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How do you celebrate the hunt?

Once the dogs were put up and watered, twice in Kansas this week I pulled out my bottle to toast the day. Neither hunt was “epic” in the sense of clouds of birds. The shooting was “meh” too. But the entirety is what made it worthy of a 12-year-old Scotch from Speyside: new friends, dazzling habitat variety, generous sharing of knowledge, a lot of fun, hard working dogs.

First distilled in the 1400’s, uisge beatha means “water of life.” To many of us some 600 years later, whisky still fuels conversation, reminiscences, admiration. And not just because it’s 80 proof.

It’s a simple tailgate ritual. Paper cups, a little toast to the day and the dogs, maybe one more for friends gone to better fields and more cooperative birds where all the dogs are steady.

That’s when the fellowship begins. A small gesture like pouring and sharing primes the mind and cracks open the heart. Memories – recent and long-lost – are rekindled. A favorite dog, the place you shot your first bobwhite, it doesn’t matter. Opening up is what counts. You learn a little about your companions, the place, their dogs, and ultimately about yourself.

For you it could be beer, a meal, coffee, a soda or a cigar. Great dogs, new and old friends, the experience of beautiful places deserve acknowledgment, don’t they?

My light, fruity, Speyside whisky opens up with a drop of water in the glass, brightens a bit. It tingles the tongue without the bite so common in others from Islay, the lowlands, even the highlands. There’s a trout on the label, another of my passions. And nobody has stopped at one taste – it’s the best first whisky I’ve ever served.

What’s your poison? For me, a “wee dram,” a little ritual … and camaraderie often results. To life!

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By Scott Linden, Wingshooting USA TV

You’re a dedicated hunter. Or field trialer. For all I know, you do agility too. Maybe, all of them … plus a bench show once every while. When you need a boost, it’s easy to guzzle a Red Bull, or stop at Starbucks. Maybe it’s a Snickers bar. And if you’re smart, you’ve been going to the gym regularly.

But your dog can’t do any of those. And on the second day of a hunt or at call-up time in a field trial he needs a boost. But none of your go-to solutions will help, and may even hurt, your dog’s performance.

I hunt chukars for fun and have learned the hard way. When you’re in the middle of nowhere, you and your dog are on your own.

Of course, good physical conditioning is first. You are developing an elite athlete. Get him in shape and he’ll hunt longer and better. But when “go time” comes, what you put into him – and when – is critical.

Out there in the field, you both are at the mercy of your physical fitness and fuel. It’s too late for the former, but as for the latter, here’s what I do. It might just help you and your dog, too.

  1. In the bowl

Alright, what do you feed your dog?Any two hunting dog owners will probably offer three opinions on the subject. With the dog food industry constantly changing along with their products, it pays to stay on top of things. Ingredients, formulas, additives, all are worth a long look. Consider some things I’ve learned:

Hunting dogs need protein. At least 30 percent. In most high protein dog food formulations, fat will usually run in the 20-22 percent range and it’s critical for energy (they use fat much like we use carbohydrates – more on this later). Some of us feed higher ratios of each, but a discussion with your vet, and careful monitoring of your dog’s waistline are in order before you go much above those ratios.

Grain, or grain-free? Hunters have been feeding corn and wheat-based food for decades to good effect. Talk to your vet if you’re concerned about grain. There are plenty of other carbohydrate sources, from potatoes to rice and most food will have one or more that fit your dog’s needs.

If you plan to ramp up the fat and protein pre-season, start feeding the good stuff at least 60 days prior to the first hunt so all the nutrients have time to positively affect muscles, skin and bone.

Good protein sources include the various fresh meat or fish meals, “real” meat, fish, or eggs. Lower-quality and less-digestible (more waste) versions include meat and chicken byproducts, bone meal, corn and other grain products. If you find your dog has frequent ear infections, rash, or is constantly scratching, consult a vet and look at food allergies (often, a protein source or grain) as well as the other causes.

  1. When to feed

Just as important as what you feed is when you feed. There are simple mechanical reasons not to feed your dog the morning of a hunt. An empty gastrointestinal tract has nothing that could rattle around in there.

Try this experiment: Take off your sock (representing your dog’s stomach and intestinal track), drop your car keys (ersatz “dog food”) into it. Hold it horizontally by it’s top and toe, and the dog food will settle in the heel. Then jiggle it, swing it back and forth, whip it around a little like a dog on the hunt would. Jump a fence or two. All that weight will make the sock swing, bounce up and down, and possibly even twist. Veterinarians call it gastro volvulus and it is often fatal.

Your dog’s athletic performance is another concern. Studies by Purina and others have shown than a dog with food in its gut runs slower, is less agile, and has less stamina than one hunting on an empty stomach. Run a marathon after gobbling a pizza, and you’ll get the idea.

Another good reason: the gut is not using the body’s finite amount of energy to digest food when it could be fueling active muscles that are chasing birds.

  1. During the hunt

No guilt trips here, because your dog’s metabolism is unlike yours. Sending your dog into the field without breakfast will have no ill effects. Unless he’s got other health problems, he won’t develop “low blood sugar,” which is really called “hunting dog hypoglycemia.” The symptoms are disorientation, weakness, and, in some cases, seizures taking place generally after one or two hours of vigorous exercise and usually avoidable by limiting feeding in the morning, and offering protein during the hunt.

Because dogs get their version of instant energy from fat, if you can’t resist giving Gunner something during the hunt, offer a high-fat snack that won’t fill his belly (minimizing the risk of stomach twist). You can make your own, or simply offer him the innards of your sandwich. The problem is, even the greasiest corned-beef sandwich only has 19% fat. (If you’re reading this, you know there is a much better solution – my Dog Energy Bar.) The key is low volume, high fat to keep the belly as empty as possible.

Of course, you can’t go wrong with offering water frequently – it keeps a dog cool as well as hydrated, facilitating blood flow to the muscles where it replenishes red cells and maximizes stamina. Make life simple on both of you by carrying a bota (wine skin) or the modern equivalent. Teach your dog to drink from it just like you, so there is no need to drag a bowl or sacrifice your hat as a substitute.

  1. After the hunt

What dog food brand you feed, I’ll leave to those who inhabit the online chat rooms. It’s the other stuff you put in your dog’s belly at the end of the day that might be the difference between a boot-polisher and a superstar the next day.

A number of studies (on sled dogs and bird dogs) and some long discussions with research vets and field trialers have convinced me that what you do at the end of the hunt day is critical if you want maximum performance from your dog the next day, and the next.

Unlike during the hunt when fat is critical, your objective at the end of the day is to give your dog’s muscles the cell-repairing glycogen (a carbohydrate) they need. Done right, research shows your dog’s muscle cells can achieve up to a 95% recovery rate overnight. Based on current science and practical experience, here’s a strategy:

  1. Immediately after your dog is done hunting (within 15 minutes) provide water mixed with maltodextrin (see package directions for dosage). Maltodextrin is a tasteless white powder (a derivative of corn) that a dog’s body converts to glycogen. One brand I like is “Glycocharge.” It’s liver flavored and quite palatable to a dog, I’m told – no, I didn’t taste-test it!
  2. Do not add it to food. The fat in dog food inhibits the uptake of the nutrients in the maltodextrin. Waiting to feed also minimizes risk of stomach twist.
  3. Feed your regular dog food 90 minutes after the water/maltodextrin is ingested.
  4. I’ll feed another dog-food snack just before bed to make up for some of the calorie loss from skipping breakfast. That gives a dog a good eight hours to process a bellyful and as you know well, empty the leftovers first thing in the morning. He’s ready to go without extra “baggage.”
  5. Want a superstar on four legs the next day? Bed him down in a warm crate on a thick, soft mattress or plenty of grass hay that prevents bones and joints from contact with hard surfaces. How would you hunt if you slept on the floor the night before?

CAUTION: Unlike humans, dogs shouldn’t “carbo load.” High-carbohydrate diets can contribute to a condition called “exertional rhabdomyolysis,” or “tying up,” which causes muscle pain and cramping, watery stool and dehydration. Feed a dog food that is “complete and balanced,” little if any junk food, and you shouldn’t have that problem.

Do you have more questions about the Dog Energy Bar? Nutrition information, how it works, and why, are all available at www.dogenergybar.com.

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Hard to get mad at him. It’s probably “operator error.”

At the time, I thought it was a red herring … an excuse … a pro trainer’s nomenclature to make us feel um, well, less professional than them. But time and time again, I am reminded (and often humbled) that “place learning” is, as Millennials say, now a thing. Probably has been forever, if you harken back to your own training experience. Are you familiar with the term?

The basic concept: A dog learns a command on the training table. Give the same command on the ground, or in a different yard, or another time zone, and it may have been given in a foreign language. I’m a slow learner, but eventually I do learn that you may have to start over, or at least backpedal a bit. Maybe you, too, have learned this from the cruel mistress of experience.

More so (in my experience) in the agility, obedience, Schutzhund and other non-hunting dog worlds, it’s one reason trainers recommend a dog be trained in so many different places. The number varies, but the concept is sound: a dog associates the command with the location. Only by “re-training” it in other spots does he finally, accurately, do what you want no matter the “place.”

For many it’s the best reason to send their dogs to a prairie “summer camp.” Or, a pro trainer. Or, to attend training days. Anyplace (else) is better than the same-old, same-old.

I was jarred into remembering this simple concept again today – maybe I need to practice dog handling in more locations! Flick is a rock star, steady to wing-shot-fall anywhere within 100 yards of his training yard. Our yard adjoins public ground, where we train a lot. For steadiness, Flick’s “bailiwick of excellence” is about a football-field’s length from my back fence. There are trails and abandoned dirt roads clearly defining that space, but I didn’t believe it was as obvious to him until an experiment today.

Having learned the hard way in recent days, I planted one pigeon within the zone of compliance. Result: as expected, a textbook point through the downed bird … even a bonus retrieve to hand. Chest puffed and head held high, I hied him across the old road where I secreted another bird in a shrub. Flick worked into the scent cone, crossing the dirt track, from familiar territory into the danger zone. The point lasted all of a few seconds and then all hell broke loose. The only good news was, Flick didn’t catch the bird.

So we weren’t set back to Square One. But we are starting again at about Square Three … checkcord and half-hitch, stage-managed so yours truly is always holding or stepping on it to ensure compliance. I can’t be lazy and plant birds at my convenience – longer walks are the order of the day – but with luck Flick will remember most of his training when he’s in new territory.

So next time it seems like your dog has been replaced by an evil twin, don’t necessarily blame him. Blame your location.

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I’m on the left. The ones on the right deserve all the credit … or dog treats.

Time to address the 800-pound gorilla once and for all. Please bear with me while I drill down on an issue important to all of us: where we hunt on Wingshooting USA. Thanks for reading the entire essay before commenting. Shouldn’t take but five minutes, once you find your reading glasses 🙂

I hunt over 30 days per year on public land, walk-in areas, etc. for wild birds. On private ground, another 20 or so. Add in the places we go to make the TV show and you’ve got another 20 or so, about half wild and half liberated/early release/pen raised birds. Given the chance, you might do much the same. Why?

Because if I’m to believe what you tell me in the annual Upland Index survey, it’s all about the dog work. All other things being equal (including hard-flying birds no matter where the eggs came from), we live for a quivering, tail-stiffening point or hard flush by a perky spaniel. Incredible scenery, excitement, and camaraderie are right up there, but hands-down …

… it’s about the dog.

So, no birds, no TV show. If you tell us you’re willing to watch 21-1/2 minutes of guys walking around not shooting at birds, with all due respect, you’re a liar. I won’t insult your intelligence. I’ll take the financial hit and pay for more days in the field in hopes of finding a few birds.

Yep, I’m a lucky S.O.B. Wined and dined, guided and shown the good spots at world-class lodges. And some, not-so-world class. But they are a part of our sport, and deriding “white collar” hunts simply because you can’t/won’t go is a reflection of your worldview, not the people who go there. “Those people,” whomever they are, have more in common with us than they don’t have. (I know, there are exceptions, and I’ve shared a table or two with them! It explains my fondness for Scotch.)

But who among us doesn’t relish the dazzling display of a fired-up four-legged hunter living his dream? It’s not the thread count on the lodge’s sheets that defines our passion.

That said, here are some harsh realities of TV hunting:

TV is like sausage. If you like it, don’t watch it being made – or paid for.

Time is money: I choose the best camera operators because you deserve it. Watch all the bird hunting shows and decide for yourself, but I think it’s worth it to have two shooters who understand what we’re there for: your benefit. Excellent camera angles, lots of dog-level footage, drone shots … and a lot of other things my guys do that others don’t. I’m happy to send them a big check at the end of a trip.

My crew is paid by the day, whether they’re hunting, driving, flying, watching the rain fall. The longer we have to hunt, the more expensive that episode becomes. Others may do it differently, but you can probably see the difference when you watch. You are worth the extra expense.

Knowing there are birds, even if I can’t hit them, is a producer’s security blanket. You may not see many retrieves when I shoot, but you’ll be able to watch the dogs.

As producer, I pay for all that other stuff, too: flights, meals, lodging enroute, editors, rental cars, background music, fuel, advertising sales trips, the other editors who make the commercial spots, even the voice talent in those spots! Ditto for social media, sportsmen’s show booths, writing, promotion, office rent, etc. Nobody (except me) works for free.

I am glad to reach for my wallet, because the talent of all those folks is what gets Wingshooting USA on the big networks and into your home. No matter who your daddy is, you can’t simply write a check and be on Discovery, NBC Sports, Destination America or the other major networks. The bigger the network, the stricter their production standards, or all those other guys would be there.

Then I gotta buy the air time on the networks … in advance … hoping to find sponsors who send enough checks to cover my overhead and maybe chip in a little profit for my 401K. Nobody gets rich in our cottage industry, and two out of three years are break-even or worse. Many producers have taken out second mortgages, cashed in pensions, quit their day jobs, burned through their inheritance, bought a jacked-up truck, put their logo on it, and failed.

(Mythbuster: there are very few producers who actually get paid by the outdoors networks any more. I was lucky enough to be one of them early in my career, but that model evaporated when network boards were re-populated by bean counters and lawyers instead of sportsmen.)

Enough pathos. Wouldn’t you rather watch great (and even my not-great) dogs finding birds?

This is the place.

Beautiful, eh? Take a number and pull out your wallet if you want to shoot here.

Red tape. What is your impression of your motor vehicles department? Post office? That’s what we’re up against trying to make a show on public land. To hunt where the birds are on Bureau of Land Management, National Parks, and most state-owned land I must buy a permit.

Ironic, isn’t it? I gotta pay to hunt on land owned by you and me … if someone with a camera is walking alongside me. And it’s not cheap. On a recent shoot, for me and two cameras (no tripods – that’s extra) the daily cost of a permit was the same as George Lucas would pay to shoot the next Star Wars installment. On a recent shoot, I spent 37 hours working on the permit. When I was making a fly fishing show, the bureaucrat wanted me to put an “X” on every spot we might set up and make a few casts … on a 20-mile float trip. What’s your time worth?

And if you think the post office is slow, try this: sometimes, the bureaucrats who hold your financial fate in their hands often wait until you’re on the plane (and my well-paid camera operators are on their second drink!) before they actually issue the permit. Is that how you’d expect someone to treat paying customers like you?

Does every TV show follow the rules and get permits? Not my problem. I do, so most of Wingshooting USA’s episodes will be on private ground.

Hey, I’m just like you. Long for wild places. Crave the challenges of finding wild birds. Can’t hit the broad side of a barn with a 10-gauge semi-auto with the plug pulled out. Love the dogs even more. I’ll wager you do, too.

I’m not asking for your sympathy – I’m a big boy, and understand the risks. I’m just asking you to look at the whole picture.

And enjoy the dog work.

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Nom nom nom. Good dog!

Whether this works for you, you’ll have to decide. If a more experienced trainer has an opinion, I’m sure I’ll hear via Facebook. But at least one of those, pro trainer George Hickox, thought enough to bring it up in a recent conversation:

1. Dogs work for themselves, not us. If they choose to cooperate with us, “obeying” our commands, it is a means to an end.

2. The end is quite often food (especially in young dogs) or prey (in our situation, usually birds).

Makes sense to me. Think about it for a couple days as you train, and see what you think.

So, how do we adjust our training philosophy and practice in light of those observations? I’m using the prospect of holding a dead bird as a much more frequent reward with Flick than with past dogs. So far, so good.

In steadiness training, when he slams on the brakes the moment he scents birds, he gets to retrieve one. Almost every time at first, and as quickly as practicable after a flush/shot. Then, he learns to wait a while from point to flush to fall to retrieve command.

In a gentle version of force fetch training I’m testing, a variation. Obviously, he “gets” the bird when he’s sent to retrieve it. But – and I’ve seen this countless times on the TV show and at training days – the moment a dog arrives at the human, the bird is yanked from his mouth.

Not Flick. He gets a moment or two to savor it. Maybe more, if he doesn’t start chewing! I’ll often heel him back to the yard or training table as he carries the bird – that’s a lot of savoring! And once he releases on command, he gets another chance to snort-sniff-lick it while I hold it.

A bird in hand may be worth two in the bush. But a bird in the mouth is worth two hundred in the bag … if Flick can enjoy it for a bit.

I’ll keep you posted.

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Two steps forward, one back. It’s a familiar cliche’ in the dog-training lexicon. Actually, I’ll bet if you think about your own life, your teachers moved you both directions as needed: guitar lessons, typing, overhauling a carb, driving that car after the overhaul was done – again.

Plateaus are a nice resting point on a chukar hunt, a chance to take a breather. But in dog training, they are misleading. You think you’ve mastered a skill with your dog … until you slide off the edge. Worse than a backward step, hopefully not too damaging to your bones or your ego. A humbling learning experience.

Peaks are what we strive for, our aspiration. Sometimes simple (he actually came to the whistle!), other times monumental (passed his Utility Test), each is a chance to be grateful … for your own teaching abilities but more importantly for your dog’s incredible talent (and patience, with you).

Valleys are the dog-training equivalent of a baseball player’s slump. The walls are steep, we are all alone at the bottom. Our dog has either lost most of his brain cells or suddenly can’t understand the English language. It’s when we contemplate switching dog breeds, or buy a fly rod.

In almost all cases, we are the culprit. Sure, the dog might be a co-conspirator, but if you think long and hard about your challenge-du-jour, honestly, it’s about you.

It could be shortcuts you’ve taken, inconsistent language/word choice, laziness, not being observant (“thinking like a dog”) … but in most dog-human relationships the human has got to do most of the thinking and sometimes, well, we just don’t.

Here’s your assignment: What’s your dog training project this weekend? If you’re training any skill, be aware, think ahead, consider your dog’s point of view and analyze what’s really slowing or stopping your progress. Be brutally honest with yourself. Go back, experiment, and see if it helps. I will if you will.

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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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