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Cheatgrass, foxtails ... watch for them.

Cheatgrass, foxtails … watch for them.

This is the best time of year for humans, but the worst time of year for our dogs. Maybe I’m not telling you anything new, but just in case …

Everything out there can cut, irritate, scratch or otherwise damage man’s best friend. (I remember the first porcupine encounter like it was yesterday!) Just a reminder to keep minor problems minor, and minimize major problems with a careful going-over after each outing.

Foxtails, cheatgrass and other weed seeds (“awns” is the more scientific term, I believe) are some of the worst offenders. They will get in your dog’s mouth, eyes, nose, between his toes or pads, and lodge in ears. I know someone who lost a great shorthair to an inhaled foxtail that infected a lung and went undiscovered until it was too late to save it. Any seed can burrow into the skin, migrate to internal organs and kill a dog, so teach your pet to stand for an inspection, and gradually accustom him to ear-poking, toe holding, and eyelid lifting.

Even minor cuts and scratches can become infected, so check your dog for blood, watch for persistent licking (often a sign of pain or blood), and dig deep into thick coats for a visual inspection of his skin. Foot pads, especially the accessory carpal pad (a dog’s “thumb”) are particularly prone to cuts and bumps.

Other signs something may be wrong with pup include head shaking, favoring one foot or leg, pawing at eyes or ears, and rubbing against furniture. If you observe any of these signs, take another look or head for the vet – like the commercial used to say, you can pay the vet now (cheaper) or later (cha-ching).

Hey, after all your dog’s done for you, it’s the least you can do for him.

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Food, praise, your companionship or birds ... every dog has a motivator

Food, praise, your companionship or birds … every dog has a motivator

“Never give away a bowl of dog food.”

That’s what a grizzled old trainer said, almost off-hand, decades ago. Being a bit slow on the uptake, I asked what he’d meant with that tossed-away comment. His explanation drove home the best bit of advice I’ve ever been given: dogs expect something for everything they do … or don’t do.

Your hunting partner is learning all the time. If their DNA contains anything, it holds the chromosome for cause and effect. Deep in their canine genetic legacy is an innate ability to tie actions with consequences. Scramble more aggressively, get more mother’s milk. Run faster and catch more dinner. Fight hardest, and earn the chance to reproduce.

These fundamentals guide a dog’s entire existence. If he gets nothing for his efforts, he’s probably not going to do it again. If he does, he’ll repeat the behavior. When he does it for food or praise, a bird or even your companionship, it becomes a training strategy.  That observation still guides my training today.

Have you been enlightened?What was that advice?

Who shared their wisdom with you, and why? Most importantly, what did you do with that hard-won knowledge?

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Another good job.

Another good job.

Today is your fourth birthday, Manny. And as many have said before, that’s about when a wirehair actually matures enough to be a good hunting partner. Actually, you’ve been a good hunter since your first season – not disciplined, untrained – but still, a joy to watch.

Lately, though, it is clear you have evolved into a strong bird dog. “Honest,” as some put it. Maybe this year we’ll find a spot on the calendar for our NAVHDA Utility Test, which you are undoubtedly ready for.

You’ve matured in important ways. You follow direction well. You handle birds right. You’re tolerant of your great-uncle Buddy, almost ambivalent (and that’s a good thing).

In other ways you’re still a pup. Your look at life is energized, a wide-eyed innocence that makes every day, every bird a pleasant surprise. Bird contact starts with a high-speed tail wag, and I know when it stops, so will you … holding as long as I need. And that’s a good thing too.

Your fans have watched you grow up on the show, I hope they‘ve learned as much as I have from training you. Maybe their dogs benefited as a result.

When I picked you up at ten weeks, your dark face and darker coat stunned me. I’ve learned to appreciate it – unique, easy care and just different enough from most wirehairs to remind me that you are a special dog.

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Good boy!

Good boy!

Whirrrrrrr! A long, dry slog down canyon went from relaxed camaraderie to high alert as four valley quail flushed wild on both sides of us. Manny’s attention was seized, he arrived at the scene of the crime quickly, snuffling the lingering scent like a starving man picks crumbs to ensure there were no stragglers.

The remainder of the downhill stroll was like a night patrol in a Vietnam jungle, eyes and ears wide open for every peep and rustle in the pungent sage. Our Texas visitor thought birds had hooked left, so we sidehilled in that direction a hundred feet above the swampy creek bottom, sometimes on hands and knees. Then, barely perceptible, a rustle in the juniper preceded the bird’s fleeting escape, downhill and over the cattail swamp at the bottom of the ravine.

One shot, bird down. Right in the middle of a football-field-sized tangle of mud, creek, beaver dams, cattails and berry vines … the sharp, thorny kind. The graveyard of forever-lost quail, I thought. The shooter marked the bird and stayed put, eyes glued on the spot where the bird had fallen.

Hmmmm. This looks familiar. A classic NAVHDA duck search, sans duck. Manny and I slid to the bottom and I sent him into the mess with a “dead bird – fetch!” He was daunted by the head-high stalks that fought back, mud that sucked at his feet and berry canes that tore his hide. A few minutes and he emerged, dirty, wet, birdless. But he stood calmly facing the web of vegetation, waiting for direction. I sent him again.

It was then I remembered training advice from an Idaho trip. I scrambled to the canyon wall before finding throwing-sized rocks, whose plunks and plonks tempted Manny farther and farther into the mire. We all listened, intent, to brush rattling, panting dog, mucky footfalls. Sometimes he was so deep in the vegetation all we saw was the faint quivering of cattail tops marking his route.

Then, nothing.

Stillness.

Rustle of stalks, splash of feet, but no panting … but I soon breathed easier. A long two minutes later Manny emerged with – I swear – the most humble look on his fuzzy face I’ve ever seen on a dog. Maybe because he was gently holding the quail in his mouth.

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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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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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