Friday, November 26, 2010

gun trades and good kharma

I know Steve is going to blog about this some, but here's a story of everything somehow being connected. Folks who follow this blog know I spent July out in Arizona, but I don't remember if I mentioned that part of my journey featured stops in to see Libby + Steve in Magdalena. (Steve was kind enough to celebrate my passing-through here.)

Steve and I share an interest in a number of things -- Central Asia and fine shotguns being two of them. And I had brought my little 20ga out with me to Arizona and, of course, showed it to Steve. Who in turn showed me his own small arsenal. My little gun, incidentally, was a W & C Scott Model 300 private labelled for, probably, an ironmonger's shop -- but unusual in that it had long 30" barrels, open chokes (roughly Cyl and IC), and a very light weight (5lbs even). It was a wonderful upland gun that could be carried all day -- but was still capable of taking birds at decent distances with the right ammunition.

The past tense should signal that, in fact, Steve and I have traded guns. Steve will doubtlessly share what his motivations were, but when he offered me his 12ga Grant sidelever hammer gun, there was little need for deliberation. I can credit my love for fine side-by-side shotguns to my good friend, Paul Hermann, a true craftsman in his own right, who was kind enough to let me shoot trap with his 1926 Purdey -- although just once. From Paul, I came to appreciate that, especially when working with well-mannered pointing dogs, nothing need be rushed -- and the solemnity of the moment-to-happen marked with a certain grace. Taking the time to cock the hammers on your shotgun is another reminder of that.

The Grant is all original, as it was when it was built in 1879 -- heel and toe clips on the buttstock, 31" barrels, and traces of the original case color behind the hammers. The real treat is when you take it apart. I don't know if Steve ever had the locks off during its tenure with him, but the interior of the locks retain their full case color and the springs are still so strong that my gunsmith (who is easily 6' 2" and 220lbs and no weakling) had to order a special spring vise to compress them to reassemble the gun. As folks can see, the gun has Damascus barrels, although these too have a lot of wall thickness left in them -- some 0.037" at the thinnest spot way out towards the muzzle. Folks have mixed opinions about shooting Damascus barrels -- for me, even though it is chambered for 2 3/4" shells, I am going to shoot 2 1/2" RSTs and wear a filet glove on my left hand under a shooting glove.

At 7lbs 6oz this gun will not be my regular walk-up gun -- I have a 2 1/2" chambered 6lb 7oz Holloway & Naughton for that -- but I have a few schemes in mind to keep this gun in service. And I did shoot some training birds with it on Wednesday to give the boys some retrieve practice. It does fit me remarkably well. And it is beautiful. When you realise that all of these curves were molded and shaped by hand with files and sandpaper, something as utilitarian as a shotgun really does become a work of art. Even my wife thinks it is lovely.

Steve was also kind enough to send me a copy of Cyril Adams & Robert Braden's Lock, Stock, and Barrel (Safari Press, 1996) which contains the following immortal quote: "The preferred double has external hammers, double triggers, and no ejectors. After all, it is reliably reputed that God shoots a Grant sidelever hammer gun with 30" Damascus barrels made around 1890." (p. 177) Sadly, once you've gone sidelever, I have a feeling you never go back.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

grouse camp: where the wild things are

Our annual pilgrimage to western Maine is over once again. Sadly. And while weather would have prevented Momo + Jozsi from really consolidating all the knowledge they were picking up, I would have surely loved to have stayed longer or had multiple opportunities to get up there this season. Last year was the first year we had been able to get up there in opening week -- and I was curious to see if the upswing in bird numbers we saw last year was the start of a trend or not. I can't tell from my blog notes whether the 34 bird contacts I reported last year included the ones Dudley had seen on his own or not -- but I was really pleased with the 29 bird contacts I had with Momo + Jozsi this year. Here's a picture of Jozsi all kitted out with his skidplate, e-collar, and Astro collar -- and I don't care how hard it is to hunt wild chukar in the mountains of Utah and Idaho, but trying to keep your feet on piles of wet, snowy slash on old skidder trails while carrying a shotgun is a whole other ball of wax.

As ever, we stayed with our old friends from Ellsworth days, Dudley and Susan, at their beautiful home overlooking Mooselookmeguntic Lake. And as ever, Momo's girlfriend, Lida, ran out to the truck mewing like a kitty cat, so happy to see her old friend again. Momo really does play with Lida differently than almost any other dog -- and she is clearly fond of him. It's quite charming. This was the view from their dock one brisk morning, as the fog moved across Toothaker Island midway across the lake and hid the far shore. The drive up had been relatively uneventful and I was lucky to be able to stop off for a quick lunch at Mike & Kim's in Northfield, MA, on the way. The drive up I91 is really nice even with the leaves clearly past their prime, but still in fading russets and browns, but after getting off I91 around St. Johnsbury, it's the drive east towards Oquossoc that seems strangely familiar -- the big red Locust Grove Farm barn in East Johnsbury, VT, the snow cap on the hills behind Lancaster, NH, and the LL Cote gas-station in Errol, NH, before turning on Route 16 into Maine -- and with it the increasing likelihood of seeing our favorite car-wrecking ungulate, the moose. This phone-camera picture doesn't really show anything, but it was a mother and her two calves who decided to amble across the road in front of me. (I was really bummed the camera failed on the way home and didn't get the two year-old buck who was grazing by the side of the road in broad daylight.)

The two-and-a-half days was great for both the boys. We spend a fair amount of time training, but there is nothing like a wild bird to get them recalibrated. This is only Momo's fourth season hunting grouse and, in all honesty, if we've had more than two weeks of actual bird contacts in that time, I'd be pleasantly surprised. For Jozsi, this is only his second excursion on grouse and he's still now had less than an actual week of bird contacts. But it only takes a few birds popping off unexpectedly in front of them to teach them that this is not your average planted quail. It was so great to see both boys not only get lessons in stop-to-flush, but on the other end of the spectrum also get gradually 'stickier' and even stick some unproductive points close by -- and all in spots you'd be expecting to find grouse huddled up out of the weather. Again, I don't know if I combined my and Dudley's numbers from last year, but I know that this year I saw or heard a lot more birds flush in front of a dog working scent or already on point (as opposed to flushing wild off in the woods at an indeterminate distance) -- which tells me that my dogs are getting better at locating the forest kings even if they're still working out the distances. The other unusual detail was that we seemed to be finding more multiple bird coveys than in the past -- a fair number of pairs, but several threes, and even a couple of fours.

For Jozsi, especially, this was great. However, to go back slightly, the two things I loved about working with him this trip (and admittedly I have an Astro to make this a lot more relaxing) were his handle and his obvious internalization of the work that I, and especially Bill, put into him this summer. Of the 29 definite bird contacts, he had seven stops-to-flush. It might be uncharitable to classify them as such, but I'm calling them stops-to-flush because by the time I got to him, birds were gone. (I'm also counting these as single bird flushes, when they might have been multiples.) But my point is this: I want my dog to run and hunt and when I talk about a handle, it's not because I'm hacking him into constant close range, and so the Astro would beep that he was on point -- and then I'd bushwack 80yds through heavy cover to get to him. I'd get to him, he'd still be standing still, maybe looking up into a tree, maybe tail a little soft, but with all my crashing I may have flushed a bird that was in sitting in front of him and never even heard it. But to have a young dog understand that a bird long-gone is not an excuse to break is awesome -- especially if he knows you can't see him. His final hunt, though, he had got a great reminder of why this is a necessary skill. We were hunting a skidder trail and he cut into a line of cedars about 70yds ahead of me. A bird popped in front of him, and he stood. And as I got closer to him, cursing my way up over the wet slash, two more birds boiled up -- one of which flew across the opening but I was too busy trying to stay upright to take a shot. I fired my blank gun, congratulated him and sent him on. After the initial flush, whether he knew there were two more birds or not doesn't in some sense matter. Standing still has its rewards, too. And as I moved on, too, a fourth bird flushed off my right shoulder. How I was able to swing on that bird and knock it down, I still don't really know.

One of the highlights of the trip was meeting up with Chris Mathan of Strideaway fame who made the three-hour drive to come chase some birds, watch some dogs, and give her young dog, Kit, some exercise. I need to hunt with Chris more often. We set off towards our first set of covers and within 15mins Momo was on point at some cedars. I walked in, a bird flushed, and I released Momo. Spoiler Alert: HANDLER ERROR! And so, of course, he goes off to track the flushed bird, two more pop in the same spot, and I manage to shoot one -- even though I would swear there was a tree in the way. I then holler Momo to retrieve the bird (and hear another pop off in the woods nearby). I was so pleased him with him.

I can't hold my dogs to a higher standard than myself -- especially when I talk about learning curves on wild birds. I had never encountered more than a pair of birds in a single spot -- and never experienced one grouse flush as a decoy for the others -- and it took me one more screw-up to learn this lesson. Another 20mins later, Momo again pointed into a small cedar patch -- and as I walked in, a bird popped. Why I didn't then stop and try to stealth in further with the shotgun ready, who knows! I was still obviously sufficiently jacked up that adrenaline was blocking rational thought. And so, I released Momo again onto a second bird that neither of us was in a position to shoot. But two productive points, six birds, and a bird in hand was still a great start to the day -- especially with a borrowed gun. As you can see from the picture, this is no Birmingham-made side-by-side but a Browning A-5 Light Twenty. I remembered all kinds of things for the trip, but forgot that I'd put all my trigger lock keys on a separate keychain for my trip to Oregon. Happily, Dudley has other guns and I've always had a fascination with the ugly duckling that is the A-5.

It was also a learning experience to be out with Chris + Kit and see how someone handles an FDSB-bred pointer already educated in the world of grouse and woodcock. I don't hunt my dogs with bells because I'm concerned (and have seen proof with Bob and Dennis's dogs) that the birds will spook well in front of a jangling bell. But Astros are illegal in trialing for anything other than locating a dog no longer in contention. And so, a bell is it -- and acute hearing a must, especially when there might be a brace of dogs on the ground. Even with an Astro on, it is still a little nerve-wracking to turn a dog loose in close cover and encourage it to run. And despite being hunted hard for the previous few days, it was great to watch our respective Garmins and see Kit tow Jozsi out to almost 200yards in dense hardwoods and evergreens. The only downside was that we had no bird contacts that we know of for either of them that afternoon. It was great to meet Chris, too, and hear some of her stories about her own life with birddogs. Hope we'll get to do it again soon.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

suhweet

I can't complain too loudly, but me and two other guys from work were treated to a weekend out at Highland Hills Ranch in north central Oregon. I love Oregon from when I used to live out there and I don't remember how exactly I first heard about HHR, but I was pretty excited to have the opportunity.

I am also a little skeptical about places like this -- skeptical about places that host British-style driven shoots (because they are 'shoots' not 'hunts'), and skeptical about places that claim four species of native birds and no bag limits. Even before they issue you your hunting license, it's obvious that HHR is a preserve and that these are therefore not truly wild birds in the sense of entirely self-sustaining, indigenous populations -- even though pheasant, chukar, Valley quail, and Hungarian partridge are all native to Oregon. As you can see from their website, some of their 3000 acres is pretty manicured terrain. I went imagining I'd shoot a couple of birds quick and then just take photographs. But shortly after we got out the first morning, I had to leave most of my prejudices behind.

Let me get the easy stuff out the way: this is plush. And even though you genuinely hunt pretty hard six hours a day, you're leaving fatter than you came. The facilities are fabulous and the food exquisite. I know that if the chef's parents, his kid's grandparents, didn't live in the area he would have been hired away many many times over. And this is a huge part of the HHR experience: if I remember correctly, the owner's family were five-generation farmers (which shows in not just the cherry orchards, but even how native habitats have been encouraged), and the idea of owning and operating a facility like this comes from love and passion. Dinner conversations about either windfarm operations and the mixed benefits for farmers and residents alike, the cherry crop, or the state of the mule deer population all made it clear that this was an operation being operated for the long haul by folks who genuinely care about the place they've built because their familes have lived there for generations.

As for the bird-stuff: we drove up to the lodge and shooed pheasants off the road in the process. In some ways, not exactly inspiring as to what the actual hunting might be like, but nevertheless a good sign that there are apparently plenty of birds hanging out on the grounds. I did manage to extract that the native birds were supplemented with release birds to ensure that there is consistency in clients' experience -- but I couldn't tell you how or when or in what numbers those birds were being released. And that's because a) it never felt like you were on a put-and-take kind of place, b) because there were none of the usual behaviors of farm-raised game birds, and c) I didn't hear or smell any evidence of ATVs sneaking around dumping birds in fields. I have no idea the actual numbers or distribution schedule, but it became pretty clear that HHR not only manages their terrain really well, but that 'native' might actually mean exactly that for a significant percentage of the birds a client will encounter. The owner expressed genuine surprise at how some of the roosters hadn't fully colored-up yet and speculated they were from a second hatch that year. I might be a sucker, but I believe him. Heaven knows, that in terms of how quickly a pheasant population can establish itself, one need only look at the history of pheasant introduction in OR and WA to see that Oregon, in particular, went from 0 birds in 1881 to a 75-day season in 1892 with an estimated 50,000 birds taken.

At 3,000 acres, there is plenty of space to allow multiple groups to hunt in multiple locations without shooting out the bird populations. As Dario, one of the guys I was with, said -- there were just enough birds. Meaning that they were both plentiful, but neither predictable, nor too many. And heaven knows, we missed our share and they got wilder as a result. There are essentially three different environments at HHR: plateau hunts up on the hills surrounding the ranch in low grass and sagebrush, primarily for Huns and chukar; milo field hunts for all four species of native birds; and creekbed hunts that could feature sagebrush, reeds, and waist-high grasses and, again, all four species. The first two pictures in this post are from our first morning's plateau hunt featuring the fabulous Tex on point, and then Dario, Scott, our guide, and Bailey & Mel (the GSP and the English cocker). This picture is from our milo field hunt -- and features Reuben and Otis (the GSP and the English cocker), cooling off halfway through our hunt.

As can be inferred, many of the guides at HHR use a combination of pointing dogs and flushing dogs to get the birds located, flushed, and retrieved. In this instance, Scott uses a mixed team of pointers and GSPs to locate and pin the birds and then a spaniel to flush the bird. As an aside, for someone used to preparing dogs for hunt tests and field trials, watching the bird flush and then all three dogs break on the shot took a little getting used to -- but as Scott said, if you have a bird that is clearly shot, gliding off the side of a hill, it can put a dog at a serious disadvantage for a blind retrieve if it stands through the shot and waits to be sent. And without wanting to brag too much about our shooting prowess, if all three hunters are able to bag a single bird each from a covey, then it's pretty cool to have three different dogs bring back a bird each. This final picture has my other friend, Ian, shooting a chukar over the lovely Fancy during our final hunt along one of the creekbeds below.

It was a great weekend filled with some miraculous shots (by Ian and Dario, I might add), some enthusiastic dogwork (including watching one of the cockers literally hip-check a GSP out the way to get a bird for the retrieve), good company, and excellent food.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

building an Evil Empire

It's been a wicked busy 6 or 7 weeks here at Team Regal Vizsla. The weekend after Momo and I got back from Arizona, the day after I put up my last post here, I chaired our Vizsla Club of Central New England Versatility Day up at Sharpe's Farm. As might be imagined in these economic times, it was a smaller entry than last year -- which was actually good because we felt less rushed in the heat throughout the day! Congratulations go to Mike & Kim's Kyler for finishing up her Versatility Certificate requirements!

A month later I chaired our VCCNE hunt test (although none of it would have been possible without a supremely well-organized secretary, Stephanie) out at Crane WMA out on Cape Cod. This weekend was actually a first for the northeast in that we held a double-header weekend with our friends at the Mayflower GSP Club -- and so we had testing in both morning and afternoon on both days, giving JH & SH dogs and handlers the opportunity to potentially start and finish their titles in a single weekend. With hunt test entries, it seems, down generally across the country, the two clubs wanted to try and create an even bigger incentive for folks to come out to what is a beautiful grounds out in East Falmouth. While we had to limit the number of SH/MH entries, especially, to ensure things stayed on schedule, overall the entire event went really well. Not sure how Stephanie managed it, but somehow this year we avoided any pre- or post-hurricane weather that has thwarted us in the past. This picture is of one of the nicest dogs I saw all weekend, a beautiful Brittany named Cassie, who moved beautifully and handled like a dream even though, for a variety of reasons, she had to be handled by a relative stranger.

Congratulations are in order again to Mike & Kim, but this time for Cedar finishing up with SH requirements! It's hard to imagine that two years ago we were all wondering if he'd keep one of his feet after being shot (not by them, I might add) in a hunting accident. He might be a little gimpy from time to time, but he does the job really nicely! Well done, C-Monster!

In between those two events, I also started work on building my own Evil Empire. It's taken a few years to make great connections like these, but I have been blessed to find a friend with some property upstate who has a shooting preserve license and is willing to let me install four portable johnny-houses on his property so that I can train my dogs on habituated, if not actually wild, quail. I saw the huge difference in the quality of the birdwork when using birds like this (as opposed to hand-planted birds fresh out the bird bag) when I was out in Arizona with Bill Gibbons -- and essentially copied his basic design using 55gal drums as the basic shell. Each drum can comfortably house 12-15 quail and, using the awesome Less Mess feeders and waterers, the birds can easily stay for a week (if not two) without needing a top up -- and you don't need to go inside the johnny-house to replenish the food and water. Finding decent birds that will both fly and recall, that's a whole other story.

Jozsi came back from Arizona last week looking fantastic; I wrote about the decision-making process to fly him home over at Living with Birddogs. It sounds goofy but I realised how much I missed him the instant I saw him bounce around in his crate at Newark airport as soon as he recognized me. This dog only knows how to do everything with the utmost enthusiasm. I haven't had the chance to run him on birds yet, but he has already demonstrated a voluntary honor on Momo that he's never done before. It's already been a busy fall with hunt test judging assignments as well, and we're headed up to the Nutmeg GSP Club hunt test this weekend to both judge and then give Mr. Enthusiasm his first run off a horse since coming home.

I'm also pleased to say that I just got my first article published online in a non-blog by the nice folks over at Strideaway. I was flattered to be asked to write about my month out in AZ with Bill Gibbons and I hope folks enjoy it. Coincidentally, though, in that piece I wrote about Bill's experience and skill in identifying just the right amount of 'leverage' to apply to a dog in a given situation and made an analogy to walking horse bits in the process. In the brand new issue of Eclectic Horseman, Martin Black has a short piece about bit selection -- and how he distinguishes between a 'signal bit' and a 'leverage bit':

A leverage bit meant to amplify the pressure or pain from our hands pulling on them whereas a signal bit is meant to amplify a signal from our hands. Here again the biggest difference could be just a different presentation with the same equipment. (p.5)

I mention it because what Martin is describing is how I understand Bill to be using the e-collar. Why is this important? Any training tool can be abused, but once you see a tool being used subtly, it's then also possible to see that tool in a much richer light. For example, if you can only understand an e-collar as a 'shock collar,' then for better and for worse all you can do is 'shock' a dog with it. And for a lot of dogs, that's going to more than plenty to turn them off.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

here's to trial dogs

With Jozsi still in AZ for the remaining six weeks of dog camp, and with the field trial season coming upon us here in the northeast, I wanted to share a few historical gems about why trial dogs are in many ways the pinnacle of the bird dog world. I am not trying to recreate the 'why trial dogs can't/don't/aren't hunting dogs argument' because, frankly, I think it's something of a disingenuous argument akin to saying that a squash racket makes a useless tennis racket (and vice versa). I was going through several classic books yesterday and came across a few sentences that also help illustrate this relationship. In the precursor to his Field Trials: History, Management, and Judgement, Bill Brown (the editor of the American Field) stated succinctly:

The field trial conception of the ideal bird dog is well defined, rational, sound. To measure up to field trial standards a bird dog must possess speed, range and style. He must be endowed with stamina and a good nose. He must display initiative; he must manifest method in his negotiation of the terrain. He must exhibit character, animation, independence, intelligence. His work must be incisive, merry. He must show intensity and steadiness on game. He must handle. The ideal bird dog, in short, is the finished product, a high-class, thoroughly broken performer which excites constant admiration by the excellence of his work. -- William F. Brown, The Field Trial Primer, (American Field: Chicago, 1934), p. 9; my emphasis

And who would doubt that a truly broke dog, willing to stand steady-to-shot, who will stop-to-flush, and honor her bracemate without command, is both an asset and no less appealing to the hunter in her class and style on birds. Incidentally, the picture above is of Leon's Star in full flight -- as you can tell, a great little dog full of personality and energy. While we have gotten used to the idea of a three-hour National Championship (because for pointers and setters, beyond the two-hour mark working relatively open fields for quail is where the dogs of the highest athletic prowess shine through), I did come across a provocative comment that I hadn't considered before when thinking about some of the differences between successful hunting dogs and trial dogs. As renowned trainer, handler, and judge, Elias Vail put it:

The dog that can “go all day” is not a convincing proof of field trial material. The question is “How much can he show in a comparatively short time that he is down in public competition?” -- Ella B. Moffit, Elias Vail Trains Gun Dogs, (Orange Judd: New York, 1937), p. 182


On the one hand, the point is that the trial dog has an intensity that the hunting dog may not and need not, at least in terms of the demonstrated performance that is required for trialing. On another hand, that intensity also has practical application. As Howard Lytle wrote in his own celebrated training book:

This thing of pinning game, especially certain kinds of game such as the grouse or the prairie chicken or the pheasant, is most successfully accomplished by quick, decisive action – speed arrested so suddenly that the game’s only inclination is to squat before the onslaught… A dog that rushes to his game and then suddenly applies the brakes doesn’t give his game a chance to think and plan out a method of evading pursuit. -- Howard Lytle, How to Train Your Bird Dog, (A.F. Hochwalt: Dayton, OH, 1934), pp. 190-1

I have to admit that I am eager to see the final version of a picture taken by Nancy Whitehead that I was lucky to see last fall in a proof version. If there was a picture to illustrate Lytle's two previous sentences -- a quick decisive action and sudden arrested speed -- it will be 'The Slam.' Put slightly differently, while hunting we may get to see the almost sublime moment that our dog goes from liquid to solid, from hot, dynamic motion to absolute stasis, but in a trial hopefully everyone else will see it, too. Unlike hunting, trialing is by necessity a public activity -- even if the only three other suckers that see it in the inevitable driving rain are the two judges and your bracemate. As Horace Lytle wrote elsewhere in his book:

And when the thrill of your first win surges through your very soul, it will mean many, many times more to you that than any mere private shoot can ever possibly mean. The latter may some day begin to pass from the picture; but the vivid memory of your first field trial win never will fade. -- Lytle, p. 176

Wins or not, I can tell you that I remember Jozsi's two best runs clear as day. I also remember judges' compliments even when he's been picked up early -- and I would still take flawed genius over passing mediocrity any day. To be fair, I also remember Jozsi's first hunted bird -- and a fair number of the various assorted finds and retrieves on grouse, woodcock, and pheasant that Momo has pulled off with aplomb. But the fact is that the trial format with its fixed time and standards makes it possible to remember the narrative flow of an entire 'event'. Each bird find is a paragraph, framed by bold, deliberate casts to cover; placements and ribbons add exclamation points. In conclusion, as Horace Lytle states:

For after all is said and done – and all beliefs to the contrary notwithstanding – the ideal field trial dog is the gun dog of your dreams. Notice I use the word “ideal.” Not all field trial competitors fulfill the meaning of the word; hence not all of them would make good gun dogs. -- Lytle, p. 171

Why is public performance necessary? Because it is the process of judgment that identifies the strongest dogs in the breed -- and by 'strong' I mean the genetic sum of intelligence, strength, and courage that Frank LaNasa has written eloquently about. The best analogy I've heard for describing the necessary relationship between field trial dogs and hunting dogs is between Formula 1 racing cars and every other car: few people have the time, money, or expertise to really drive a Formula 1 race car (and while you could drive it down to the shops, the amount of groceries you could really bring home is limited), but every regular car on the road has benefited from the technology developed for Formula 1 racing -- steering, suspension, tires, etc.

However, and this is a strong 'however', trialing identifies the strongest dogs in a breed and in their specific game. While every litter will have a cross-section of abilities -- and not every puppy bred from a National Champion at Ames will turn out to be an all-age champion -- if one is looking for an energetic, stylish dog to hunt grouse, one probably shouldn't be looking at dams and sires that excelled in wide-open prairie trials. However, once one has narrowed down the particular game that one enjoys, it behooves us to think about pursuing a puppy from parents that have succeeded in that particular game - -but which are also the product of a long-running, objective breeding program. I have a good friend, too, who will never trial his dogs, who only occasionally breeds outside his own pool of vizslas to ensure genetic diversity but does so to dogs he has seen and admired -- whether they had field trial paper titles or not. He prides himself on having raised 8 generations of Master Hunter-titled dogs, dogs which will he will guide with throughout the season in front of clients -- and which will turn in a finished performance that will leave those clients hopefully more than merely satisfied. My point is simply this: his dogs also have to turn in a public performance and that to ensure his success, he breeds to the best dogs he's seen that demonstrate similar kinds of inspired, public performance.

Much of the friction between 'hunters' and 'trialers' is the result of ego getting caught up in an unclear distinction between ethics and aesthetics. Jim Tantillo has written a great, succinct piece about the difference between these as it is mis-applied to 'hunting ethics.' Although we might mistakenly frame an argument in terms of 'better,' 'superior' or 'best,' the vast majority of the time what we are describing is our preference for 'how' a particular game is played. (W.B. Hyrum has a great related piece at the Foster Award site on genetics, how we create self-fulfilling prophecies, and how our language fails us.) As an example, I have several of Brad Harter's great National Championship DVDs, but if push came to shove, I would probably have to say that as awesome an all-age performance as Gary Lester's Snowatch turned in in 2008, I would probably be more at home with horseback shooting dogs. The best dogs for me are not the best dogs for Colvin Davis. And so, as the new trial season comes upon us -- whether we run All-Age American Field setters, NSTRA Brittanies, or AKC vizslas -- let's be grateful for the great dogs ahead of us and keep an eye out for the best ones to come.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dog-Camp: Part Four: Chicken-Shit

Jozsi is starting to look like he actually knows what he wants to do, but hasn't quite reined himself in yet. Over the last year, I've been trying to figure out why he started flagging on some birds and why he would suddenly come un-broke (and try to rip out birds). And while this post is largely about our first attempts to bring him back, it's also about why professionals can be a real asset to amateurs: first, because they should have experience and, second, because your dog is not 'their dog' -- and they don't carry all the emotional baggage about our pets that we do.

This is not to say that professional trainers benefit from being cold-hearted, or callous, or cruel -- but it is to say they can be more objective with your dog than you probably can. And I imagine this is more prominent with some breed owners than others -- I'll even go as far as to say that I imagine there may be a higher percentage of vizsla owners who use their dogs' 'soft' reputation as an excuse not to enforce or maintain a certain standard of behavior. I don't think I'm one of those, but getting Jozsi broke and quitting his flagging seem to be related -- and that may be because I have been chicken-shit. (Before we get into the meat of it, here's a gratuitous double rainbow picture.)

I wish I had known about the West method before I started training Jozsi -- because if I'd known how to establish and build upon a solid skill foundation earlier, it would have been a smoother transition from talented Derby dog to reliable broke dog. But I didn't -- and I knew I had done some things with Momo that now I just cringe thinking about, and so I tried to merely channel Jozsi's huge natural ability. And so here is where we find ourselves.

When Jozsi had grabbed birds in the past, I had shocked him pretty good when he did that -- but I wasn't entirely clear what I'd do next. I'd also get paranoid that I'd shock him too much, and so would often switch to trying something else. Ironically, though, it seemed as though after I'd given him a dressing down, he come back just as fired up, but solid as a rock... and so the flagging did not seem to be related to the pressure of the discipline. But being nervous about letting him repeat a mistake (and having limited training resources), I wouldn't repeat the opportunity.

Now that we've completed two cycles with Jozsi, I feel more comfortable sharing what we've been doing with him. I should say that he is broke on pigeons, although he would still periodically flag even with them in plain sight (until I got in front of him). Along with several other dogs, we've taken Jozsi out to one of the quail johnny-houses, released 6-8 birds, and turned him loose. The following is a synthesis: he would run over the first couple but would stop-to-flush nicely without correction, then point one with a strong tail (which I blanked) -- but then we'd keep going and even send him after birds he'd just stopped-to-flush on. If he flagged, I sent him on until he either pointed staunchly, bumped it and stopped-to-flush, or went it to grab it. If he tried to grab it, he would get shocked -- but just enough to stop him in his tracks (and not to make him squeal, yelp, or come back to me). And we would keep going.

Now, Bill would tell me when to stop (in part so we didn't get into some kind of non-productive cycle) -- but more importantly, he wouldn't let me stop too soon. And that's one difference between a pro and an amateur. Where I imagine many of us amateurs cringe or get frustrated at a bird that isn't pointed, but is either bumped or flushes wild in front of a moving dog, a core element of the West method is that the bird teaches the dog. While a dog that learns how to catch hand-planted birds can become a nightmare, ripping a bird out isn't necessarily bad if you can correct him just enough to stop that action (but not make him scared of birds). If the dog either stops-to-flush or gets a hard point (that earns a flush, a gunshot, and a pat on the back), he'll know that the bird was there and that will hopefully firm him up. But Bill's other general practice (which I've seen him successfully apply to a dog that was blinking) is to keep on with a task till it's done right and the dog can be praised. (There are obvious caveats and exceptions -- and keep in mind that Bill believes that the more stress or force a dog experiences, the less stylish it will appear.)

*******

Vizslas vs. Setters

video

As great as the boys look here, I have to admit that especially when you consider the body-weight to power ratio, Jack + Jill pull like fiends. There is no let-up for the 45mins we're out and they love roading from the ATV. I don't know much about setters, but I'm guessing their intensity might come from their father. 8-)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Dog-Camp: Part Three: Revenge of the Nerds

It doesn’t feel like there’s any major news to report here – although there have been a few more milestones. Most of the dogs will graduate shortly from being broke on pigeons and will then begin applying that knowledge to quail and chukar. Here's a picture of Bill flushing a carded pigeon in front of Tucker.

I should say up front that I have never hunted wild quail or chukar – and by ‘wild’ I mean a population that is self-sustaining in a given area (and which, in effect, have never been handled by humans). I have hunted wild woodcock and ruffed grouse – and living in a state where pheasant are largely stocked for public hunting, I would nevertheless make the argument that you can still tell the difference between a bird that has been on the ground one hour, three hours, or overnight. (Mark Coleman at Wingshot has a brief, but interesting post on the subject.) Rather than an attempt to build a soapbox, this is a segue into saying that Bill + Leon + Harold have an entire course set up with johnny-houses of birds, a course that if need be is large enough to accommodate a one-hour horseback stake.

The birds are bought from a gamebird dealer and brought up to camp. They then spend a minimum of three weeks getting acclimatized to the johnny-house and the environment, understanding that the house will offer them safe refuge, food, and water. Over a certain period of time, increasing numbers of birds are let out of each johnny-house – and while they might forage for a while, the birds generally return to the safety of the house each afternoon, called in by their remaining covey mates. In effect, after their initial encampment in their johnny-house, the quail and chukar are never handled by humans and acquire their own quotidian habits and schedule. And they don’t sit around for any blundering dog or human.

This picture is simply a illustrative request: a wild iris (albeit backlit by the arriving dawn).

I ran Momo from a horse two days ago – Bill’s fabulous Diamond, a horse with great feet and balance despite rocky Arizona soil – and watched him first have to stop-to-flush on a pair of quail, then barely establish a point on a log as I quartered back towards him just in time to watch a half-dozen chukar bail out of there (mercifully, one remained which I was able to flush and fire my blank gun on), and then watched him stop-to-flush on another quail. And while only one other dog we ran that morning established a point on a bird, it made me wonder how dogs filter out the ambient smells of one region and pinpoint the smell of game birds. Or how a bobwhite quail raised in Arizona might smell different from a bobwhite raised in Pennsylvania. (Or for that matter how a blue scaled quail raised out on Long Island might smell different from a native Arizona scalie.) All I know is is that Momo is a generally cautious dog who hates to bump birds – and he’s always been a quick learner. We’ll see how quickly he rebounds from these insults to his diligence.

I forget if I mentioned that Momo blew a pad during his first attempt at roading from an ATV two weeks ago – but he still impressed folks with his commitment to hunting tripod style while he rehabbed his foot. In the meantime I’ve been roading Jozsi with a variety of running mates, even getting up to the full octet on the ATV. But this afternoon was the first time I got to take Momo out again (with Jozsi, Jack, Jill, Saddle, Freckles, Bull, and Speck: two vizslas, two pointers, one GSP, and three setters). And they were just having a ball, pulling against their harnesses, and enjoying the cool, relatively damp air as it slid over them. The only nervous point is noticing if one or other of them has to go to the bathroom – and I apologize for this scatological observation in advance. It is generally one or other of my boys, in part because they are house dogs. Which means that they are accustomed to being let out to go to the bathroom, and the idea of potentially stepping in their poop in their kennel, or peeing where they might lie down, is anathema to their normal existence. And so while they have acclimatized to kennel life here, neither of them has gotten used to going to the bathroom on a stake-out. Being taken off a stake-out to work birds, or being taken out to go roading, therefore gets them to an appropriate psychological time and space for them to go the bathroom. Which means that I road my boys on the front sets of harnesses so I can keep an eye out for the first clues that they will need to stop (and so I will need to brake).

My apologies for the graphic detail – but it’s funny the things you notice.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Dog-Camp: Part Deux

It’s been a wild few days here at dog-camp watching Bill (and his two helpers, Leon and Harold) work dogs. I hope some day that I’ll be able to read dogs as well as these guys and know when to push through and when to back-off. I’ve seen Bill literally get one dog that was blatantly blinking birds all fired up and staying steady-to-shot in 30mins. And we ran that little dog again yesterday and he was all business. To celebrate here's a gratuitous scenery shot.

But here are a couple of neat things I’ve seen that just make sense: one related to honoring, the other to handling your dog as you get in front to work a bird. What I’m going to describe will make a lot more sense if you understand that the Bill West method – as practiced by Bill Gibbons, Dave Walker, Maurice Lindley, and others – begins with the foundational skill of ‘stop-and-stand-still’. I am sure that I will write more about the how, when, and why of this as the month goes on, but let’s assume that this is the first thing you’re actually going to teach your dog.

Initially the dog comes to understand the cue from the ‘no-hurt collar’ (as Dave Walker calls it) to stop-and-stand-still – at which point you begin to overlay the e-collar as the cueing method so that you can continue to work the dog without a checkline. As the dog gets more experienced, you add more scenarios and cues (such as a bird that flushes in front of it, or their own initiated point) – but you are still expecting the dog to stop-and-stand-still. At the point that a dog understands the cue from the ‘no-hurt collar’, Bill begins to bring less-experienced dogs ‘behind’ more experienced dogs. Whenever the more experienced dog is cued to stop, or points the training bird, the less-experienced dog is stopped with the collar cue when it has a view of the scenario. And while you are building the less-experienced dog’s self-discipline to stop-and-stand-still, you are also keeping it excited by letting it see a bird in flight. Depending on your timing, you are also, however, prepping the dog to honor and/or stop-to-flush – so that by the time the dog is recognizing the e-collar cue to stop, you can turn the dog loose and have these kinds of scenario not be novel to them when, or if, you need to use the e-collar.

As folks who read this blog know, I am trying to work Jozsi through some flagging issues. Again, because I haven’t recognized a pattern to the ‘when’ and ‘where’, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious reason why – although I suspect that me sending him mixed messages somewhere however unknowingly around the age of 18mos is largely at fault. But I did want to share this observation.

Bill said one thing really interesting to me after he saw me work Jozsi the first time -- that I was handling him and the birds like I didn't trust him, that I was handling scared. Which in a lot of ways, he's right on about -- and that may be adding to whatever anxiety is making his tail wag in some situations. And so this is what he told me to do: when Jozsi points, I should get up to him as quickly as possible, jog if necessary, concentrate on getting the bird in the air, fire the blank gun immediately, and without looking him directly in the eye, walk back to him slowly and calmly and to one side, pet him, style him up, and move on. So, try to minimize what might be uncertain and/or confrontational body language, be assertive and exciting about getting the bird in the air to keep the dog jazzed, but don't make them wait longer than absolutely necessary to get the birdwork done.

And if you have to kick around, do it vigorously; Bill even told me to use whatever the loudest gun/cartridge combo I have. At that time, I was trying to use up an old box of .22shorts in my NEF; tomorrow, I'll go back to the Alfa and the Ramset nail-gun cartridges. As he said, the excitement should be in front of the dog and the dog should be getting amped up by it.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

dog camp

I haven’t really posted anything up here in the last two weeks about where me and the boys are – in part because my personality doesn’t like to get its hopes up too much and get ahead of itself, even when I’m just really excited about an opportunity and the possibilities it might afford me and my dogs.

And so, it’s time for disclosure: I am in Arizona. After a few calls back and forth with Bill Gibbons over the spring just to catch up (but in which he’d tease me about coming out to work dogs with him again), I took a month off from work. And drove out from NYC last week to beautiful eastern Arizona with the boys in tow. I’m not sure Bill had any idea I was quite this crazy – but my gratitude goes out to him, my wife, and my colleagues at work for giving me this opportunity. Leaving aside the various specific issues I’d like to take care of with Jozsi, I just want to be better for my dogs. They give us so much, forgive us so much, and ask very little it seems – except for the joy of hunting birds with us.

And so we’re up in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona at 9500’ feet with huge meadows to train in, elk and antelope, the smell of pines, and wild mountain irises everywhere. For someone used to the tight spaces of the northeast, the heat and humidity, it feels like a small piece of heaven. While we haven’t had any precipitation the last couple of days, it seems the usual weather routine is for sunshine with afternoon showers that help keep the humidity and the dust down. We generally get up around 5am, have a gentle breakfast, and are working dogs by 7:00am; we work dogs till around 12noon, and then put up the dogs and feed them their daily meal. Generally we sit around for the height of the afternoon: a couple of the guys who’ve been helping Bill out for summers will go fish, or take a horse ride, or road the dogs that didn’t get worked that day.

Here's a picture of Bill roading 8 dogs at once. The dogs come to love it -- and what you can't tell in the picture is that Bill is riding in neutral and didn't even engage a gear on the ATV for another half-mile or so. You can see his and Tamra's three 'little dogs' -- Bella, Lucy, and Purdy Girl -- riding right behind him. They love the ride almost as much as the dogs in the harnesses.

It’s been a few days of firsts: the first time my dogs have been worked on pigeons, first time they’ve been roaded from an ATV, which they’ve dealt with really nicely along with being in a kennel with 30 or so other dogs of all shapes and sizes (and not with their dad the whole time). They seem to have adjusted pretty well to the warmth and elevation pretty well. Bill’s got a pretty good idea of what we need to work on with my younger dog – and so, as much as I’d like to leap into running him off a horse, it’s good to have a sensible game plan. I’m just excited to have someone who actually knows what he’s doing literally looking over my shoulder and educating me as much as we are the dogs.

Monday, June 21, 2010

heat + humidity + adventures

Since I last wrote, I completed my first Senior Hunter and Master Hunter judging assignment. It's always helpful to have someone consistent, calm, and experienced as a judging partner and I got lucky this time around. The judging standards have to be adhered to to keep the title standard meaningful -- but it's still reassuring to come across fellow judges who are still trying to judge with the dog, the standard, the conditions, the handler, the bracemate... in short, trying to keep the entire picture in view and not just trying to find a way to disqualify a dog or its handler.

I have also judged my first ever 'trial' and my first ever 'obedience' standard! The latter, in particular, shocks me. In any case, this past weekend I judged both the CVVC's Hunting Dog Excellent stake and one leg of the next day's Versatility testing. Happily, both dogs testing for their obedience legs were easy passes and the setting a little more relaxed than a formal obedience trial. Probably the biggest compliment that can be paid to the dogs who competed in the Excellent stake came from my fellow judge, a Brittany guy, who said that he'd hunt over any of those dogs -- and, not meaning it in any backhanded way, that after judging for 15yrs, it was great to see a vizsla-only stake where the quality of the dogs was that high. The hot conditions could have easily reversed the order of the placements -- but that is the nature of a trial-type environment. It was also great to see two older dogs -- and not just young hotshots -- win both the Excellent stake and the regular Hunting Dog stake. Congratulations to both Sid and Blue!

Here's a great picture of The Mominator from Sunday. Looking good despite the heat! It was also great to get some good, controlled repetitions in with both Jozsi and Lyric -- reinforcing and praising Mr. Enthusiasm when he stands his birds, and getting Lyric accustomed to the idea of steady-to-wing-and-shot. Here are a couple of good articles on heat and summer conditioning -- one from our friend, Sean Wayment, the other from Joe Spoo. The detail I like about Joe's article is his referencing the magic number '150', ie. the total from adding both temperature and relative humidity together. Saturday was both a little cooler and a little drier -- but we were close to 130 on Saturday and in the high 140s on Sunday. That hot and the dogs take a long time to cool down even with misters, shade, and plenty of cool, fresh water -- and even birds in launchers will barely fly. I mention this 'heat index' because I imagine a fair number of folks in the northeast would forget the cumulative effect of heat and humidity -- and sometimes a 70deg day can be harder work that an 85deg day if the relative humidity is conspiring against you.

For now, at least, we're taking a small break. Just a small one, though. Till we get past this nasty humid weather.

*******

Here, however, is a small cheer for good, old-fashioned customer service. Back in January 2009, I noted that Remington, the parent company of Harrington & Richardson, and in turn of New England Firearms, had closed the Gardner, MA, plant thereby ending production of the iconic HR/NEF starter pistol. This pistol was always known for its simplicity, reliability, and ease of maintenance. Somehow, though, I ended up with the lemon of the bunch. I could never get more then about a 50% detonation rate on mine; I even had one gunsmith replace some springs and file the firing pin; and, in fact, even went so far as to give it away for parts. The friend who took it gave me it back saying 'Oh, you just need to oil it'. Mildly amusing, but I figured that maybe my NEF was like a Remington 1100 and needed constant lubing. Sadly, he was wrong, too. However, I did discover that Remington was still offering service on the NEF pistols. And after two weeks and taking my word that the gun was still less than two years old, I have it back. Working perfectly. For free.

In the meantime, I have been using an Alfa pistol -- which has worked completely smoothly for me. As compared to the NEF, the common criticism leveled at the Alfa is its full-frame size and six-shot capacity. I hear, though, that there is a new 209-primer pistol, the GunX, being offered through DogsAfield that will at least address some of the size and weight issues.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

oh the places you will go

Today is The Mominator's fifth birthday. Five years ago, I didn't know what a pointing dog was. We got a vizsla because we wanted an energetic dog that would run with my wife -- and because of their temperament. And just watching him slowly find his instincts in the wooded park behind our house (we lived in Maine at the time) was enough to prompt me to explore training him and me. I had shot a lot of target rifles in my high-school and university days, but never a shotgun. Here he is, not quite 3mos old!

I should acknowledge that we wouldn't be where we are without Momo's first girlfriend, the lovely Lida, who keeps our friends, Dudley and Susan, company up in western Maine. She encouraged him to leave our side and get out and explore the woods. We try to get them together every fall and somehow Lida not only knows who is in the truck when it pulls up, but mews like a kitten when she sees him. Here is a picture of Her Majesty from our trip to Rangeley last fall.

I should also acknowledge the continuing friendship of Paul Hermann -- a true gentleman of the grouse woods with his love of English setters and English shotguns. He was the first person I met whose eyes immediately lit up when I said I had a pointing dog and was trying to learn how to train him -- and the person who had already made contacts for me by the time we moved to New York City. I can also say with certainty that my own love of side-by-sides comes from shooting his 1926 Purdey at the local trap range in Maine -- although it may be some time before I can afford anything quite that nice.

I think about all the miles on our truck, the worn-out boots, the faint pong of quail in the garage, and the hundreds of friends we have made as a result of having The Mominator and, then, Mr. Enthusiasm. And I am struck by how similar (and arguably how much further) another vizsla, Zeke, took our friends, Michelle and Patrick, in his first five (too short) years.

Here's to you, Widdershins Momchil MH VC, the OV (the 'original vizsla'), happy birthday! And the wish and promise for many more adventures together.

Friday, May 14, 2010

"think harmony with dogs"

As folks who read this blog know, while I have been blessed with the external success that comes with good dogs earning titles and ribbons, I am still struggling to get The Mominator's feet absolutely still while he is in a 'stay' (or when I walk up to flush a bird when he is on point).

I have been doing a little yardwork every day -- and sometimes he is a dream. Other times he will step as I walk up to him to pet him; other times, he will step because he thinks he's going to get a treat. Part of my general approach has been trying to minimize the negative pressure and, instead, upping the positive reward -- whether in the form of a biscuit treat or stroking his back. And I am embarrassed to say that this very-quickly learned behavior (of expecting a treat) drives me bats*&^t -- because he clearly understands what he was supposed to do, and is therefore trying to preempt his reward. This is a similar behavior to his creepy feet on point -- he wants to try and preempt the reward that comes from retrieving a bird. In the case of his recent yardwork, I am embarrassed to say that I have lost my temper -- it's not like I'm beating him, but I hate to raise my voice and I hate to see his anxiety come when I can't control my own frustration. And I know it is primarily a frustration with myself, for the inability to communicate that (ironically) all I want is for him to do nothing when he's stopped.

However, I have been trying to internalize some of the advice of legendary horseman, Ray Hunt, who sadly recently passed away. And so, following my line of trying to be honest about my mistakes in the hope that others might not make them, I share some of Ray's wisdom from his book Think Harmony With Horses (1978):

"When you ask your horse to do something it should be his idea... As you work with your horse, see how much of this is the horse's idea, or how much of it is your idea and if he is forced into it. If he's not forced into it, you'll see a great attitude. Your idea should become his idea, and when it does, then there will be no drag." (pp. 1-2)

"The way to do it is to work on yourself, to recognize and understand the situation... You make the wrong things difficult and the right things easy as you adjust to fit the situation. If the rider is alert and aware and in a learning frame of mind, the horse can be the same." (p. 2)

Ray outlines some great examples for how to put a horse in training 'in a bind' -- to make doing the wrong thing more difficult -- and then giving it an opening -- to make the right thing easy, as if it were the horse's own idea. The challenge, of course, is that standing still is not something that comes entirely naturally to either a domesticated prey (horse) or predator (dog) species. But reading Ray later in the book talking about anticipating a horse's move gives me some new ways to think about how to undo what is a minimally two-year learned behavior for The Mominator. For example, though, I realize that Momo loves to retrieve almost as much as he loves food -- and he knows that he can't break when a bird is thrown (or shot) out in front of him. So I have been making him stop and stand still for his dinner -- and, in an effort to reward his keeping his head faced forward even when I'm close to him, tossing a frozen quail from 2' behind him and making him stand to go get it.

And it reminds me that I need to be willing to learn -- arguably more so than to teach.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

numerous highlights

It's been a busy two weeks here at the Regal Vizsla -- and I am looking forward to summer so I can hopefully recover a little!

First of all, we had our Connecticut Valley Vizsla Club Spring horseback field-trial up at Flaherty Field. This is the second year I have been on the organizing committee and it makes a huge difference to be part of an experienced team, all focused on keeping a busy event running smoothly. Which was entirely necessary bearing in mind we had 150 starters to run -- including folks from as far south as VA and as far north as Ontario. I had entered both my dogs, as much as anything to reward them for their patience -- and to see how each of them was progressing. Momo will likely never be a field-trial contender, but he is also no boot-licker and he loves to run in front of a horse; Jozsi is a locomotive who I wanted to see how his tail was coming along and whether he was developing patience; I had also offered to run Ottla in both Amateur Walking Puppy and Open Puppy to see how she, too, was coming along.

In short, I had a ball with Momo -- he was one happy dog, got his 30mins in, had two clean finds, and slept like a baby. Jozsi had roughly 12mins of glory: in which time, he had explored most of the backfield and Tobacco Row, and had two finds -- the second of which was a fur + feather combo. Sadly, as I was conferring with the judge as to how much effort he needed me to make on his second find -- a clearly visible, wet bird -- Jozsi decided to take three or four steps. And so, he came to understand the vital lesson that a dog with fancy feet becomes a dope on a rope -- and his big happy running comes to an end. With two others of her littermates present, it was interesting to note that Ottla's desire to play with her bracemate appears to be a characteristic of her litter. She has fantastic ground-speed and threw a wicked point on a hotspot during her AWP run -- but in both stakes was too easily distracted by the other handler's whistle and would then run with her bracemate. This is hardly terrible news, that a 7mos old might not be quite able to distinguish between a bracemate and a playmate, but it would have been great to see her apply herself fully forward.

I spent the first two days almost entirely on a horse -- Travis, to be exact -- planting birds. While even a good wrangler's horse like Travis can be a pain sometimes when it comes to planting birds, he and I spent 25braces together in the first two days. My own personal highlights from the first two days were watching Greg Ritching's Huck win the OLGD stake (Huck also won the OGD stake and finished his FC) and Dave Pomfret's setter, Specter, take 2nd in the All-Age. By the time Sunday came around, I was slated to run my two dogs, Ottla in OP, and to help my field-trial fairy godmother, Joan Heimbach, as her scout and horse-tender while she ran her two dogs, Octane and Geena, in both the AGD and ALGD stakes. And it had started to rain. The dust of the first two days became the mudfest of the third. I get almost as much enjoyment out of supporting Joan in my role as 'chair-man' as she does continuing to run her own dogs from a horse -- although by Sunday afternoon, trying to figure out how to hold her dog, hold her horse, get the mounting stool and give her a boost while standing in sloppy mud was making me feel like a contortionist. Happily, I had arranged to borrow Larry the Wonderhorse from my friend, Kim, for the day... a horse who will happily stand still in one spot with his reins dropped while guns are fired and birds are flushed. And as frosting, Geena took 3rd in AGD! This picture is of my lovely Whites boots (complete with some lovely spur straps from my friend, Kent, at Snow Canyon Outfitters) trying to recover from the slop.

*******

In other news, we headed up to Cape Cod this past weekend to attend the Mayflower GSP Club hunt test at Crane WMA. I was scheduled to finish up my SH/MH apprenticeship on the Saturday and then run Momo in MH on Sunday. It was great to meet up with a bunch of old friends -- Jeff +Val, Bill, Manny + Steph, Mike + Kim -- and have a nice time camping out. I love the grounds at Crane and was especially grateful to Jen + Dennis for bringing their horses over to the grounds so we could run the two hotshots, Jozsi and Tucker, once the hunt tests were done.

And it was a real pleasure to watch the two youngsters rip out for the edges. Jozsi held it together for two finds (the second of which had Tucker backing like a champ), interspersed with an honor of his own, before lighting out for the horizon, skidding to a halt, and then taking steps on a running quail. At least he stopped to flush... and then became a dope on a rope once again. I have a training plan for both boys that starts tomorrow.

It was a good weekend for friends and their dogs: Kyler earned her third MH leg, Cedar his second and third SH legs, Raven earned two legs of her SH, Kevin Smith's Clay earned another JH leg, and Jose Roman's Heidi earned a couple more JH legs. And Momo earned his fifth MH leg... and so, pending official AKC recognition, he is henceforth to be known as Widdershins Momchil MH VC.

I love this dog, as stubborn as he can be. There would be no Regal Vizsla blog, no two-dog box in the truck, no trips to Maine to chase grouse, or trips to VA to watch other people's red-dogs run, no chaps, spurs, and Packer boots, and so many other things without this dog. He has his flaws, but his strength of character and the strength of his genes have meant that we were both able to get this far together. And while thanks certainly go to all the judges who watched him run and saw all the great things about him, here's a raised glass to 'The Mominator.'

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

trying to keep momentum

We had another lovely day to train this past Wednesday -- and this time around we had just my two monsters and Her Majesty, Broad Run's Ottilie of Red Oak, aka. Ottla. This first pic is from her first run of the morning and you can see how nice she is starting to look. Her parents keep her in great shape and she is really starting to establish a nice long style to her point.

For the past week or so, I have gone back to 'barrel' training with The Mominator -- although using a roughly 18" x 24" Rubbermaid storage tub as the barrel. It's small enough and light enough that he can't move any of his feet without tipping off -- and I have been both flushing and flying birds on tethers in front of him, as well as asking him to retrieve from it on command. I gather the use of either flat boards or carpet squares are used to much the same purpose in the retriever world. In any case, this was going to be his first time trying to take that lesson and applying it in the field. As with every piece of yardwork, making the transition from the backyard to the actual birdfield is the challenge -- how to help the dog transfer the learning from one situation to another.

Ottla's mom, Annabella, was kind enough to serve as training assistant for me, carrying my new favorite training accessory -- the lid off the Rubbermaid tub. In any case, the trick was to help Momo remember that while he wasn't perched on top of said tub, the expectation was the same. To summarize all his birdwork: each time he went on point, where possible, I picked up his front legs, stood them on the lid, then worked the bird -- coming back to praise him each time he did it well. Over the morning, he probably worked seven birds in this manner. Not quite perfect, but definitely better. (Although as you will read, that only solved half the problem so far.)

Jozsi is a work in progress -- but I'm hoping that I've turned a corner. And his wagging tail might be developmental after all. The previous week a friend had suggested telling him to relocate once he was on a bird but wagging his tail. And I tried that a couple of times while I was still coming up to him and he bumped the bird both times. On two other occasions, he also saw a bird in flight and chased it -- catching the first one. Thank heavens a) I don't have him in an e-collar, but b) had the presence of mind to tell him to bring me the bird (albeit in an angry tone). Which he did. That he would retrieve in a stressful situation is still a positive -- and reassuring that his retrieve while deliberately infrequently practiced on birds is probably more reliable than I think it is. But I think that by asking him to relocate I was just confusing him.

As you can see in this picture, we did try waiting out his tail a couple of times, too, which did work -- but seems to address a symptom not a cause. After he chased the second bird, though, and refused to leave it and come around, he got some old-time religion. I pinned his sorry ass on the ground and let him know I was not pleased. Nothing especially rough, but the message was clear and we got back to business.

And his next two birds were perfect, tail and all. Bizarre. Which is what makes me wonder if, in a much broader sense, this is developmental and he needed his ass kicked, metaphorically speaking. (That doesn't mean that that he hasn't also gotten confused messages from me and others which were contributing to the problem.) In any case, I also remembered that when I did barrel work ('tubwork') with him before, his tail never flagged. And so he has joined Momo, albeit on a bigger bench, getting birds flushed in front of him and flown around his head.

As ever, Ottla is the panacea to all the hard work that my two present me with. I wanted to take her round a relatively long set of edges to see if she'd be a little bolder and really hook on to the wind and the cover edge. The answer is 'not yet' -- but she is certainly an animated pup and most definitely a hunting dog. When she did get a bird in flight and chased it, I also fired my pistol at the point she was roughly 5yds away. By her second run, there was clearly no trepidation on her part.

As you can see from the pics, her tail set is getting a little higher -- and she's letting me style it higher when I can get there. The flipped ear seems to have been a theme for this time out! I forget which picture it is, but I was genuinely impressed by her willingness to stand a bird in plain sight -- now she may not have seen it when she first stacked up, but she sure as heck did after it started running away. It's a good sign though that her second instinct was not to merely break and rip it out.

Birds definitely fire her up though -- and by her second run, even though she'd already worked both sides of the hedgerow and had somewhere close to 5 or 6 finds, she was eager to keep going despite a couple of thorns to the face. This final pic is neat because Annabella managed to capture the bird in flush while Ottla stands in the thorns and brambles.

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This past Sunday up at the CNEBC hunt test in Belchertown, MA, Momo was the recipient of some kind judging and passed his fourth MH leg. One more to go. But he was still creeping a little once I got up to him: however, I learned two more things.
  • Let the judge judge your dog -- meaning that it is the judge's job to assess whether your dog is good enough to qualify in the test, not you. You might have a higher expectation for your dog and you may even be a qualified MH judge -- but on that given day, it is your job as your dog's handler to concentrate on getting the best from him.
  • On that note, one judge was kind enough to point out to me that in a couple of those instances that he appeared to be taking small steps it was because, in his opinion, I, as the handler, was actually kicking cover into his face.
He did a great job in some awkward circumstances - a bracemate who had just qualified into MH the day before and who, through his own handler's error, ended up in an honoring situation where he couldn't actually see Momo and so, being a Senior dog, when the bird was flushed and shot, he went to retrieve it. And so poor Momo needed to find another bird of his own. He and I were then sent to the Outer Mongolia section of the birdfield while another bird was procured and his bracemate set up on point for him to honor. So, he did all those things and actually held steady on birds that were running around very close to his head.

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And so I have now transitioned Momo to the ground in our backyard, putting a stick in front of his front paws, in part so that he sees a barrier, in part so I have a clear visual marker. The best part is that he now has room to set up in one of his nice long points -- which in turn means that the real villains in his creepy feet technique are more obvious... his back legs. I felt bad for him because I could see him trying so very hard not to move -- but a dog that never makes a mistake, never gets a correction, and as a result doesn't also get a clear picture of what isn't acceptable.

I'll keep working him like this and hopefully he'll realize exactly what I want and how much love he's going to get when he does. Wish us luck for #5!