September 23, 2010
If I've read right what you've advised, you think paying a big price for a well-trained dog or a little less for a "started" dog (whatever that is) is a good investment. I tend to agree. I love to hunt with a bird dog, but I'm better off tagging along with a buddy who has one, not being much for training or having a lot of time to do it.
Although pointing a wing on a string is just "puppy stuff" and not serious training, there's no question it's fun for both the pup and its owner.
From your past articles, I already know what you'll recommend. But most of the time I wonder if you guys writing about dogs know what you're talking about. Do you train your own dogs or buy 'em trained or pay somebody else? Or do you sell trained dogs?
I guess I don't trust pro dog trainers so I ought to start with a puppy of my own.
Whether you're out of the business or if the money still means something to you, because you have to be a pretty old coot (if you've been around for as long as my dad's been reading your columns) maybe you'll give an honest answer. --Ohio
In my admittedly long tenure on terra firma, I've managed to commit some grievous sins, quite a few of which age makes indulging my inclinations difficult. But BSing about bird dogs has not been one of them.
Since you say that you already know what I'd recommend, I'll save that for a bit later for possible benefit of others who might consider a gun dog trained by someone else, rather than taking on the work involved in starting and finishing a dog from puppyhood on.
In answer to the direct questions (regarding some verification that I know what I'm talking about) and your professed distrust of pro dog trainers, right now I'm only marginally in the business. Perhaps that makes me slightly trustworthy. Just a few years back, I'd have been more suspect: perhaps viewing you as a prospective training client, trying to sell you a pup or well-started dog or, as I continue to do, offering to help you train your own dog€¦for a reasonable fee or because I like you. My repeat clients were numerous and all gun dog types or breeds were involved.
Besides training almost all of my personal strings of 10-20 hunting dogs of various breeds and raising litters, I have purchased pups, started and trained dogs and occasionally sent individual dogs to other pro trainers for work; largely because of a belief that those who read the stuff I wrote about dogs might benefit from speculation and advice based upon broad, well-rounded personal experience with the subject matter, rather than an untested or unqualified repeat of someone else's research, theory or opinion.
I hope the knowledge of how pros work qualifies me to assert that your blanket condemnation of gun dog trainers is taken not just as a personal insult, but a "putting down" of a lot of good friends. My association and friendship since the 1940s with such pioneer retriever trainers as Chuck Morgan, Martin Hogan and Orin Benson and a host of other retriever, spaniel, pointing and versatile breed specialists today (who could and can get more out of dogs in their charge than I ever hoped to) taught me to appreciate honest and hard working professionals.
It is possible to find a deceptive dog trainer (or dog writer) who blows smoke. I'd be BSing you if I told you every dog trainer I've met was Simon Pure. So I'll stick to my promise. There are crooked and venal pros in every profession. But the percentage in dog training (where the work is harder and the pay lower) certainly doesn't exceed and may be measurably lower than among some vaunted professions.
Achieving a finished performance with any gun dog requires a major investment in time, effort and birds...lots and lots of birds.
Some "dog writers" pass on a wealth of misinformation, not because they're deliberate prevaricators or purloin pennies from the eye sockets of the deceased. It's a matter of having others do their work and then being trusting or gullible enough to believe everything published or preached is gospel.
It requires skepticism, time and money to "check out" reasonable or wild assertions, but sometimes only a catchy "lead" and some theory is required to sell an article to an editor whose wife owns a Chihuahua or Shih Tzu.
That out of the way, let's get to the tainted advice you requested. Your self-description qualifies you as a leading candidate for a gun dog well trained or started. You must ask yourself one question if you are debating starting off with a pup or getting an adult trained to one degree or another by a pro or talented amateur friend: "When hunting, which is more important to me--the performance of the dog or any of the other factors like companionship, good shooting, etc., that contribute to a successful day afield?"
Unless you opt for the dog's performance, if at all affordable you should seriously consider having someone else develop a dog you are going to enjoy. This is even better advice today than it was 50-60 years ago when I started saying it. Training, maintaining and hunting with a dog is not only costly; it requires facilities no longer readily available for most hunters.
Grounds and birds are as vital to developing a gun dog as training technique. So is frequent and hard hunting by the owner after the dog returns from training. Any pro worth his salt has grounds and birds.
If you have successfully trained a dog in the past, chances are you've been bitten by the bug that causes you to declare, "I wouldn't get to shoot many birds or maybe wouldn't do much hunting at all unless I'm shooting over my own gun dog!" Then you definitely want to get a pup and take it all the way.
This does not preclude you considering an already started or well-trained sporting dog. But you won't be really satisfied with anything but your own canine gunning companion, regardless of how proficient a friend or a guide's dog is. It's certainly worth a try. It can be done if you are diligent, determined and your thing is hunting with a good bird dog.
There are modern day substitutes for those comparatively wide-open spaces of yesteryear and an abundance of game. A couple generations from now, they may be the only venue for trained gun dog activities€¦field tests and field trials, w
hich are simulated hunts; plus extended live bird shooting seasons on licensed lands; often called preserve or game farm hunting because artificially propagated game is released for hunters who pay for it.
In conjunction with dog training, I guided for and managed hunt clubs, utilizing the availability of as many birds as I was able to pay for in a natural setting up to the present. A big part of successful training is being able to "set up" your dog so you have some control over both the quarry and the dog, something virtually impossible in wild bird situations. Then, once the dog has absorbed his (to him) realistic lessons, birds can be released either by "planting" them or "flighting" them.
If you observe where the flying birds lit or where they were tucked into cover, you can "steer" your dog into those areas as you would on a marked bird which you shot at and missed or which flushed wild. If your hunting field is stocked and you haven't watched when birds were put out, you hunt just as you would when in a new area on native birds.
To a dog, a bird is a bird is a bird€¦something only infrequently encountered in catch-as-catch-can covert shooting. Dogs need birds, and more than they can find if they get only incidental training only while the season is open.
Every serious hunt-with-my-own-dog sportsman ought to belong to a licensed hunting club to give both himself and his dog a break when it comes to developing one fine bird dog. Use of released birds sets the stage for more enjoyment of every wild bird hunt you can go on. You'll find game and your trained dog won't embarrass you in front of companions. You'll have worked all that out between you and Honest Abe or Axis Sally while training on the game farm birds.
Don't, however, assume that just because a gun dog passes muster on preserve birds that he'll automatically become a fine wild bird dog. That will be largely up to you; how many exposures you afford him and what the native game crop is that year. But while he must learn to find and handle warier wildfowl, no amount of work on liberated game will worsen his performance on the "real thing," which doesn't put up with marching up close and crowding (if you shoot over pointing breeds) or just sit tight and enable a flushing breed to zero in and boost him from his form.
At worst, you might wind up with a "preserve dog." There's nothing wrong with that. You may actually, by choice, find yourself doing more hunting on liberated game than wild, faced with modern impediments to hunting. "Free" hunting is being replaced by fee hunting.
I'd be tempted to bet the farm that today, with few western state exceptions, more "tame" than "wild" game is shot in the U.S. Conversely, there are some great "wild bird" dogs. But the drive and range that produces game in sparsely populated covers makes them disasters in a restricted, heavily stocked preserve shooting situations.
But when you've started with a pup and lived through the training you've shared together (with your pup's introduction to hunting and subsequent development) it makes no difference whether a fellow patron of a good hunting club near home or a guest on that annual wild bird trip classifies Abe or Sally as a "preserve dog" or a "wild bird dog."
When, after a complimented piece of work, someone asks, "Who trained that dog anyway?" there's no thrill that buzzes through the gut of a dog-loving bird hunter like being able to respond, "I did!"
I wanted a pup, but the breeding didn't take and I settled for a nine-month-old yellow Labrador retriever, now four years old. I can't complain about her when hunting just with me. She has a good nose and retrieves naturally. But I can't hunt with anybody else
I don't care who it is. She gets along fine with other dogs, but if there's somebody else in the field with us, she just quits and walks behind me. She's just terribly shy around people. Why is this and can I train her out of this? I'm almost 75, so I have time to train. --Wisconsin
In a nutshell, I can only speculate on the "why." I'm sorry to have to advise that it's unlikely you will get this fixed in time to share much quality time with your friends afield. You may, after retirement, have immediate "time on your hands." But have you looked over your shoulder recently?
I've got about five years on you. During the next five years, you'll often succumb to looking back to see if "time's winged chariot is drawing nigh." Don't waste what years are granted by trying to rehabilitate a spooky gun dog before mortality catches up with you.
You've offered no solid clues as to what caused your Lab's distaste for strangers so I'll guess. My speculation will also explain why my best advice to sportsmen getting a new dog is to pick out puppies before the age of 12 weeks; or when buying an older dog, represented as "started" or "trained," to demand a decent demonstration. I hope the educational aspect of this surmise softens the harshness of consigning you to a hermit's role, with only your dog afield with you.
The large and reputable kennel where you obtained your dog is certainly not a puppy mill. It is, however, devoted more to breeding dogs for sale than it is for training. What probably happened is that your Lab at nine months may have been last of a leftover litter. Attention and training she should have had probably was lacking. Natural ability and genetics would account for the nose and "natural" retrieving that you mentioned.
Only you know whether you bought a "pig in a poke" or were satisfied by what the seller told and showed you.
What likely was absent in her case was the acclimating and conditioning during the early weeks of her life, literally from human hands. While human input was lacking, as a member of a "slow to move" litter your pup had a heavy dose of interplay between herself and other pups in the pack. By the time you got her, she had been dog acclimated, but was spooked by the strangeness of humans.
There is also a flip side to the "get a pup before 12 weeks of age" dictum. Beyond that age, training should have started; which can allay some of the consequences. But the expectation is high that un-tempered with frequent human contact, a waif pup will be an idiot and outlaw or, in your instance, a goblin, spooked by people in single or multiple encounters, but at ease in a pack.
However, taking a pup from its dam and its littermates prior to seven weeks of age (and smothering it with love) is likely to guarantee a dog that doesn't get along with strange dogs, thinks it's a person and acts like it.
If you don't have grandkids or neighborhood children around, you may figure it's worth putting up with or trying to socialize your dog by exposure to people in varied situations. Nobody practices what's preached without exception. But avoiding spooky dogs in the first place and rarely find
ing it worthwhile to devote time to them is a rule worth considering.
Also remember, shy, flighty and quirky dogs are unbalanced. "Angst beissere" (the German call them) are not inherently mean, just scared or overly apologetic. Lawsuits stem from resulting anxiety bites and nips.