I took the boys up to the PANE Hunt Test at Flaherty this past Sunday, and was able to run Momo in the Master Hunter stake before I started judging the Junior Hunter stake. As the title suggests, it wasn't pretty and I was genuinely a little surprised, but Momo successfully earned his second MH leg. I don't know if he just performed the skills that the other dog didn't much better (like the honor and the retrieve) and so the judges either overlooked or were feeling kind towards Mr. Creepy-feet-- but as soon as the test was over we started on launcher work with both boys. Two down, three to go.
Essentially, with both boys, I want them to a) stand off their birds further and b) have the birds teach them that once they have established point, any movement will trigger a flush. And a moving dog and a flushing bird means no shot, no retrieve, and no praise from Pop. And launcher work can also teach the dogs that movement after the flush is unacceptable. As the folks over at Steady with Style have pointed out, there can be several contexts a dog should understand that require him to stand still even in the absence, perhaps especially in the absence, of a verbal command. A bird that gets up in clear sight ahead of a dog, whether on point or not, is one of them.
My previous challenges with launchers were that I hadn't figured out a) the better ways to use them, b) the better ways to store them, and c) the better ways to lay them out in the training field. And so, in the past, the dogs would get too close because they couldn't easily scent what was in there and so any forward movement on their part would bring them too close to the launchers which might in turn be dangerous or frightening for them. However, if you have a good breeze, wide open cover, multiple birds, and a clear training plan... surprisingly, things can work quite well! My solutions were to a) keep all my launchers, bird bags, and some random wings in one big decoy bag together and to only handle them with my bird handling gloves on, b) to either stash a birdbag with some birds in a little further upwind from the trap, or c) set up multiple birds in one launcher, d) or set up duplicate launchers in one location, or e) use a combination of regular launchers and one of Brad Higgins's Remote Releasers.
Even with all this planning, you still need good flying birds. On the downside, Brad's remote releaser will not eject a bird into the stratosphere, but they are both wicked quiet and a great, safe way to ensure that your actual launcher has additional birds around it to create a nice pong for the dog. And, as we discovered, if the bird is pressured, it will get up and away like no slept or dizzied bird. Launchers, to my mind, still have a use -- but I am glad I invested in one of these, too. So, long and short, I think we're already starting to see the wheels turn in both of their brains as they recalibrate their behavior based on the bird... and not on me hooting and hollering.
Momo is officially a woodcock dog. Last Thursday we hunted in both New York at Stewart and at Flaherty. We had hoped for pheasants in both places but only saw one rooster that Momo and I tracked and chased and flushed twice in waist-high weeds. I'm not sure if the lack of birds in NY is a side-effect from our governor's ill-informed, initial decision to close the Reynolds Gamebird Farm -- but I was a little surprised to only encounter a single bird. As for Flaherty, we were able to meet up with our friend, Rick from Marricks Vizslas, and his older dog, Baci. I've been fortunate to judge another of Rick's nice dogs, Latte, a couple of times. Sadly, there were several guys with howitzers out in the likely spots when we got there so we chose to train and chase whatever quail might still be left out in the woods.
In any case, while I actually foot flushed this bird accidentally, and somehow managed to hit it, Momo found it and retrieved it for me. I have been fascinated by this evolutionarily lost bird, a shore bird that somehow found itself marooned and now lives in transit from woody marsh to woody marsh. And as Hank, our favorite epicure at Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, also discovered with its relative, the snipe, these things are small and beautiful with their peculiar shaped heads and long, graceful beaks. Unlike Hank, I don't have the patience or skill to prepare them with quite the same diligence. My criterion for hunting is that I will eat what I kill. But if a) it takes longer to prepare it than hunt it, and b) there's not enough of it to eat without some kind of elaborate recipe that defies the space-time continuum, I may not shoot at a woodcock again.
Now the grouse we took in Maine, however... I may try a variation on something I had at a nice Mexican restaurant the other night, although instead of huitlacoche I may stuff the breasts with shiitake mushrooms, then bread and fry them.