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.

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