Monday, April 22, 2013

absent without trace

My apologies to any readers I might have left after six months of absence.  I have no excuse other than being busy with dogs.  All three of the Amigos is doing well:

*Momo at seven-going-on-eight continues to rock it in his own way, winning a 3rd place in AWGD just two weeks ago, but after guiding two hunts back-to-back with him in December, 6 hours and 33 retrieves later, even he had to admit he was tired.
*Jozsi, going-on-six, is his usual bag of nuts.  There'll be more below about him, but he is still exciting, infuriating, and 2 retrieving points shy of his FC.
*Jake, just-over-two, is looking really really nice.  He actually took a placement in his first broke-dog stake in October and has been out of the ribbons since, but I'll say more about that later in the post.  This trial year, 2012-2013, is about him learning to apply all the lessons he got in summer camp out on the trial field and becoming a truly broke dog.

But I love how each dog is telling me more about myself, as a trainer, as a handler, even as a judge.

I don't remember which trial it was in the fall, but Jozsi had laid down a good run, not a great run, but that included him staying fully broke even when his bracemate appeared over a berm ahead of him and ripped out the bird in front of him.  He was the second reserve dog for the retrieve callbacks -- which were a giant cluster, birds missed but dogs sent, birds flushing wild before the dog was pointed, the whole nine yards -- but three dogs failed their retrieve and he got to go down to the shooting field.  His chukar was the eighth chukar slept in exactly the same spot, a bird slept so hard that when Jozsi went over to it, he didn't point, but actually made two attempts to put it in his mouth before it woke up and flew off.  But it set me to thinking -- and not just about how I might train around this scenario, but why he had done it, and how I as a handler could minimize the possibility of him doing it again.

I was reading Tom Huggler's A Fall of Woodcock (1996) and he records a fascinating observation made by one of his Louisiana hunting partners: "Ever notice how dead birds are harder to find than crippled birds? That's because dead birds don't breathe. A dog can smell a live bird's breath." (p.145)  Donald McCaig has a new book, Mr and Mrs Dog (2013), which is fabulous and in which while talking about border collies and sheep herding (and not bird dogs), he says:

"By human standards, I know far more than the dogs do.  But Luke and June can do what I cannot.  In a millisecond, forty feet from just-encountered range Rambouillets the dogs see, big as a Wall Drug bill board, which sheep is the leader.  They immediately understand the complex social order in this particular mini-flock.  They know whether the sheep are ready to fight, split up, or break for the tall timber, because the sheep tell them what they mean to do." (pp. 102-103)

At times, Jozsi is a blockhead and at other times, he is smarter than I deserve.  And the fact I've come to realize is that when you dizzy a bird so hard, especially perhaps if you tuck its head under a wing, it no longer smells like an awake bird.  Maybe as Tom Huggler's friends assert, the dog can smell the inhalation and exhalation of breath, maybe it's that the now very-slowly breathing bird is simply not producing and wafting scent like a live, healthy bird -- but in any case, Jozsi knew that something wasn't right and he meant to fix it.

Back in February, we took what for us was an unusual February vacation -- we stayed in the U.S. and took the dogs.  It did snow a little while we were down in southwest Virginia so I don't feel we compromised entirely by avoiding the cold weather, but it was neat to take a vacation with the Three Amigos in a spot where Meg could take a swim, hike, and get a massage, where we could eat great food, and where the dogs could stay with us and I could hunt the snot out of them.  Primland is a great spot and proud of its pheasant hunting in particular -- but the thing to keep in mind is that they host a fair number of English-style driven shoots a year and they put out twice as many birds as the hunt guarantees.  Interestingly, they guarantee that their guide will get you at least eight shootable birds (if you miss, it's on you) -- but what it meant for me and the Gentlemen was that there were a lot of hold-over resident birds and those wouldn't hold worth a damn for a dog that wanted to fool around.  In his first hour, Jozsi, for example, had at least 15 contacts and didn't get a bird successfully pointed at all.  I had explained to the folks at Primland that I wanted to run each of my dogs for an hour, would use a blank pistol on almost all the birds for Jozsi and Jake, and would shoot the heck out of any birds for Momo.  And when most of the guides saw how Jozsi and Jake ran, several elected to stay in their trucks.

While many trainers and training books will encourage you to work a dog just long enough and to leave on a positive note to avoid over-stressing the dog and leaving a pleasant memory in their brains (and Ken's own take on it isn't one I disagree with), it occurred to me that perhaps what Jozsi was missing wasn't lots of short, successful repetitions but deep, deep, prolonged work.  This was something Bill Gibbons had tried to convey to me back at summer camp in 2010 -- but which has been hard to repeat and which I had lost sight of.  And for that first hour, he got to watch over a dozen pheasant fly off due to his clumsiness and got cued firmly to stop-to-flush (even if he had).  We had several hunts booked during our time, so I knew he would get many opportunities to try again.  By his second hour, he had successfully pointed three birds in his hour, all of which I shot; by the third, I shot my limit of birds over him.  And his tail was beginning to look just beautiful again -- the sad part being that we only had a limited time to pursue this kind of deep, grinding work with him.  But this was one of his final points during our time at Primland and he sure liked nice.

Pheasants had been Jake's undoing in the fall, too -- having access to a site like Flaherty that is field-trial-first is great, but I should have remembered that come October and November the State of Connecticut starts to dump out pheasants for the weekday hunters. This picture is also from our trip to Primland with Jake pinning a rooster on the other side of the pine.  This fall, especially, has been about getting Jake experience to round all the work we did last summer when I broke him out -- and in return, he has made me think about all kinds of different issues as a handler.  For example, while it sounds dumb to say it, I was reminded to 'trust the dog' because even if he did point where a heron had just been during the previous weekend's trial, and even if he is apparently pointing in a spot you wouldn't have expected anyone to have planted a bird, a point is a point.  Just because it's not on the normal menu of planted quail spots doesn't mean it's not an exhausted woodcock or, as it happened, a pheasant dropped off a truck the night before.  Jake is also the first dog I've truly needed a scout for, as opposed to simply someone to handle my horse while I work the birds he's pointed.  He is a dynamic dog who has on at least three occasions outrun the standard bird-planting schematic used by most clubs with limited numbers of volunteers.  And so, as a handler, do you hack your dog onto the line that you know birds have been planted on? or do you let him make beautiful casts into the spots where wild birds really should be, knowing that unless you're either lucky to have had a liberated quail scuttle off there or a random wild bird or an enlightened bird-planter, you are more than likely going to go birdless?

But it has been a very busy past six weeks.  I was honored to be asked to serve as the reporter for the Masters Open Quail Championship, one of the top-tier all-age trials, held down in the mecca of wild quail habitat, Albany, GA.  Make no mistake about it, these are wild birds but on absolutely privately-owned and heavily managed land. Fortunately there are still enough major landowners that enjoy bird-dogs and understand that well-mannered field trial dogs make wild birds wilder -- and so are willing to host major championships like this.  And for the opportunity to see 53 of the best pointers and, arguably, the single best setter in the country, I am grateful to the Southern Field Trial Club and the Montcastle family (who owns the Blue Springs Plantation) and Mr. Ted Turner (who owns the Nonami Plantation) for making that possible.  As the previous sentence implied, I was lucky to see the newest National Champion, Shadow Oak Bo, as well as the 2009 National Champion, Lester's Snowatch, and the 2010 National Champion, In the Shadow -- and despite commendable performances from all three, this year's Master's was claimed by Big Sky Pete (in what I believe was his first major championship title).  As I noted when I first reported the Armstrong-Umbel back in 2011, to call it an eye-opener was something of a misonmer -- because like the dogs coursing the grouse woods guided by voice and bell, 'watching' an all-age dog run in the undulating, unrelenting quail cover was hard to do.  And it added a whole new appreciation for what is truly a tri-partite team: dog, handler, and scout. The picture is of Larron Copeland's Showtime Charlie Chan after his impressive four-find race.

In news just in: I will be interested to follow how, or who, Robin Gates trains up as his new scout -- and to see father and son compete head-to-head now that Hunter has taken a position of his own at Mill Pond Plantation in Thomasville.

Three weeks after the Master's I headed out to Colorado to serve as Captain of the Guns for my FTFG ('field trial fairy godmother'), Joan Heimbach, the chair of this year's VCA National Gun Dog Championship.   I had gunned for the GSPCA NAGDC last year and was looking forward to the opportunity to do it again.  But no matter how much you psych yourself down for it, it is still not just shooting birds over dogs -- I hate to miss and I don't like excuses -- but worrying about gallery wagons, the gallery, handlers, dogs that break on the shot, in addition to riding every brace is hard work.  And, of course, the truism is still holding true: the easy shots are the ones you miss, the hard ones the ones you make.  While I rode every brace we had three other rotating gunners, and with exception of the guy who took the fewest shots (who didn't miss a single bird), all of us missed something.  After riding 4.5days straight on four different horses at the Masters, I feel qualified to say that the horse that pitched me twice was perhaps not quite ready to be a field trial horse.  Like my ego, my tailbone is bruised -- but no major damage done.

It was nice to see some old friends and to meet new ones -- like my fellow Scot, Laura Miller, with her very nice dog, Bull, and Ken Kuivenhoven who has been running Rod Michaelson's Bailey.  Bailey did a respectable job at the NGDC, but was simply beaten by dogs with more.  Clearly no-one had informed the old dogs that they were eligible for senior discounts: Ruger, Topper, and Octane, all beyond ten years old, ran like they would not be forgotten. I am very happy to say that I shot Ocky's bird for him and he was clearly very happy to bring it back to Joan.  Between seeing these seniors lay it down and the really, really strong Puppy stake, it was so encouraging as a statement for the health of the breed.  It was also neat to be there to see Ken Kuivenhoven blush as Vetelytars Tuff as Leather's name, Tucker, was called as the winner of this year's National Gun Dog Championship.


The sad news from that NGDC weekend was the news that, however peacefully, cancer had finally taken Upwind Shenipsit Rebel, aka Yogurt, the VCA's Gun Dog of the Year for 2007 and 2008.  With Yogurt's owner, Patrick Cooke, and her breeder, Lisa DeForest, both now also passed, it feels like something of the end of an era.  But here's the story that ties them all together.

In the fall of 1999, Patrick was still primarily a German Shorthair owner and had gone with his trainer, Deb Goodie, to see his first field trial.  Deb was braced with Lisa, while Patrick walked behind in the gallery.  At the end of the stake, he was chatting with Deb about how it had gone -- as it turned out, his puppy Torii would take 4th in her first trial, while Lisa's Garcie would be awarded the blue ribbon for 1st.  Nevertheless, he was puzzled and asked Deb, "Why was that woman calling her dog Yogurt?," when he knew from the running order that the dog's name was Upwind Very Garcia.  It turned out that what he misheard from the gallery was Lisa singing her dog around the course with "Yo! Girl!"  Patrick decided two things that day, that if he became a field trial vizsla owner, he would only get a dog from Hank Rozanek or Lisa DeForest -- and when "Yogurt" was born two years later, he named her that because it was how he would always remember Lisa and his introduction to the breed.


Rod Michaelson said...

I was thrilled that you got to watch "Little Mr. Sunshine" in Colorado. Bailey has been a joy to own and I was glad when Ken asked if he could add him to his "string" at the NGDC.
It's been a fun ride and you have always been my mentor in this arena. One day we may actually run dogs together. Welcome back to the blog world. Missed your adventures.

Rod aka Redbirddog

Rod Michaelson said...

Good to have you back in blog world. Missed your adventures.
Was very happy that you got to watch "Little Mr. Sunshine" aka Bailey, at the NGDC. You have been my web mentor in dogs and blogs since I started back in '08.
Best of luck and hope we'll run in a brace one day.
Rod aka RBD

Tricia Carr said...

A dog lover stumbled upon your page today. Being a dog lover I began to read. I stumbled upon a dog lover who hunts. I loved the read. Thanks.
Tricia Carr