Saturday, December 1, 2012

Introducing Quail to Your Pup

Introducing quail to your pup may sound like a fairly simple step: Plant a quail in the field, bring your pup in, and let him find it. Unfortunately, like most pointing dog training, it is often more complicated than it first appears. Quail introduction is one of the most important phases in your pup’s development, and it’s when you develop his desire to hunt. This step needs to be done correctly. The age and attitude of your pup will help you determine how to work him. A three-month-old pup is introduced differently than a five-month-old, and a one-year-old may require some creative thinking. The availability of good flying birds also influences when you introduce him to quail. Here are a few examples of how to deal with pups of different ages and levels of readiness.
Last fall I acquired a twelve-week-old female pup. She had already caught a couple of wing-clipped quail and was ready for some good flying quail. I could hardly wait to get going, but before introducing her to birds in the training field, I had to be sure she was confident on the ground. After a week of running her through bush-hogged stubble and briars, she was ignoring the cover, so I planted several quail and took her for a run. I already knew she would go with me, so it was easy to lead her in the direction of the first bird. She found it and tried to catch it. Over the next week, she began to stalk the bird, and while she continued to dive in and chase, her pointing instinct was starting to develop. She had a new sense of purpose and was now focused on finding birds.
This spring I kept a male from one of my litters. He would be four and a half months old before I’d have any good flying quail. He and his littermates had chewed on a couple of leftover birds from last year, but I had to wait for September for good flying birds.
While I waited, I ran him in the field to get him confident on the ground. When he was four months old, I snapped a light check-cord to his ID collar to get him accustomed to dragging it. He was becoming more independent and less concerned about where I was, even though he still had no clue why he was out there.
This pup’s lack of experience hunting for quail, combined with his newfound independence, presented a problem when it came to how to introduce him to quail. I needed a way to lead him to the bird, and decided to use the check-cord. He was already used to dragging it, but he was not yet ready to learn the e-collar or the here command. I tossed down two lightly dizzied quail and walked with him on the check-cord to the first bird. As soon as he made scent, he stopped and pointed, and I dropped the check-cord. He continued to hold point as if surprised by the bird’s scent. He eventually dove in and the bird flew off. When he got tired of chasing it, I took hold of the check-cord again and led him to the second bird.
This time there was no hesitation. He dove in hard, and I held the check-cord just long enough for the bird to take flight before letting go. I did not use the check-cord to make him point; rather, I used it to restrain him from catching the bird on the ground. If a pup learns he can catch a bird before it flies, he may stop pointing. It took a couple more sessions of leading the pup to the bird, but before long, he was hunting on his own. The check-cord allowed me to stay in control and get him into birds with very little commotion. Soon I was able to unsnap the check-cord and let him run free. He no longer needed my help because he knew why he was out there: He was focused on finding birds.
This fall a training buddy asked me about her one-year-old pup. The pup had been worked on pigeons, but he lacked experience on loose quail. The pup’s age presented a real dilemma because, at a year old, he was powerful enough to run down a good flying quail. I asked Maurice Lindley how he introduced older pups to quail, and he gave me a great tip. He said, “If an older pup needs to run on loose quail, I release birds along the edge of the woods. I don’t dizzy them; I hold them close to the ground and let them go. They should run into the woods. I plant them this way because the pup is unable to follow their flight path in the woods. It works well, but the birds have to be good flyers.”
I passed the tip on to my training buddy and she really liked the idea. She planted quail along the edge of the woods and it worked perfectly. Her pup got into loose birds without catching any of them. He learned how to find birds that were moving and how close he could get before making them fly, both of which are important lessons to learn before the steadying process begins.
There are many windows of opportunity to introduce quail to your pup. The best and easiest time is between three and four months old. By five or six months old, your pup is more independent, and you may need to use a check-cord for the first couple of sessions, to lead him to birds. If you have to wait until he is a year old, he’ll be physically strong enough to run down a good flying quail, so you’ll have to think outside the box, with techniques such as Maurice’s suggestion of releasing birds along the edge of the woods. Staying flexible in your thinking, along with waiting for good flying quail, will help you accomplish this important step. If you do it right, you will develop your pup’s desire to hunt and be well on your way to having a high-class bird dog.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Eyes or Nose

Have you noticed how differently pups run? Some pups reach for the horizon and chase anything that flies. Other pups work at a closer range, use the wind, and point when they find birds. These differences have a lot to do with whether they use their eyes or their nose.
Several years ago I was visiting a pro trainer in Maine. He had just gotten in a bunch of pups to evaluate, and asked if I wanted to come along and watch. As he took each pup for a run, I followed behind. One of the first pups he worked ran all over the field, and he asked what I thought. I was pretty impressed and told him so, but it was not the answer he was looking for. He asked if I knew why the pup ran so big, and I honestly didn’t know. He explained that the pup was using his eyes and looking for things to chase. He took out another pup, and this one worked a lot closer. As I watched, I noticed he was using the wind and hunting the cover.
After all the pups had run, the pro trainer sat down and explained why it was important to determine the reason a pup runs. “If a pup uses his eyes, he’s going to run bigger. He’s more likely to sight-point, and he loves to chase. This tells me he needs to find birds. I need to develop his nose by working him on birds. If a pup uses his nose, he already knows how to find birds, so I need to develop his run. If I keep working him on birds, he’ll never learn to run. You have to identify the type of pup you are dealing with in order to develop him the right way.”
I forgot about this lesson until a few years ago when I was working two pups from the same litter. They were six months old and complete opposites. The white pup ran big, carried an edge to the end of the field, and loved to point butterflies. The orange pup worked closer, dug into the cover, and quartered when working into the wind. Now I knew why they were so different: One pup was using his eyes and the other was using his nose.
I needed to come up with a plan to develop these pups. Each pup had a weak link—a shortcoming or hole that needed to be fixed before training could advance. I decided to look at the sense each pup was ignoring as their weak link. This made it easy to come up with a plan.
I planted birds in the training field and ran the white pup first so he got into birds. I ran the orange pup second so he had to work harder to find birds. Over time I watched the white pup’s range shorten as he became more interested in hunting the cover and slowed down so he did not outrun his nose. I noticed a change in the orange pup, too; he was running bigger, and sometimes when he really got going, he looked like he was almost getting high from running. By the time they were ten months old their races were almost identical. They ran some and hunted some, and when I entered them in a couple of puppy stakes, they took turns beating each other.
Most pups seem to favor one sense or the other, and it varies between littermates as well as pups of different breeds. Regardless of which sense your pup favors, you can help him learn to use both sight and smell to find birds. If you watch an experienced bird dog hunt, you will see him shift from one sense to the other, depending on the situation. You may even see him perk up his ears to listen for other clues. By studying your pup and watching why he runs, you will be able to figure out if he uses his eyes or his nose, and once you know his weak link, you will know what you need to do to develop him the right way.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Stroking the Tail

An ad in a recent issue of American Brittany magazine featured a photo of a big-time horseback trainer stroking the tail of a dog on point. The ad copy stated that the trainer was looking for dogs for summer camp. I looked at the ad and thought, What kind of message is this ad sending?
In the 1990s, I had an opportunity to train with Dave Walker. He had a rule: You never touched the tail while a dog was on point. It may be argued that this rule matters more to trainers working Brittanys, since they are a softer breed, but it goes hand in hand with the Bill West training method: The bird is the teacher, and the trainer stays out of the way. If you think about it, most good bird dogs seem to go into a trance when they are on point. It has to be distracting to have someone messing with their tails, and it can cause problems.
Last summer, a field trialer brought a couple of setters here to work in the training field. He was teaching them to be steady, and I noticed that every time one of his dogs went on point, he walked up and stroked the tail before walking in to flush. One of his dogs became obviously uncomfortable at his approach and started flagging. He began stroking her tail and the flagging went away. He thought he was fixing the problem; he didn’t realize he was actually causing it.
Dave Walker’s advice stuck with me, and over the years I’ve learned that the time to stroke a dog’s tail is not when the dog is on point, but when he no longer has scent of the bird and is watching it fly off. Stroking the tail as the dog watches the bird fly serves a purpose. It helps the dog remain calm, and at the same time praises him for standing still. It also creates a special moment between you and your dog that can be particularly important for field trial dogs which are not rewarded with birds being killed.
I would wager that one reason why amateur trainers stroke the tails of their dogs on point is because they see pro trainers doing it, just like in the American Brittany magazine ad, and they think it’s the right thing to do. Now, there are times when even the best pro trainers do this; something may be going on with the dog, and the trainer believes that stroking the tail is called for. But when pro trainers do it, they do it for a specific purpose, not just because the dog is on point.
The more dogs you work, the more you’ll begin to recognize how each dog is different. Some dogs love to watch birds fly; it’s a reward for them, and stroking their tails helps to reinforce this experience, and gives them a reason to remain standing. Other dogs are less visual, but they can learn to appreciate birds in the air by having their tails stroked as they watch.
When you begin formal training, if your dog is too excited to watch the bird fly, try gently stopping him with the check-cord once he has put the bird in the air so that he has time to watch it fly off. As your dog becomes more interested in watching and starts focusing on birds in the air, begin to stroke his tail. You will notice that you’re helping him remain calm, and at the same time, praising him for standing still. By waiting until your dog no longer has scent of the bird, you are building his confidence rather than taking away his intensity. And as you and your dog progress through the training process, these quiet moments you share with your dog will help him become steady.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Verbal Command or E-collar: Use One or the Other

Besides a pinch-collar and check-cord, you also use verbal commands and an e-collar to train your pointing dog. It’s important to use one or the other—a verbal command or the e-collar—but not at the same time. A good example is the whoa command. If your dog is creeping or under a bird, it takes a lot of self-discipline not to yell “Whoa!” at the same time you correct your dog with the e-collar. Unfortunately, if you use them together very often, your dog may learn to associate the e-collar with the word whoa, and he can begin to blink birds.
About ten years ago, I interviewed seven pro trainers for The Brittany: Amateurs Training with Professionals. I asked Ben Lorenson to talk about the problem of blinking. At the time, his response surprised me. He said, “Nine times out of ten, it’s the misuse of the whoa command.” He gave an example of a dog on point that had started to creep: “The dog starts to creep and the trainer says, ‘Whoa,’ and corrects the dog with the e-collar at the same time. It doesn’t take long before the dog starts leaving the bird, because he thinks every time he hears whoa he’s going to get hit with the e-collar. He’s not blinking the bird; he’s blinking the word whoa. The best way to avoid this situation is by not getting into the habit of using whoa around birds in the first place.”
Recently, I watched a training buddy do something similar. His dog had knocked a bird and was under it, chasing hard. He started yelling “Whoa” at the same time he was correcting the dog with the e-collar. Using whoa and the e-collar simultaneously is a natural reaction, especially when you’re upset with your dog and don’t have time to think about what you are doing. Again, this combination can get you into trouble. Your dog may start to associate whoa with stimulation and think he’s going to be corrected any time you say the word whoa.
Another combination is using the e-collar and the here command. If you call “Here” and your dog does not respond, a natural reaction is to correct him at the same time you’re calling him to you. While you can avoid using whoa around birds, you cannot avoid using here, but you can develop good timing for the verbal command and e-collar correction. Good timing includes giving your dog a chance to respond to the verbal command before you correct him with the e-collar. If you practice doing one or the other, your timing will improve, and you’ll build good habits.
Last summer, I was reminded of a similar combination that uses the e-collar and the fetch command. It’s easy to have a dog on a force-fetch table and ask him to fetch. When he refuses, you repeat the command at the same time you nick him with the e-collar. If you use them together, your dog may begin to blink the bumper. While you cannot avoid using fetch, you can learn to give your dog time to respond to the command before correcting him with the e-collar.
There are so many pitfalls in dog training, and most are predictable. Good trainers learn to avoid these situations by developing good habits. Just like a responsible bird hunter learns never to point a shotgun at anyone, whether it’s loaded or unloaded, a good trainer learns to avoid those situations that are likely to go south, and quickly.
With the Bill West method, you learn to stay quiet around birds. This good habit helps you avoid using whoa and the e-collar at the same time. Giving your dog time to respond to a verbal command before using the e-collar helps keep you focused on your timing and builds good habits for the here and fetch commands. Sometimes just knowing what may happen can help you avoid it. By learning to use one or the other—the verbal command or the e-collar—you will end up with a happy dog that loves his work.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Living with Your Mistakes

Anyone that trains a dog makes mistakes. Some mistakes are bigger than others, and sometimes you do harm that cannot be undone. Living with your mistakes is part of becoming a good dog trainer.
Bill West began a seminar in Arizona by telling the audience that he’d made more mistakes than everyone there, combined. It was Bill’s way of saying that making mistakes is part of dog training; the more dogs you train, the more mistakes you’ll make. Unfortunately, the fear of making mistakes may hold some amateur trainers back. Some are afraid to use too much e-collar, while others let their dogs get away with bad behaviors because they are afraid to fix them. Both situations can create more problems. To quote Maurice Lindley, “If you aren’t making a few mistakes, you aren’t training hard enough.”
I was working a young dog last summer that had a ton of prey drive and too much desire to chase. After a couple of months, I got really tired of it and turned up the e-collar to see if I could get him to slow down as he was chasing. As soon as I tapped him with the e-collar, I knew I’d overdone it. To say I felt lousy was an understatement. The next day, I was thinking about how surprised I was by his reaction, and for the first time, I realized he was soft when it came to the e-collar. I backed up and shot some birds for him, dropped down a couple of intensity levels on the e-collar, and tried to use the check-cord as often as I could for corrections. It took about a month, and he got through it. I sure felt bad, but I’d learned an important lesson: A dog can be tough around game and at the same time be very soft with the e-collar. I will try not to make the same mistake again.
Anytime you feel you are in over your head, it’s important to ask a pro trainer for help. At a recent seminar of Maurice’s, a training buddy of mine asked Maurice about a problem her dog was having. Instead of pointing, this dog had gotten bad about diving in and trying to catch the bird. Her training birds were not flying well, and the dog had succeeded in catching some of them, and, as a result, had started to regress. Maurice worked the dog on a couple of birds and said he knew what to do to fix the problem; however, he told my friend she had to realize there was a good chance the dog might start blinking (avoiding game). He asked if she wanted to risk it, and she said yes.
Maurice worked the dog on a bird, and when the dog made a dive for it, Maurice waited until the bird was in the air and the dog was chasing it. Then, he came down hard on her with the e-collar. The dog yelped and came around. Not knowing how the dog had handled the correction, Maurice worked her on a second bird. He wanted to see if she would blink it or point it. Fortunately, the workout ended on a happy note with the dog pointing, and when he worked her the next day, she had two beautiful broke finds. Afterwards, Maurice cautioned my friend, saying: “Don’t attempt to fix a problem, especially with the e-collar, if you aren’t equipped to deal with the additional problem you might create.”
Dog training is guesswork. The more experience you have, the better your guesses will be. The hard reality is, you will make a lot of mistakes as you gain experience. Make your best guess and watch the dog; the dog will tell you if you guessed right. And, if you guessed wrong, step back and try to understand what happened.
If you think you’re in over your head, ask a pro trainer for help, as my friend did. Although my friend’s outcome was a happy one, it’s important to understand that this is not always the case. Her dog might have started blinking, and then my friend would have felt terrible. To her credit, she had given the dog a good foundation; even if Maurice had guessed wrong, there was still a good chance the dog would have been fine because the foundation was solid.
Accept that you are going to make mistakes. Take these mistakes as opportunities to learn and move on. As hard as it may be sometimes, living with your mistakes is an important part of becoming a good dog trainer.