Tuesday, October 1, 2013

two months in

Two months into camp and things have definitely taken shape.  Since the last post, we went through about a two-week period of 90+degs and high humidity that made things pretty wretched, necessitating early mornings and a seven day week to get everything done without having to really try and cram everything.  Since then the weather has begun to change and with it, the birds have started to move around too.  Some of our covers have gone barren, in others the balance of birds has changed -- and so we're seeing more sharptails than pheasants -- but in the cooler, but stormier weather of the fall, it seems like we're having more hit-or-miss days as the birds stay hidden in the sunflower and corn crop fields (which are still up) till they feel comfortable leaving.

A good illustration might be the story of the last two days.  Sharptail season opened on the 19th, but I finally got my license to start yesterday.  I took 5 dogs to a piece of private land we lease access to and which we normally run dogs off horseback on.  We've been over most of it and have a pretty good idea where the likeliest bird locations are.  It was sunny, but blustery.  And despite trying to get Momo, then Jozsi, then one of the camp dogs, into previously productive spots, we didn't even see a sharptail.  I then moved the truck a little ways and got Capo out.  She started trailing a covey about a 100yds out of the trailer, and we had a constant point, flush attempt, relocate cycle going for about a half-mile.  Whether these were the same birds I don't know, but I saw four birds fly into a spot about 200yds upwind from us.  We tried to sneak up a drainage unseen, but I saw them fly and relocate another 100yds further ahead.  (I don't think they could see or hear us, but the wind was just making them spooky.) As we came into the wind, Capo started pointing about 75yds across the wind from where I thought the birds were -- but was looking into the wind as at least two of the covey now flushed downwind from us.  I worked her through the area they'd left and decided it was time to head downwind back towards the truck.  In another draw, she stopped-to-flush -- and I'll admit firing two Hail Mary's just out of frustration.  She then stopped-to-flush again, but as I walked in another bird flew and I dropped it.  The same routine happened about 75yds further downwind.  I couldn't fault her terribly because I was taking her directly into a 10-20mph wind.  So when she managed to point a third, I was especially happy to take it for her.  I have no pictures of her from today, but astute, loyal readers will note that limiting out on our first day of sharptail hunting was done using my 135yr-old Stephen Grant hammer gun.  (The picture below is of Capo, but getting a pheasant poult pointed in a cut wheat field.)

Today, however, it was cold and blustery to the extent that I actually wore a jacket under my strap vest and thought I was going to get soaked for the first two hours.  I knew it was unlikely bearing in mind the cover and the wind direction, and sadly despite working hard, Jozsi drew a blank in the first field.  I then got Momo out in a spot that he and Jozsi had found two good sized sharptail coveys three days before.  To get there, you have to cross a cut wheat field.  Momo stopped to poop and a sharptail flushed wild about 10yds ahead of him.  We never saw another sharptail.  After working the initial cover thoroughly, I then took him across another cut wheat section towards a treeline.  It was a shame it wasn't pheasant season.  He pointed a large, mixed covey of hens and roosters right by the fencelines, three waves of 2-3 birds getting up.  He looked at me like I was a dumbass.  He ended his trip out with a nice solo rooster find towards the road, still a little annoyed that his father apparently didn't remember how to use either of the triggers on the shotgun.

Post-Script: since I started writing this post, I took Momo and Capo out into one of our local covers that afternoon once the weather had cleared out.  And over a point-and-back from the two of them, up went a covey of three sharpies, and in a miracle of miracles, I took a double.


Jake the Snake has been doing well, too, finding both his range and his nose for both sharpies and pheasants.  Here's a nice picture of him with a rooster pinned in low, sage scrub.  With all the dogs, I've been surprised by the kinds of cover and how close some of these wild birds will hold in.  We've seen sharpies and pheasants share mid-summer alfalfa fields, sharpies in high weeds, and hen pheasants especially holding in tiny strips of cover left from mowing in hay fields. Earlier in the summer, we saw a fair number of hen pheasants decoying, trying to draw birds away from the clutch of poults.  All my dogs are trained to stop-to-the-flush -- and situations like that often mean that you when the dog performs the skill reliably they still get the reward of seeing other birds fly when you get in front of them.


I have been breaking out two dogs, as well: my infamous Amy Winehouse, Rye, and a very nice dog belonging to my friend, Dick.  It's been neat to see them both respond to the West Method albeit coming to it from very different directions.  Rye is smart enough to know when she's being messed with or set up and will use your own pressure (or lack of it) against you when she feels like it -- and the challenges are often how to keep changing up the game to keep her slightly off-step and when to recognize her broken-pride-broken-wing routine as a bluff.  But she most definitely has the ability to make a nice broke gun-dog.  Ben is a great, young dog who has come to me with very few other hands on him, very few kinks, and a great attitude to do the right thing.  He is now at the point that, as can be seen in this picture, I am turning him loose in the bird field wearing a harness and dragging cables to slow him down.  This picture isn't the greatest of his overall style, in part because he is pointing a bird close up that we've already worked once and so hasn't been producing scent in that spot for a huge period of time.  But he is thoroughly used to the ecollar cue and so, as with his last workout, he inadvertently ran over a bird and it flushed ahead of him -- he knew he was supposed to stop, wanted to keep moving after it, but successfully rolled himself to the stop with the e-collar cue.  This is the sort of stuff that makes more of an impression to me about how the dog is learning.  They all know where the breaking field is and where the birds are likely to be, but after showing them the drills and contexts for stopping and staying stood still, I like to get away from launchers or releasers as soon as possible.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

big wide open

We're now through with the first two full weeks of summer camp -- we've had our first round of scratches and scrapes and trips to the vet and what I am sure will be merely the first round of bitches in season driving all the boys completely nuts.  We have 20 dogs here in camp -- 17 vizslas, 2 pointers and 1 German Wirehair -- and after a busy first week, we now have proper kennel runs set up to accommodate all of them.  Ken has 14 dogs, I brought the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Capo, Rye, and the handsome Ben (who belongs to a friend of mine).  We had an uneventful trip out. happily, stopping over at our friends' house in western PA (Brian and Brandy own Dot, Jake's sister, who sadly is out at summer camp of her own), then a great visit with Meg's father, Bill, and his brother, John, at the Riordan family compound in eastern WI, then a short day's drive to Red Wing, MN, to visit with the fabulous Janeen McMurtrie of SmartDogs fame, before hauling out to north-central South Dakota.  On the right, here's Momo, Jozsi, Capo, and Rye celebrating what it means to be a Hungarian hunting dog in America!

We've got a pretty good regular schedule set up that ensures that every dog gets roaded twice a week according to their output and goals (for example, Momo is primarily an 8-10mph dog whose primary function is to be an all-day hunting dog and he and Rye make a nice pairing), we work the walking dogs (ie. the ones who will primarily be hunting and hunt test dogs) twice a week on wild birds, and we work the horseback dogs twice a week on wild birds.  Dogs like Rye and Ben are also here to get broke and we work those dogs three times a week on pigeons and johnny-house quail.  Sunday is a day off for all, if possible, and we like it like that.

But my Road Crew came to South Dakota for big spaces and wild birds -- and we have both.  Unlike last summer, it rained often and till late and so we still have a lot of crops (like wheat, corn, and millet) in which reduces our available training spaces, but we have seen what looks like two clear clutches of young birds -- and we have seen Huns, sharptails, and pheasants.  And Ken has done a nice job securing leases from landowners to run dogs on their properties.  It is amusing to think that we have maybe only covered about half of one of the properties we ride on after now taking dogs there twice -- and that that property is about 6 or 7 times the size of the Flaherty Field Trial Area that we normally compete at.  This picture is actually of Capo, first time turned loose after eight months of no birdwork on a species she's never smelled before (a sharptail).  This is why we love her so much, looking so good it looks fake.

Jake already took a good gash across one of his front legs and a speargrass seed in one of his ears.  If we had been at home, I would probably have taken him to the vet to get a few stitches put in and I certainly debated whether to break out the stapler but after conversation with Wendy at Widdershins (who works at a vet practice we stopped by at several times last year while up in Ripley) I decided to go with air and frequent flushing and, now ten days later, Jake got run off horseback for only the second time since he got here.  With twice daily flushings using a syringe and saline solution and only a spray of liquid bandage to protect it, the wound has filled in in nicely.  Ten days ago after his run, though, he was shaking his head a little too insistently and carrying one of his ears a little low.  After a week of flushing with an ear cleaner, there was only minor improvement and so he was one of the dogs that went to try out the facilities at Oahe Veterinary Clinic in Mobridge in an attempt to locate whatever it was that was bothering him and to try and rule out the possibility of a nocardia infection.  Happily, he seems back to his usual goofy self.  And this picture is from this morning -- click on the picture and you'll see him, standing tall for a sharptail about 15yards away.

Hopefully this will be the first post in a series, but bed is calling.  Have fun out there, everyone!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

spring has sprung

It's hard to say that spring sprung because it seems like we've been through a bunch of schizo weather patterns which merited the air-conditioners being put back in and then fleece jackets and/or waterproofs.  I was just at Flaherty this past weekend judging for the Nutmeg GSP Club and between the hot, humid, still weather on Saturday (especially) and the jungle-like cover, I was glad I wasn't running any of my dogs.

Since the last entry, I did run the dogs and judge for the Long Island Pointing Dog Field Trial Club out at Sarnoff Preserve out in Riverhead, Long Island.  I like Sarnoff as a venue and would have loved to have hunted there back in the day when the LI pine barrens supported wild quail -- but it is a little too wooded on the edges and the course area a little too compact for me to run our Dancing Pirate, but I did run both the Mominator and Mr. Enthusiasm.  But it was a weekend of screw-ups: canine and human.

While the first mishap with Jozsi wasn't a screw-up as such, and it indicates the strengths and challenges of the venue, I told the judge that the decision I was making was going to be either brilliant or disastrous.  On the first major bend in the course, Jozsi headed into the piney cover dead ahead -- and as I got closer I heard him bark.  While not generally a trait we look for in pointing dogs, Jozsi has barked to me up in Maine when he knew he was potentially off course and has a grouse pinned.  I've gone to him in both instances and been able to shoot a grouse.  And so I ploughed into the woods hoping he had some kind of game bird pinned.  Maybe he did and maybe it left, but after probably only 5mins of wading around, I realized he wasn't there and I didn't know where he was and so, for the first time ever in a trial, asked for my Astro to locate my dog.  He was 600yds to the front.  But these are tactical decisions you need to make sometimes based on what you know about your dog -- and this time it was the wrong one.

I then ran Mominator -- and to illustrate the point in a different way, when he disappeared into the cover on the left at around 0:25 and didn't reappear, I told the judge he must be on-point in the thick stuff.  And he was.  I think he had four finds in that brace, competent and probably not the firmest dog in the world, and so imminently beatable.  But conditions were clearly tougher than I had expected and he was called back for the retrieve with just one other dog.  But, and here is where while it's fine to have high standards, don't sell your dog short.  He found the bird, I got it in the air nicely, it was shot cleanly, and when I turned to look at him, I could see he'd moved a couple of feet.  And being a dumbass, instead of waiting and demonstrating that he hadn't broken, I rushed to send him for an otherwise perfect retrieve.   I sold my dog out and we didn't get a ribbon.  I know we were the #2 dog and that all of this is fun for Momo -- but I sold him short and if he knew the depth of regret I have for doing that, I know he would still go get any and every bird and lick me anyways.  (As I write this blog entry I scanned over some previous posts and clearly I am a dummy: "Let the judge judge your dog"!)

I then ran Jozsi again, this time off a horse.  It was pretty hot, but he hunted like a beast.  He started with a genuine stop-to-flush, then had two finds off to the side in pretty good cover although his style wasn't great, and then around 0:26 decided he would step into the final bird and put it up.  He is now off birds and on the remedial plan.  He might have been hot, but he knew I was right there and hosed both of us.  My initial feeling is that we're going to go all the way back to some basic obedience and not let him actually work a bird until he's done a bunch of 'working behind' -- if nothing else, he needs to understand that I give him the opportunity to smell birds and watch them fly and not the other way round.


I was glad to be judging, and not running, dogs this past weekend at the Nutmeg hunt test -- in particular because I knew I was going to get to see Ottla run in Senior Hunter.  And hunt she did. Despite the heat and humidity, she was clearly in physical and mental shape to deal with the craziness that is often the case in the forced environment of a hunt test brace -- and in this case, a bracemate who ran right across her and then stole point.  (Again, to revisit the topic of handler decisions: if you're being asked to bring your dog in for an honor, pick the open side, pick the uphill side, don't pick the downhill side where even if your dog could see over the knee-high grass, it probably won't have a good view of the other dog till the very last second.)  I tried to barely acknowledge her before her brace, but as you can tell she clearly remembered who I was at the end of things.  It was a real pleasure to be able to judge and qualify a dog I got to see as a pup on her first birds.  And so, all hail CH Broad Run's Ottilie of Red Oak SH CGC!

Our friend, Jeremy, has been out a couple of times with us since he got his handsome GSP, Jackson, back from winter camp with Maurice Lindley.  Ever since we first saw Jack, we knew he was going to be a bold, stylish dog and his two weeks up in Maine this past summer reaffirmed to both of us that Jack was ready to take the relative stress of being broke.  And besides, with winters being what they are in the northeast, what could be better for a dog than a warm, working vacation in South Carolina?  But now that he is back, he and Jeremy need to find their rhythm together: Jeremy is finding his touch with both the e-collar and the checkcord and pinch-collar; Jackson is learning that the rules are the same with his owner as they were with Mo.  And for now, he's going to continue on the steady, incremental climb to earn the trust of being allowed to run free.  But, as this picture makes clear, he looks awfully nice even when he's 'merely' backing another dog.  But today was also a special day: Momo's eighth birthday!  I do wonder at just how far this goofy dog has taken us in the last eight years -- and wouldn't trade him or the experience for anything.


Speaking of long journeys, it feels a little odd to have a plan all set ahead of time, but short of something disastrous happening I will joining up with Ken Kuivenhoven at his camp in SD for August and September and potentially not coming back till after VCA Nationals in Eureka, KS, in mid-October.  Ken and I had a chance to actually meet in person and chat at the NGDC in April and he's got a great set-up.  At this point, the Road Crew will be the Three Amigos plus Capo plus Rye.  If you're on the East Coast and would like to get your dog out on wild birds in big open spaces, I'd be happy to haul your dog.

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.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

back into the thick of things

It has been a busy six weeks -- as most of you who follow this blog could probably guess from the delay since the last posting.  We had a great time up at Julie & Gordon's farm this summer and got a lot done with all the dogs.

But before summer camp ended, I hauled the entire crew down to Crane WMA for the VCCNE + Mayflower GSP Club double-header hunt test -- for Jackson and Rye to try their luck at their first two JH legs and for Capo to try her luck at her first two MH legs (and for me to judge a couple of stakes).

The short version is that I quickly remembered that Capo is really only 2.5yrs old and, relatively speaking, hasn't seen a ton of birds and so, while broke, getting her exposed and proofed to all the random scenarios that come with the hunt test format just hasn't happened yet.  Julie ran her in her first leg and I don't have a clear picture of exactly how it came to pass, suffice to say there was a bird in the air and she was moving after it; I ran her in her second leg and when her bracemate stopped-to-flush on a covey of 6-8 birds, she didn't recognize the situation as a stop-to-flush situation and kept moving.  (She did then go on to honor, stop-to-flush, and then point so it wasn't all wasted.)  But what our little whizz-kid really needs is a season of having birds shot over her to really get her primed for the hunt test big-time.

I handled Jackson in his first JH leg so that he understood that even this was a new venue and he had already seen his father on the grounds the same rules applied.  And he did a really nice job both for me -- and for Jeremy the next day.  I gather he and Jeremy will try to complete the JH title next weekend at the CVVC + Nutmeg hunt test double-header.

To look forward a little and condense things, Rye did a great job out on the Cape and then again at the Vizsla Club of Long Island hunt test out at the Sarnoff Preserve in far eastern Long Island.  I had already agreed to judge and while it meant a lot of driving to pick her up and drop her off, I was eager to get her back out on birds and hopefully finish her title.  Which she did.  It was the first time I had been to the Sarnoff grounds, but it was a great place for an energetic, but still moderate ranging dog to do her stuff.  And she looked as fabulous on point as she did in the previous post.  And as can be seen, the VCLI has fabulous ribbons for those finishing titles at their test.

Momo also got to run as a bye-dog and I was able to run Jozsi and Jake on the grounds after the test.  I have to admit that I am not sure how they run horseback trials at Sarnoff because it seems like your maximum vista is about 100yds and Jake, especially, was out of sight quickly and took some hollering to keep him on track and away from roads.

The rest of this fall is really about two things: trying to get plenty of horseback experience for Jake in trial settings and trying to finish up the final 2 points on Jozsi's Field Championship.  My work schedule has gone a little funky so in order to do that, I've had to sacrifice our usual trip to western Maine to hunt the rumpled grouse.  But hopefully, the additional experience will prove beneficial if not successful for both of them.


Here's a quick salute to Upwind Tonka Geode now called back to the second series of both the 2011 and 2012 VCA National Field Championships.  At least for the 2011 edition, "only dogs with flawless manners on game and good ground pattern were considered for the second series."  'Rocko,' as he is known, is our Jozsi's full brother from the last litter that Lisa DeForest bred;  I happen to think he and Jozsi look very similar in terms of their profile.  I am so pleased that, like Rye, after an initial hiccup or two, he is also performing at the very highest level. Thanks to Phil Stout of WindDance Vizslas for this photograph from this year's second series -- and congratulations to Phil, Tori, and Jamie Fountain for their selection to the second series as well.  And heaven knows, all three of these dogs are just hitting their prime years and so hopefully all of them will have this opportunity again.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

wrapping things up

 We're moving into our final week of camp and things are starting to come together for all the dogs -- in some way or other.  Since I last wrote, Jeremy dropped off Jackson for two weeks of camp in anticipation of the VCCNE/Mayflower doubleheader hunt test down at Crane WMA this coming weekend (and in anticipation of his own wedding the following weekend).  And while I wish I could claim to have really set up this picture this way, sometimes you just get lucky: from near to far, Jackson, Rye, Capo, Momo, and Jozsi.

Jack has enough strength and drive that he has caught a few (too many) birds and so I am working on having him establish a meaningful, deliberate point for at least as long as a judge can see him.  In my opinion, I don't have enough time and he has too much drive to try any kind of 'pre-breaking' and so have been using good-flying pigeons in launchers that I set off as soon as he breaks point.  I'm hoping that somewhere in his tiny, tiny mind there is a light going off that says 'movement = no chance'.  I am also working him on coming back to me at a suitable point after he's chased the bird in the hope that we can keep a handle on him in the JH birdfield.  I may not even try him on quail before we head down there with the goal of having him not catch any more birds before the test.

Rye has proven that she certainly has an inner bird dog -- and that she is pretty damn smart and has a dominant personality.  I'm pretty sure that she has transitioned from blinking birds to pointing birds in launchers to blinking launchers, that she isn't gun shy, and that she has the capacity to point like a champ.  She has a couple more days to go after quail up at camp and then we'll see what she does down on the Cape.  But having an 'Amy Winehouse' (a rehab dog that someone else has already fussed with and confused) has been an interesting challenge in terms of trying to figure out how and where she became seemingly indifferent about birds and then trying to stoke her bird drive all over again. I ran her this morning and am having a minor 'moral' dilemma about posting a picture of a dog I don't own before her owners get a chance to -- but here she is, tail fuzzed out in the middle, and staunch.

I have been trying to put the polish on Capo for her MH debut at the hunt test -- working her with another dog to get her into backing situations, giving her retrieve practice, making her heel away from a find to avoid a delayed chase.  Here is Momo backing the Princess in the quail pasture.  It has been interesting doing this with her in part because I have seen the competitive side of her personality -- which also inclines her to make mistakes that she might otherwise not normally do.  But one of the reasons I am so fond of her (and of Jake, too) is the relative calm with which they take corrections and bounce right back, eager to get on with the next task and do it right.

I have been working Jozsi out by having him pull cables every third day or so -- although the one piece of equipment I wish I'd been able to scrounge up for this summer is an ATV so that I could give more dogs a more structured exercise program, particularly on their off-bird days.  Jake, Capo, and Jozsi, for example, have pretty similar gaits and cruising speeds; Momo and Rye would have paired up nicely as another team.  It would also have saved my ankles somewhat: I figure I walk about 8miles a day, a lot of it in rubber boots with little ankle support.  I also need to remember that the dogs are running in hay fields and that chest-high timothy and alfalfa provide plenty of resistance training as well!

I don't remember where I picked up this tip regarding exercising dogs, but I've seen plenty of evidence of its validity this summer that it's worth restating.  Heat, by itself, won't necessarily hurt a dog, but the combination of heat and humidity will definitely sap a dog's energy and endurance.  This is to say that asking a dog to run full-out in 95degs in TX without having adequate water on hand to cool and rehydrate them is irresponsible; but having water on-hand won't do a lot for a dog trying to work full out in 70degs and 80% humidity.  The magic number I've heard some place is 140 -- as the combined total of temperature and humidity --  and which I like for a couple of reasons: there is no elaborate heat index formula to calculate, and it seems a more accurate predictor of low temperature exertion.  While it might sound ridiculous to think that your dog would somehow get exhausted early running in 60deg weather, if you're on the verge of a thunder storm you'll watch them get tired in front of your eyes.  (Thanks to Joe for sending me this interesting link to the Canine Hydration Calculator -- which in turn led me to this animal physiology course on canine thermoregulation.) 

Jake the Snake has been doing great -- and has transitioned from pigeons to quail, and from running wearing his full uniform of pinch-collar, checkcord, and e-collar to running free.  He's certainly not perfect, but happily he seems to fully understand his corrections and bounce right back with a clarity of purpose.  While I have deliberately not been running him in the woods, he did take himself in there the other day and had to be cued to stop-to-flush on a woodcock that burst out of the woodline.  While the johnny-house quail are not as dynamic as either the woodcock or grouse in the woods, that itself becomes a training asset for a dog that is relatively far along in the breaking process -- because while they might ultimately fly under enough pressure, flushing them can often be quite theatrical and the temptation high for a dog.

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.