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Posts Tagged ‘versatile hunting dogs’

I had an enlightening conversation with well-known trainer George Hickox recently, and he’ll certainly be a guest on the upcoming (debut, August) Upland Nation podcast. Of the many topics we discussed, George reminded me of a phenomenon I’ll call “reward deflation.”

We’re all guilty.

We encourage and praise our puppies, and they are quite motivated by anything that resembles positive feedback. Food treats, squeaky voices, a scratch here and pat there … all work with young dogs. We provide these reinforcements frequently and at length for anything the pup does right. But we don’t often throttle it back, or not enough, as he matures.

At some point, George reminded me, a smart dog only wants two things: food when it’s hungry, and birds. That is inextricably linked to another observation: dogs don’t work for us any more than they have to, in pursuit of what they want. Obviously, that could be food, or birds, or to get outdside and find one or both of those. But remembering that a dog’s highest priority is his own wellbeing is worth its weight in kibble.

We can and should use this knowledge strategically, to teach desired behaviors. But …

Back to the deflation: It’s not a boy crying wolf over and over until nobody pays attention when a real canis lupus actually appears, but close. We are the culprits. Dog walks in, doesn’t surf the kitchen counter, gets a “good boy.” We race past on the way out the door, and out of habit utter “good dog.” A dog is sitting, staying out of trouble, gets a cookie tossed his way. Pretty soon, the treats and words have no meaning, because they were awarded for well, nothing. We hadn’t asked/commanded the dog, he simply existed and got what George calls a “paycheck.”

Kinda like unemployment compensation. Sit around. Watch TV. Taxpayer dollars show up in your mailbox. It doesn’t motivate recipients to go work and it won’t motivate your dog, either.

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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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Actions speak louder than words, and don't spook birds, either.

Actions speak louder than words, and don’t spook birds, either.

At its most fundamental level the idea is to shoot birds over your shorthair’s point or within gun range of your lunging Springer. Maybe it’s putting a sneak on feeding mallards or decoying honkers to your pit. But if you sound like the circus coming to town, you’ll seldom get a decent shot.

Game birds may not be as spooky as whitetails (though late-season sharptailed grouse might get close), but they are still very cognizant of predators and the sounds they make. Just ask yourself why so many game birds roost in the thick, crackly vegetation, or why pheasant hunters don’t slam truck doors. So it behooves we apex predators to “stuff a sock in it,” so to speak.

I’ve snuck within inches of birds by treading more carefully, ghosting my way through brush instead of bulldozing it. I try to make my footfalls more like an elk hunter than a linebacker. Light steps on scree minimize rattling, deliberate wading, delicate paddling … all get you closer to a killing shot.

Even rattling whistles or duck calls, sloshing water bottles, or a ringing cell phone will put the kybosh on a stealthy approach to pressured birds. Reaching for that coffee mug (let alone dropping it) in an aluminum boat can resemble a clanging fire alarm to pintails dabbling around the next bend.

I often go a step further, taking the jingle-jangles off the dog’s collar. One of those riveted identification plates starts to make even more sense in the grouse woods. I own a half-dozen e-collars with beepers and an assortment of bells, but many times I’ll go unplugged.

Spoken, rather than shouted, directions are heard plenty well by most dogs. When possible, use hand commands instead of a voice or whistle. Just like any other skill, retrievers can be taught to sit still and quit whining in a blind. It might take a bag full of treats and many weeks, but all of it pays off when wings cup and landing gear deploy.

Oh, and here’s another good reason: while I like Monday-morning quarterbacking yesterday’s game as much as the next guy, when my mouth is shut, my eyes seem to open wider. I see and enjoy more of the dog work, catch on quicker to his birdiness, savor the scenery … and to me, that’s almost as much fun as nice, close shots.

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The (intensity of) media is the message.

The (intensity of) media is the message.

Your dog is constantly watching you, and learning from your movement, your tone of voice, what you put up with, and what you simply won’t tolerate … whether with him, other dogs, or your first-born kid.

Because he has a limited vocabulary, literally, your actions often speak louder than words. But even words have different meanings to your dog depending on how they are delivered. So why not use your ability to nuance training “language” to influence your dog.

I’m lucky in that I can watch myself on TV a lot (someone has to pump up the Nielsen ratings). I learned to be a teacher the same way – with video. It is a cruel but fair instructor, the small screen. But you don’t need a camera to reflect on your actions and the messages they convey. Just think before you act, adjust your pace, the magnitude of your movements, and your dog will get the message. He does that now, but it’s often to your detriment and you might not even know it.

For instance, move slower and you literally demonstrate to your dog that things are not as exciting (or distracting) as they seem. When you’re winding down an amped-up retrieving training session a short “heel” around the yard in slow motion could cool down your Lab and prepare him for a rest in his crate. A quivering shorthair gulping in pheasant scent while on point might be steadied by a calm, confident and low-key approach to the flush.

Conversely, getting your Springer pumped up for an assault on that blackberry thicket might require an energetic pep talk and gentle pat on his butt. An easily-distracted wirehair might maintain focus during a long retrieve with some loud and animated encouragement from his owner (don’t ask).

When words are the appropriate communication tool, a whisper is often better than a yell. It certainly brings down the adrenaline levels, calming the situation. Like people, dogs will often pay closer attention to you if you make it hard for them to hear what you’re saying. Drop the volume level and you might be pleasantly surprised at the results.

On the other hand, an icy water retrieve by a young Chessie could merit a boisterous shoreline cheerleading squad. Again, evaluate your desired result and pick the correct arrow out of your quiver.

Even physical praise has degrees. As I write this, I’m scratching my old guy’s neck following a quiet “here” command. It’s a slow, relaxing touch, light and low-key, but a reward nonetheless. He in turn, is lying down, expecting nothing but a chance to be near me as his payback for a small job well done – he showed up. A vigorous, two-hand rib tickle implies something else entirely, higher energy and more excitement. It might be just the ticket to jet-propel a long cast in chukar country by my five-year-old.

That five-year-old Manny simply cannot stand still when he first gets on the training table. I used to yank on his collar, yelling “whoa” at increasingly high volume. Now I speak calmly, slowly, sometimes from a sitting position, stroking his back until he settles – faster than he ever did when I engaged him in a battle of canine (half)wits. Then, we can get on to the important stuff.

So consider expanding your training communications repertoire, usually by dialing down your energy. You might see better results, sooner.

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Your dog can’t say “huh?” or he often would, because when he disobeys it’s likely the owner’s fault, according to author and TV host Scott Linden. He’ll share his ideas with fans on the 3rd annual “Cabela’s Awesome Upland Road Trip … destination Kansas.”

Linden’s observed and tested his theories on the more than 250 dogs he’s hunted with on his TV show, Wingshooting USA. He says thinking about how dogs process information can elicit better cooperation and performance, in the field and at home.Last year's appearance at the Mitchell, SD Cabela's was also captured on Tom Brokaw's

Last year’s appearance at the Mitchell, SD Cabela’s was also captured on Tom Brokaw’s “Opening Day” TV special.

He – and his own hunting dogs – will be answering dog- and bird-hunting-related questions, meeting fans and signing books at stops between filming episodes of the show, which airs on NBC Sports, Pursuit Channel and eight other TV networks. The schedule includes:

Sept. 9-11 Produce show from Invitational Hunt Test, North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association, Ohio

Sept. 21 Meet & greet: Cabela’s, Billings MT 4-6 p.m.

Oct. 16-17 Meet & greet: Cabela’s, Mitchell, SD Pheasant Classic 10-3 Friday, 8-11 Sat.

Oct. 21-22 Produce Wingshooting USA episode at Ringneck Retreat, Hitchcock, SD

Oct. 24-25 Produce Wingshooting USA episode at Prairie Sky Ranch, Veblen, SD

Oct. 29  Meet & greet: Cabela’s, Rapid City, SD 4-6 p.m.

Nov. 18 Meet & greet: Cabela’s, Sidney, NE

Nov. 21 Goodland KS, Governor’s Ringneck Classic (also producing an episode)

Nov. 23 Produce Wingshooting USA episode at Carlson’s Choke Tubes, Atwood, KS

Dec. 8 Produce Wingshooting USA episode at Ruggs Ranch, Heppner, OR

Dec. 17 Meet & greet: Cabela’s, Reno, NV

Feb. 19-21 2016 Pheasant Fest, Kansas City, MO

“Communicating with our spouse is much easier. Listening rather than just hearing smoothes the way,” Linden said. With dogs who can’t say “What was that dear?,” body language, behavior, and attitude shows whether they understand their owner’s direction – or not.

On the other hand, er, paw, Linden says the dog’s owner can be more clear in his signals to the dog. That’s usually where – and by whom – the ball is dropped. From easily-confused command words, to conflicting hand signals, he says many dog problems are really “operator error.”

At Cabela’s appearances, the first question is often about the dog on the table with Linden. Bushy eyebrows and beards, and a friendly demeanor make Linden’s German Wirehaired Pointers ideal ambassadors for the sport of upland bird hunting.

The “Cabela’s Awesome Upland Road Trip … destination Kansas,” is Linden’s annual foray into hunting territory to make episodes of the program. Over the years, it’s become a chance for him and his dogs to meet fans who earlier provided input on everything from tires for the official vehicles to Cabela’s dog gear for his hunting partners. Road Trip vehicles are displayed at the stores so fans can see how their ideas have been used.

Available everywhere books are sold (including Cabela’s stores), Linden’s book “What the Dogs Taught Me” covers communication, how dogs think, and offers tips on hunting, shooting, dog training, an extensive glossary and Q&A section. You’d think he’d heard it all, but he says he’s constantly surprised at the variety of questions from fans. “I answer over a thousand every year on the Wingshooting USA Facebook page,” he said, “but there’s always a new one out there.

The most-watched upland bird hunting show in the U.S., Wingshooting USA is the official TV series of the National Shooting Sports Foundation and sponsored by Cabela’s. It is broadcast year-round on up to ten television networks.

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Petroglyphs up there - one of the lessons to learn.

Petroglyphs up there – one of the lessons to learn.

In another life I must have been an historian. I love the past, reading about it, talking about it, and especially the dazzle of discovery. Besides being with dogs, the chance to span the decades (even centuries) is high on my list of reasons to go hunting. Cresting a ridge to find everyday stuff lost or discarded by those who walked the same path brings dusty books and mind-numbing lectures to life.

I’ve stumbled over sheepherder stoves and peeked (not too far) into abandoned gold mines, camped in willow corrals and counted bullet holes in a Buick abandoned after a foiled bank robbery. Man-made artifacts, each with a tale to tell those lucky enough to walk a bit farther.

A ranch driveway bears a faded sales pitch for an insurance agent, painted on a boulder when the rutted gravel was the only road into town. Pictographs and petroglyphs are a regular discovery in the tumbles of lava that define chukar country. Rock cairns called “stoneboys” by Basque sheepherders, were piled to counter the boredom of minding a flock. Stories from different ages, for differing reasons.

Wagon wheels, lead-soldered cans piled among shattered crockery, square nails from abandoned homesteads, all tie this life to past lives. Everyday junk joins us to predecessors.

Why did someone leave that wooden bucket on this ridge? Who knapped arrowheads, leaving a pile of obsidian chips glittering at the base of this rock? Was that intact spear point dropped in the heat of a chase? A clean miss? What – or who – was the target?

That’s why I love this stuff, the stories. Do you have any?

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Double on Huns ... now that's an indelible memory, boots or not.

Double on Montana Huns … now that’s an indelible memory, boots or not.

I don’t know what you have on your end-of-season to do list, but it seems like mine gets longer every year. One of the topmost chores is saddle-soaping my hunting boots. Today was the first spring-like day here: blue skies, last week’s rain rising from the ground to weight the atmosphere, and a blazing sun … ideal boot cleaning conditions.

With brush, water, saddle soap arrayed on the porch, out marched the footwear, pair after pair after muddy pair lined up like so many recruits awaiting their first day of basic training. Scrub, wipe, array in the sunshine to dry … assuringly familiar, this routine, a note of finality with each pair dispatched.

The tall boots rekindled memories of a hell-bent stream crossing after valley quail, alone but for my dogs. The mountaineering boots proudly wore scars from jagged lava rock, abrasions suffered in pursuit of chukars with a college chum. A cushy, “civilized” pair were worn only once this season, on a memorable bobwhite hunt with some real Yankees from Vermont, quite at home in Alabama, also quite genteel. Each boot brought another memory bubbling up from the subconscious, as vivid as the video footage you’ll eventually see on the show.

Last week, gun cleaning. This week, boot cleaning. Next week, I’m sure something else will find it’s way onto the list. Until then, I’ll pour another cup of coffee and relive my time in the hills and prairies, reminiscences now written onto the soles of each boot.

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