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Posts Tagged ‘hunting dog’

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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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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The (intensity of) media is the message.

The (intensity of) media is the message.

Your dog is constantly watching you, and learning from your movement, your tone of voice, what you put up with, and what you simply won’t tolerate … whether with him, other dogs, or your first-born kid.

Because he has a limited vocabulary, literally, your actions often speak louder than words. But even words have different meanings to your dog depending on how they are delivered. So why not use your ability to nuance training “language” to influence your dog.

I’m lucky in that I can watch myself on TV a lot (someone has to pump up the Nielsen ratings). I learned to be a teacher the same way – with video. It is a cruel but fair instructor, the small screen. But you don’t need a camera to reflect on your actions and the messages they convey. Just think before you act, adjust your pace, the magnitude of your movements, and your dog will get the message. He does that now, but it’s often to your detriment and you might not even know it.

For instance, move slower and you literally demonstrate to your dog that things are not as exciting (or distracting) as they seem. When you’re winding down an amped-up retrieving training session a short “heel” around the yard in slow motion could cool down your Lab and prepare him for a rest in his crate. A quivering shorthair gulping in pheasant scent while on point might be steadied by a calm, confident and low-key approach to the flush.

Conversely, getting your Springer pumped up for an assault on that blackberry thicket might require an energetic pep talk and gentle pat on his butt. An easily-distracted wirehair might maintain focus during a long retrieve with some loud and animated encouragement from his owner (don’t ask).

When words are the appropriate communication tool, a whisper is often better than a yell. It certainly brings down the adrenaline levels, calming the situation. Like people, dogs will often pay closer attention to you if you make it hard for them to hear what you’re saying. Drop the volume level and you might be pleasantly surprised at the results.

On the other hand, an icy water retrieve by a young Chessie could merit a boisterous shoreline cheerleading squad. Again, evaluate your desired result and pick the correct arrow out of your quiver.

Even physical praise has degrees. As I write this, I’m scratching my old guy’s neck following a quiet “here” command. It’s a slow, relaxing touch, light and low-key, but a reward nonetheless. He in turn, is lying down, expecting nothing but a chance to be near me as his payback for a small job well done – he showed up. A vigorous, two-hand rib tickle implies something else entirely, higher energy and more excitement. It might be just the ticket to jet-propel a long cast in chukar country by my five-year-old.

That five-year-old Manny simply cannot stand still when he first gets on the training table. I used to yank on his collar, yelling “whoa” at increasingly high volume. Now I speak calmly, slowly, sometimes from a sitting position, stroking his back until he settles – faster than he ever did when I engaged him in a battle of canine (half)wits. Then, we can get on to the important stuff.

So consider expanding your training communications repertoire, usually by dialing down your energy. You might see better results, sooner.

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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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Uneventful ... or was it?

Uneventful … or was it?

Well, how was your closing day? And don’t tell me how many dead birds ended up in your vest.

How did you feel … about that final day in the field, entire season, your hunting partners and dog? What went through your mind as you turned, opened your gun, and headed for the truck as shadows grew long and your thirst grew strong?

What did you learn?

My season was notable for many new friends. An open mind (and calendar) were the keys. Being “at large” means you’re available for opportunities. Serendipity. Kismet. Add a dog, a little blaze orange, and the odds are good someone will strike up a conversation. Where it leads is up to you.

People are generally pretty good in bird-hunting country. Anyone who likes dogs can’t be all bad, and if they like hunting dogs, they’re a lead-pipe cinch.

I think it was Kevin Bacon who first opined that we are all just six degrees separated from each other. Play who-do-you-know with a guy in a Pheasants Forever cap and it could be three degrees. A dog box is a platonic Match.com.

Oh yeah, back to closing day: fog as thick as a Sherlock Holmes mystery on the moors, I could barely make out the parking lot at the spot I wanted to explore. I counted the ghosts of five trucks in the soggy mist, contemplated losing my dog in the pea soup, then drove downhill to a favorite desert river. At least the breaks were below the fog line.

I parked at the mouth of a canyon that had shared valley quail with me when Manny was a pup. The level ground had no gifts for us this day, head-high sage silent but for the tinkling of the stream and clink of collar tags. There was nowhere to go but up – chukar country. We’d hunt until our water ran out.

Two thousand one hundred feet later, level ground again at the top of a promontory with a million-dollar view. A motivated wirehair coursed the bunchgrass and lava rock, glad to be traveling horizontally instead of vertically. His owner too.

A pause here, hesitation there. Head up, tail vibrating. Then, on again. A nose-down track through blackened sage trunks led to a point on a cottontail, but no feathers. On a plateau of broken lava, one night roost, long abandoned. Elevated hopes for a moment, then more searching.

The river, so far below, was always in view, like a recurring musical theme running through your mind. Memories of big trout and bigger steelhead filled the quietest times, not a bad thing. Sandwiched between rollicking whitewater and a ceiling of cloud, we were walking ground few had trod in recent times. No barbed wire, no rusted cans or cow patties.

And no birds.

We called it a day and began the arduous descent. Tiny waterfalls framed by emerald moss lightened our journey, we scaling rock faces and sliding down scree slopes to the accompaniment of gurgling streamlet. The mountain mahogany slapped and scratched, boulders rolled underfoot, moist ground slid underfoot and reminded us how far we were from civilization.

We made it back to the truck a minute just in time to get home for a shower and a movie. The drive allowed for reflection on the day – gratitude for safe returns (dog and human), a last visit to a favorite spot, and a season of fellowship. Maybe it was the best way to end a season.

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Go away from your catchline, then come back toward it when the sun sets

Go away from your catchline, then come back toward it when the sun sets

While a GPS can be a lifesaver, map and compass skills will bail you out when batteries fail. At a minimum, know how to find a “catchline” that will lead you back to a known location:

Study, then bring along a copy of a map of the area you will hunt. Make note of a stream, road, ridgeline or other long relatively straight feature in relation to where you park or make camp. That’s your catchline. You will hunt away from that location, and as long as you know which direction you went in relation to the catchline, you’re home free.

Example: I’m camped along a river that runs north-south. I hunt away from camp to the east. When I want to head back, I simply walk west until I reach the river. Camp is either left or right along my catchline. If I’m really smart, I’ve overshot camp on purpose (say, to the north) so I know to walk south when I hit the stream.

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I doubt he knows the difference.

I doubt he knows the difference.

Why do you hunt?

“Being able to watch your young dog come into his own.”

“My Springer Bonnie. It’s not a day in the field without her.”

In my viewer surveys virtually all of you said something similar. Dogs rule, and we hunt so we can watch them perform magic in the field.

So why condemn pen-raised birds?

One reason might be our own biases. I’m not judging your leanings, mine are probably similar. But if we’re honest about the pre-eminence of dog work to our experience, why aren’t well-raised planted birds just as valuable?

Do dogs ignore the scent of a liberated bird, while pointing a wild bird? Show me the evidence. For that matter, can you distinguish a well-raised planted bird from a wild bird without looking at the peeper hole in the beak?

Does your dog’s tail droop when pointing planted birds? At a preserve, does he trot instead of gallop, boot-lick rather than range? When you command “fetch,” does he spit out planters?

“Watching a setter work in a beautiful field on a gorgeous day is always the best day.”

Maybe it’s all in our heads, and I get that. We love wild places, untrammeled ground, off-the-grid coverts. But that’s not what we’re talking about (or is it?). Unless a covert resembles something from a Mad Max movie, I wonder if your dog cares whether it is aesthetically pleasing or simply a bird-holding environment.

But how wild is wild? Beyond the quails and grouses, virtually every upland bird we shoot at was planted at some point. Do you shun chukar hunters because their birds were planted in Nevada in the thirties? Wild pheasants are simply descendants birds Judge Owen Denny “released” on his Oregon farm in the 1880’s, or similar, later efforts in Redfield, South Dakota, etc. Gotta problem with that?

“Wild hatched” might be a better description of the birds some cherish more than their domestically-reared cousins. But why can’t we value a released bird that acts just like its wild counterpart, much as our dogs do.

“Seeing the dogs do what they were born to do.”

We’ve all encountered bad planted birds, bad apples that spoiled entire barrels of good introduced birds. They flounder instead of flushing, our dogs catch them on the ground, and nobody’s happy, especially the birds. But many of us have also encountered released birds that thunder, tower and jink just like wild birds.

My dogs don’t seem to know the difference and truth be told, I’ll bet yours don’t either.

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