Steady As She Goes
September 23, 2010
Birds taken with a dog that does everything right are the ones you remember the most.
Staunchness--holding a point until the gunner arrives to flush the bird--is a requisite among pointing dogs.
Blue grouse typically remain in broods until early October, but the big males are true bachelors, living a life of lonely isolation deep in the forest primeval. So when my Brittany pointed a male not far from the open parks the family groups usually inhabit, I was doubly surprised: first, that we'd found a cock so far from the woods; and second, that Powder broke at my buddy's shot and ran the bird down. I'd spent all the previous summer steadying her to wing and shot, and enough was enough. I picked her up, hauled her back to the scene of the crime and set her where she belonged. "Whoa," I growled, hoping the tone of my voice was fraught with implications.
It must have worked. In the next two hours, we put up four more singles as well as a brood of five or six--a hell of a good day for blues--and she never broke again, never budged.
Call it steady, call it staunch--technically there's a difference but I'm not a technical guy--so let's just call it fully trained, a finished gun dog. By my reckoning, a finished dog whoas, heels, backs, comes when called, retrieves, serves up a reasonably dry martini, and last, is steady to wing and shot. So, you may well ask, have my dogs always lived up to this ideal? And to that I would answer: Ha.
In fact, the dogs I now own are the first ever. None of my previous pointers was steady, although for what it's worth, I've come close.
My last pair of bird puppies--like the current pair, also a setter and a Brittany--were steady as a rock on pigeons, but somehow, by the time the season rolled around, hunting got in the way of training, one thing led to another, and before long both of the little connivers were up to their old tricks, which meant that, as near as I could tell, they figured they could chase a flushed bird until it fell exhausted from the sky or one or the other of them ran into a tree. They would return on the whistle, but that's not the same as steady.
Of course, all the foregoing begs the question: If it's so much trouble, why make them steady to begin with? Is it really necessary? There's a long and a short answer to that question, and the short answer is "no." But we're going to explore the long answer today, because that's what I get paid to do.
Maybe I've lived a sheltered existence, but until recently, I don't recall ever hunting with anyone who had an honest-to-God, bedrock-steady pointing dog. I've trained dogs with men and women who owned steady dogs--quite a few of them, in fact--but as for actually hunting with someone whose dog was reliably steady'¦well, it just doesn't seem to figure in the average bird hunter's idea of the good life. In fact, an awful lot of the dogs I've hunted over were on the edge of control, or completely off the deep end, dogs that paid no more attention to their owner's shrill screams than they paid to the morning commodities report.
"Steady to wing and shot" wasn't an obscure concept to the owners of these dogs, particularly those who had taken the time to mold their charges into reasonably compliant animals. Rather, it simply wasn't deemed necessary. And truth be told, I agree with them. No law says you have to steady up your pointing dog. None of your hunting buddies will notice if you don't. And if your dog hunts hard, finds birds and makes you happy, who am I or anyone else to say that's not good enough?
But one of the curious things about growing older is that, although my memory is about shot, I can clearly remember how much I dislike chasing my dogs all over creation. So I made the decision two years ago to steady up the ground troops.
The pro-steady guys, a group that in my experience seems comprised almost entirely of people who hunt and trial their dogs, have several justifications for feeling the way they do. In the "maybe, maybe not" category is the rationale that a steady dog is much better at marking multiple falls. My question is, what multiple falls? I can't remember the last time I shot a multiple anything. Okay, so I'm not the world's best shot, but this still sounds to me like a reason the pointer folks appropriated from the retriever folks, whose dogs are of necessity more in tune with multiple retrieves.
On the other hand, a quite valid reason is that low-flying birds can be dangerous. Case in point: A couple years ago, a friend brought an acquaintance to our training session at a local preserve. The man was new to shooting and new to bird dogs, and wanted to warm up on preserve birds before the season opened. Fine.
But the morning dawned gray and drizzling, and the pheasants we had bought were drenched from the wet grass and poor flyers, making feeble hops of 10 or 20 yards before fluttering back in again. This was more than my young setter could take, and every second or third bird she'd bolt and give chase.
I'd warned the newcomer not to shoot at low fliers, but the temptation to shoot--he'd paid for most of the birds, after all--proved too great, and finally he let fly 15 feet in front of my setter's nose. In that instant, years of theoretical arguments both for and against steadying went out the window, and the one undeniable advantage of a steady dog became crystal clear.
Firmly in the anti-steady camp are bunches of people who claim they want their dog on a wounded pheasant the moment it hits the ground. I give a certain amount of credence to this viewpoint, particularly if you're a dyed-in-the-wool roosterhead. A few years back, for instance, Rabbit, the setter I owned then, charged across an overgrazed cow pasture and stuck a rooster under the eroding bank of a creek. The bird flushed straight up through a tangle of snowberries and wild rose, and to the amazement of passersby, I managed to hit it. But I didn't hit it hard, and it did a cartwheel into the cropped-off grass 30 yards downwind, thrashing around in the dirt just long enough to get its bearings.
It was clawing for traction when, out of the corner of my eye, I spied a black and white blur. Rabbit came hurtling by, slammed into the bird at full speed, and the ensuing battle reminded me of nothing so much as the 1960s-era cartoon of the whirling Tasmanian devil I used to watch as a kid. When the dust settled, Rabbit had the still kicking rooster in her mouth, some well-earned scratches on her muzzle and a defiant look in her eye.
But pheasants are one thing; almost every other game bird is another. Most birds will run if they're wounded, but I've rarely found that such behavior presents a serious problem. Instead, if a bird is obviously wing-tipped, I give my dogs an immediate command to fetch, and the delay amount
s to seconds at most.
So how do you decide what is best? I couldn't decide either until I had a talk with Randy Setzer, a friend who has trained springers and Labs for years.
We discussed my dilemma. He agreed that a steady upland dog--no matter the breed--wasn't a necessity. "But Dave," he told me, "once you've hunted over a finished gun dog, it's hard to go back."
That clinched it for me.
I didn't think getting my dogs on the bandwagon would be that difficult. After all, I'd steadied them on planted pigeons the year before, when, as I mentioned earlier, I'd dropped the ball. And now, thanks to coaching from George Hickox, I'd reformulated my game plan. First, I'd steady them to shot by commanding "whoa" immediately after firing a starting pistol. Then I'd steady them to flush by running them through a field and releasing pigeons (from a bird bag) at random. The moment the dog spied the bird, I'd command "whoa," then reinforce it if necessary with a tap on the collar. In the final stage, I'd bring the dog in on a planted bird, command "whoa" and, upon the flush and shot, correct it if it broke. It worked.
Of course, nothing about dogs ever goes as planned for long. Scarlet and Powder, little opportunists that they are, would break every fourth or fifth bird, evidently to see if I was paying attention. Because I was paying attention, they finally got the message, and it wasn't long before I could trust them to hold for five or six minutes at a stretch. Later, we went to a preserve and shot a couple dozen pheasants over each, and after some minor glitches on the retrieving end, they did just fine.
But in the canine view of the world, preserve birds and wild birds are mutually exclusive concepts. In my innocence, I expected my dogs to behave on a real hunt like they'd been behaving all summer.
I'm convinced dogs know when your attention is elsewhere and invariably choose those moments to blow up in your face. On our first couple hunts of last season, Powder and Scarlet both broke on about every bird the two of them pointed. It didn't matter which one made the find; as soon as the lead dog broke, the backing dog went over the hill with her. This turn of events was not included in my rosy scenario, but the dogs could not have cared less about my expectations. It finally dawned on me that I could continue in the same vein and waste yet another summer's worth of training, or I could temporarily forego shooting and work with the dogs until they got it right.
Once you've hunted over a steady dog, you'll never go back.
Putting down my gun was the best decision I ever made. Within two or three weeks I had both of them back on track, where, with periodic reminders, they remain to this day.
But the periodic reminders are a fact of life. When my Brit stuck a grouse just off a logging road last week, I moved in, my buddy's young setter tiptoeing in behind me. I spied the bird perched on a rock 10 feet from Powder's nose. So of course I missed bigger than Dallas when it flushed. Powder broke, chased it a few feet and then stopped when I whoaed her. Some dogs break themselves of chasing birds and some chase them forever. I wasn't going to take the chance. I laid down my gun, picked her up and carried her back where she belonged.
An hour passed before she found another single. I glanced up just as she slammed to a stop from a dead run, and a second later the bird flushed. I wing-tipped it 30 yards out, and as it fluttered to earth, I could see Powder's eyes bulge, but she stayed rooted to the spot. When I released her she was on the bird in an instant, and she brought it to her beaming master a moment later, a proud little dog.