Reading Your Gun Dog, Part 2
September 23, 2010
More tips on understanding the signals he sends.
Not "reading" and interpreting correctly many years back almost caused the ruination of one of the better hunting English setters I've been privileged to gun over. I was the guilty trainer.
Observing and understanding your dog's actions around game will help him do the job right.
Speck's owner, a corporate executive, transferred from Arkansas to Wisconsin. He brought the pleasing, personable 60-pound setter out to the club I was running to be trained and boarded.
"Speck's done good work on quail," his owner told me. "But he hasn't seen pheasant one. While I'm up here, I want to use him when I entertain customers at the club and out in the Dakotas. Think you can get him trained on pheasant in a month or two?" I said I'd try.
As it turned out, it took less than two weeks before Speck was ready to be taken out with customers. But he came within a tail wag of being washed out because I didn't understand what he was telling me.
Without detailing what caused the misinterpretation, as I was to discover, Speck had inherited some "herding instinct" that led him to "rounding up" running birds. This is a great trait in a practical bird dog. But it can't be taught. If not born with it, a few real smart cookies learn how to do it with a lot of exposure to game.
The crux of Speck's performance was this. If a pheasant sat tight, Speck held tight. But when one sneaked off, he'd break point on his own hook, make a sweep around to head it off and then point and pin the sneaky bird between him and me.
When we started, however, I'd gotten disgusted with the frequent times he pointed solid, then flagged his tail — presumably indicating he had either false pointed initially, or — after he moved out to the side — was actually avoiding birds he knew to be there. I thought I had a blinker on my hands — a dog that deliberately avoided birds.
Fortunately, out of sheer curiosity, after he had "left his birds" numerous times, when he semi-circled out to the right (after breaking off his point) and then, when headed in toward me again looked up facing me, I walked in toward him. A hen flushed, five yards from his nose. The light dawned and I got the message. Up until then, I'd been misreading the setter.
The three of us, Speck, his owner and I got on famously from then on. When a bird stayed put, Speck locked up intense and solid. Once it started sneaking off, he'd flag his tail, letting me know what was happening. I'd just lay back and let him do his thing, and he'd circle out, head off the bird, and point back toward me — a clever strategy that repeatedly paid off.
A 'Must-have' skill
The above example illustrates how vitally important it is to correctly read and interpret a gun dog's actions around game and how implementing what you've "read" will assist your dog in getting the job done right; not hinder his training or mess up a great piece of work on his part.
So, by all means, soak up all the knowledge you can regarding this aspect of hunting with your dog, apply what seems reasonable to you and 'invent' your own techniques. Bear in mind, however, that while staunch points and backs are the piece de resistance of bird-dogging, time spent around birds doesn't make up five percent of the time you spend afield with your dog.
Therefore, it is even more important that you be able to read your dog while he is running and that you time your commands, praise, shouts and signals so they coincide with that 'window of response' when a dog is most likely to respond. What I can offer should at least alert you to how to make worthwhile the 95 percent of your time while your dog is seeking game.
If you spend time with your dog, 'get next to him' and observe his actions from puppyhood on. You can't help but reach some conclusions about when as well as how he responds. Not enough emphasis can ever be put on walking your pup, not aimlessly or haphazardly but with a purpose and pattern that will simulate the manner in which you proceed when you are hunting. 'Walking' a gun dog properly is a most important training technique, even if neither dog nor handler recognizes it.
Aimlessly strolling with a dog or 'just giving him some exercise' is virtually certain to result in a dog eventually doing one of two things. The 'happy-to-be-near-you' type will lollygag along, tripping your every other step and will wind up about as useful at bird finding as a full-choke shotgun loaded with double-aught buckshot is at shooting them.
Conversely, an eager, independent dog that requires control and curbing rather than urging and encouragement, will wind up as a much cussed out 'run-off s.o.b' who finds birds a hunter couldn't walk up himself in places remote from the hunter but never located because an erratic 'hunting' pattern gives no clue as to where the dog might be when he collides with bird scent.
On The Same Page
Whether a hunter's personal choice favors close working, medium ranging or big running bird dogs, he's got to get a handle on that dog in order to enjoy decent hunting in the style to which he is accustomed. Some hunters want their pointing dogs well within gun range all the time. A few want them consistently stretching out for between one-eighth to a quarter-mile, 220-440 yards.
Most would be happy with what I call a '100-yard dog,' applying itself 75-125 yards from the hunter, occasionally shortening to 50 yards when cover, conditions and birds warrant, or 'reaching out' in open country 200-500 yards, with frequent 'checking in.'
Good gun dogs 'check in' in two different ways, both of which are highly desirable.
Most hunters are familiar with a dog disappearing for a short time and then popping up out of cover to visually locate the hunter, perhaps approaching to 'get the word' or independently casting off in search of more birdy cover.
For the most part, hunters are less familiar with dogs that 'check in' with their handlers utilizing audible sounds to get their bearings. Close cover dogs, particularly in solid blocks of dense woodcock and ruffed grouse cover, often can be out of sight of the hunter.
These dogs, especially if they are of a cooperative nature, will stop from time to time to listen for the sounds hunters can't avoid making while 'busting brush.' Once oriented they will move on, secure in the knowledge that they aren't lost, and they will continue to 'do their thing' until they are otherwise directed.
The best of handlers can occasionally 'lose a dog,' but inept handlers seem plagued by 'lost dogs.' Only rarely is the dog bewildered. (This is the origin of the saying, 'Your dog wasn't lost; you lost your dog.') Hunters, therefore, should continue to move through cover, even if they don't always know where their dogs are or what they are doing.
You can cause your dog to get disoriented and lost by frequently stopping 'to let him catch up' or 'to let him find me.' Whether in training or actually hunting, it is counter-productive to dawdle and wait around on a dog. Brisk, purposeful hiking will result in crisp bird work rather than belabored pottering.
Using a beeper collar, certainly one of the greatest training gadgets invented, will allow you to check this out when your dog stops, whether in close where you can keep track of him by the sounds he's making or if he's reached out beyond the snap, crackle, pop of thick cover. It will make a much better handler of you and keep your dog on track.
When the 'in motion' mode of the beeper quits and the 'on point' mode kicks in, immediately start walking toward the sound and as you move toward your unseen, stationary dog, speak to him--'good boy,' 'nice girl' or whatever. Whether the dog has actually found a bird makes no difference.
You are encouraging him because he certainly has done right in finding and pointing (if he has, in fact, located a bird). But if he hasn't found a bird, he has also done right by stopping to attempt to zero in on your location. If only the latter, he will resume moving when he locates you. When the 'in motion' sounds off again, you resume your hunting. If the 'on point' sound continues and your dog is staunch on point, go right to him, flush and shoot a bird for him.
This is just one of the many applications beeper collars have in the training/hunting of bird dogs. As in 'reading' your dog, you must also 'read' the beeper collar and interpret, by an educated guess based upon experience, what's happening out there.
Beeper collars are to an experienced bird hunter and dog handler what the Braille system is for educated blind people. And even for the adversely challenged when it comes to experience and interpretation, experimentation with the beeper collar 'alphabet' will lead to translation chapter and verse of good dog handling.
In the June/July issue, a correspondent asked Dave Duffey to explain what a pro trainer meant when the pro told the correspondent he needed to learn how to 'read' his dog.
Dave described the basics that will enable a handler to understand his dog's actions while afield, and in this column he provides more details on how to interpret those actions correctly.