Spoken from the dog’s perspective… some wonderful advertising from the South Dakota Department of Tourism.
A pleasant surprise yesterday. We won’t let it go to his head.
“He doesn’t have any interest in birds.”
So said the foster owner of our soon-to-be English Setter rescue, when asked if the dog had hunted.
I didn’t mind the response. We were looking for a dog to replace our beloved Labrador mix, which was my wife’s devoted “barn dog” for many years. With the passing of our old friend, my wife wanted another companion when she was tending to the horses. Neither our GSP or Weimaraner could fill that role. The havoc they unleashed in the barn was more than their companionship was worth. Personally, I was amused how my GSP turned into a mountain goat when confronted with a large stack of hay bales. But then I wasn’t the one who had to clean up their mess.
Nonetheless, my wife’s intentions were clear…this new member of household was not required to point and retrieve things with feathers. I could accept that, as I had my hands full with (what my wife referred to as) “the crazy short-tailed Germans”. And within a few weeks of entering our home, a six-year-old, beautifully tri-colored Setter named “Monty” was already settling nicely into his new surroundings.
We learned the hard way this docile, couch-potato-of-a-Setter can cover a hell of a lot of ground when he got away from us while hiking in the nature preserve behind our house. Never ones to take chances with a new dog, we had a 30-foot check cord and Astro 220 on him, which made quick work of locating him. But now we had a new priority, off-leash training was mandatory.
In a passing conversation with friend and professional dog trainer Justin McGrail of Black Creek Dog Training Center, I mentioned our new addition. Justin suggested bringing Monty in for a visit so he could provide some, er, pointers on his obedience in an effort to help control his inclination to bolt. The unusually mild Michigan winter and lack of snow made for almost fall-like conditions, so I took Justin up on his offer.
Equipped with a lengthy check cord and Garmin unit, Justin added a dead pheasant and two live pigeons to his vest. Just in case.
Keeping a grip on the check cord, we guided Monty around a portion of the 95-acre training grounds. Then came time to show him the pheasant. Monty displayed a mild interest, as one would expect from any bird dog. He even placed the bird in his mouth for a moment, but let go of it and turned his attention back to exploring. When Justin presented a live pigeon, Monty held his gaze on the bird as Justin let it go.
It was time to take it up a notch.
I took Monty in one direction and Justin went in the other to plant the remaining pigeon. Not speaking, we made a wide loop with Monty and moved downwind of the bird. It was obvious when Monty eventually caught the scent. His head dropped and followed an invisible trail. Then it happened. For a fleeting moment I assumed Monty simply stopped walking. I was wrong. He was locked-up. Several moments passed without a word being said. Still no movement. This damn dog turned to stone.
Justin and I traded glances, I shrugged, and we laughed. “I suppose I should take a photo with my phone to show Kay,” I said as I approached Monty, looking for a good angle. The only motion I noticed was his eyes darting back and forth between me and a grassy patch where a bird hunkered down, hidden, a dozen feet away. And my wife’s barn dog, the dog who “wasn’t birdy” stood as if in a trance.
On the way back to the training facility, thoughts raced through my mind;
Was this behavior only instinctive?
Perhaps he’d hunted before?
Can he be taught to quarter and retrieve?
Can I fit a third crate in the Suburban?
What in the hell do I tell my wife?
Ultimately Justin and I agreed to not read too much into this display. We planned to start working on off-lead obedience. A dog needs to be more connected with his owners no matter what its innate ability.
Upon returning home, I left Monty in the Suburban and entered the house alone. I jokingly told my wife I left her dog at Black Creek for more training as a result of the day’s events. I even showed proof of his hunting potential via my cell phone photo. After a quick run through a range of emotions, then retrieving her “barn dog/potential bird dog” from the car, she just laughed and said, “Maybe I’ll get a Lab.” Hmmm…..
The unrelenting heat of summer leaves me nostalgic for the autumn-like days of Spring, when the woods of northern Michigan promise the return of migrating woodcock. I joined dog trainer Justin McGrail on just such an April day, when the chill of winter was just giving way and the warmth of the sun on our faces was still a novelty.
Justin brought along his English Setters, German Shorthaired Pointer, English Pointer and Labrador Retriever. My own Weimaraner Stuka rounded out the string. Watching the instincts of each breed in action is a fascinating study of hunting skill diversity. No two dogs hunt the same.
Rex, Justin’s GSP is a wise, methodical hunter. The connection between Justin and Rex was almost visible; they are a team in every sense of the word. A hand gesture, whistle and sometimes even just a glance, and Rex would maneuver through the brush as if guided by some internal compass. Once Rex was on point, even a blank shot from a starter pistol brought nothing more then a shift of an eye, and nothing short of a command from his trainer would budge him. If not for that command, Rex might still be on point.
Dutch, a muscular English pointer is, with the exception of his skill at finding birds, Rex’s alter ego. Dutch is almost frantic in his hunting style, as if his very life depended on putting a woodcock in his trainer’s vest.
Young Dolly (as in Dolly Madison; her owner runs with a “First Lady” naming scheme) is as energetic as she is beautiful. This girl is a focused hunter who covers an amazing amount of ground, impervious to the terrain conditions. By the end of her run her white feathers were caked with mud. She wore it well.
Ben. Ah, Ben. Watching this dog work made me want to run out and buy a camo shotgun and rowboat, and head to the nearest lake. This dog was in phenomenal condition; lean, fit, trim and muscular. Watching him take flight over open water to retrieve a training dummy was akin to watching a professional athlete. The look on his face as he retrieved his prize was nothing short of pure joy. He was completely in his element.
When Stuka’s turn came I left the camera behind to focus on training. When I have the opportunity to put him on wild birds, it’s gratifying to see him start to make the connections between finding birds and the ground cover in which they hide. He found a few woodcock and, much to our surprise even bumped a ruffed grouse. But steadiness is still an area on which Stuka and I need to focus in the coming months.
Any day in the woods is a good day…we’ll get through the hot days of summer, perhaps with more fly fishing than dog training. But come fall we’ll be rewarded with cooler, dryer conditions and the opportunity to put all this training into practice. Even Stuka thought it was time to call it a day.
Kay recently went to visit her latest horse “Aamira” at Hilltop Farm, so Stuka and I came along and hiked the snow-covered, rolling acres in search of late season pheasants. The day was cold and the daylight short. We found no birds, but I managed to captured some images of Stuka in his element.
Dogs have given us their absolute all. We are the center of their universe. We are the focus of their love and faith and trust. They serve us in return for scraps. It is without a doubt the best deal man has ever made.”
November hunt at Pine Hill Sportsman’s Club with “Parker” (English Springer Spaniel) and “Stuka” (Weimaraner).
Good things really do come to those who wait. A very long six months ago back in April, I wrote a post about purchasing a new gun. It’s finally here…a refurbished 1936 Fox Sterlingworth DeLuxe 16 gauge SxS. Thanks to Jay Shachter at Vintage Firearms, Inc., the craftsmanship on this gun is impressive and the fit is perfect.
With the barrels choked modified and full, I ran it through the sporting clays course at the Kent County Conservation League in Ada, Michigan this past weekend. I shot one of the best rounds I’ve had in months. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
A dog is only as good as the habitat in which he hunts.”
Justin McGrail, West Michigan Professional Hunting Dog Trainer
The day began as a crisp and dewy precursor to the eminent transition from summer to fall. We struggled through the thick undergrowth, dew rolling off our waxed pants like raindrops on windows. Mosquitoes floated through bars of sunlight falling between old growth aspen leaves, finding our unprotected ears and faces. A cool wind swirled unpredictably. The earth was soft here, almost boggy; the underbrush too thick. The dogs forged ahead, noses up, bird scent everywhere, and nowhere. There would be many false points in these conditions today.
It’s early September, and Michigan’s Grouse and Woodcock season openers are only days away. Our friend and dog trainer Justin generously invited me to bring Elsa and Stuka (and Kay and her camera) for a day of training with him and his six students—English Setters, Brittany Spaniels, and Pointers of varying ages and skill levels.
Justin pushed on, as the tangled thicket gave way to young Aspens and Birches. Dead leaves blanketed the forest floor, and the walking became considerably easier. “Pay attention to the dirt under your boots,” he told us. “This is better ground. Soft enough for the birds to use their long bills to find their main food source of grubs and worms, but not too spongy. Once the ground hardens and the weather turns colder, the Woodcock will head south. But this time of year, there are plenty of birds in these woods.”
“These woods” described a friend’s private land in northwestern Michigan, worlds away from noise, congestion, traffic. It’s peaceful here, and quiet; the loudest sound is that of the wind through the leaves. The air smells fresh. This is game bird country at its best, purposefully cultivated by the owner to restore the too-quickly disappearing habitat of the wild birds once so abundant in the state.
As we worked pairs of dogs through sections of land where Justin had previous encounters with Grouse or Woodcock, he re-acclimated us to the food sources, habitat preferences and characteristics of good cover. These small game birds require somewhat soft soil with a reasonable amount of cover to provide protection from predators, but allow relative ease of movement. They thrive in environments of bush, young Aspen stands, or mature Aspens with ground cover of Hazel or Ironwood. Colorful red Autumn Olives and Dogwood berries, still green but soon ripening to a rich red, supplement the insect protein, and to us seemed far more appealing.
And there were plenty of birds in those woods.
In spite of the dry conditions and unpredictable winds, the dogs succeeded in finding their birds, and we were rewarded with several points and flushes of both Grouse and Woodcock. Stuka paired nicely with Moody, a spry and seasoned 10-year-old English Pointer. Moody’s white, feathery coat was easily visible; Stuka nearly impossible to see against the silvery Aspen trunks. Moody proved her mettle, pinning down several Woodcock in a section of thick brambles. Her bell abruptly fell silent, head up, nose to the wind. With some coaxing, I called Stuka in and whoad him behind Moody, taking advantage of an opportunity for a lesson in backing. Justin moved slowly through the thicket, flushing a Woodcock into an arbitrary trajectory that skimmed just above our heads, his fat orange belly almost close enough to touch. He was under no threat from us today. We were armed only with a camera, which he did not escape.
After a hike back to the trucks for a brief rest and water, this time we approached a thickly forested tract to the north with Elsa and Nelson, a year-old Brittany Spaniel. Nelson darted through the trees, eventually circling a deadfall in an area of mature forest. Elsa fell into a backing point, her expressive, darting eyes the only movement aside from her quivering tail. The three of us flanked the dogs, slowly squeezing the deadfall until the mother bird could no longer remain still. As the sound of her wings faded, one after another after another of her fledglings followed her wake in turn. A covey of eight Ruffled Grouse. We let them be, to reunite later when the scent of dogs and man had receded.