Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fire Alarms


Our last field outing produced some positives, but also raised a couple of concerns. I feel like I'm at an important point in our training right now and I really want to keep things light and fun for her. So I've decided to pull out of the NAVHDA NA test in a couple weeks. I think instead of training for tracking and swimming and stuff in the coming weeks, and then driving 2+ hours to the test where I will be nervous and unable to hide that from her, we're just going to keep things light.

Her next field day will be just one gun, a few chukar, finally some EASY cover, and we'll go at our own pace.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Good, the Bad and the Smelly

When we arrived at Gunpowder Game Farm for Winnie's very first preserve hunt, I didn't know what to expect from her. So I was very pleased when she started off hunting pretty well - albeit without a lot of structure to her search. We were given a general idea of where our three chukar were planted, and as we worked our way up to the first bird she criss-crossed the path ahead of me and burned a lot of energy tackling some really heavy cover.

She got the scent and pointed (this is the point in the video), and waited for me to flush the bird. Kinda. My first attempt didn't get the bird out but did bring Winnie in. I decided it was close enough to what I wanted from her, and I took the shot.

Then I took another.

By then the healthy chukar was long gone, carrying my opportunity to get Winnie's first bird of the day with it. But hey, it was early, with more birds out there and more ground to cover.

But the next two birds were a little harder to find, and both of them flushed before she got a bead on them. They flew to a nearby treeline, and by the time we fought the tough cover to try and find them, Winnie was showing signs of fatigue. So we worked our way back to the car for a break.

At this point, when I was trying to just get Winnie rested, the four hunters in the next field were really enjoying their day. They had added 20 quail to their chukar and pheasant hunt, and every couple of minutes there were huge volleys of nearby shots. While Winnie honestly didn't seem to mind my single (or double) shots, these sets of 6 or more shots from the next field, combined with the physical fatigue from muscling through the heavy cover, left her a bit unsettled.

When the guy who brought us to the field (and who had earlier planted our birds) returned to check on us, we were trying to decide if it would be better to try again to end on a positive note, or to call it a day and risk her going home unexcited about the whole hunting thing. He offered to bring one of the preserve dogs out and let Winnie hunt with her. He said that a second dog often increases the excitement of the first, and when he brought the Brittany out and Winnie got along well with her, we decided to give it a try.

The first thing I noticed about Winnie's new hunting partner and mentor was the smell. I wondered two things: Can a dog effectively pick up the scent of a bird when her own scent is enough to make the hunter's eyes water, and is there a way I could return her to the preserve office at the end of the hunt without getting her inside the car? The idea occurred to me I could roll down the window and hold the leash outside the car as she ran alongside. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

She was a nice dog and a great hunter, and Winnie - notoriously iffy about other dogs - liked her. Three pheasant were planted (as I watched) and this time I took both dogs out. Cammie the Brittany's presence did indeed spark some enthusiasm in Winnie, but she really was done hunting by that point. She'd follow along, but we really couldn't get her interested even when Cammie was on point. I shot the first pheasant, though not particularly well, and it went down close to a hundred yards away in thick cover. I was about to abandon it, but Cammie insisted, and after a brief struggle with the bird she prevailed and brought it to me.

It was a cool thing, a dog I've never met responding to my commands and hunting and returning birds to me. And once I had the bird in hand I threw it for Winnie who excitedly retrieved it. Sandy and I both praised her and she was thrilled to repeat the retrieve for us. But when it came time to hunt the next bird, she was really done with that heavy, prickly cover and, I suspect, hunting in general for the day. But she hung in there as Cammie found the two remaining pheasant. My shooting improved and we brought the three birds back to the office to get them cleaned.

Even though Winnie didn't point these birds, I wanted to get a picture of her and Cammie and the pheasants. When I opened the back to let Winnie and Stinky out, Winnie locked up on her staunchest point yet - at the pen behind the parking area where a couple hundred pheasant were hanging out. Maybe that's the kind of cover she prefers, a gravel lot, neatly mowed lawn and then a big rectangle filled with captive game birds.

So while it wasn't a perfect day, there were some positives. The first bird was handled very well by her, and I am still kicking myself for not being able to put that chukar down for her. The excitement of that bird may have been enough to hold her interest longer. Another huge positive is Winnie's increasing tolerance and even enjoyment of other dogs. And finally the retrieving of the thrown birds was a positive too, she quite enjoyed that.

We stopped for lunch at an awesome Irish Pub on the way back. (I must admit a couple pints soothed the disappointment of that early missed bird!). Winnie patiently waited, sound asleep in the back of the car. She slept the whole drive back, endured a bath with tick shampoo (I've never seen so many ticks, I probably picked fifty off her), and dreams on the couch next to me now. It was a big day for all of us, and I'll be sorting out what I learned from it all for a while. But for now I'm content to just reflect on the basics: an enjoyable, memorable day afield with my dog.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Be Careful What You Wish For

There aren't many NAVHDA (North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association) test days in this part of the country, so when I found one in Virginia, a couple hours south of here, I did what you'd expect. I waited until it was far too late to get a spot and, once my sabotage efforts were successful I sent in my entry form and got on the waiting list.

NAVHDA's Natural Ability Test, according to their web site, is designed to evaluate the inherent natural abilities of young dogs and gain insight into their possible usefulness as versatile gun dogs. It rates seven important inherited abilities: nose, search, tracking, pointing, water, desire and cooperation.

I have never attended or seen such a test. I have no idea how she will measure up in such a test. But while I was sitting on the waiting list, I was fond of telling people, 'Hey, pass or fail, it'll be a good experience for us. IF we even get in.'

Well, bigmouth, we're in. A spot opened up on Sunday, November 8th, just two weeks before Winnie turns 16 months old, the cutoff age for the test. Her one and only chance.

I told the organizer that I wanted to see how she did this Sunday, only her second time experiencing full shotgun fire, and if she was okay with that we would head down and attempt the test.

There are four phases: Field Phase, Tracking Phase, Water Phase and Judgement of Physical Characteristics. Lots of details within those phases, but you get the idea. She has to locate and point birds, track a running bird (never done this before), show willingness to swim (she does show a moderate willingness to wade) and not be gunshy.

I'm really nervous!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Taking the Girls Hunting

When it comes to this whole dog thing, I'm not sure if my wife thinks I'm crazy. But I know she thinks I'm obsessed. I know this because she hints at it with statements like, "You are obsessed."

So when Sandy agreed to come with me this coming Sunday to a preserve to hunt a few birds, I was thrilled. (She doesn't want to shoot this time, just watch and take pictures.) Certainly it's always nice to spend weekend time together, but I'm especially thrilled that she'll finally get to see Winnie work. She reads the blog, and of course lives with Winnie day in and day out. But the only benefits of all that training we've been doing that she really sees around the house are what I would consider general good manners. Beyond that, the level of interaction between us when it comes to the training has consisted of conversations like "are you done out there with the whistle? It's driving Gromit crazy," and "Do you know anything about this $89 charge for Ugly Dog Hunting Supplies?" and "Are you done out there with the blank pistol? It's driving Gromit crazy."

But, back to the preserve hunt. In my typical overthinking fashion, I have pestered the woman at the preserve going back and forth about what birds to get. She was worried that the cover was too thick for chukar to fly out of easily, but Winnie is used to chukar. And besides, she should hold the point long enough for me to get a foot under that chukar to assist in its final flight if need be. Bottom line is, I want to set Winnie up with the best opportunity for success, but also want it to be a meaningful training opportunity. So the final decision was to start with three chukar, and then toward the back of the field, if all goes well, there will be two pheasant - one each hen and cockbird.

I thought I would share the ensuing conversation with Sandy regarding these birds and the day surrounding them...

Me: So I went with three chukar, then two pheasant toward the back. One each, a boy and a girl.

Sandy: A boy and a girl? I don't like the sound of that. Too personal. 'Male and female' sounds better.

Okay. I think once you get out there you'll really be fine with it all. By the time you even see a bird, it will either be flying happily to freedom or will be shot.

You better be a good shot.

I will try.

I guess if you don't kill it, the guide will finish it off.

What guide?

I thought we were getting a guide.

For what?

I don't know.

For working the dog?

I guess.

It's MY dog!


What is worrying you?

Do you know what you're doing?

Of course not. Is that what you're worried about??

I thought we were getting a guide.

What are you afraid of?

I don't know, there's just gonna be guns and shooting and stuff.

Yeah that's common with hunting.

I'm not sure you know what you're doing.

It'll be fine.

Okay. You're right.

You'll have fun.

Are you sure you know what you're doing?

Monday, October 19, 2009

What Whistle??

v. ri-gres; to revert to an earlier or less advanced state or form.

Six days from now we're supposed to hunt on a preserve. A few chukar, and if all goes well, maybe a couple pheasant. In an effort to not overthink the hunting aspect (I know, I know. Too late.), I thought I'd spend some time this week on control. Primarily recall, but with some directional stuff too.

But this evening, Winnie decided to throw a wrench in the plan by completely ignoring abut two out of every three recalls. Whistle, voice, both, she just ignored me.

When we go for walks we're sometimes simulating hunt situations. Well it is in these open field hunt situations where the recall is breaking down. I feel like I need to be a little careful here, because I DO want her to range out far enough to find birds. So while I was frustrated today, I tried to refrain from repeatedly testing the recall in the field while she was 'hunting' just to see if it'd work. She picks up on things very, very quickly, and I'd hate for her to make the connection that when she's in the field, I'm going to call her to me whenever she ranges out 30 yards or so.

Not sure if any of that made sense.

Anyway, tomorrow I'm going to use the long check cord and go back to some basics. And if I don't trust her completely, I have no problem hunting her with the check cord at the preserve. Might slow her down a bit but I'll be glad to have that 'handle' if the recall isn't where I want it to be.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Things look a little different...

I don't want to overstate the significance of the latest milestone in my pursuit of birddogness. But since that first shot bird and our day of hunting with Enzo in the fields on my friend's farm, things have started to feel a little different here at home.

We always do a little training on our walks, but instead of putting her on a leash and practicing heel, this week the walks have included the whistle, more off-leash time and simulated field work. For instance, the other night I let her get almost fifty yards away and instead of calling her all the way back, I blew the whistle and told her to whoa. She stood and waited till I got there. When I do recall her all the way to me, she zooms to my feet and sits, facing out in front of me. I have not taught her this, it's just what she does. We walk to an open field where I have started working on, I think this is the right term, Casting. I'm trying to get her to respond to hand signals and my body language to work a field in the direction I send her. I'm still learning this myself, but as is the case most of the time, Winnie's about a half step ahead of me.

And she genuinely enjoys these changes. Yeah, she'll get excited if I grab the leash. But if I put that whistle around my neck, she KNOWS she's going to get to run around off lead and explore. And when we get to that open field near the house, she can't WAIT to put her nose down and hunt!

So, I know we have a long way to go. Hell, we've only shot one bird, and that one carpooled to the field with us that morning. But I like where we're at and I'm excited about what lies ahead. And as I write this, even though she's lying on the couch chewing a Nylabone, she looks a little bit more like a bird dog every day.

Monday, October 12, 2009

First Shot Bird!

Today was Huge.

My friend Douglas invited me down to his farm today to work our dogs on some birds (he has a Spinone). I've been working with Winnie little by little on exposing her to gunfire, and we've also been doing some limited bird work. But it felt like the right time to start putting the pieces together, and so I decided to bring her in hopes of introducing a shotgun and a bird at the same time.

But two things bothered me: 1) Although I've done a little gun exposure, the leap to a full shotgun blast at a relatively close distance would be a significant one, and 2) Having done all my training to this point on my own, and having little hunting experience and even less gundog training experience going in, I was not confident that what we've done so far would translate to a real world (albeit staged) hunting environment in the company of an experienced hunter.

And so, with four chukar stinking up the car, I made the trip south to the farm and we formulated a plan: On the first two birds, I would hold Winnie on a short leash and let her watch Enzo as he did the hunting. Then we would give Winnie a shot. But after the first shot, if Winnie reacted negatively to the sound, we would of course revisit everything and recalibrate our goals for the day.

Enzo found the first bird quickly and Winnie and I got into position about twenty yards away. Douglas flushed the bird and took two shots to bring the chukar down. Winnie didn't flinch! Winnie watched excitedly as Enzo retrieve the downed bird and we repeated the exercise for the second bird. Same results, Winnie was not bothered by the shotgun. (Douglas and I were both shooting 16 gauges.)

Winnie plowed through her first bird and flushed and chased it - no shot. But for the next bird she was much more methodical in her search, and when she found the bird she held the point nicely until I could get there to flush it. I took the shot and downed the bird and Winnie was right there to go after it. She found it in some thick brambles and kind of lost interest in fetching it for me, so I grabbed it and threw it for her into some short grass. She ran after it and brought it right to my hand.

We sat on the porch and had a cold beer as we removed 490 burrs from our dogs and talked about the morning. And when Douglas complimented me on how well Winnie had done in the field, and how well behaved she was generally, I realized just how big this day was for us. We have a long way to go, but we're really enjoying the journey. And after today I feel like we're heading in the right direction.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Training with Beers (Part 2)

Sorry about the crappy video. I couldn't tell where it was pointing, and I guess I had it set up for her to pick the can up off the ground as in Part 1, but most of the time she was taking it out of my hand. Also, the scenic backdrop here is the garage. Because not everyone in the house thinks this is a really excellent way to spend time when some others would rather be going to sleep.

Okay, so here we needed to raise the criteria for her to get the click/reward. At first she picked up right where she left off - assumed pushing her nose onto the can would get the reward. Just as planned, she grew frustrated by the lack of treats and tried other behaviors like batting the can around the garage and trying to skip the behavior and sneak the treats herself.

Turns out her biggest aversion was, I think, was picking up the can with her mouth. So I put a huggie, or whatever you want to call them, on the can and she picked it up right away. Once she did that a few times, I removed it and she picked the can up!

So, two days in, I know we have a long way to go but I think she's doing great!

Training with Beers (Part 1)

I've decided to practice my clicker training and try to teach Winnie to fetch me a beer.

Hey, they're cheaper than birds! Plus, I'll be honest, I'm hardly ever mowing the lawn and sweating, wishing someone could run inside and grab me a cool, refreshing chukar.

A quick search on YouTube confirms that many dogs are taught this trick. Though I couldn't find any instructional advice. That's okay though, even though I'm very new to clicker training, I understand the basic principles. I think we can do it. (Disclaimer: I tried this years ago with my German Shorthaired Pointer. It didn't go well, and after consuming several of the retrieval subjects we both lost interest. But that was before I knew about clicker training!)

In Part 1 above you can see it really click (pardon the far too obvious pun) and when she realizes that touching the top of the can with her nose is the behavior that gets a click and reward, I can hardly reward her fast enough! Two sessions of about five minutes each got us to this point. Next I'll try and see if I can get her to pick up the can. Stay tuned!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Training with Birds (Part 2)

Saturday evening I returned to the field we used earlier that morning to see the neighbor who owns it. While passing the field I spotted one of the chukar in the field. So I went back home and got Winnie and brought her back. I thought it'd be a good opportunity to let her run around free without the check cord and try to find a bird without me knowing where it was. I also brought the .22 blank pistol along, in case I got the chance to flush a bird I wanted to try firing the pistol while she chased it.

Well she worked the entire 2-3 acres pretty thoroughly - though without any sort of structure or pattern to her search - and came up empty. She could have missed it, or maybe it returned to the treeline, who knows.

But as we walked back home I reflected on the day and what I learned. Here's what I came up with:

What I Know.
  • When I returned to the field that evening and let her run free, I got the sense that she absolutely thought there were birds in there, and wanted to find them. BUT, what I noticed was that in this situation, our whistle recall is not nearly what I want it to be. So we need to work on that in more varied and more tempting environments to make sure we're working toward a reliable recall.
  • Her nose seems to work. She picks up the scent and heads straight toward the bird. But she waits till she is very close to the bird before she points.
  • She learns VERY quickly. This makes me nervous because I feel like she'll learn from any mistake I make before I realize I've made it. By holding the check cord on one bird when she chased, she stopped chasing the very next bird on her own!

What I Don't Know.
  • I'm not sure if I want her to chase the bird or not. I may need that frenzied enthusiasm when it comes time to tie in the gunshot with the bird. On the other hand, down the road it'd be nice to keep her there in a Whoa until I send her to retrieve a shot bird. I am impeded not only by my lack of gundog training experience here, but by my limited actual hunting experience as well.
  • I continue to be nervous about properly introducing gunfire, and think it's time to get some assistance. 

What's Next?
  • I think it's clear that I got lazy with the recall, getting good results in the comfort of the yards and paddocks at our house. Much more work needs to be done here.
  • Soon it will be time to build in a little structure to her bird searching. Not sure how to go about that but it will include whistle commands to change directions. That will come AFTER I make some progress on the whistle recall.
  • I'll be looking for a trainer or preserve with lots of room where I can have a gunner shoot from a distance as she's chasing a flushed bird. If that goes well, we might be ready to shoot a bird over her and really start tying all of this together. But to me that all still seems a long way off.

In Other News
  • My earlier post about using ShowSheen to get burrs out of her coat got further testing Saturday. It works GREAT! I do need to get a better comb, maybe a flea comb, to use to remove the burrs once I spray the area.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Training with Birds

Today we did some fun training with birds. I bought four chukar and brought them to a neighbor's field that has longer grass than ours. When we first arrived, morning fog was just lifting and I was lucky enough to capture this great image of Winnie in her 'work clothes.' (She wears the vest this time of year as she is deer-colored!)

The main purpose of today's training was to use the 'Whoa' work we've been doing to see if, once she found and pointed a bird, she could hold that point until I could walk around and get in front of her, then flush the bird myself.

This was the setup. I left Winnie in the car as I planted the first bird. I walked along the road on the left and then circled around and placed the bird so as we went through the field she wouldn't be picking up my track.

I had seen 'kick baskets' or 'step baskets' online before and decided to make one myself. This was made from a basket found at Home Depot's shelving department, and a simple bracket attached to the side with cable ties. Put the bird down, the basket over the bird, some grass on top of the basket and then if the dog runs right up on the bird, you don't watch fifteen bucks fly away before you get to train with it.

So I tried this with the first bird. Winnie got the scent of the bird and started working toward it, but then she saw the basket and just went right up to it. I gave her the Whoa command but she was literally already on top of the basket so there wasn't much point. I flushed the bird and she took off after it, thirty feet of check cord behind her. She got to the treeline and stopped, and I called her back. So, while the basket was a good theory on paper, I didn't like the results. I brought Winnie back to the car and decided to dizzy and plant two more birds in the grass without the basket.

So with three birds in the cage, I planted one, then about fifty yards away I planted the other. At this point, the fourth and last bird escaped. The escapee, combined with a less than productive first bird, put a little pressure on the thirty bucks of bird currently in the grass.

For all the overthinking and planning and preparation I do for something as simple as a Saturday morning training session, you'd think that I would charge the batteries in my camera. But, no. So on this next bird, when Winnie pointed and I gave her the Whoa command, she held the point long enough for me to curse my exhausted camera batteries and take out my cell phone to capture these very poor images.

I grabbed the end of the check cord this time and flushed the bird. She chased it for approximately 30.00 feet. (I credit my overplanning in this case for remembering to wear gloves when attempting this step!)

The point? Well, less than stylish, I admit. But I was very pleased with how long she was holding them. In fact, when she found and pointed the last bird we were about fifteen feet from the gravel drive as a pickup drove by. She maintained focus on the point until I walked around to get the bird between Winnie and I. (She was only about two feet away from the bird.)

I picked up the end of the check cord and flushed the bird. This time, Winnie took about three steps after it and stopped! Very impressive, productive and fun morning in the field.

This post is already too long, so I'm going to make some conclusions and lay out the next training steps in another entry.