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Posts Tagged ‘hunting dog’

I have a confession to make. I am not a gun geek. To me, they are tools. I live for bird dogs, so if it’s history, heritage, performance or aesthetics, that’s where I make the emotional and financial investment.

That said, guns are an integral part of my chasing-after-dogs-and-birds life. If after a tail-stiffening point, I don’t shoot a cackling pheasant as it towers skyward, I’m disappointed and my dogs are devastated. Guns are the ticket to a wild ride that gets better every day.

Shotguns become currency in my world, and while not at the level of Bill Gates, I am lucky enough to be able to give some away in hopes of cultivating the love of hunting in others. My first “real” gun went to a down-on-his-luck printing press operator whose only firearm had finally shaken to pieces. When we next talked hunting, his downcast eyes said it all: it was over for him. I hope he’s still jump-shooting ducks off that river we both love, with the shotgun that had gathered dust in my safe.

My brother was a reluctant co-star on one of my TV show episodes and at the end of that day, I gifted him the over-under he’d borrowed. Thousands of sporting clays rounds, my first pheasant, and two loyal dogs were like deep scratches on the stock of that sleek American-made beauty … memories that will never be erased. We will reunite next fall in the field, is my promise to my brother and that shotgun.

At a shooting clinic, a young high schooler was missing more than hitting, surprising for a “natural,” as I’d been told. She was trying hard to learn from a master, shoot better and represent her school proudly, but was hampered by an ill-fitting and malfunctioning shotgun. I lost sleep that night, thinking about her long soul-searching drive home, the after-action report to her coach and teammates, and her slackened hopes for competition in the coming school year.

I sent her one of mine. An elegant Italian over-under that deserved better than I could ever offer. Intricate engraving, the lines of a sports car, I hope it served her well; asked her to pay it forward when she got her next one and give it away – again.

Shotguns from television sponsors have become prizes in my ongoing effort to recruit newcomers to our sport. Often, they’re lent to youngsters on their first hunt. Each helped tell a story, about mothers and sons, rekindled childhood memories, of brothers and friends, teens and middle-aged beginners. I’m hoping those firearms are helping create life-long hunters and conservationists – who then recruit their own new hunters.

I have visitation rights to the only shotgun that I might regret having given away: a Spanish side-by-side that served me well for almost a decade. Functional like a Ford F-150, no bells or whistles it was built by craftsman to be “workmanlike.” I carried it up countless draws in chukar country, dinged it chasing quail, Huns, pheasants and ducks. It suffered indignity after indignity, including a failed attempt to learn to shoot left-handed when a friend and I bent the stock.

Light and whippy, it was the gun I learned to really shoot with, one lesson tallied 1,000 rounds in a day. I hit more than I missed that day, and was indebted to that sublime example of Basque metalworking for many birds pointed, then retrieved, by four different dogs.

But I’d moved on, was using “better” guns by the time my hunting buddy asked about it while we caught our breath on a desolate mountain top. Sure, it was in the truck. It was the third string on that hunt, should my two “good” guns fail. The look in his eye, the longing he had for a gun that had been his companion as much as mine in those scabby hills, well, that said it all. And he was left-handed.

Twice a season, we meet again on some scabby piece of the West. I re-acquaint myself with that example of simple elegance, usually as the gun, me, and my friend are huffing and puffing up another volcanic slope in pursuit of chukars. He shoots it much better than I ever did, which I guess is proof it is now in the hands of its rightful owner.

Taking good care of my guns, even if they’re only a means to an end, makes sense. They are then ready, willing, and able to serve their higher purpose: helping others in their own pursuit of birds and beautiful places in the company of good friends and family.

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I became a bird hunter because I watched my first wirehair work a field, putting up a pheasant hen after a solid point. I’d never owned a gun before, but decided if he would do that for me, the least I could do is shoot the bird for him. Little did I know that was the start of a (late) life-long series of dazzling performances by a series of magical dogs I was privileged to observe. Lucky for me, the relationship continues, and the awe I felt from that first point returns every time I send a dog into the field.

Any excuse for sharing time with a dog is legitimate. But for me, it is clear: we become a team linked by DNA, a modern version of a prehistoric wolf pack coursing the uplands for sustenance – literal and emotional.

In the digital age we pretend to communicate with gadgets. The talking we do at each other via smartphone is shallow, ephemeral and self-centered. Contrast that with the deep genetic link between hunters. Words are unnecessary when instinct guides predators linked by common purpose.

I’m honored when my dogs invite me to share this primitive thrill, accepting me as equal, calling on the most basic of instincts to feed our pack and sustain our souls. We are one, thinking and acting as a single being with a single goal, to find prey. The act is violent and primitive, ugly and beautiful, the most complicated transaction in the universe: lives taking life to sustain life.

Neither of us will starve if we aren’t successful in the common definition of the term. The size of our bag is a sidebar to a bigger story: flow of adrenaline, deep passion, panting and slobber, the tang of sage and if we are lucky, the coppery smell of blood.

Our dogs tolerate human missteps and bad shots. They put up with poor noses and slow, creaky joints in their human packmate. At the end of the day they ask little except a warm place to sleep near their hunting companion, forgiving missed shots and misplaced anger.

We should be flattered.

[Why do you hunt? Comment below, or better yet drop me a note here to be on an upcoming Upland Nation podcast on the topic.]

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Who can argue with giving thanks all year round? But this is the time of year when it comes to the fore. If you need motivation, consider that gratitude has direct, personal benefits including better physical and psychological health, reduced aggression, and higher quality sleep. (I have yet to find any data suggesting it will help my shooting, but still searching.)

We’re lucky – every day, we play with dogs and walk around in beautiful places, often with good friends and family. So, considering what we do for fun, what are you grateful for?

(And if you’re willing to share, I’m doing a special Thanksgiving Upland Nation podcast on the topic featuring your calls. Send me an email with your phone number – I’ll be reaching out on Tuesday, Nov. 26 from 5-6 p.m. Pacific time and will put the podcast up on Thanksgiving Day.)

Your gratitude could be for a loyal dog, new hunting partner, even being able to walk the fields, considering your knees (hah!). Just recapping my last week I have plenty – maybe it’ll help you get started:

– A week of walk-in hunting in Kansas, where the birds were not exactly blackening the sky, but were plentiful enough to keep men and dogs occupied. The communities we visited were full of welcoming people with deserved pride in their community – I’d share a Thanksgiving table with any of them.

– Flick kept his weight on – a rare occurrence in a wired-for-hunting Type A dog. Usually, a long day in the field and you can count his ribs from 50 yards. (Wish it was that easy for me!) I used every trick in the book on this picky eater, with hotel “free breakfast” deals the clincher. Scrambled eggs are now his favorite kibble enhancer.

– Careful preparation also kept Flick’s feet healthy. Check me, veterinarians: soft, flexible pads handle rocks and rough country better than hard ones – fewer cracks and less peeling. A product called “Pad Heal” was the ticket, easy to apply with a brush (Flick thinks every spray bottle contains a hissing rattlesnake).

– Our training is about where I would expect for Flick’s age and my woefully-inadequate “expertise.” His retrieving is not polished, but at least shot birds were delivered “to foot.”

– We dodged dicey weather, too. Yucky stuff surrounded every hunting/TV day but on the days we needed it, the sun shone.

Now it’s your turn. What are you thankful for? Keep it within the hunting/dog sphere (save the rest for around the table on Thanksgiving Day). Comment below and on the special Thanksgiving podcast – email me with your number here, and stand by between 5-6 p.m. Pacific time on Tuesday Nov. 26. Then, listen starting at noon on Thanksgiving Day, here.

Oh, and thanks.

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Okay, okay, I get it. Willy-nilly broadcasting of a bird-hunting honey hole is verboten. A few personal stories from podcast callers have convinced me there is a slight chance of finding a place trashed, over-run, shot-out … well, you get the idea.

Want to listen to the podcast? Go here.

I also understand how hard it must be to share a spot you found “on your own.” But how else is someone going to see early success if nobody will help them? Maybe not your best place. Maybe not everyone. But sometimes, some people, some areas. If we don’t help others become hunters, we are doomed. Purchases of guns, ammo, licenses, and Pheasant Forever dues are what fuel conservation. No hunters, no purchases, no conservation. Period. End of sentence.

Facts are facts: the biggest reason people quit hunting is they can’t find someplace to hunt.

Think about your own introduction to hunting: did you really, truly, accomplish every single bit of it on your own? Nobody helped you, ever? A parent? Sibling? Scoutmaster or neighbor? If you can truthfully claim to never having any help finding hunting spots, more power to you. At the rate we’re going as a hunting community, some day, you’ll be the last guy there. Don’t forget to turn off the lights and lock the gate. And keep your expectations low, because nobody will have managed the cover or the game birds as it declined.

How about a new set of rules – thanks podcast callers – that you can use and adapt to your own situation … while still recruiting and encouraging newcomers? Some suggestions:

– If you’re being shown a place, ask if you can share it before you go. If you’re showing someone that spot, be clear as to your expectations before you take them.

– Stay off the Internet (or online forums, Instagram, etc.) with your location-specific information. Watch those photos and identifying tags.

– Vet your “guests” carefully. If you know them well, trust them, and they are safe and ethical, they will probably keep the spot close to their vest. Go with them if you are doubtful as to their trustworthiness.

– Are you the “guest?” Ask if you can go back, and if you can bring others.

– A quid pro quo is okay, and may be a good way to see how sincere your “candidate” is about sharing and caring for the land.

– Have a few “giveaway” spots (with some likelihood of success) for those you’d like to encourage but don’t know well. See how they handle the opportunity; maybe they’ll become a hunting buddy.

– Been the beneficiary of a hunting-spot tip? Go back once, maybe twice, and limit your take. Then, invite the benefactor to hunt one of your spots.

– Encourage newcomers by teaching them to find their own spots. Acquaint them with the resources, agencies, programs (WIHA, for example). Show them – in the field, if you can, what good habitat looks like.

– There are plenty of ways to get people out there without giving a latitude/longitude. A county, highway,

– Don’t call those who share “idiots.” How does that create a better habitat? Or encourage people to hunt?

– In most cases, it’s not “your” spot, nor are they “your” birds. If what you’re really bitching about is others who hunt where you do, you’re just selfish.

– Newcomer? Yeah, do your own homework. Then, pay it forward.

It’s a start. I’ve seen the light. Any more “rules” you’d suggest? Make a comment!

 

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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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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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