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A well-deserved drink.

The weather girl had it right for a change: winter was starting right on time. So did we. Here in South Dakota you can’t start hunting until 10 a.m., to me and my crew, a most civilized statute. Departing Ringneck Retreat, we were in the truck and rolling a few minutes before the appointed hour, down a bumpy farm road past a feedlot and into the boondocks.

A light snow coated round bales and thistle blooms, adding magic to the morning – Tinkerbelle’s sprinkling of pixie dust – to our adventure. Gray skies weren’t enough to darken our spirits – a breeze from the west beckoned canine noses and human feet.

Buddy and Manny got the nod today. After too many miles in their Owens boxes they trembled with anticipation. Park – guns out – cameras rolling – rattle open the door. At the timber patch that was our starting line, Manny rocketed over logs, shimmied under bushes, snaked around the ancient elms’ alligator-skin trunks. The thick grass underfoot yielded not a bird.

Once out of the timber, he was on point within seconds. Bird up! And quickly down. The young wirehair had hit his stride, galloping toward the crumpled rooster, he snuffled it into his grip. A short race back and he relinquished it gently to hand. Fifty yards later, another lock-up, cackling flush and bird crashing into the ditch. Right-left-middle he coursed until the enticing aroma of birds arrested his forward progress. One got away clean. Another was warned with a surprise early shot then grounded with the top barrel. The last rooster in the strip jinked hard right, soaring over our blocker. The shot string from his first barrel drew feathers, but the rooster reversed field and soared three hundred yards over cut soybeans before rolling as he hit the ground.

Manny was off like a drag racer at the green light, quickly outdistancing the young Labrador stationed at heel with another blocker. Scooped up and trundled 900 feet back to me and the camera, the ringneck was relinquished from the tender grasp of a bearded muzzle. Maybe it was the pixie dust, a smidgen of fairy tale. Whatever the cause, it was an enchanting day.

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What, if anything, do you say now?

What, if anything, do you say now?

I’m pretty well whoa-trained. When telling a dog to stop, I slam on the brakes too. It’s one of the funny things about that word that got me wondering how differently we think – and act – about the whoa command than we do about other commands.

Along with the barrel, gut hitch, place board, half-hitch, training table, pinch collar, e-collar on the flank or whatever strategy you use, something often gets lost – our ability to speak. If you subscribe to the belief that once a dog scents a bird “whoa” is an obedience command, why do we clam up once the dog obeys?

Check yourself: Fido is coursing a field and slams into a point. If you’re me, you’d also lock up, eventually realizing you’re in charge and need to do something – hopefully while the dog remains staunch. You might skulk toward the dog and bird, or stride purposefully, but how many of us proceed silently, hoping against hope that our dog holds still?

Meanwhile, the dog considers his options: he’s done what comes naturally (point) and wants to do what next comes naturally (pounce). He might have been taught a pounce is verboten, but without feedback, there’s a fifty-fifty chance he’ll get what he wants.

Is that okay with you?

Instead, quit expecting your mouth to “whoa” when he does. After all, Gunner heels in the yard, you praise. Coming back with a bird in his (soft) mouth merits a scratch behind the ears. But that end-swapping point on sketchy bobwhites is met by a silence as heavy as the moment between sermon‘s conclusion and congregation’s “amen.”

To a young dog torn between primitive passion and desire to please you, a word of praise may mean all the difference. I know Manny’s steadiness improved once I began delivering positive feedback instead of zipping my lips.

How about you? Does a cat get your tongue when your dog scents a bird?

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Kinda like this.

Kinda like this.

I love it as much as you do when a plan comes together. But when it crumbles to dust and there is a positive outcome, it’s like winning the lottery after forgetting you bought a ticket.

The temperature was unseasonably warm for spring on the high desert. Warm enough that Manny might savor a restorative dip during our training session. Off we motored to the BLM ponds a few miles from home.

Only when we left the pavement and were jouncing our way pondward did I conduct an inventory of gear and found us without an e-collarl. Oh well, going “unplugged” wasn’t the worst thing that could happen. It might even be an opportunity.

As we crested the rise, I gazed on two dry depressions and one muddy puddle. Adding insult to injury, some yahoo had crosshatched the dried mud with ATV tracks. What was left of the plan was deteriorating by the minute.

No “duck search” today; even the pair of mallards I saw was wading instead of paddling in the thin sheen of water covering a quarter-acre of mud. But hey, I used to play jazz, I could improvise.

Out of the truck we bounded – he for sheer joy, me to forestall any more screw-ups if possible. That’s when the lemons started their magical transformation into lemonade. I maneuvered Manny behind a berm, moved him birdward, then signaled him to the top facing the low spot where the remaining water had pooled. He screeched to a halt at the sight of the ducks. Without his electronic reminder, I thought it best to give him the “whoa” hand signal before I rushed the mallards into flight.

He stood, stock-still. Craned his neck as the ducks streaked over him, but his oversized paws may as well have been super-glued to the hot desert sand. Once the ducks were out of sight I heeled him away, then sent him on.

At least I’d remembered pigeons, so as Manny streaked the far horizon to the north, with more than a little trepidation I tossed one into the brush to the west. I whistled him in the general direction of the scent cone and he cat-danced to a point at 30 yards. Tail up and quivering, front foot rising as if lifted by angels, this was the moment of truth.

I tapped his flank, stroked his back and started for the bird, cocking the hammer on my blank pistol as I glanced apprehensively at an intent, focused dog. Bird up! Bang! And bang again, just for good measure.

Nothing.

No chase, no stutter-step, no hop. Bulging eyes tracked that pigeon all the way back to the loft, it seemed, but all other body parts remained still.

Remember the first time you believed you might actually get “there,” however you define “there?” I relished it, breathed deeply to let the feeling sink in and Manny to settle. I returned, stroked his back again, offered praise and got a tail wag acknowledgment, heeled him away and counted my blessings.

Sometimes, I love it when a plan falls apart, too.

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Proud pup. I mean, pop.

Proud pup. I mean, pop.

There was no point. No quivering tail, lifted leg. Not a single fluttering nostril or bulging eyes.

I didn’t take a shot. Didn’t even have a shotgun. No anticipation and certainly not any expectation.

But the lone valley quail we encountered today was responsible for one of those moments. You know, one of the rare, fleeting moments amateur bird dog trainers hope for.

All the work, the drudgery and drills, mind-numbing practice sessions came together when Manny crashed into the tall sage from upwind. A hen bird whirred out of the bush, jetting right over Manny’s stationary head.

You read that right. Stationary, as in stopped to flush. Just like the books and videos, the very situation magazine writers brag about. The sound and sight of a flushing bird anchored Manny’s paws to the ground in our real world, just like everyone says it’s supposed to happen. If he wanted to, he could have opened his fuzzy, bearded muzzle and swallowed her whole. But he watched the feathered rocket sail off, calm and collected and waiting for his next command.

I’m hoping it will someday be such a common occurrence I’ll get blase’ about it. Until then, WOO-HOO!

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Three years old today.

Three years old today.

Manny, thank you. You have taught me so much in three short years: patience, introspection, tolerance. And you have learned much of the same.

We’ve been through a lot together. Some not so fun, a bit most distressing, but much of it incredible: hunts in a dozen states with good friends new and familiar, physical and mental challenges, new birds and crazy weather. Your puppy-like unfettered enthusiasm still astounds me, so I guess what they say is true – wirehairs do take longer to mature (and I’m grateful for it).

In many ways, you keep your great-uncle Buddy young, too. He’s still rightfully wary of you, jockeying for the alpha post in the pack, but your joie de vivre infects him as much as it does me. As you grow into the lead dog and your uncle slows, I trust you will show deference to the wisdom and tolerance he’s shown you for 36 long, trying months.

We have a long way to go but every day you take two steps forward and I seldom take more than one back. Your hard-headedness is an attribute at times (so German!) but once in a while there is a glimmer of softness in your look, your actions, your demeanor. Your mistress sees more of that than I do, but that’s her job – pointing out the positives in a life full of challenges.

Live up to her hopes, and mine. Be a good boy. Happy birthday.

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The goal.

The goal.

It figures: just when you start feeling cocky, things are sure to come off the rails. Manny’s steadiness on live birds in the field was a series of small victories. Excellent finds, solid points at 30-35 yards, and a patient observing look from the little guy as I kicked brush and flew birds. Cap gun, blank pistol, multiple shots, a statue watched me dance in front of him.

Then I uncased the shotgun.

Manny launched from his point like a marble from a slingshot. By sheer chance, I was between him and the birds so he came to a screeching halt after a few steps. And we went back to Square One.

A few days with the gut hitch, and we’d clawed our way back to the moment of truth. We’d reached the summit: flush-bang-still, even as the pigeon fluttered to earth.

That little win propelled us to the next level and the feeling that maybe, just maybe, we are making progress. A “covey rise” of two pigeons was laid out for Manny’s olfactory pleasure. Quivering muscles and flaring nostrils, the gut hitch was a mere formality, loosely wrapped. Birds up! Dog stock-still. Add a shotgun blast, one anchored dog. Three times the charm, and it was a wrap.

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Not ready for retrieves yet - this is from last season. But soon, soon enough.

Not ready for retrieves yet – this is from last season. But soon, soon enough.

One step at a time, the saying goes, and the steps are encouraging. Despite two TV seasons of breaking at the shot, Manny is making progress on his steadiness to wing, shot, and fall.

We had a few setbacks without it, so we are back to using Bob Farris’ “gut hitch,” a variation on the Smith cousin’s flank half-hitch (thanks to all of you). It is the defining factor. That little tug on Manny’s waist may as well be an anchor chain for as solid as he stands the bird. A whiff of pigeon and he’s staunch, foot up and tail twitching into a straight and high twelve o’clock posture.

Then the gut hitch goes on, I mutter a quick reminder of “whoa,” and move in for the flush. Boom goes the blank pistol (we’ve graduated), and a wirehaired statue watches the pigeon fly toward the desert, disappearing through the trees and out of Manny’s sight – and mind. A wiggle in the tail as the bird vanishes, but four feet remain firmly planted on the sandy soil. Ten more repetitions and I’ll take off the hitch.

So, how’s your training going? What are your goals for this spring and summer?

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