Sunday, January 31, 2010

keeping busy

My apologies to my loyal readership. (The Regal Vizsla does have 13 Followers, so I think that counts for some measure of loyalty.) I have been fretting a little over what to do with my dogglers, The Mominator and Mr. Enthusiasm.

There's an adage that says that the owner-trainer-handler will screw up their first bird-dog just because, well, it's your first bird-dog. And Momo's tendency to get a little creepy at times is, when I'm honest with myself, the product of my ignorance and mixed messages. And trying to repeat the same command simply louder only makes his skin thicker.

And so I've been trying to be mindful of that as Jozsi grows up, trying to keep things light but clear and firm, trying to find the line between over-training and under-training, and trying to channel all his energy and application without curbing it. As folks who do read this blog regularly will know, I've been trying to figure out why he had started to creep a little and occasionally pop birds. And along the way, he started to flag on point. And while I initially thought it might be over-confidence (him just sooo excited to go in for a bird), I now think it might be a lack of confidence (because if I find him standing completely rigid, it's because he has the bird in view, too). A lack of confidence as a result of what, I have genuinely no idea. And the answer might just be developmental.

This fall I spent time getting him on wild birds that wouldn't sit still for his creeping, using launchers, and then settling on using Higgins Remote Releasers instead. These allow me to keep a bird in a spot I want him to find one in, to have the bird be fully awake (and not dizzied or slept) and therefore able to flush whenever it feels pressured, and my timing with the remote doesn't have to be quite as spot-on as it does with a launcher. And, unlike a launcher, it is completely quiet. With both devices, you do also need to be sure to find birds that can fly.

But in the last month or so, I've decided to come even further back to basics with him: the checkcord and the no-hurt collar, overlayed with the e-collar. The point of all of these tools, at least in the West-Gibbons method (as illustrated by the Steady with Style blog), is communication not necessarily correction, per se. The blunt brads on the no-hurt collar serve to provide a leverage point so you can pop the strap and buckle and create an acoustic as well as a tactile cue; while it does use electric stimulation or 'shock,' the e-collar is used at a level to merely get the dog's attention rather than apply corrective pressure -- and obviously liberates the dog and handler from the checkcord. Perhaps I should just have re-read The Bird Dog Training Manual. As Bill West student, Dave Walker writes in his foreword: "Repetition and consistency are essential. The training is not linear; it is cyclic... You must constantly go over previously learned experiences as you introduce new ones." (p.xv) And so, I've been going back over heeling with the collar and e-collar, and getting Jozsi reacquainted to the cues.

The first picture is of Jozsi from last Thursday, standing tall in a snowstorm. He's not wearing his collar and checkcord because we'd successfully completed two repetitions beforehand and I wanted him to both test him slightly and reward him by letting him run free. And he did his job beautifully, despite the weather and his father messing with a camera.

The next picture is from this morning. I had gone up to TMT with three friends from work, to serve as their guide and to get in some training with both boys. And while I would love Momo to stand still and not anticipate the flush, the fact remains that despite being 'our first birddog,' he does all kinds of things really well. And he looks lovely here.

And while Momo hauled in a bushel of birds, the highlight of the day was taking Jozsi out for a little structured training. In an attempt to keep him fired up and hopefully settle his tail, I wanted one of my friends to shoot a bird, to see if he'd stay steady-to-fall, and to send him out as if for a retrieve. (I say 'as if' because I haven't done hardly anything with him.) And all I can say is it felt like almost two years ago, that moment when I realised I might have something really special on my hands. He was in full uniform -- no-hurt collar, e-collar and checkcord -- and stopped nicely with only scent and no clear view of the Releaser. I styled him up, dropped the cord, and flushed the chukar. Ed knocked it down mostly dead and there was Jozsi, still standing, rapt. And probably to his surprise, I told him to 'bring it'. And he did, even after bobbling the kicking bird. It was like watching that almost-5mos old puppy all over again.

And I had the brains to listen the voice in my head that said, 'Stop now. He was perfect. Let him hold that as his last memory of the day.' Here's hoping that this was the first of many perfect days.

Monday, January 11, 2010

the weekend's trip to Arizona

For those of you who may pay attention to my Dopplr widget on the right there, we just got back from a trip to Flagstaff to see our good friends, Denise and Steve. As ever, we sat around, hung out, admired Steve's beautiful handmade bicycles, ate delicious homemade food, enjoyed gorgeous views, and the sharp contrasts in climate between Flagstaff at 7000' and Sedona at 4500' or Camp Verde at around 3400'. Here's a fun picture courtesy of Steve of me with Chuck, a vizsla-wannabe, a sweet sweet hound belonging to their friend, Barry. Thanks Denise + Steve for the hospitality!

I was eager to get back to Flagstaff since my new love of horses and dogs and try to find the answers to a few things that folks who actually ride horses a lot might know. And so our first destination was Gene's in downtown Flagstaff. First off, I went looking for jeans that a) I could actually try on, and b) were actually meant for riding horses. Trying to decipher fit information and buy jeans over the internet has been a real pain. All I really wanted was a pair of jeans that was a little slimmer fit to wear under chaps, but not too slim to inhibit me getting up and down off a horse, with a leg shaped to stack over a boot, and flat seams (not rolled) seams on the inside leg. I ended up with a couple of pairs of Cinch Green Labels. Apparently I am now 'a man who lives his life in denim'.

I've also been experimenting with riding boots. I wore smoother-soled hunting boots when I first started, but could already appreciate that these weren't ideal. So I bought some Ariat pull-ons and immediately felt the difference -- keeping my heels low in the stirrups was now easy, while the snug fit around the instep actually tired my feet out less -- but I would still come out after a long ride with a stiff ankle or two from slightly angled stirrups. Having liked my pull-ons, I bought some Ariat lace-ups and wore them all week at Nationals. There's an obvious trade-off in terms of safety when you switch to a lace-up (because the boot will no longer pull off if you get hung up in a stirrup), but the positive trade-off for me is that I have more energy and better ankle support for doing groundwork. There's also one theory that, in addition to sheltering the foot from either brush or cold, hooded stirrups or tapaderos also prevent the foot from slipping too far forward and getting hooked up. (Incidentally, Wikipedia has two great articles on both stirrups and Western riding.)

Everything comes around: I remember Steve talking about White's boots when he used to work as a backcountry firefighter. And as I spoke to various working horse folk about what kinds of footwear they recommended, many kept coming back to White's packer boots. And Gene's may be the only dealer still left in Arizona. So, off I went. They didn't have any in a size close to my foot, but I did get to see them and admire just how solid they are. But this raised another question: why does the packer boot have such a pronounced underslung heel? The closest I could get to an answer was that it is a 'riding heel' and so while not as pronounced as some pull-on cowboy boots, arguably its function is to avoid the boot slipping forward and getting hung on the stirrup. Drawing on several sources, Larry at HotBoots states that the idea of prominent heels on riding boots originally came from the legions of Mongol horseman that conquered Europe -- whose prominent heels were painted bright red. For those of us not riding technical Western competitions like reining or cutting, and riding in big, hooded stirrups, a packer looks like a good choice.

I also went to Flagstaff so I could hear constant re-runs of the Pace Salsa ad ("Noooo York City") at my expense.

The real highlight of my trip to Flagstaff, though, was the opportunity to meet someone I'd only ever spoken to on the phone after an introduction from one of our breeders, Lisa DeForest. Bill Gibbons is something of a lightning rod within the vizsla community -- he handled the winning dog in four vizsla National Field Championships (AKC) but then won and took runner-up in the inaugural National Vizsla Association National Classic. Rumors abounded that his great dog, Gabe, was (or had to be) part pointer -- although I happen to think anyone handling the winning dogs in a organization absolutely committed to the hard-hunting portion of the vizsla's personality, an organization that had splintered away from the monolith of the AKC was likely to be tarred in that way. Lisa thought the world of him -- and as we discovered, he had trained Jozsi's brother, Rocko, for her -- and I just wanted the chance to meet him. We had spoken on the phone about getting coffee when I was next through Phoenix but my heart slipped a little when he said he wasn't going to be in Phoenix when we flew in.

It then turned out he was going to be a ways north up around Verde Valley, a mere 60 miles south of Flagstaff, with a string of dogs he was working from horseback. And so he invited me to come by and maybe come out with him while he worked. I have only four words to describe my reaction: giddy as a schoolgirl. While it felt a little like 'No Country for Old Men' trying to find his trailer out in the middle of seemingly nowhere, I found him. We chatted a bit and he asked me about my horsemanship... again, I think the Pace advertisement came up at least once... trying to size me up to see if his horse, Diamond, would be taking me for a ride. I understood his concern, but off we went with his first couple of dogs. (These days, Bill has mostly setters and pointers, and arguably mostly hunting dogs rather than trial dogs, nevertheless he's still got a bunch with some zip.) The picture is of Bill and I scouting Max and Pearl on the next ridge; if you click on the picture to enlarge it and look hard in the upper center, you'll see Pearl coming back in.

The next picture is of Max on point. It's just here because I like looking at dogs with nice tails. Bill heads up to Verde Valley to take advantage of the space and the wild birds, mostly Gambel's quail. (Depending on where a dog is in its development, he also uses carded pigeons and soft-planted bobwhite quail. Most of his technique and philosophy can be found at Steady with Style.) And while Max's point happened to be on a bobwhite that had escaped and was trying to get back to its buddies in their johnny-house, we came across a fair number of Gambel's hiding out in broomthorn thickets. For someone in the northeast, it seemed like there were plenty of birds but I gather the almost-decade-long drought has drastically affected quail numbers.

By lunchtime, Bill was already feeling comfortable with my horsemanship; by the end of the afternoon, as we tried to locate two young dogs, Speck and Gracie, who had simply lit out for the horizon, mostly likely initially one egging the other on, Bill sent me down a steep shale slope into an arroyo packed with broomthorn and catclaw to scout out that wash and meet him about 3/4mile further down. Thank heaven for a good horse -- and I think by the end of the day, Diamond and I had come to trust one another. I would trust him to find his footing and he would, in turn, trust my judgement (and higher vantage point) to find our way through the thickets.

As for the two dogs: as Bill's wife returned from a scouting trip down towards the road about a mile away, she returned to find Gracie lying down at her spot on the string, apparently none the worse for wear. The amusing conclusion to the mildly harrowing afternoon was that, first, her owner called Bill to check in to see how she was doing just as Bill arrived back in camp to find her; then, Speck's owner called and, imagining that it was because someone had called him to say that they had found Speck in the back of nowhere, Bill settled in to tell the story. It seems that Speck might have done this before -- but, and literally as his owner reassured him that Speck would return, the dog ambled into camp looking a little tired but still absolutely jacked to go back out if allowed.

It was a great day in a great weekend. Hope I'll get to do it again. In the meanwhile, it's back to Nooooo Yorrrk City.