Thursday, December 1, 2011

Using the Wind

Bird dogs use the wind to hunt and find birds. Hunters use the wind to determine the best approach to birdy objectives, and dog trainers like us use it to help dogs navigate a variety of bird setups.
Basically, there are four wind situations: upwind, downwind, cross-wind, and no wind. Scent is carried on water molecules in the air and moves with the wind. If a dog is running upwind of birds, the wind is at his back and he cannot smell them. If he is running downwind of birds, so he is working into the wind, their scent is carried to him. If he is running cross-wind to birds, at right angles to the wind, he runs across their scent. Most good bird dogs try to run at right angles to the wind so they can hunt a larger area. Having a good understanding of the wind is key to achieving success in the field.
A bird dog demonstrates he is hunting when he uses the wind. Watch the dog run. If he runs on the downwind side of a tree line, he has positioned himself at right angles to any bird scent that might be there. Run him through a field into the wind, and he naturally quarters the field to stay at right angles to the wind.
Hunters plan their approaches using the wind. When heading to their favorite grouse coverts, they try to approach birdy objectives from the downwind side. If they approach from the upwind side, birds can hear them coming and have time to escape before the dogs detect them. Hunting singles after a covey of quail flush can be as simple as a downwind approach, so the dog quarters. It doesn’t take long before the dog becomes skilled at the singles game.
Dog trainers have to be constantly aware of the wind when planting birds or bringing the dog into different bird setups. We leave foot tracks every time we plant birds; four-wheeler tracks, too. Try coming in from the upwind side when you walk or drive a four-wheeler to plant birds so you’ll leave as few clues as possible for the dog to follow. Once you bring the dog to the field, try approaching birds so the dog is cross-wind to them. This way, he’ll run across their scent and immediately get a nose full. If you approach from downwind of birds, their scent builds as the dog gets closer, which may encourage him to creep.
The wind can be a fickle partner, often dying down or changing direction in a short period of time. Be sure to constantly monitor its direction either by feeling for it on your face or by tossing a small handful of grass and watching the direction in which it falls. Sometimes, the wind simply dies; when this happens, it’s smart to have a plan. After you make one or two passes without the dog indicating birds, take the dog on instead of trying to force the situation. Practice some check-cord work, or, if you have another bird planted, work him on it. You can always come back to the first bird if the wind picks up and scenting improves.
As you pay attention to the wind, you’ll become more in tune with nature, and, ultimately, you’ll gain a better understanding of the ways in which your dog hunts. In essence, you’re getting down on his level and starting to think like a bird dog.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Developing Point in a Young Dog

It sounds like a contradiction, but the best way to develop a young dog’s point is to let him chase birds. Every time a young dog chases birds, he is learning to point. He is learning that his movements cause the birds to fly, which means he is unable to catch them. Once he realizes he cannot be successful, he begins to chase less. He becomes more cautious and learns to creep. This creeping is like a cat stalking a mouse, and eventually, he learns to freeze into a point.
Last month, a bird hunter came by with his dog. The dog was young, maybe eight months old, and the hunter was concerned because she didn’t point. I loaded a releaser with a homing pigeon and planted it in the training field. I suggested that he bring the dog cross-wind to the releaser; as soon as she smelled the bird, I would open the releaser. I explained that when she dove for the bird, he should restrain her just enough so she did not catch it, and then, once the bird was in the air, he should drop the check-cord and let her chase. He said he understood and brought her into the field.
As they approached the releaser, she caught scent and turned toward it. As she began to road in, I pressed the button on the transmitter and the releaser opened. Right then, the hunter tightened up on the check-cord and held the dog tight as the pigeon flew away. I asked him why he’d stopped her, and he explained that he was trying to help her point.
Now here’s an important truth: Birds teach dogs to point. If you try to help your dog, he will never point birds with intensity, much less learn how to handle them. Dogs that have been helped to point by their owners look as if they are indicating the presence of birds instead of freezing in a stance that sends quivers down your spine.
With the Bill West method, training is between the dog and the bird. By letting the dog run at birds until he decides to stop chasing on his own, the bird is teaching the dog to point. With a young pup, dropping the check-cord once the bird is in the air and letting him chase as far as he wants to run is fine. You may need to restrain him with the check-cord just enough so that he does not catch the bird on the ground before it flies, but once the bird is in the air, you can drop the check-cord.
As the pup gets older, or when the grounds are not suitable to let the dog run free, keep hold of the check-cord and let him chase to the end. Once he is stopped, let him watch the bird fly off. Pointing dogs love to watch birds fly; doing so is a reward. A small number of dogs live for the chase, and if, after a reasonable amount of bird exposure, your dog continues to chase without becoming stauncher on point, you may want to keep hold of the check-cord to limit his run.
Dogs are predators. They have better noses than humans, and they are superior hunters. Good trainers respect these natural abilities and allow dogs to make their own decisions. It’s foolish to think you know better when it comes to stopping a dog around birds. Instead, let your dog run at birds as long as he’s not catching them; eventually, he will teach himself to stop because he’ll realize it’s smarter to stand there, especially when you occasionally shoot a bird for him.
Anytime a dog learns something on his own, he learns it better than when you teach it. By respecting your dog’s abilities and setting up training situations where he can learn from the bird, you are developing him the natural way, which is the best way possible.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

What Is a Balanced Dog?

Have you ever heard a dog trainer talk about a balanced dog, or wondered what this expression meant? The first time I heard the word balanced was when a horseback pro trainer told me my derby dog was not balanced. He explained that he was more mature on his game than on his ground race, and kept repeating that a good field trial dog had to be balanced. In an effort to be clearer, he held his right hand above his head to represent the dog’s bird work and his left hand below his hip to represent the dog’s ground race, which he said was reckless. He was correct; the dog didn’t listen. Then, he held both hands at chest level to indicate where the dog should be. This was his idea of a balanced dog, and to be honest, the conversation went right over my head at the time. Over the years, however, I’ve thought a lot about balance, and tried to understand it.
Since that conversation, I’ve been on the lookout for other trainers who use this word. When I started following Cesar Millan on the National Geographic Wild television show, Dog Whisperer, I noticed that he also talks a lot about balance. In his recent book, Cesar’s Rules, he describes a balanced dog as one that is comfortable in his environment, and in his own skin. I really like this description because it holds true for a good bird dog, but it was still hard for me to grasp. I needed a more specific way to think about it.
Ultimately I have come to understand that a balanced dog is simply a dog without weak links. If I think about a dog as a length of chain, the chain is only as strong as the weakest link. The Bill West method talks a lot about these shortcomings, and how they represent the weakest part of the dog’s training. The pro trainer who discussed balance with me twenty years ago was trying to explain that my derby dog wasn’t balanced because he had a weak link: He didn’t listen. The trainer was trying to tell me that I needed to get this dog balanced—paying attention and going with me—before developing his bird work. Finally, I was able to grasp the concept of balance and use it to become a better trainer.
The first thing I do with a new dog is take him to the field to see if he is balanced. I look for his weak links to tell me what type of training he needs. If he is a pup, I take him for a run and carefully observe him. Some pups may pay too much attention to me, or show little interest in hunting. These pups need to find birds to develop their prey drive and learn to hunt. Some pups are real independent and could care less about where I am. These pups need to learn to pay attention and find birds with me.
I take dogs that are older or already in training to the field and study them. Their weak links tell me how training is going, and what to do next. As I strengthen these weak links, the whole dog becomes stronger, and before long, I have a balanced dog that is comfortable in his environment and in his own skin.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Weak Links: The Tale of Two Pups

This summer I acquired two new pups. Red was a nicely put together female with lots of color. Whitey was a big white male. They came from different breeders and different lines of dogs. Red arrived in June and was nine weeks old. Whitey arrived in late July and was twelve weeks old. These pups were well bred and had lots of natural ability, but they both had weak links that revealed how each pup should be started.
A weak link is the weakest part of a dog’s training, a shortcoming or hole that needs to be addressed. When I look at pups and determine how best to develop them, I look at their limitations. Which links need to be made stronger?
Red was a good case in point. The first time I took her for a run, she made tight little circles around my feet and whined to be picked up. This behavior was definitely a flaw. The best thing to do with a pup like this is ignore the behavior and treat it like “a nothing” (see chapter 16 for more information). I decided to take her for a run every day until she showed interest in her surroundings. After about a week with no improvement, we headed to the bird pens that included a pigeon loft and two johnny houses. I was curious to see if she would start using her nose. (To be on the safe side, I try not to show birds to a new pup until she is confident on the ground.) After another week of circling and whining, she finally dropped her head and sniffed the ground. A little bit later, she picked up a feather and started carrying it in her mouth. Aha, I thought. She’s ready.
I got a quail from the johnny house, pulled a couple of wing feathers, and held it by the feet so it fluttered. She showed no hesitation and tried to bite the head, so I tossed it on the ground. She became totally focused on the bird, pouncing on it and chasing it. Eventually, the bird escaped in the cover, but instead of coming to find me, she returned to where the bird had been tossed down and hunted this area hard. I remained quiet, and after a while, I slowly walked away. It was ten minutes before she came looking for me, and after that, she was a different pup. She had discovered her purpose in life; she had discovered her nose.
Whitey was a different story. He was bold and very independent. The first time I took him for a walk, he took off, and while he loved to run, it was obvious that he was not hunting. Pups like Red that don’t hunt need to learn to use their noses; independent pups like Whitey need to find birds with us, so they will have a reason to go with us. I snapped a check-cord (see chapter 9) to his ID collar and let him drag it so that later, I could hold onto it to keep him with me. After running him a couple more times with him dragging the check-cord, I showed him a quail. When I held the bird by its feet and it fluttered, it scared him, but the more the bird fluttered, the more interested Whitey became, so I tossed it down. He was definitely unsure, and alternated between investigating it and running away. I stayed back and remained quiet.
Whitey did not get the bird in his mouth that day, but after a couple more exposures to quail, he finally dove in and got the bird in his mouth. Once he did that, I picked up the check-cord and used it to keep him with me. He proudly pranced around with his new trophy, and I remained quiet as he walked in front of me, carrying the bird. It took him a couple more exposures to quail before everything started to click, and soon, he was hunting as well as paying attention to where I was.
Red and Whitey had different weak links: In Red’s case, she had to become aware of her surroundings and focus on something other than me. Whitey was impressive on the ground but didn’t hunt, or care where I was. Both pups were born with the right tools; they just needed a little help discovering how to use them. By focusing on their shortcomings, I was able to start them on the road to becoming the bird dogs they were bred to be.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Steadying Process with Dominant Dogs

Fritz was showing all the signs of being ready to start the steadying process. He was over a year old and had run at a lot of birds. Whenever I took him afield, he hunted hard to find them. Birds were on his mind, and recently, he had begun holding point longer. I had introduced the e-collar at five months old, and he handled well and went with me. Although I’d recently noticed that he was acting more dominant around the kennel, I hadn’t given it much thought.
The first time I took Fritz to the training field to work on the steadying process, I was in for a surprise. I put the pinch-collar, check-cord, and e-collar on him and began walking him around the field. He surprised me by acting like a total knothead, dragging me everywhere. My training buddy laughed and said that Fritz had attention deficit disorder, and he sure acted this way. I had set up a couple of releasers but decided working him on birds was like pouring gasoline on a fire that was already out of control. In Fritz’s case, I knew I was wasting my time trying to do anything with him until he calmed down and started paying attention.
Also, it was dawning on me that he had become dominant. In my defense, it’s not uncommon for young males to become more dominant as they mature. Some can get really full of themselves, like teenage boys. I realized that this coming of age was happening to Fritz, and I’d missed it. I also realized that I needed to get him calmed down and paying attention through physical means, in order to earn his respect.
I did not make much progress in the first session, so in the second session, I placed the pinch-collar above the ID collar. This placement makes the pinch-collar tug more severe, but Fritz was too excited to care. To teach him to stop pulling and pay attention, I changed direction, said, “Here,” and gave a pinch-collar tug that pulled him off balance. A couple of times when he was in front of me, I stopped and stood still. I put some slack in the check-cord and gave a good backwards tug, asking him to come to me. I asked him to come all the way to me and give me eye contact. Eye contact took some doing, and each time he came in and went past me, I stepped back and tugged again until he finally looked up at me.
I continued to turn, tug, and ask him to go with me and come to me in each session. If he pulled too hard, I spun him. It took a total of four sessions before the light came on. The change was obvious. His expression said Oh, you’re here too? Now he was calmer, and I had his full attention. I was ready to teach the stand command.
Teaching the stand command helps you to establish dominance over a dog; the more dominant the dog, the more important it is to get this message across early in the steadying process. You have to know what you’re looking at when training a dominant dog, because he may act in a similar way as a dog that doesn’t understand what he is being taught.
In Fritz’s case, I put out two releasers just in case he surprised me by being cooperative. Once we got to the field and he was working in front of me on the check-cord, I asked him to stop and stand still. He stopped but didn’t want to stand still. I knew I had to be demanding and teach him to keep all four feet planted on the ground, in order to earn his respect. He put up a good fight to stay in control, and challenged me by taking steps or moving whenever I took a step behind or in front of him. We never worked on releasers, and I went three more sessions before he’d made enough progress for me to show him a bird.
Fritz is an extreme example, but dominant dogs like him are good reminders of how important it is to get dogs calm and paying attention before advancing in the steadying process. Once I’d earned Fritz’s respect, training went much more smoothly. Dominant dogs like Fritz may take more time in the beginning and require a heavier hand, but by going slowly and foregoing bird work, I was making an investment that would pay dividends in the future. Instead of training a dog that was a knothead, I was training a dog that wanted to learn.