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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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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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A perfect time to ... find out when the book comes out, or in the next set of questions.

A perfect time to … what? Find out when the book comes out, or in the next set of questions.

You’ve got questions, I’ve got answers. Via Facebook, this blog, email and at events like the upcoming Pheasant Fest/Quail Classic you are not shy about wanting to learn more … about dogs, birds, hunting, shooting and that patch on my shooting glasses.

Here are some of my favorites …

Q: Have you ever encountered a dog that just couldn’t be trained to hunt?

A: I’ve OWNED them. Just kidding, but there probably are dogs that are less inclined to hunt. Much of that can be blamed on genetics and bad owners who haven’t trained their dog to basic obedience. I might guess that any dog with three or more legs (not joking) and a nose can hunt … if motivated by birds and their human.

Q: I hunt a lot of grouse and ducks in Minnesota and I have Springer spaniels. When hunting them in the woods they don’t like to get off the trail. What can I do to help them understand to go into the woods?

A: How much bird contact have they had? If you’re not finding a lot of birds in the woods, set up some training situations where they will discover birds when they get off trail. Once they get the idea, they’ll be more inclined to venture out.

Q: To neuter or not to neuter? I’m in the process of purchasing my first bird dog and have been given a lot of advice on what to do and what not to do when getting your first bird dog. On several occasions I have heard rumors around town about whether or not to get your dog fixed or neutered. Some say that if you do get your dog fixed, they will not be able to hunt longer and will be less aggressive in the field. Is this true?

A: Having just lived through our most recent neutering, I haven’t seen any change in Manny’s field behavior. The problems you worry about are easily fixed with good conditioning and training. The simple answer is, if you aren’t going to breed or show your dog, neutering will prevent unwanted doggie pregnancies and possibly damp down the roaming instinct in dogs seeking females in heat. The research on whether neutered males are more prone to certain cancers is not conclusive; certainly they aren’t vulnerable to testicular cancer! Many old wives will suggest a neutered dog is less aggressive, but there is little evidence of that in the science either. Most research does recommend postponing neutering for at least 18 months or more to ensure a dog’s body gets all the benefits of hormones generated from the testes and develops fully. Some suggest that will also minimize the cancer risks some research associates with neutering.

Q: Scott, you mentioned the tape on your shooting glasses so that you use your right eye. I was checking that out and noticed I close my left eye. I really never noticed it before. What are the pros and cons to closing an eye?

A: If you shoot better with your left eye closed, you might be cross-dominant like me. The tape ensures that I don’t have to remember to close my eye – instead, it muddles my left/dominant eye’s vision enough so my right takes over (I shoot righty).

Q: What’s the longest distance do you like to have your dog hunt in front of you and still be shotgun range?

A: Presuming you’re talking about flushing breeds, “gun range” should be the distance from you that puts birds in the air within a range you can ethically shoot at them … so a dog should probably work 10-15 yards in front of you so you have another 20-30 yards from a flush to hit the bird. Pointing breeds range according to genetics and training, but “gun range” is less an issue because (theoretically) they hold their birds until you get there. So I’m told.

Q: My question pertains to retriever training. Many if not most professionals encourage developing a personal bond between the owner and dog before moving on to advanced training. One such technique is the simple game of “fetch” to establish rapport and basic commands that can be built upon. My question concerns my wonderfully eager and cooperative English Cocker who is so eager to please that she is almost nonstop at retrieving. I have even ordered your new Signature Series dummy for variety as well as teach familiarity with a wing. My dog is still of the puppy mindset at eighteen months, easily wearing out my throwing arm before herself. She was a started puppy at seven months when I acquired her, eagerly retrieving flapping pigeons almost her size. Is it possible to overdo the dummy business such that she will lose interest in, or forget about the real thing?

A very serious dog trainer friend has cautioned me against this very thing. She loves to play so much that I would hate to deny her the fun, especially since she does it to eagerly please me.

A: Sounds like you’re having a great time. Yep, the bonding thing is important. I would agree with the very serious trainer (which I am NOT) that you could burn out your pup. At some point, retrieving must become a COMMAND, obeyed every time in every situation (force training). I face the same situation, though, with my 2-1/2 year-old wirehair. So I divorce the two: there is play time with a tennis ball and no retrieving-related commands. Then, out comes the Real Bird Bumper or real birds, and “fetch.”

Q: I notice in the magazines, big trials and even hunt tests that many dogs have long names. And sometimes they have unusual spellings of common names! What goes?

A: You can thank the American Kennel Club and other breed registries. Every registered dog requires a distinct name for recordkeeping, so many owners have to get pretty creative. Add to that limits on the number of characters on the registration form, plus many breeders who require you to preface your dog’s name with their kennel name and it can get pretty complicated.

More to come – watch for publication of my new book “What the Dogs Taught Me” this may. Like what you read? Subscribe to my Upland Nation e-newsletter here.

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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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