Tuesday, August 21, 2012

clearing the hurdles

To start here's a picture of the entire crew staked out under the big willow tree -- and which includes Capo's sister, Moxie, and Rye's son, Waylon.  It's been great to have Rob + Kacey be so close to bring me donuts and pigeons on a fairly regular basis -- and to be able to show them how I train so they can make decisions for themselves about how to bring along their own dogs.  Incidentally, if you click on the picture, you may notice the new spiffy stainless stakes anchoring my chains: these are from Mike Coleman at Heartland Dog Stakes and all I can say is that they're worth every penny.

In the last post I mentioned that I had seen a few potential hiccups and was working out some strategies to deal with them.  Martha Greenlee has posted a similarly-themed article on Steady with Style which is definitely worth checking out.  I experienced something similar with Bill back in 2010 in that first month I was able to spend out in Arizona (before the White Mountains went up in flames).  But the points are several:
  • The dog determines the speed of the training, not the competition schedule, not the friend or the pro bragging about breaking a dog in 6 weeks;
  • Keep it simple, stupid;
  • Establish a solid foundation: this can be tough if you're working largely by yourself because working one dog behind another can provide both a great canine model for the dog you have, the distance that hopefully prevents the dog behind associating the pressure they will experience with the bird, but the reward of seeing a bird in flight;
  • When you or the dog do make mistake, the solid foundation gives you something to come back to restart;
  • Stick to the plan, a mistake doesn't mean the plan is flawed -- merely that you now have an opportunity to reflect on why things didn't go to plan.  Were you asking the dog to be perfect in less than ideal conditions? is it late in the morning and getting hot? is the air still and scenting conditions are lousy? is the air thick and humid such that even normally good flying birds just don't want to get up until absolutely pressed to?
  • Assuming your execution of the plan was perfect, a dog's mistake can be a great learning opportunity for the dog because a dog that is otherwise perfect only knows what's right, it doesn't know what's wrong -- and as such only has half the picture.
To give you an example, working behind this spring, Jake made few, if any mistakes and I wasn't even entirely sure that he was registering the e-collar cue to stop when overlayed with the pinch collar.  I wrote about this in my next-to-last post and the remarkable silver lining experience we had despite having forgotten a key piece of training equipment.  As I mentioned last time, though, as he realized that birdwork was going to be part of his regular day-to-day experience, his intensity and drive went through the roof -- and where heat, humidity, and far-from-explosive birds hadn't driven him mental before, up here in Maine he blew through the e-collar on at least two occasions faster than I could turn the dial as he broke on the flush and went for the bird.  Again, mistakes help frame situations for both the dog and the handler.  A week or so later after getting a nice solid rhythm of reliable stands, I decided to enlist a friend to shoot a bird for him.  I popped the bird in the launcher and it flopped in the still air -- and instead of saying to heck with it, I picked it up and threw it.  My gunner shot and missed and Jake was off to the races, ignoring the e-collar cue to stop.  I wanted so hard to end on a positive note but could feel myself getting knotted up in my own confusion and decided to stop.

As I sat down with a sandwich, I recognized several things.  While I don't want to waste valuable resources like pigeons, I had chosen a poor flier as the sacrificial bird.  After being sure he wasn't sensitive to the gun (and in awareness of the various articles in The American Field about human and canine hearing loss), I have deliberately not fired a lot of rounds off around him.  When he was working behind and a bird was shot for the dog in front, I would ask him to stand while the dead bird was waggled and thrown ahead of him, and then send him to go grab it.  And while he might still be a pig-headed demon dog, I realized that I had put him in a situation where there were several cues that might have encouraged him to break -- a shotgun being fired, a crappy bird he knew he could catch, and a thrown bird to boot.  I took him back out in the evening once it had cooled and a light breeze had gotten up with two uncarded birds in launchers with the intent just to work on stopping-to-flush, something he knew and could do well.  Despite deliberately coming from mostly upwind, the breeze fishtailed and he caught of scent, began to style, and as he took a couple of steps, I popped the bird.  As it turned out, he turned his head as I did it, missed the initial flush, then saw the bird flapping and stopped himself.  It turned out to be a not-to-great bird and I was admittedly nervous.  He took a half-step, got a correction, stopped, and I walked out in front of him and fired the pistol.  As soon as he got scent on the second bird, he stopped and styled up.  I walked out in front, kicked around, popped the bird, fired the gun, and all was good.

As can be seen from this picture, if there is one thing about this dog that stuns me, it is that when scenting conditions are good, he will point a pigeon at 25+yards out.  This picture is actually from this morning -- two or three sessions since I started writing this post -- but part of why I think he is doing so well now is because I eliminated those various points of potential confusion for him.  I'll restate them, not to preach but to hopefully help other folks understand how they might not be clearly communicating to their dog and how they might unpack other training issues:
  •  Weak birds can be useful for less-experienced dogs whose fire and drive you really want to stoke by letting the dog break or chase up and catch a bird;
  • Weak birds are not useful for dogs who are in that intermediate stage before being fully broke but whose drive is intense -- and so use the best birds you can find.  In an ideal world, your pigeons are strong-flying homers who don't need cards and your quail accustomed to a johnny-house and never touched by your hands;
  • If you've helped a dog understand the concept of standing still by throwing a dead bird for them during the introductory phases of this method, then make a decision about how far they are in their development and then never throw a bird for them again;
  • If the only time you bring out a shotgun is to shoot a bird (which they already understand they will be sent for), then keep the dog guessing by using a shotgun with a 209 insert or a primed, empty hull.
Talking to Lary Cox at Christies Saddlery last week, he reminded me of Buck Brannaman's introduction to Bill Dorrance's True Horsemanship Through Feel.  It's a great story for many reasons, not least of which because Buck concludes his interaction with Bill by saying "Considering I wasn't really listening to me, he could have said a number of things to me."  If you take time to consider your mistakes and ask for help, sometimes the solution is often exactly opposite of what you'd have thought.

In other related news: my johnny-house quail are now in fine form and so some of the dogs have graduated to them.  After all my trials and tribulations with Jozsi outlined in this blog over the years, watching him do so nicely this morning was a real treat.  He is another example of why, even after you've started down the wrong path, the first six points in this post hold true.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

the way life ought to be

 One of the delays in posting these last couple of months was because plans for the summer and fall just kept changing.  I knew Bill Gibbons wasn't going to be having a summer camp this year, but was still hoping to get out West to ride the range and watch dogs run big.  But Plan A just couldn't materialize.  Just as I was getting a little concerned, a friend called me and asked if I'd like to train dogs on her place up in central Maine -- to which I immediately said 'yes.'  There is a nice symmetry to all of this, insomuch as this farm had previously belonged to Jozsi's breeder, Lisa DeForest, before she passed away.  Between the property and various pieces of Lisa's old equipment, it's reassuring to me that she is in some ways still right here.

As much as I wanted the romance of riding the grasslands of eastern Montana, the reality was that I really needed to spend time getting Jake broke -- not because he was being a real problem child, just that it was obvious that it was repetitions that would make the six months of gentle lessons to date sink in and become his natural approach to birdwork.  And now, after three weeks of steady work, I realize that this is the advantage that pros have: we pay them to make time for our dogs.

I hauled my johnny-houses up to the farm and set them up in an old orchard patch -- and fortunately got a pigeon coop from Wendy at Widdershins for the pigeons.  The farm itself is roughly 60acres, with roughly 50 of them in two hay fields -- which had been given their first cut probably a couple of weeks before I got there so the grass was about 6" tall.  I also managed to figure out who owned the 180acre field on the north side and got permission to use that to exercise the beasts.  Very excitingly, too, I quickly discovered that the woods to the west also held significant numbers of woodcock and also some grouse -- which is less important for Jake, but a great diversion for Momo who would otherwise be watching everyone else do their thing.  With the main farmhouse gutted to studs on the inside, I am living in a camper trailer -- but am blessed to have access to both electricity and a well.  While they can take a crate siesta in the house in the afternoons, the dogs -- Momo, Jozsi, Jake, Capo, and Rye -- all sleep in the Luxury Cruiser at night.  The picture shows the Luxury Cruiser besides the old barn dated 1875 above the main doorway.

Readers will be familiar with the first three names and may remember that Capo is the bitch we co-own and who I took to Arizona last summer to get broke; Rye belongs to Wendy at Widdershins and is along for the ride to see if we can let her be a bird dog at her own pace.  (This is just to say that she came back to Wendy after pretty obviously being forced into birdwork without every really being allowed to have fun with it first.)  I am also lucky to be near several friends with bird dogs of their own that have been looking forward to getting in some regular work before the fall season -- and so while there is always some work involved getting everyone in synch with the plan for the day, it's nice to have enthusiastic company.

I spent the first three weeks doing pigeon work with Jake, Capo, and Rye -- seeing where each of them was and figuring out the best strategies to use with the resources I have.  Incidentally, while I brought homing pigeons from New York, I have discovered that they are used to being handled and as such much less likely to spontaneously flush.  I also haven't had them long enough to expect them to return to the coop with any kind of regularity.  As I know to be the case with chukar and pheasant, weather conditions also greatly affect their desire to get up in front of a dog -- and with unseasonably high temperatures and humidity, by the time we even get to mid-morning on certain days, they can be very reluctant to take wing whether they are wearing cards or not.   And so unlike the hot, very dry, and largely barren spaces of Arizona, I feel obliged to use launchers most of the time (which also protect the birds' feathers from any remaining heavy dew in the fields) to provide each dog with the most dynamic bird experience.  Happily, Rob and Kacey (who own Capo's sister, Moxie) are able to trap wild pigeons with some regularity -- and they are imminently more spooky and require a lot more carding to prevent from flying into the next county.

As can be seen in the first picture at the top, Capo seems as though she never left bird camp, even though she hasn't really seen or smelled a bird in easily six months -- and if a pigeon someone eludes the designated 'pigeon spotter' in the crowd, I will use her to do clean-up duty to locate the bird in question.  In my favor, Rye is certainly not afraid of pigeons and learned quickly she could probably catch them -- and so I have been building on those sparks to encourage her to seek out and now establish point on her pigeons, for which she then gets to play retrieve with the pigeon with the broken wing; I have just started asking her to hunt multiple birds and to introduce the pop-gun.  As can be seen in the second picture, she is really beginning to look like the bird dog she wants to be.  Jake is a demon: while I avoid working every dog every day, he has come to realise that he will be getting to do birdwork a lot and his drive has gone through the roof and, as a result, his e-collar 'number' to cue him to stop when he makes a mistake has also leaped multi-fold.   After three weeks here, he is almost perfect on being steady-to-shot and, as can be seen in the picture, his style remains solid; if you click on the picture to make it larger you'll see the carded pigeon sailing off.  And if I remember (and it coincides with going to the public library for internet service), I'll post some of the particular problems I've seen with my crew and (hopefully) post some of the solutions.

Momo is enjoying getting intermittent trips into the woods to look for grouse and woodcock -- and I feel blessed to have reliable bird contacts for him right over the wall.  I have certainly never found such a consistent cover as this one before and am careful not to go in there every day to avoid pressuring the birds too much.  For now Jozsi has been getting lots of exercise, but will be very excited to get back to come and work johnny-house quail and some more woodcock.  I had to take him out of the woods about ten days ago because while the experience of wild birds is as instructive for him as it is for Momo, his enthusiastic bull-in-a-china-shop approach was scraping his face up something fierce.  And for at least one weekend this summer I needed him not to have any actively open wounds because... I handled him in our first dog show.  Since Lisa's passing, and out of gratitude for the dog have from her, I've felt a need to try and keep her name alive for at least a little longer.  For the last two summers, I've been unable to attend the VCCNE Specialty show up in Keene, NH, and so, as one friend put it, I entered him in the conformation equivalent of Amateur Walking Puppy, the 'Field Trial Dog' stake.  I had a pretty good idea there wouldn't be a lot of competition either -- and so while the judge could have hated him or he could have uncharacteristically savaged her, he won his stake of one and now has a genuine non-regular First Place conformation ribbon.

As another friend pointed out, with a number of folks there knowing it was his and my first show, and in a stake of one, the jeering cheering started as we went around, Jozsi suddenly understood the attention was on him and perked right up, the judge started laughing and as a result a lot more people paid attention to one of Lisa's dogs than they ever would if I'd just had him in one of the Open stakes.  With Capo taking 'Field Trial Bitch' and her mother, Lucy, taking 'Hunting Dog Bitch,' not only was it a good day for Widdershins and Skypoint dogs, but as another show friend pointed out, it was actually refreshing to have a full Specialty -- with dogs representing all the offered classes.  If pictures materialize, I will post them for giggles.

Right now, I am wrapping up a final day of work covering other people's vacations -- and can hardly wait to get back up to Maine tomorrow to keep working all these great dogs.