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What, if anything, do you say now?

What, if anything, do you say now?

I’m pretty well whoa-trained. When telling a dog to stop, I slam on the brakes too. It’s one of the funny things about that word that got me wondering how differently we think – and act – about the whoa command than we do about other commands.

Along with the barrel, gut hitch, place board, half-hitch, training table, pinch collar, e-collar on the flank or whatever strategy you use, something often gets lost – our ability to speak. If you subscribe to the belief that once a dog scents a bird “whoa” is an obedience command, why do we clam up once the dog obeys?

Check yourself: Fido is coursing a field and slams into a point. If you’re me, you’d also lock up, eventually realizing you’re in charge and need to do something – hopefully while the dog remains staunch. You might skulk toward the dog and bird, or stride purposefully, but how many of us proceed silently, hoping against hope that our dog holds still?

Meanwhile, the dog considers his options: he’s done what comes naturally (point) and wants to do what next comes naturally (pounce). He might have been taught a pounce is verboten, but without feedback, there’s a fifty-fifty chance he’ll get what he wants.

Is that okay with you?

Instead, quit expecting your mouth to “whoa” when he does. After all, Gunner heels in the yard, you praise. Coming back with a bird in his (soft) mouth merits a scratch behind the ears. But that end-swapping point on sketchy bobwhites is met by a silence as heavy as the moment between sermon‘s conclusion and congregation’s “amen.”

To a young dog torn between primitive passion and desire to please you, a word of praise may mean all the difference. I know Manny’s steadiness improved once I began delivering positive feedback instead of zipping my lips.

How about you? Does a cat get your tongue when your dog scents a bird?

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Oh yeah.

Oh yeah.

Social animals, dogs touch for any number of reasons. In the litter, a mother’s touch means warmth, food, safety, life itself. Littermates snuggle, introductions start with noses to butts. Even my guys will nuzzle, spoon, or lay back to back.

It’s only natural that touch would become a form of communication between our dogs and us. As this is written, Buddy is getting a scratch at that spot on the front of his ear hole … that magic place where the right pressure will make his head will sink lower and lower until it’s on the ground. But his repertoire goes well beyond that.

Scratches, rubs, strokes, nudges are like cocaine to a dog. They will do almost anything for some finger action behind their ear, a palm rubbed on the chest, a squeeze on the sweet spot at the base of the tail. Fingers applied to flank equals leg twitch equals ahhhh.

But don’t dogs get as much from touching as being touched?

A nudge urges movement, attention, or warning. I used to think it was a German dog thing, but most bird dogs get a quiet thrill from simply leaning against a leg. It is often accompanied by a deep, satisfied sigh … from both of us. A cold nose brushed against the back of our hand reminds us that the hunting relationship involves two beings.

A paw on your arm asks forbearance, or assures that someone loves you. Chin on thigh signals admiration, or maybe tolerance.

A dog’s touch feels good, physically. It feeds the psyche, too.

I may be anthropomorphizing, possibly reading more into it than I should. Real dog experts might pooh-pooh my ideas. And that’s fine. Maybe they’ve never had a need for the tangible, tactile communication in which dogs excel. But I do. Maybe you, too.

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They do work miracles sometimes.

They do work miracles sometimes.

At least three times in the past few days, while typing “dog,” I’ve typed “god.”

No, I don’t have dyslexia. I doubt it is a Freudian slip. I’ve been typing since 10th grade. I know how to spell. But somewhere, deep inside my subconscious, there is a kernel of truth in this recurring typographical error.

Maybe you’ve transposed the same letters in the same way. Or thanked your dog for leading you to a revelation. Or put your faith in his nose. While in the field with him, perhaps you had an epiphany. Or simply hoped – prayed – he would hold that bird while you huffed and puffed up the hill to his point.

I’m not advocating you abandon your current spiritual beliefs. Nor do I equate a dog (even a staunch, finished wirehair) with a Supreme Being.

But don’t you think our hunting partners have many admirable qualities? More importantly, don’t hunting dogs bring out the best in us?

Amen to that.

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The nose knows ...

The nose knows …

Crack open a bottle of Hoppe’s Number Nine and you’re transported to another time and place. It might be your grandfather’s shop, or a favorite hunting spot, maybe something altogether personal and secret, but you will go there. There is no better time-travel device than our nose.

Science tells us of all the memory-kindlers, our sense of smell is superior to the other four. There is a four-lane freeway from nostrils to the memory center in our brain, and we are in the express lane every time we inhale.

For we bird hunters, perhaps more so. After all, our four-legged partners make a living with their schnozzolas, so we are in some small way tuned into their incredible olfactory abilities, mimicking them to a pitifully small degree. But even at a smidgen of their scenting ability, we can appreciate the remarkable way our nose takes us on hunting trips long after the blisters have healed.

Our chukar desert emits a pastel-hued atmosphere, fueled by a mélange of sage, hot sand and bitterbrush. The reaction to its quenching by a sudden downpour is genetic, first the smell of wet air and ground reaching us, then drops – if we’re lucky – soon after. Deep down, we know life-giving water is good, even if we must crouch under a rocky overhang until it abates. Even a wet dog reminds us water is good.

A cold snow has texture and an odor like no other winter phenomenon. It sticks in the throat, penetrates deep into the lungs. Add the tang of pine pitch and you are suddenly in a different world.

Skunk in the distance is the quintessential smell of rural America. Up close, we use other descriptions, and we never forget that day (nor does our dog).

We relive every shot from every hunt when the gun opens and smoke drifts from the barrel. That hard left-right crosser, the double over a staunch point … where and when, whom you were with are retrieved from the subconscious every time burnt powder bites your nostrils.

We’ll never suss out the mystery of what our dogs feel when they drink in the elixir of bird scent, except to know for certain that it is a deep, deep pleasure. Do they recall every bird? Is it a brand-new experience every time? Are there special birds? What makes them special? Is he hoping this is the one he can pounce on, swallow whole, and enjoy again later when it magically reappears in front of his retching muzzle?

Or rather delivered to us (we hope), where the coppery aroma of startlingly-hot guts taken from a small body assaults our senses.

Musty leaves beyond crackling, destined to join the soil they sprang from last year. Wet rocks along a stream that beckon a dog that deserves a quenching drink. The musk of mud and still water. Anticipation of the first bitter snort-gulp of icy beer shrinks the distance between ridgeline and truck.

Campfire smoke is the perfect accompaniment to old whiskey in a tin cup – like a wine snob, don’t forget to inhale as you sip. A charcoal grill, rib eyes sizzling, signals the end of a good day.

Long after the snow flies, I watch my dogs while cooking birds we’ve hunted together and wonder: is it the raw meat that draws them inexorably to the kitchen, or the stirring of memory …where they pointed, how they felt, the intoxicating odor of feathers recalled in a breath?

I might be giving them more credit than they deserve, hoping they recall the magical time when two predators worked as one. Maybe you do, too.

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One stick on top of another, one tiny step after another.

Like one stick on top of another, one tiny step follows the last, leading to excellence in the field.

Weaving our way among the sage and bunchgrass pigeon in hand, it hit me: dog training is like building a castle out of Popsicle sticks.

To be structurally sound, the sticks must lie flat. As they’re only about a millimeter thick, it takes a while to see a wall rise. Likewise our progress in the field. Tiny increments, often barely noticeable. An elegant find and front leg tucked might be worth two Popsicle sticks’ of height, but most times it’s less noteworthy. And just as you must raise tiny, utilitarian wooden walls before adding gaudy towers and flying buttresses, you’ve got to lay a firm foundation for the magazine-cover poses.

Add too much glue, a drop here, drop there piling up in millimeters and soon one corner is higher than the others. Use too much correction (or praise) and your training might tilt to one side. Put the balustrade up without a well-engineered wall, and it will assuredly come tumbling down. Skip a step in training, and a dog will disappoint you some time, somehow.

Day by day, Popsicle stick by Popsicle stick, the castle takes shape, or the dog (and human) grow. If we have to buy another pack of frozen desserts and it takes a few more days to finish, I prefer orange.

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