can see how their ideas have been used.

Available everywhere books are sold (including Cabela’s stores), Linden’s book “What the Dogs Taught Me” covers communication, how dogs think, and offers tips on hunting, shooting, dog training, an extensive glossary and Q&A section. You’d think he’d heard it all, but he says he’s constantly surprised at the variety of questions from fans. “I answer over a thousand every year on the Wingshooting USA Facebook page,” he said, “but there’s always a new one out there.

The most-watched upland bird hunting show in the U.S., Wingshooting USA is the official TV series of the National Shooting Sports Foundation and sponsored by Cabela’s. It is broadcast year-round on up to ten television networks.

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