Up the Creek

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We headed up the creek.

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We saw some teal

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Kaia likes them.  alot.

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But they fly away.

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… and we have no gun with us because this is just a little training and recon today.

WE’LL BE BACK!!!

We found a couple of new hazards to mark on the GPS so we don’t run into stuff in the dark.

These aren’t new but, have the flashlight handy when you go through here at 5AM:

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Peck would like to hunt here.  now.  please.

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Maybe this weekend, Peck.  maybe.  😉

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Delta Recon Run

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This will be a short post this morning.  I spent a couple of hours yesterday getting my duck boat ready.  I’m planning to take Peck and Kaia on a little recon run this morning.  We hunt an area in the South end of Puget Sound.  I need to check all our routes and waypoints to make sure nothing has changed too much since last year.  I wouldn’t want to set out all our decoys and get the boat anchored in the pre-dawn only to find as the sun rises, that the boundaries of the refuge have changed or a new building is in place or perhaps someone has set out an anchor buoy and moored a boat in the middle of our hunting spot. 

In preparation for boat hunting, I’ve trained Peck to enter and exit via the platform on the side of the boat.  We did all this in small stages over several days.  The training began with our trusty old canoe because it’s easy to get in and out of.  Later we progressed to the duck boat on land at first, then moved to a nearby lake.  By the way, all this training was done in the summer when the air and water were much warmer.  All of this is “old hat” to Kaia who watches with a bored look as Peck is going through his paces.  She does get excited when we finally move the training to the lake where she can enjoy a good swim.

I’ll bring along a few bumpers so I can throw them a retrieve or 2.  I’m tempted to bring along a fishing rod as well.  Neither of the dogs gets too excited about fishing though, so perhaps it’s better if I limit the “mission creep” and just stick to recon and a few marked retrieves with bumpers.  We’ll see!

Just A Hunting Dog?

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I was attending a dog event last summer and overheard a conversation that I found mildly annoying if not outright insulting.  The gentleman doing most of the talking was asking a small group of dog-people if they knew of a young dog that might be suitable for his friend who “just needed a hunting dog”. 

This gentleman went even further to say that a “field trial washout” might make a good prospect for his friend who was only interested in hunting, not competing in field trials or hunt tests.  The implication being, of course, that hunting dogs were somehow inferior to field trial dogs.  The term, “field trial washout” refers to a dog that has not performed well in his training or in any field trials and could therefore be relegated to the subordinate duty of hunting.

The person making this comment was an experienced handler and participated in both AKC field trials and HRC hunt tests with his dogs.  There is no question that he understands the rules, requirements and rigors that challenge the participants at these events.  What I question is how much he knows about hunting in real-life field situations.

Hunt tests and field trials both have their origins in hunting.  The seminal idea behind both of these sports was to provide some form of objectivity in the measurement of a dog’s ability to do his work.  Unfortunately, the longer these sports exist, the farther they drift from their original intent.  Humans’ egos and fierce competition have driven these games to a place where they are no longer so much a measure of a dog’s abilities as they are a training contest.

This is not to say that these events no longer have value in measuring a dog’s abilities, especially in the lower ranks where the youngest dogs participate.  Here the performance of the dog is a more reliable indicator of his or her natural ability because the dogs haven’t lived long enough to acquire all the training and experience that goes into a 3 or 4 year old dog. 

In the upper ranks of these endeavors, money and human ego become more relevant factors.  The top echelons of these sports are filled with wealthy owners, professional trainers, and professional handlers.  The dogs are carted from one event to the next in large, air conditioned trailers.  With each new title or win these dogs become more valuable.  The pages of dog sport journals are filled with glossy, two-page ads offering fresh or frozen semen for artificial insemination to produce the next generation of super pups that can further the legacy of the sire and stoke the ego of the proud owner.

It is perhaps no wonder that the owner of such a dog would look askance at a mere “hunting dog”.  Having invested thousands upon thousands of dollars in breeding, raising, training and campaigning his champion, he is unable to see the value in a good hunting dog.  This fellow’s idea of hunting is a day spent “afield” at a game farm where there is no competition from the public and risk of injury is carefully assessed and managed by the game-farm owner who is acutely aware of his liability as hundred thousand dollar dogs slash across his field in search of planted birds.

The lowly hunting dog, on the other hand, is cast forth on public land where he and his handler have to deal with other hunters of varying ethics and skill level.  The birds are not planted.  They live in that habitat and they fully intend to continue living there.  Having already escaped coyotes, hawks and other predators, these birds don’t give up easy.  There are hazards everywhere and the hunting dog needs to understand and manage risks like barbed wire, hidden ditches, cliffs, shale slides, raging rivers and wild predators just to name a few of the obvious pitfalls.  None of these hazards are a factor on the trial or test grounds.

About a year ago I was present at an AKC event where I witnessed several dogs run a blind retrieve that was in excess of 250 yards.  For those of you not familiar with the terminology, a blind retrieve, in field trial parlance, is a dead bird planted out of sight before the dog comes to the retrieving line.  The dog must then take an initial line towards the blind and accept direction via hand signals from his handler.  I was very impressed to see several dogs in succession that took the initial line and flew like rockets straight to the blind and returned with equal speed and intensity.  As a measure of training ability, this was an impressive display.  It’s also worthy to note that in over 35 years of bird hunting I have never seen a situation that called for a 250 yard blind retrieve.

My dogs and I find that most of our retrieving happens inside of 50 yards with an occasional bird landing outside 100 yards.  Our biggest challenges come in the form of birds that fall in heavy cover, rivers or creeks, tidewater or below cliffs or other hazards.  Those of us who regularly hunt wild birds expect our dogs to be able to negotiate these and other hazards, with or without our assistance.  On nearly every hunt I find my dogs making retrieves where they are completely out of my sight.  In the areas that I hunt, the cover is so heavy that I cannot imagine being able to see either the bird or the dog at 250 yards.

On a recent hunt, Kaia flushed a ruffed grouse that I shot just as it crossed a good sized stream.  The bird fell in heavy cover on the other side of the creek.  She stopped immediately at the sound of my shot.  When sent for the retrieve, she had to get through a barbed wire fence, crawl down a steep bank, thread her way through some nasty sticker bushes, cross the creek, and find the bird in thick brush without my help.  Her return was just as smart and graceful as she once again negotiated each hazard while carefully holding our prize.  Upon reaching me she went to the heel position and held the bird up for me to take as she looked me straight in the eyes.

Of course it would be an impressive display of dog talent and training ability to run 250 yard blinds on a regular basis.  But we’re just “hunters” or perhaps “field trial washouts”.  Of course there are other ways to look at this so, as always, your comments are welcome whether you’re a field trial veteran or “just a hunter”.

Seven Surefire Ways to Spot Another Dog Fanatic

You can easily imagine the scenario:  you’re stuck in a waiting room at the local clinic or maybe the DMV.  The magazines are all at least 3 years old.  The radio is playing some jazz-stylized versions of hair band hits from the eighties.  The woman sitting next to you is focusing her meager attention on something of incredible importance on her so called smart phone while completely ignoring her 3 preschool aged children as they terrorize your fellow victims.  Your only hope of maintaining sanity may very well be to spot another dog fanatic to whom you can turn for moral support and distraction from this melee.  But how do you spot them?  Here are my 7 best ways to spot another dog-nut!

1.      Dog Hair!  We all have it.  It sticks to our clothes, our shoes, purses and anything else capable of holding a mild static charge.  The type and amount of hair can also be a clue about the age and breed of the dog.  I am occasionally approached by strangers who strike up a conversation with something like, “hey, I see you’re wearing your yellow lab today too!”

2.      Eau de Dog!  No, I’m not suggesting that you try sniffing anyone’s butt!  However, those of us who spend entirely too much time in the company of dogs do bear a certain, shall we say, “fragrance” that is recognizable by all dogs and, yes, by some people too.  A strong odor can signify several things and must be approached with utmost care.  If you detect a foul smell it could be the person has forgotten the lumpy pet waste bag in their coat pocket.  Proceed with caution!

3.      Potty talk.  One sure sign of a committed dog fanatic is their ability to discuss dog doo in settings that others might find inappropriate.  I knew I was beyond help when I realized one day that I was exchanging my thoughts on stool consistency with a fellow dog nut while we were waiting for a table at Olive Garden. We drew some stares from others who were waiting, but I think some of them were dog nuts too. (hey, is that Aussie hair on your purse strap?)

4.      Jewelry.  Especially earrings, little silver Scotty dogs, bones, paw prints, etc.  If she’s wearing a golden paw print locket, you can be reasonably certain that she didn’t inherit it from her great grandma.  She’s a committed dog nut!

5.      Clothes.  T shirts that say things like “I Heart my Havanese” or “Dogs Rule, Cats Drool”… you know… that kind of thing.  I really liked the T shirt I saw emblazoned with the words, “My Labrador is Smarter than Your President”.  I could sense that this person’s energies were vibrating on the same frequency as mine and I struck up a conversation immediately.    NOTE:  Yes, I know, some of you partisan pooch lovers are dying to know which administration was in power when I was charmed by this clever slogan.  Honestly people!!  We’re talking about Labs here!  Does it really matter?

6.      Tattoos.  It should be fairly obvious that the guy who has his dog’s name tattooed on his neck is probably a true dog nut.  I just get confused when they have FIDO tattooed on their forehead.  Is Fido their dog or would they like to be called Fido?  In such cases I always sneak a peek and try to see if they’re wearing a studded leather dog collar.  If so, I avoid conversation and just growl quietly.

7.      Dogs, for dog’s sake!  The true mark of a bonafide dog nut is that they have dogs with them.  Everywhere.  All the time.  They’ve arranged their entire life so they can be constantly surrounded by canines.  They are almost always smiling.  They don’t obsess about what went wrong yesterday and they don’t worry too much about what’s coming next.  They are doing their best to live in the moment with their four legged friends.  Their biggest regret is that they don’t have a tail to wag.  Befriend this person as soon as you can.  You need their friendship as much as they need yours.

Safety Vest Fail!

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One of the things that appeared to be a fiasco during our recent hunting trip was the “Quick Spot Safety Vest” that I purchased for both of my dogs just prior to the grouse opener in September.  I bought the vests from a popular online supplier of equipment for hunting dogs.  I’ve had good experience with the company before so I had no reason to expect anything but good quality stuff from them.  These vests may prove to be an exception to that rule, but I haven’t completely made up my mind yet. 

The picture above shows Peck in his vest after we returned from the first hunt in which the vest was used.  I didn’t put the vests on the dogs until the day before the deer hunting season began.  The area we hunt tends to attract a lot of deer hunters.  Most of these folks are good, competent, experienced hunters, but it only takes one stupid mistake to turn a good hunt into a tragedy.  That’s why I always outfit the dogs and myself with blaze orange vests as soon as the woods start to fill up with deer hunters.

Several times during our hunts I found Peck running through the brush without his vest so I had to go back and find the vest and reattach it to the dog.  I actually like this because I would rather see the vest come off than have it trap the dog in some briars or a fence.  On the other hand, the shredding of the fabric was a constant annoyance as it made the vest even more likely to hang up on every bush, branch and stick that the dog brushed up against.

Three days after the picture above was snapped, Peck’s vest was completely shredded and no longer useable.  I dug out an old vest from my hunting stuff and he made it through the rest of deer season with a 3 year old vest that was made of stronger material.  Unfortunately this vest is no longer available and its Velcro is almost worn out.

I really liked the increased visibility both for the dog’s safety and for my convenience in keeping track of 2 flushing dogs in thick brush.  I could definitely be interested in using the vests on all our hunts if I could find the right combination of availability, affordability and durability.  The vest pictured above cost $14.95 plus shipping so it may be inexpensive but, it’s not really cheap enough for me to consider it disposable.

To be fair I have to mention that Kaia’s vest made it through the whole trip.  It’s definitely ripped up a bit, but I think Kaia considers it a fashion statement.  I guess I could sew some new Velcro on that old vest that Peck was using.  The girls at Woofers Grooming have already offered to dye him bright orange, but I’m not willing to try that… yet.

Seriously, if you have some really great safety vest or other visibility enhancing solution, I’d love to hear about.  Post up the name of the product and a pic if you have one.  Thanks in advance!

Jon

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Perfect?

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We walked across the south side of the ridge, the road angling down the mountain between a series of switchbacks. This was the uppermost leg of the trail. We had just hunted the ridge top and were now returning the mile or so to the truck.  Peck was working fairly close to me on my right.  He had the habit of staying close and checking in with me frequently as young dogs often do.  Kaia was working farther up the same slope to my right, making large loops uphill into the snowberry bushes and jack pines, sometimes wandering slightly beyond gun-range as she chased down an interesting scent.  One of the bittersweet changes in our hunting this year has been watching Kaia evolve without Vee there hunting beside her. 

I’ve heard and read other hunter’s claims that it takes 3 seasons to make a good grouse dog.  Three years sounds about right to me.   Great grouse dogs keep learning after that too.  Sometimes when a good campfire is burning and an uncertain amount of adult beverages have been imbibed, you can hear about the dog that went straight from the whelping box to the grouse woods and laid straight into the game.  I’ve heard about this amazing dog several times but alas, have never actually met him or hunted over him.

Watching Kaia and Peck work the hillside above me made readily apparent the very different stages of my dogs’ development.  Peck is in the first stage.  This is his first real season. He tagged along with us last year on a hunt and it was plain that he was not ready to hunt at 5 months, nor was he expected to be. 

This year is different.  He’s ready to hunt.  He’s a solid retriever, he searches diligently for birds and he has great energy and excitement.  Kaia is far more composed in her expenditure of energy.  She seems to cover more ground without running herself ragged.  She doesn’t show much excitement until she smells a bird, then it’s like a big switch turns on inside her.  There’s no question that she is working a bird.  Peck maintains a higher excitement level all the time and it’s not as easy to tell when he’s getting ready to flush a bird. 

Kaia finds more birds than Peck.  She seems to know where to look for the birds and how to find the bird when she first gets a whiff of that delightful grouse scent. Now in her 4th hunting season, Kaia has learned how to find the birds, how to conserve her energy by not chasing down rabbit and squirrel scent, and this year she has begun to finesse the manner in which she flushes the bird. 

I noticed early in the season that an unusual number of birds were flushing toward me.  When I first noticed this I chalked it up to dumb luck.  After hunting with the dogs for 6 weeks I am ready to embrace the theory that Kaia is figuring out how to push birds towards me.  This is why I’ve been so careful about limiting her hunting range.  Of course I want her to work in range but I don’t spend a lot of time or energy forcing the issue.  I’ve always believed that every brain cell that a bird dog uses to think about me is a brain cell that is not looking for birds.  As much as I like a well-trained and well behaved dog, I give my dogs a lot of latitude in the field.

Back on the hillside, I see Kaia’s tail start to revolve as she charges uphill and disappears behind a clump of stunted mountain pines.  About 3 seconds later I hear the bird flush nearly 50 yards above me on the rocky hillside.  When I catch sight of the grouse he is rocketing almost directly downhill at me.  He seems to catch sight of me at the same time and makes a sharp right turn placing him on a course directly down the trail away from me.  At this point he is about 30 yards in front of me.  Peck throws himself into a SIT at the sound of my shot.  Kaia is still out of sight but is presumably sitting as well.  I blow 2 sharp blasts on the whistle and both dogs come running toward me.  Peck is first to arrive at my side where I tell him to sit as we wait for Kaia to come bounding down the hillside. 

From the HEEL position I show Kaia the line to the bird with my left arm and send her for the retrieve.  After a brief search, she picks up the bird and returns to the HEEL position, holding the bird gently until I take it from her.

Doesn’t that sound just about perfect?  It was one of the hunts where everything just came together.  These are the ones we remember.  Little snapshots like this fasten themselves to the inside of my brain and help me forget all the little screw-ups that can happen over the course of a season. 

Maybe I should tell you about some of the less successful, wacky, goofball things that happened before I forget them all?   Perhaps it’s easier to enshrine the perfect hunts in my memory if I conveniently forget my many errors?

We’re Back!

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After months of working seven days per week in the kennel, I was granted a generous sabbatical and, of course, I made good use of my time off!  Kaia and Peck and I have spent 6 of the last 8 weeks hunting in the mountains of the Kettle Range in Eastern Washington. 

Our family owns a cabin near beautiful Lake Curlew where we set up our base camp.  I left the cabin each morning with the dogs and a shotgun and high hopes.  I returned each afternoon with new experiences and stories that I will try to share with you here.  I don’t want this to turn into a hunting blog, so I’ll keep the talk of carnage to a minimum, but be aware that some birds were harmed in the making of this blog.  If you could ask my dogs they would tell you they wouldn’t have it any other way.  Frankly, neither would I! 

I won’t make any more attempts to probe the ethical foundations of hunting or the psychological motivations behind the sport.  We’ll leave those perusals to others better suited to such rumination.  Let it suffice to say that for Kaia, Peck and myself we are a team of predators and this is just what we do.

One factor that made this year different was the recent loss of my beloved companion and hunting partner, Vee.  She was too old and crippled up to do much hunting last season, yet her absence was felt time and again.  Kaia found herself in a new position with the absence of her canine mentor and the addition of her pup, Peck, to our team. 

I am a year older and I’m discovering subtle changes and soreness in joints and tendons I didn’t even know I had.  On more than one occasion, I stood on top of some mountain or ridge and looked out across the Kettle Range while a recently killed grouse cooled in my game vest and the dogs whined for me to give up my reverie and continue the hunt.  I gazed across the vast expanse of mountains and timber and was humbled by the insignificance of my life when viewed against the enormity of this magnificent land.

The dogs have little tolerance for this kind of human navel-gazing and philosophical hogwash.  At such times Kaia would circle back to where I stood and she would look at me quizzically, cocking her head to one side, and then whining with impatience.  Peck took a more direct approach.  His tactic for getting me moving consisted of running toward me at full speed and leaping into the air high enough to plant a wet slobbery kiss on my ear or nose.  I’m sure most of you know how hard it is to maintain a reverent state of mind with a dog’s slobber all over your face.

So, over the hill we went, down the other side, into a new drainage where every bush held the possibility of birds: blue grouse on the benches and ridges, ruffed grouse in the brushy draws and alder bottoms.  Over the days and weeks we saw deer, bears, moose and bighorn sheep in addition to the grouse we hunted.  Whenever I became distracted by the surrounding beauty, my hunting partners would drag me back to the present, the “here and now” of dog world. 

Speaking of “here and now”, Kaia just came over to my desk and administered a righteous “nose bonk” to remind me that it’s only about 42 minutes until suppertime!  I guess that gives me time to post a couple of our hunting pics before I get on with my real mission here in life.

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