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Posts Tagged ‘Utility Test’

Uncle Buddy is the example: now, to approach strategically so he holds still on the flush.

Some things just make sense, whether you hunt with dogs or not. This is one of them.

If your goal is to have a steady dog that holds his point even while a bird rattles into the sky, this might help.

Dogs seem to be curious creatures. Unlike cats, curiosity probably won’t kill the dog, but it could cause him to break on a flushing bird if he feels like he’s being squeezed out of the action. On top of the others I’ve mentioned, here’s another good reason to be strategic about approaching a pointed bird: obscuring his view of the action could encourage him to move so he can watch the proceedings … even when you want him to stand sill.

This was driven home to me in a training situation just yesterday. I’d set up the bird in a launcher so it was hidden by tall sage. I brought Manny in crosswind, and he stopped at the first whiff of pigeon, front leg lifted in anticipation of the joy to come. Unfortunately, he was pointing scent that had wafted through yet another tall sage, so when the bird lifted he couldn’t see it. At the flush, he jumped left as if on springs, back on point when he landed. From his new vantage point, he could see the arc of the flying bird.

There was no intent to break point, or chase the bird. He simply needed a vector on it so when time came to retrieve he’d know where to go.

Yesterday it was a sagebrush. On other days, it’s been me. And there’s the lesson. By marching straight in on a bird, we are effectively blocking our dog’s line of sight. Holding a point with adrenaline flowing and guns blazing is hard enough. It’s understandable that any smart dog would want to know where the flying bird is headed – after all, if things go well, you’ll be asking him to “fetch it up.”

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We got lucky here. Now, we’re practicing to make things more perfect.

Of all the things my new friend and NAVHDA judge Bob Farris pointed out on a recent visit, the most gratifying was how steady Manny was on flying birds. Not rock-steady, of course, but better than many of the other aspects of the Utility test. And I’m pretty confident he’ll get better, especially with the help Bob extended to us.

Bob acquainted me with his version of the ‘gut hitch,’ a variation on Rick and Ronnie Smith’s half-hitch around the dog’s waist. The basic concept is that a dog will stop – and stay stopped – when he feels pressure on his flank. The hitch applies it.

Bob’s rig goes from waist to collar, attaching at both points. A checkcord is clipped to the rail-like cord and gives the handler an easy way to apply that pressure to the flank. A tug, particularly upward, stops most dogs in their tracks. The advantage to Bob’s version is the dog need not drag the entire cord, just the hitch portion, which remains off the ground and attached to his waist and collar. When you want to stop him, simply attach the checkcord and tug.

No, it’s not really that easy, but the tools make it easier. Now, to put theory into practice.

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This was easy. Now, let’s hit the water.

I summarized to my wife the biggest challenge of a NAVHDA Utility test this way: you must train to the test, and you must use “tricks” to chain together the skills needed for each portion of the test, or you will not pass. It’s no wonder NAVHDA offers handler’s clinics – most of us will never understand the training challenges of this complex series of events unless broken down into components and trained for in bits and pieces.

And they are not the obvious, A-to-B-to-C string. There is a considerable amount of dog psychology and cheerleading (so to speak) in getting from start to finish. Understanding what really counts is a lot easier when you can pick the brains of experienced, wiser mentors … luckily, I have one.

The duck search portion of the test is my current nemesis. Problem number one: a dog doesn’t naturally know that there’s a bird in the water somewhere. You must convince him of that, then chain it to the expectation that he must seek it out and bring it back. Thanks to NAVHDA trainer and judge Bob Farris, I now have a series of exercises to prepare him mentally for the task.

Lucky for me, Manny is bird-crazy. Bob can use that to chain together the components of a successful duck search starting from Square One. First objective: get him to the far bank, where any search should begin. That’s a few steps from where we are but it’s coming together.

So for us, we begin with a swim for a visible, obvious bird in the water. Then get Manny to swim farther for the bird, possibly with the incentive of a rock splash, and then farther, with a bird thrown beyond the rock splashes to get him across the pond.

Then, let’s take him back from the water, possibly behind the truck, but make sure he knows there will be a bird, maybe show it to him before he’s taken away. Then, add a track on the far bank to get Manny to search beyond the expected hiding place. If necessary, have someone there to encourage him verbally, possibly toss a rock or two if he needs it. Eventually, he will find tracks all around the dry land, and with luck water, too. With the confidence of knowing there is a bird in there, we hope he will maintain the motivation to search high, low, and in between  …  for ten minutes come test day.

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Good boy ... now "leave it" for later on the retrieve. Much later.

Manny backslid on the one part of retrieving on which we weren’t solid: a real bird, brought to hand without um, “tenderizing.” Yesterday, his retrieves were energetic and enthusiastic. Using my Real Bird Bumper, he was scooping, making a U-turn, and racing back. When a pigeon was substituted, the wheels came off.

Thankfully, I figured out why, in record time.

Immediately before, we’d been working on steadiness, close-in birds flapping and flying in front of a dog that had been too long in the kennel while was in New York making shows. The adrenaline was gushing in torrents in Manny’s little doggy body. When the retrieving practice commenced a couple minutes later, and CRUNCH.

It only took one night to sleep on it before it hit me (at about 4:30 a.m. to be exact): Divorce flushing, flying live birds from retrieving … completely … for a while. Most of us have had a corollary drummed into our thick skulls for years: training a dog to expect a retrieve upon every flush (or shot, for that matter) is verboten. The worse you shoot (like me), the deeper you sink into that mire. Manny is showing me that the less mature a dog, the farther apart flushes and retrieves should be, literally. So for now, we will put time – and distance – between the two skills.

Today, it worked. I’m still playing it safe, leaving my pigeons in the loft after they clock out on their flushing job. Our retrieving work will be limited to Real Bird Bumpers with chukar wings taped on. Not real, but real enough.

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"Dogging it" after an especially long workout in Manny's younger days.

Funny, you think you’re doing pretty well in the fitness department, then with a jolt, you’re reminded that you’re not as buff as you thought.

Nope, not me. I know I’ve got a long way to go before my pants are loose and knees less stressed from that extra weight. Let’s just get that out of the way once and for all.

But it’s also Buddy and Manny. They are magnificent, mystical hunting machines, fine-tuned for their purpose. But my wife remarked today at how Buddy is looking slimmer – and (slow on the uptake) I noticed it too. You know how it is, when you’ve lost a belt-hole’s worth of weight … everyone compliments you. Left unsaid is that it was noticeable, i.e., they discerned a difference between your heavy persona and your (temporal, usually) less-heavy version. (My wife is jealous of how easily I can lose weight until I remind her that I usually find it again.)

It made me think: all these months of running one dog, then the other to avoid confrontation halved the length of each dog’s workout. Yesterday’s long romp among the rimrock and bunchgrass drove home that point. Manny’s tongue was dragging, and Buddy was walking alongside me for the last half mile or so. Me, well, if I could walk alongside myself I would … and my tongue was at least figuratively dragging along with my feet in the volcanic dust we call soil here in the high desert.

We could all use more of those kind of workouts. For next hunting season, but also for the simple, 30-minute bit of fieldwork Manny will have as part of his Utility Test this fall. Adrenaline, stimulus overload and his handler’s stress will amp up his average speed and a little bit extra in the tank will serve him well.

Thankfully, daylight saving time is here (have you re-set your clocks?). Longer days mean longer workouts … and we aim to take advantage of them.

How about you? What gets you – and your dog – in shape?

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