Monday, November 2, 2009

Getting ready for the wild birds...working with dogs.


November 14th marks the opening of the Caifornia general pheasant season. By now I would guess most hunters have their dogs trained up and in good shape, reservations made (for private or public lands), cobwebs knocked off the shotgun, and the reflexes in peak condition. Right?

This past Saturday, me, my dad, and a close friend of his, along with dad's two labs, went up to the Black Point Sports Club, just outside of Novato to give the dogs some more shooting time over planted birds. It also gave us a chance to get tuned up for shooting at something somewhat less predictable than a sporting clay. The morning met us with some dense fog, which didn't fully lift until 9am. The club owners let us into the fields around 8:30, declaring visibility to be safe for the conditions. Dad's yellow lab, Valentino ('Tino) did well for an 11-month old dog (he was also trained at this club, 'camp' or 'boot camp' as I like to call it.) We shot 4 birds over him and he did excellent work on the flushing and the retrieves. He has some work left to really become a prime hunter, but my uninformed opinion says he's well on the way to being an excellent working dog.

The last hour of the hunt was spent working with the chocolate lab, Bravo. He's the senior dog, hunts like a pro and is one of those dogs that works with you as a partner (aside from his rare bouts of canine intractability.) I kicked up a rooster that he hadn't found and was too slow on the swing. Luckily dad's friend John was on the ball and put the bird down in a ditch. With a little direction, Bravo went into the ditch, found the bird and brought him back. He's one heck of a dog - watching him work is watching a living definition of 'heart', in the idiomatic sense.

Sometimes Bravo ranges a little further than dad prefers, though (again in my uninformed opinion) he seems to intuitively know when to turn himself back so as to stay within shotgun range. But the more I've thought about it today and yesterday, I see dad's point - the dog has a tendency to work the very edges of an acceptable range. If he flushes a bird, you might get one quick shot before you may as well just wave goodbye to that rooster and go find another.

'Tino, on the other hand, is still a pup. He's developing his senses, his endurance and still getting educated. He has the opposite problem of Bravo at times - he doesn't want to range far at all. He would rather hang out with dad like old buddies, eagerly awaiting a belly rub, a dog biscuit, or some combination thereof. Working 20 or 30 yards apart, we managed to use the whistles to keep him moving both ahead of us and between us, showing him that the idea is to work and cover ground, not hang out next to us. The previous trip he wasn't quite sure of what to do at times, but this outing he really looked to be getting the idea of "cover ground" vs. "cover boots." Like dad said with a smile, "no glue factory for you this time!" While some doubt remains with dad, I think 'Tino will soon work up into another fine bird dog. He just needs a little more time and experience to get the hang of things. At worst, given his calm demeanor (i.e. quasi-laboradorian-comatose), he will make a great duck blind dog once he learns hand signals.

Of course not owning my own bird dog (yet...), this was also a training experience for me. I've hunted with dad since I was a kid, first over German shorthaired pointers (What. A. Rush.) and now over labs. As you watch the dogs work, you learn that 100% of what they communicate to you is via body language - the way a tail is carried, the direction the dog is moving relative to the wind, nose up or nose down, even the pace and stride of the dog. Those things are not too hard to pick up on. The tricky part is being attentive enough to notice when the dog goes from looking for a scent to actually being on a scent to being right on top of a scent. Everything can (and will) change in the literal blink of an eye. If you don't pay attention you'll miss out in two ways. First, you lose opportunities to take a bird and second you miss an opportunity to take that bird and reward the dog for his hard work. Nothing is perfect and sometimes you miss the shot and the dog watches the bird fly off into the marshes. But you hope to make that the exception, not the rule.

Overall both dogs did well, and my shooting is getting warmed up for the wild birds. I'm also learning to better read the dogs and spatially manage everything at once - paying attention to the dogs, paying attention to where I'm walking, keeping my eyes open for roosters that the dogs miss or haven't smelled yet, and of course always maintaining proper firearm safety discipline. In the end, it was a great few hours and a wonderful way to spend a Saturday morning with good company. Naturally, wild birds are a different game. They aren't planted, they tend to be more scarce, they behave differently given the amount of pressure they are under, and sure enough they fly faster than the pen-raised birds. Twelve days to the opener. Everyone is ready. Right?

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