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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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Would you be steady with them strolling past?

Would you be steady with them strolling past?

You’ve heard the phrase “less is more.” Does it have relevance to dog training?

Manny and I are deep into preparation for an upcoming NAVHDA Utility test (www.navhda.org) and our latest challenge is steady to wing-shot-fall. If you know the test, you know it’s a ball-buster. Both the field and water portions require a dog to be rock-steady in the midst of distraction shots, walking birds, flying birds, dead birds, shot birds, bobbing decoys, and swinging guns. Not to mention a small gallery of judges, gunners and handlers adding to the circus atmosphere.

I hit on something today (probably did earlier, but it didn’t sink in) that I hope helps. Actually, part one hit me yesterday when in a less-than-stellar moment with my wife’s help, Buddy lunged every time the bird flew and the gun popped.

Revelation: he was simply reacting to her tensing the checkcord in preparation for the flush, telegraphing that tension to him literally and figuratively. He felt the stress both physical and emotional, and simply couldn’t focus on what he knew to be right.

[I remember an obedience trainer who’d worked with wolves once telling me canines will almost always pull back when you do, for example, on a lead. You’ve probably have had yours push back when you steady him on point by pushing on his rump.]

None of this would have sunk in had I not taken him out to remedy last night’s situation with a brush-up at lunch today. No wife, no checkcord, less tension in the air and voila! a steady dog throughout the sequence.

I may be a slow learner, but I pick things up, eventually. With luck, so will Buddy. Hope this helps you, too.

Scott

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Our opening weekend destination.

Our opening weekend destination.

Pretending to be attentive to my company, I had a hard time keeping my eyes off the single, fluttering yellow leaf as it drifted to the ground. It was the first of millions, but at least to my eye it was a sign.

I wore a jacket for the first time this morning. Then Manny’s exhalations created clouds in the brisk morning air. And the ground exhaled too, showing moisture in the sandy soil for the first time since March. Buddy smiled as he raced through the sage – at least it looked like a smile to me. And both dogs ran with a verve fueled by the bracing air.

I’m ready. Are you?

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This was easy. Now, let’s hit the water.

I summarized to my wife the biggest challenge of a NAVHDA Utility test this way: you must train to the test, and you must use “tricks” to chain together the skills needed for each portion of the test, or you will not pass. It’s no wonder NAVHDA offers handler’s clinics – most of us will never understand the training challenges of this complex series of events unless broken down into components and trained for in bits and pieces.

And they are not the obvious, A-to-B-to-C string. There is a considerable amount of dog psychology and cheerleading (so to speak) in getting from start to finish. Understanding what really counts is a lot easier when you can pick the brains of experienced, wiser mentors … luckily, I have one.

The duck search portion of the test is my current nemesis. Problem number one: a dog doesn’t naturally know that there’s a bird in the water somewhere. You must convince him of that, then chain it to the expectation that he must seek it out and bring it back. Thanks to NAVHDA trainer and judge Bob Farris, I now have a series of exercises to prepare him mentally for the task.

Lucky for me, Manny is bird-crazy. Bob can use that to chain together the components of a successful duck search starting from Square One. First objective: get him to the far bank, where any search should begin. That’s a few steps from where we are but it’s coming together.

So for us, we begin with a swim for a visible, obvious bird in the water. Then get Manny to swim farther for the bird, possibly with the incentive of a rock splash, and then farther, with a bird thrown beyond the rock splashes to get him across the pond.

Then, let’s take him back from the water, possibly behind the truck, but make sure he knows there will be a bird, maybe show it to him before he’s taken away. Then, add a track on the far bank to get Manny to search beyond the expected hiding place. If necessary, have someone there to encourage him verbally, possibly toss a rock or two if he needs it. Eventually, he will find tracks all around the dry land, and with luck water, too. With the confidence of knowing there is a bird in there, we hope he will maintain the motivation to search high, low, and in between  …  for ten minutes come test day.

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Some people say I have a face for radio, and I might agree. I was in that business for 20 years for a reason! But Buddy knows that my face can also help him become a better hunter. (Thanks to NAVHDA judge Phil Swain for pointing this out!) See if it works for you:

No wonder he doesn't follow my direction! Face it: a few simple changes might help your dog, too.

Think about what dogs see, especially from any distance. Not much, in the way of details. A scowl, frown, smile, what can they make out from 20, 50, 100 yards? Well-bred bird dogs will key in on your body’s most visible, brightest component … your mug, even if it’s wanted poster-ugly. They’ll try to stay out in front of you, and they know it’s the front because they can see your face. Alright, so how do you use this to your advantage?

Look in the direction you want your dog to go. A cooperative dog will want to move to your front, keeping your face behind him. To change direction, just turn that way. When you need a strong retrieve (or at a NAVHDA duck search, where you can’t handle your dog) direct him with your face, not by walking around in the brush. It keeps your scent out of the area, but still puts him where the bird fell. Or at least where you think it fell.

And take off those dark glasses. Your eyes are not just the window to your soul, but the key to communicating with your dog. Try a few commands with glasses on, then after a bit, with them off. See if it makes a difference in your dog’s willingness to obey and (more importantly) understand.

Like Buddy, your dog may not have the best taste, but if it helps him hunt, your face may be the best thing he’s seen all day.

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When I saw his work, I was stunned at how a painting could put you smack-dab in a cut cornfield, CRP ground or the tangled briars of ruffed grouse country. I’d swear he mixed a little adrenaline into his paints!

Ross Young’s dog paintings are from “life,” he says, as opposed to from photographs like most. This living, breathing connection between beast and brush create an image that jumps off the page like the birds we pursue. You can count the ribs on Ross’ pointers, hear the tail swish, feel the wirehair’s hot breath.

Ross Young’s paintings will grace the closing credits segment of Wingshooting USA again starting this fall. Here’s a preview of a one of his newest works for the show:

"One on One" by Ross Young

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