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

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.