Thursday, September 20, 2012

Check List

     With grouse season just around the corner my thoughts have turned to my much anticipated grouse camp. The long drive to far away grouse coverts, and the evenings enjoyed with good friends, and dogs is second to none. This year I'm fortunate enough to have two camps planned, and an invite to join some others at a third camp. With a new dog I've spent a lot of time training, and preparing I expect to spend quite a bit of time away from home. Of course one just doesn't grab a gun and jump in the car. Lots of planning and logistics go into such an adventure to make it a success. There are things that need to be considered.

     Packing all the necessary hunting accoutrement's comes easy after many years afield. The basics; gun, dog, and shells all seem to fall in place. GPS, maps, cleaning rods, and such are usually always ready to go, neatly stored. The fact that there are often trips to the skeet or sporting clays club means that essential shooting supplies are always refreshed in a timely manner. Hunting clothes are packed in their own duffel or hung together in the walk-in, for one stop shopping (though I'll admit to forgetting brush pants on a late season outing some years back). It's the other things that go into making camp enjoyable that need to be considered.

     One of the hallmarks of any good camp is the food. I'm fortunate that I share camp with a crew of guys that know their way around a kitchen. Despite the long days of walking covert behind dogs, we all gain weight a camp. The fact that we are a travelling group, switching locales every few years, we've learned that not all rental camps have the same amenities. Two areas where we've found it wise to provide for ourselves are kitchen related. Coffee is important in the morning, and camp coffee makers have often seen better days. We travelling with a french press to make our own coffee. Sure, they are delicate, and require a little practice to get the ratio right, but they are worth the effort. This year I've gone one step further. I received a single cup drip brewer as a Christmas present last year. It will make it's camp debut next month. Yes, coffee is that important. The other kitchen utensil that we now travel with is a good, sharp chef's knife. Camp knives get flat out abused. While a dull knife can be dangerous, we just find them annoying. So a knife or two always make the trip. And Yes, I've got a box set of steak knives too, especially for camp.  Seasonings have been a problem in the past, too. Salt and pepper are staples in the kitchen, and a good meal is of vital importance so it's sea salt, and a pepper mill for us. We're not food snobs by any stretch, but why take a chance with the woodcock breast your about to grill. Right? By now I figure I don't need to tell you how important a few cloves of fresh garlic, and a handful of shallots are either. And don't get me started of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and good mustard.

     Libations are probably the second most important item that require thought. Naturally beer is on the menu. This is one area where we seldom have too much of a problem. That's right. I said "too mush of a problem". Naturally everyone brings different beers, and an beer enthusiast could have quite a sampling; seasonal Oktoberfest, Yuenglings (the Pa, NJ guys love them), artisan ales, and bitter lagers. The only problem is some beers disappear faster than others. Not too bad of a problem really, considering we've a wine connoisseur amongst us. Choosing a brown liqueur isn't too terribly difficult. I like scotch. Most of the others like bourbon. We compromise. I bring scotch, and they bring bourbon. When it comes to brown liqueur there are some appropriate choices, but they never make it to camp. Bird Dog Whiskey, and Famous Grouse are appropriately named, but... And I suppose if we were at deer camp Whitetail whiskey would fit the bill.

     Another area to be considered is entertainment. When the pavement ends, and the cell phone signal disappears one finds they are stuck with a bit of satellite TV, and a selection of history VCR tapes. Now is the time to start loading the iPhone or iPad with music. A pair of small computer speakers plugged into an music holding device does the trick nicely. If one is inclined to rip a few movie to an iPad you can be equipped with current visual entertainment, too.
     Lastly, I'll not tell you what type of tobacco product to pack, but I'll caution you. Not every member of camp may be a regular cigar smoker, so its best to pack a few you enjoy, and a few for the curious. Regardless, a good cigar deserves a proper ashtray, so I've got a nicely boxed camp ashtray, too. After all, it's camp. One has to get it right.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Pushing Buttons; An E-Collar Primer

     The new Lion Country Supply catalogue greeted me at the front door when I returned home yesterday. I could see it sticking out of the mail box from the driveway, and I eagerly thumbed through it in the hallway before I'd even taken off my hat and shoes. I always get straight into any outdoors type catalogue that makes it's way to my home hoping that one day I'll find some new must have miracle dog training device in it's pages. I didn't find any. I did see a few items I would like to need someday, and a few things I should buy to replace old or missing items. Hey, who couldn't use a few more retrieving dummies? But Miracles of dog training were not to be had.

     Judging from the first dozen or so pages of the catalogue I think I know what item a lot of dog owners believe to hold miracle like powers. The e-collar. The catalogue had 13 pages of various kinds of electronic training collars. And that isn't including the bark collars, or invisible fence collars. Wow. I know a lot of people use e-collars. I know a lot of people that use them, and I even have one which has seen use as a training tool from time to time. The e-collar is indeed a very effective training tool, and has no doubt allowed may dogs, and trainers to reach levels they probably never would have without the existence of such a tool. But this carries with it one caveat; it must be used properly. Something I'm not sure many people know how to do. Something I wonder, now in my 20th season of training, and handling my own dogs, if even I fully understand how to do. Which is probably why I've placed my e-collar in a reserve status, to be used only when conventional means of training have not worked. It is probably also the reason why I get annoyed with what seems like a trend in people picking a model of e-collar before they've even decided on a breed of gundog, and an urgency to get an  e-collar on the pup.So let's look at what an e-collar is, and isn't, what it does, and doesn't do, and what I think are some myths about the e-collar, and how to use it.

       First, and I'll be very clear about this; an e-collar will not train your dog. You must do this. Training is best achieved in the traditional ways, using checkcords, treats, and positive reinforcement. An e-collar can only be used to reinforce a command the dog already has been taught, but for some reason needs a little extra reminder. In short, an e-collar is an extension of arm/leash/checkcord. If your dog doesn't know what to do at arm length, on a leash, or on a checkcord, it certainly isn't going to understand the command when a jolt courses through it's neck. And this is just one of the many training theories.

     A dog must be conditioned to the collar. What exactly is this? Unlike many people think, it's not a time period where the dog wears the collar, and gets used to the feel of it's weight, but a training period where the dog learns that the collar is responsible for the uncomfortable stimulation, and not some arbitrary environmental feature near it when it gets shocked. This is when the dog starts to learn that there is a relationship between the collar, and it's unwanted behavior that cause the shock. This is important if you want a dog that (for example) comes to you when you call it, rather than avoiding tree stumps, which it will reasonable understand to have been the cause of the shock if it was near a stump when first corrected.

     This leads me to what I believe to be a myth of e-collar training. I've heard some people say they don't want their dog to become collar wise. You can't train it properly if it doesn't know what the collar is, what it does, and it's connection to you. The collar is how you get the correct behavior out of the dog with a few well timed corrections. So how do you get the training to stick when the collar isn't on the dog? Simple, once the training is understood by the dog you stop pushing the button, and let that training become a habit. The dog may initially be responding to avoid a shock, but after a couple weeks of performing properly the behavior becomes a habit, regardless of the motivation.

     Of course all dogs are different, and respond differently, so each trainer needs to make a judgement on how far to go, but I feel firmly that most, if not all training can be achieved without the use of an e-collar, and that in many cases it is best left in a glass box that labeled "break glass in case of emergency".

     In this world of bigger, better, and faster, I doubt very much I'll actually convince anyone to give up the use of an e-collar, and it's fine if you use one. But don't forsake the many traditional training methods just because you've got technology strapped to your dogs neck. And if you are going to train electronically, please spend some money on a couple of DVDs, and books on e-collar training. Yes, I said "some". There are several methods out there, and you owe it to your dog to understand the tools you are about to employ.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Dedication, The Long Retrieve

     Here is a video I came across that illustrates the importance of conditioning, and trusting your gun dog, the value of good training, and the respect that we all should have for the game we shoot.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Higher Education, Birddog Style

     Sometimes in life we've got to make decisions based on faith, others on knowledge, and sometimes we just jump into things with our fingers crossed; better to be lucky, than good. My dog training decisions of 2012 have been a mix of all of the above. Sure I've taken the advice of a lot of trainers with proven track records, but that still requires a bit of faith, doesn't it? Some of my training has been based on what I've done in the past, and the results I've gotten. A bunch of my training this year has been a distorted mix of thought and ideas, which seemed like they might do the trick.  Now however, the time has become to put them all up for judgement, and see where I am really at. With not much time left before the start of the shooting season I felt the need to get Ginger evaluated, and if need so help from a pro trainer. So off we went to spend some time with Pat Perry, of Hedgerow Kennels, in central Massachusetts.

     Without too many words, and the typos that come with them I can tell you this; it went great. Ginger performed excellently, and I was able to see the mix and match training system I put together function as I had hoped in (almost) every way I had hoped. Prior to today Ginger had not been worked on any live birds. She'd retrieved grouse, woodcock, and a hare I the yard at camp last year, but had yet to have the whole flush, shot, retrieve sequence play out in front of her, because of her.

     Our moments of truth, and Ginger's higher education started quite simply. Pat wanted to see her run a bit, and how she handles. So we took a quick walk across a small field with some cover and allowed her to stretch her legs a bit. We then moved on to some retrieves, freshly shot pigeons being tossed into cover. As I expected, Ginger picked up the birds, and delivered to hand.

     Next we grabbed a gun, and moved into an area with a couple of planted pigeons. This would be the real moment of truth for us. Ginger has had very little contact with game, and all of her steadiness training so far had been done with hand thrown dummies. I want a broke dog, so this was what it all boiled down to for me. As we made our way through the cover, Ginger quartering nicely, the first pigeon decided to make its appearance early, flushing wild to our right. I couldn't have been happier as Ginger turned, dropped into a half hupped position, and watched the bird fly off. A quick reminder was all it took to get her butt on the ground, before I turned and shot the bird as it tried to escape into the trees. So close two the trees it was, that I thought I'd missed the bird, but Pat insisted he'd heard it hit the ground, so Ginger was sent for the mark. This mark would be Gingers only mishandle. As Pat and I moved forward to see her work, Ginger scooped the bird, and for whatever reason decided to deliver it to the pick up truck parked just around the bend. She then came back to us, and at my encouraging searched the area for the already picked bird. After five minutes we decided to give up, not wanting to sap all of her energy in the heat. When we emerged on the road we discovered the bird laying in front of the truck. With a quick wave Ginger ran to it, and then delivered it straight to me. She'd gotten one over on us. I'd be quick to get her back.

     A few minutes later we were working again, and soon Ginger had a nose full of scent. She produced a second pigeon, right off her nose, and planted herself like she'd been taught. This time however, my shooting failed me, both barrels missing. The pigeon, like pigeons do, rolled, made a swooping arch, and came across again. I had time to drop a fresh shell in the bottom barrel before turning and dropping the bird behind us, at about 40 yards on the edge of the tree line. When Pat and I turned or attention again to Ginger she was sitting contently in the exact place she flushed the bird. As the bird was shot behind us we elected to heel Ginger about halfway to the mark, rather than sending her on a long mark. I rather liked the idea of turning the marked retrieve into a memory retrieve, and Ginger didn't seem to mind either, readily picking the the bird and delivering it to hand.

     We concluded the evaluation with a couple of water marks at the pond near his house, before engaging in a conversation about dog training, training expectations, and field trialing. Probably one of the most gratifying parts of the exercise was when Pat asked me what I wanted him to do. I'd taken his question seriously, and not knowing how to answer, I asked him in return what he thought should be done. His question was rhetorical, and he went on to explain that in his opinion there was nothing more to be done other than shoot birds over Ginger to cement in the lessons she'd already received. So that's my plan for the next month; get Ginger as much positive contact as possible with pen raised birds. I'll no doubt experience an episode of breaking, and as backwards as it sound, I need this to happen to reinforce her steadiness. I don't think it'll take too much to drive the steadiness lesson home, however.

     Pat gave me a run down on the politics of field trialing, and encouraged me to give it a try. I had been planning to do some hunt testing with Ginger, but now have to consider going the competitive route. Either way, the training needed has been completed, and whether I decide to hunt test, trial, or just plain have a fine hunting companion, the work I need to do is all the same. And I look forward to doing it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Locked and Loaded, Getting Back On Track

     Summer is over. Well, not officially, but close enough. With summer behind us it's time to start preparing for the fall, and the the hunting season. I've always got a lot I'd like to do. Some of it I actually do. My number one fall pastime is grouse hunting, and my annual grouse camp. Plan for this are in full effect, and it's going to be great to see the guys again. Unlike many the guys I hunt with, and enjoy camp with live no where near me, which I think makes grouse camp even more special as we don't see each other regularly.

     Of course this year will I will be under a bit more pressure at camp. This year will be the first season the guys get to see Ginger in action. Logistical issue this year have kept me from doing as much meaningful training with her as I'd wanted. My plan was to get her on birds this summer, turn her into a bird crazy spaniel, and educate her on the meaning of steady to flush. It hasn't happened, and time is not on my side (though there is still time), so I decided to reach out to a local, well respected trainer for some help. Friday Ginger and I will spend some time with Pat Perry, of Hedgerow Kennel for her introduction to birds, and steadiness. Our goal is to flip the switch in her head and make her realize what all this work we've been doing is all about.  I'm not too worried about Ginger's performance, and expect that a couple of good, solid bird contacts is all it will take to turn her into a bird finding fanatic.  She's been a very biddable dog, and is quite smart too,so I'm sure she'll take to the steadiness training quite easily. We've worked on her manners, and her stop to the whistle for some time. She stops so reliably to the whistle in fact that I consider it bomb proof. Coupled with her desire to make me happy I'm eager to see what she becomes. I expect I'll even shoot a bird or two for her, though I hadn't initially planned to do so on her first day of bird work, but Pat told me to bring a gun, so.... I expect this to be the first of several such training sessions before the actual season opens in a month, and if things goes well I will probably even book a day at a preserve somewhere to further sharpen her. Now, if only the woodcock would start to repopulate our local training spots. 

     The logistical issue of the earlier half of the year are now resolved, so I expect to become a regular  sight at the skeet club again. I've got three cases of skeet loads ready to go, and to make up for lost time I plan to make my way to the club for both evening, and weekend shooting hours. I'm not sure how I'll break this news to my wife yet, though. 

     Should the training with Ginger go smoothly I may try to find some time to get in a little early season goose hunting. I may even sneak off sit on the edge of long abandoned apple orchard I know in hopes of filling the bear tag I buy ever year, but never use. This of course means I'll need to make a little noise with my black powder rifle. Yup, it's that time of the year.