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Posts Tagged ‘obedience training’

A little help, please.

A little help, please.

WANTED: Training partner. Age, gender, shooting skills unimportant. Necessary attributes include patience, tolerance for dog slobber and pigeon poop. Must appreciate burrs in socks and rips in pant legs.

I’m tempted to run an ad like that. I suspect I’m not alone. Someone else, somewhere, is probably drafting a similar blog post right now. Maybe it’s you.

It’s not that friends and acquaintances don’t want to help. There’s a matter of schedules, a difference in priorities, possibly they favor a different dog breed. Or maybe they just haven’t been asked.

But seriously, what do you want in a training partner? And what can you bring to the party?

Patience and tolerance, of course. Everyone – and everyone’s dog – has a bad day. But what else would help you and your dog be all you both can be? Is it hard-won experience that can be called on when you haven’t got it? I’d imagine ideas would be welcome, from left field or the school of hard knocks. That’s where the quid becomes pro quo – I graduated with honors from that school.

I’d hope they have a dog, any breed, any skill level. I’m an equal opportunity training partner. Even retrievers are welcome. Someone who’s been there and done that would shorten the learning curve, especially when it comes to hunt tests, woodcock and field trials.

But a fresh perspective might be helpful, too. Wide-eyed innocence, honest questions that cause one to think differently, could be just what is needed on a given day.

If they brought their own pigeons they might be invited for a beer. If their dog will stand a bird indefinitely while me and mine maneuver clumsily into an honor merits a second bottle. Bird launchers, stakeout chain, blank ammo rattling around in their pickup ensure a barbecue invitation.

Flexible schedule, got it. Down-the-block availability, check. Stellar shooting skills, a bonus. The wisdom to know when to offer suggestions and when to shut the hell up merits a wee dram of very old single malt.

You know where to find me.

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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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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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Yep, this works. But what else does?

Yep, this works. But what else does?

As Shakespeare aptly pointed out, man does not live by bread alone. Neither does your dog. At some point in training a young dog, you’ll need to go beyond food treats for practical reasons if nothing else. I don’t always have a hot dog around, and I’ll be darned if I’m giving up my last pretzel if there is still beer in the glass! Personally, I’m not grossed out by the next best thing: whatever residue is left on your fingers after cleaning a bird. After all, dogs are scavengers! Some old-school trainers proffer the head of the well-retrieved bird as a food treat.

But what else can a guy use? What else do you use to motivate your dog?

For me, often it’s the more personal touch, literally, that becomes the perfect payoff after a stellar bit of dog work. A scratch behind the ear says “good job.” Rubbing the chest is most welcome by a dog, and most will come right to you if they know you’re going to offer that. And no dog can refuse the firm, slow stroke down his backbone … if he arches his back to match your hand’s pressure you know you’ve provided the ultimate in physical rewards.

Much more handy than a scratch, clicker or food treat are your vocal cords. Tell your dog he’s a good boy, over, and over and over. Have a catch phrase if you need one, a secret language or nonsense word he knows means he’s doing well. Be consistent with it – simple is better. Avoid using your dog’s name – it has better uses, such as getting his attention prior to another command.

“Face time” is not just a business-speak cliché. A dog that can get right up to your head is a happy dog. As a puppy your dog licked his dam’s face in the hopes of some regurgitated food. I’m not suggesting you go quite that far, but usually he’ll settle for the first half of the transaction. Anyone who doesn’t let their dog lick their face once in a while probably likes cats.

Sometimes, the best reward is the most subtle; simply being around you is what your dog wants. This often works well as a discipline or correction tactic – withholding your attention by backing away from a gate will stop a dog’s frantic circling, for example. Turning your back on a dog that’s jumping on you will often halt it. Temporary banishment can be as effective as any e-collar.

Evolutionary biologists tell us the only reason dogs were domesticated, the sole reason they serve us, is because we’ve arrested their development. They contend (and I agree) that even adult dogs are in a state of perpetual puppyhood. They seek attention, positive reinforcement, and contact with the alpha pack member in their lives, and that is us.

Yes, you do attract more flies with honey than with vinegar and the same holds true for your dog. I’ve made a practice of asking every pro trainer I meet how much praise he delivers compared to the number of corrections. It averages about seven rewards to every correction. As a rule, more (much more) praise is always better.

A little demonstration you can try at home might help. (Thanks to trainer George Quinlan for putting me on the right track with this.) Ask another human to help by being the “dog.” Now, imagine (but don’t tell them) you’ve hidden a treat somewhere in the room and you want your “dog” to find it. In the first attempt, your communication is limited to “no” whenever your dog is moving the wrong way. In the second, you can only say “good boy” when he’s moving the right way. In the third, you can use both “no,” and “good boy.” Which worked best for you both?

Finally, note that praise is not a release: ‘Good boy’ can easily be misconstrued by your dog as ‘hunt on’ without discipline on both your parts. Pause between praise and releasing him to resume hunting, or before he’s allowed to goof around, for that matter. Have a release word, and be consistent about using it. Being permitted to resume hunting is reward enough for most dogs, but save yourself some aggravation by insisting he stand still until all the praise is delivered and a new command is issued.

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The end result (starring Buddy here), I hope.

Electronic training collars have many uses, but until recently I avoided using one around birds like a dog avoids baths. But once you figure out that steadiness on birds is a two-part process, your outlook might change. Mine did. First, a dog instinctively slams into a tail-stiffening point. That part, we all get. A whiff of bird scent or sight of a bird should take care of that unless your dog’s pedigree included a cardboard box and hand-lettered “you pick” sign.

The second part of the sequence (“steadiness”) is where I’ve just become enlightened, thanks again to Bob Farris, trainer and NAVHDA judge.  In the hunt test judging process, the point is the first stage of judging – i.e., does the dog have the genetic programming to point when prey is upwind of him. But the judging criteria change the moment the dog sees you in the picture, literally or figuratively. That is where the canine rubber meets the obedience road.

Manny (and I’d bet, all “finished” dogs) needs training to stay on point until I want him to 1) see the bird drop, getting ready for the retrieve or 2) continue to hunt after my release, because I missed again. When he enters a scent cone, Manny assumes an elegant point , leg up and forward a bit. But a few moments of staring at the source of enticing smell, a walking, flapping bird or – worse – a flushing bird, will test any dog’s resolve. It’s just natural to chase, so the key is making it clear he’s been ordered to stand still.

Some use the usual verbal or hand signal. Some transition to a secret code heel shuffle, other noise or gesture. I’m figuring that for us the key is treating that part of the point-steady drill for what it is: an obedience situation. Until this revelation, I was loathe to use any “enforcer” stronger than a checkcord, gut hitch or tap on Manny’s flank. I feared an e-collar might sour a dog to birds – especially if I had to use it.

But if he’s been thoroughly drilled in “whoa” with many and different distractions, birds simply become another distraction from the command he knows so well.  Tempting, sure, but just a sidebar to an obedience test. Now that I’ve gotten over that, we’ve made some quantum leaps.

So far, Manny’s only been lit up (gently) a couple times. These days, merely seeing me holding the transmitter is enough to keep him steady during birds flapping in his face, “covey flushes” at his feet, and even birds perching on his back. Today, twice, we had flawless training sessions. Tomorrow, who knows? But I feel like we’re on the right track.

Have you worked through this?

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Still “all man,” just a few ounces lighter.

“Feisty” is not just an adjective. According to most definitions, a feist is a “small mongrel dog, especially one that is ill-tempered; cur; mutt.” The less-perjorative definition includes some squirrel or small-varmint hunting acumen.

And Manny is becoming feisty in the light of his less-active condition.

You see, he got neutered last week. It’s a long story but not worth the re-telling, except to say things are going fine in the recovery dept. The incision is healing well and he doesn’t seem any the worse for wear, except for the boredom that comes from ten days of relative inactivity as requested by the veterinarian.

There is a bright side: We are working on obedience skills (again), and there’s no prohibition on standing steady to wing-shot-fall. But no running means a less-than-happy two-year-old wirehair. No amount of chew toy destruction can substitute for the balls-to-the-wall (pardon the pun) joy of full-out sprints in the desert beyond our back gate.

So, Manny’s inner feist is coming to the fore as he tracks and trees fresh squirrel scent among the pines in our yard. And he does that well.

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