Thursday, March 10, 2022

Training, Trialing, Hunting- It's so much easier to start early!

My friend and I worked a trail in the grouse woods of Wisconsin. We left the trucks a mile back, and walked along the two-track while the dogs worked either side of the former logging road. The day was pleasant, but a bit too warm for the dogs. Temperatures in the 70’s were nice for hiking or swilling margaritas on a beach, but for working dogs, it bordered on hot. October in Wisconsin brought warm and humid, or thunderstorms, or snow and sleet- or all the above, on any given day. The combination of Ruffed Grouse, thick forest, abundant hunting land, and good friends kept me coming back year after year in October- the finest month of the year. I had Shack (NSTRA CH/GA REG. CH Flyboy Ace’s Bullseye (Brit/M)) on the ground, and he worked either side of the trail while we walked and talked. Grouse hunting consisted of a long nature walk interrupted by the frantic rush getting to a dog on point, followed shortly by the roar of wings as a brown or gray bomber launched off the forest floor headed for safety. Today was no different, and as Shack crossed the trail, I gave him a blast from the whistle and extended my arm, pointing at a stand of trees 100 yards off the trail. He glanced up and took off in the direction I pointed, as we returned to our captivating discussion about the merits of ejectors versus extractors. A minute later, my gps pager beeped, and I knew Shack was pointed. I turned and started walking with intention to the stand of trees, while checking my watch for his position. Sure enough, the dog was 67 yards away, on point. I learned, long ago, to move quickly to a dog pointing a Ruffed Grouse. Those birds will many times walk off under a point, until they reached a comfortable distance, and then the bird would flush away. We split up slightly as we approached, and my friend saw Shack first. He set himself up, said he was ready, and I walked toward the pointed dog, aiming for a point about 20 yards in front. The gray bird launched from behind a tree away from me, but it put him directly in front of my partner. It was a deadly mistake, as both our 28 ga. doubles barked at the same time. The bird tumbled onto the soft lichen floor under the planted pines. Shack was on the dead bird immediately, and made a good retrieve to my hand. I pondered the situation, and glanced up and my partner, “Nice shot!” I said, and I tossed the bird to him. “I’m pretty sure I was behind him. Besides, you shot just a split second in front of me. Your bird.” He agreed. And so it went throughout the day.

Shack in New Mexico

The big Brit was near perfect that day, and my partner commented on it. “Thank you,” I said. “He did have a pretty good day.” Shack, as an adult, was the culmination of years of learning from past mistakes. I learned to start training a puppy while still young with the end result always in mind. When they were just little puppies, fighting for the wet food, just weaned from momma, I would start quietly clapping my hands, and build up to louder noises over the weeks. They would associate loud noise with pleasure. I taught them obedience, whistle and voice commands, to recognize objectives, to retrieve with speed and style to hand (no dropping the bird early in the excitement), and steadiness on point regardless of shots, yelling, or ATVs roaring by. I taught them to back, and all the other little things that enabled a dog to compete in field trials. And, after all that, many trials, and a few hundred dead quail, perhaps by the age of two, I would load them in the back of the truck and we would head to Montana, South Dakota, Idaho, Oklahoma, or any number of other western states, and I would show them what a bird dog was born, bred, and trained to do. By the time Shack smelled his first wild bird, he already had a solid base of what it meant to be a bird dog. It wasn’t a stressful time at all. I already knew how he would do, because for two years I trained him with the end in sight. It wasn’t always that way. My first dogs were a Brit male and a female Setter. I was learning about bird hunting. It was an obsession with me. I had 2000 acres of Georgia clear cut to hunt. The land held numerous coveys of Bobwhite Quail, and any given day, the dogs would find four or five coveys. Those two dogs and I would hunt from dawn ’til dusk 50-60 days every year. After a few years, we had the coveys named. I was the only bird hunter on the property. Life was good. Then, I read an ad in the Georgia Market Bulletin about “Have Fun With Your Bird Dog!”, and “More Action per Acre!”. The next weekend, I was in the north Georgia mountains, looking up a gently sloping field as a man rode a horse around the field dropping quail in the grass. I remember thinking, “How tough can it be? You have 30 minutes to find just five birds? And, they are all right there?” It did not go well for us. Rocket (Brit) found three birds pretty quick. I shot at and missed all three. He chased the last one into the woods, and I could hear him in there flushing that bird over and over again, as time ran out. The judge (on horseback, as well) said, “Don’t worry, it’ll get better!” I appreciated, but didn’t need, his encouragement. I was hooked! That was in 1992.

Cap in Georgia

Because my dogs were primarily hunting dogs, they were accustomed to near total freedom when I turned them loose. That was the crux of my problem- now, after all that freedom, the bird dogs had to learn a few things. For example, Ruby, the Setter, learned to back on her own. Rocket, on the other hand, didn’t much care for the backing thing, so I fought to keep him on the other side of the field during a trial. Many a time, I did the “walk of shame” with my leashed Brit as we were summarily ejected for interference. When a bird flew out of bounds, they both would chase it. Then, I chased them into the woods and pulled them back into the field, reminding them all the while to stay in bounds. It was a constant battle. One I lost nearly every time. One opposing handler immediately understood the situation, and she would wait until Rocket saw her dog on point. Then, she would kick the bird near the judge, call safety, and watch my dog chase it out of bounds, while hers held steady. Then, she had the field to herself for at least ten minutes! It would have been easy to get frustrated and blame the judges, other handlers, the rules, everyone but myself. But, I knew it was me and my dog training. Over time, those two dogs were replaced by others and things got marginally better. Many dogs later, I conceived the plan to raise a field trial dog from the start. I would teach them the basics to be successful in a trial when they were young, when it was easy. All bird dogs, trial dogs or not, can benefit from field trial discipline. Field Trialing is not hunting. It’s a game. But, it's a game that teaches a dog fundamentals, boundaries, limits, and obedience. It teaches them to quarter, to watch for other dogs, other handlers, to ignore outside influences, and to put a maximum effort into finding birds right off the line. In deference to the handler who would have my dog chase a bird out of bounds, my dogs are also taught what “leave it” means, and a low, guttural “Anch! Anch!” sound means “you’d better turn around RIGHT NOW!” Every single command I teach for trialing is applicable to bird hunting. Yes, there are other things they need to know (leave the Javelina, cows, porcupines, and skunks alone, and don’t jump off 30’ rock cliffs), but a trial-trained dog can easily transition into bird hunting. The reverse is often, frustratingly, not the case. We have all seen it. My chosen field trial venue (The National Shoot to Retrieve Field Trial Association) is somewhat unique in that regard. It can be a life-long dedication to making a better bird dog. The result can be a multi-purpose dog, that can successfully field trial one day, and point Bobwhites and Pheasant in a Kansas wheat field the next. Visualizing what you want the dog to be and training for the field trial is a great way to start a dog on a lifetime of success in the field, whether on the trial grounds or on the prairie.