Saturday, May 10, 2014

Tools of the Trade

      Take ten different upland hunters with ten different hunting vests, and take a peak inside and I think you'll find that each vest is loaded up with a variety of gear. The Electronically inclined may have a selection of remotes and related accessories, those lacking sense of direction (like myself) may have GPS batteries, extra compass, and laminated maps, others may pack survival gear, sandwiches, thermos, or flask. There have been times when if I could fit a shooting coach into my vest I would have. We all choose what tools to put in our tool box. The same goes with dogs. Each sportsman makes a training decision as to how far to take their training, and how many tools to put in their dogs tool shed. 

      Over the years in my ventures afield, and to the bird dog club I've had the privileged of seeing a lot of different Gundogs work. Grouse camp alone has allowed me to become intimate with many different dogs of different breeds. And of all the dogs I've met, all their owners had two things in common; a profound love for their dog, and an overwhelming sense of achievement with the level of training put into their dog. But seldom did these levels of training transcend equally between dogs. Each owner trained their dog to the level of finish, which worked for them. So, what is a finished dog, and why do people either "finish", or choose not to?

      I think it's necessary to first understand the terms used in the gun dog world. A "finished" dog must meet a set criteria of skills. To fit this description the dog must obey basic commands such as "come",  and "whoa" for pointing breeds, or "hup"/"sit" for spaniels and retrievers. While it might be argued if its necessary, I think any dog who is trained to this level should also know the respective whistle and hand signals. But this alone does not a "finished" dog make. The dog must also be steady to wing, shot, and fall. This means that once a dog points a bird it must be absolutely steady, as in not moving, while the gunner flushes the bird, while the bird flushes in front, when the gun is fired, and as the bird falls on the shot. Spaniels and retrievers are expected to do all this from a seated position while pointing breeds do it standing. So what does the dog then do? Nothing until either sent for the retrieve, or sent to hunt on in the case of a miss. Any dog that does as described can then wear the title "broke". Add to this list the ability to stop on a wild flushed bird, non-slip retrieving to hand, directional casting, and blind retrieves and you've got a fully "finished" gundog.

      It sure sounds like a lot of work for the average sportsman. Well, it is,.... but it's not hard work. And, because training is done incrementally there is no rush to get it all completed before a pups first season. Your pup can be a  wild, bird chaser the first season,  broke to wing, shot, and fall the second season, and a finished, hunt test titled dog in his third or fourth season. Of course there are reasons people don't "finish" their dog. I never "finished" or even "broke" my last setter, Austin. One thing I did train him to understand really well was the "whoa" command. This made for some interesting times in the grouse woods. Ruffed grouse preferring to run before they will flush can frustrate the owner of a dog that really understands the "whoa" command. Many times Austin would establish a point, and I'd command "whoa". I'd then walk into the point only to find the bird had run ahead. I'd have to then walk back to the dog to release him, with the standard touch on the head. This gets tiresome. I soon learned to read his body language, and allow him to relocate his point as the grouse ran, which required me to keep my mouth shut. This worked well, and produced a lot of grouse, but I still occasionally instinctually said "whoa", and then kicked myself in the rear for doing it.

      People entering their dogs in competition, like field trials, and hunt tests finish their dogs. The performance standards of the event dictate the level required to either pass or win. The AKC hunt test rules define the minimum standards each breed should be trained to. Every gun dog owner should at some point take a look at the appropriate set of standards to see where their training level is. Does a dog need to be trained to these levels? Certainly not. As I've already stated you may have a perfectly good reason for not going the distance. Some people want a dog that chases a flushed bird, believing that the dog will better mark the fall and make a speedier retrieve. If that's your style, fine. However, there are a couple of reasons I can never accept for not training up to the highest level.  One is the mentality that a dog trained to that level is only for the "fancy pants show off hunters". What? The other is a, "can't do it" attitude. Why not? Take a closer look at what you're actually teaching the dog to do. In the case of both the pointing dog, and the flushing dog,  one of the basics you are/ should be teach is to stop on command. That stop, is when a pointing dog is taught to "whoa" to reinforce the staunchness of its point, and the spaniel is taught to "hup"  to keep it in range if it's chasing a runner which may get out of range. Training a dog to be steady is just a continuation of this training. When you train steady to flush all you are doing is introducing the added distraction of a flushing bird. Remember Austin? His understanding of "whoa" ended here, and should I  have wanted to, I could have continued his training with added distractions. Later still the continuation of steadiness training, we add the distraction of a gunshot. And later still the fall of a bird. Then, before you know it, you've got a "broke" dog. It's simply a matter of teaching the dog to obey the command, regardless of distractions.

     Of course, this is the over simplified view of the steadying process, and I've not even touched on retrieving or logistical considerations. I don't wish to make it sound as if any dog not trained to this level has a lazy owner; every dog is different, and every dog owner has limitation and a life outside of dog training, so mileage may vary. Should you decide to increase your training level you'll need to know how to read your dog to gauge when the stress of training is delaying your progress. But this doesn't mean you don't try to add these tools to you and your dogs tool box. Some advice I was given many years ago, when I was quite new at dog training, was to buy at least three dog training books, and read each book cover to cover before putting together a training plan for yourself. I've become rather addicted to dog training books and have amassed a small collection. In this age of mass media, and electronic publishing there are many good DVDs available, too, so one who is not inclined to read can view much of the same info. What has worked for me (and I'm still learning) is to try to get a basic understanding of why a particular training technique works, and how it relates to field work. Understanding some of the various complete systems of well know trainers, and why they work can help you to piece together a training routine that you feel comfortable with.  In addition to the added skills, the time spent training with your dog will further strengthen your bond with the dog. Something that is invaluable to the partnership.

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