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The First Month with the New Puppy

Puppy Love
Selective memory is a close ally to puppies. Recollection of puppy breath and cuddles gloss over the challenges of house training and toothy destruction. Adorable naps and puppy eyes erase the boundless energy and predawn bawling. It’s been six years since the last puppy, which has been plenty of time for revisionist history to mask the trials of young bird dogs.The truth is, I didn’t want to be back in the puppy business. The setter, old lab and I were just getting into a groove afield. I had grown confident that no bird was safe within 10 miles of our nucleus. I felt like we could walk into any area and make upland game materialize regardless of the conditions, a deadly crew.But the years are catching our old boy, Wyatt. The moments of flushing and retrieving brilliance are still there, just slower. The distances he can cover shorten and the after-effects of a hard day linger more pronounced.

This is the time for a puppy before all that experience together afield is confined to the dreams of an old, hobbled dog curled on the couch. I’m convinced that Wyatt can share the secrets he’s learned in a canine language that will transcend training.

And this new puppy is an opportunity to reconcile all “the next dog I’ll.” The thoughts collected and stored from days afield where something could have gone better or smoother, a different outcome if only the dogs would have known more.

Socialization, travel and exposure have been the focus over this first month. Ida, the retriever pupil, has already seen 13 states and traveled over 5,000 miles on the road. She has met more than 500 people and dogs. She’s hiked four miles at elevations over 10,000′, camped multiple nights, been eyed by gators, swam in icy rivers and fallen asleep by a campfire.

Of course she’s also pissed on the floor, tortured Wyatt with constant ear biting, busted through a screen door, leapt from heights taller than her abilities. All moments to be quashed once she retrieves her first wild bird this fall.

Puppies’ brains are like sponges at this age. We do a couple short training sessions each day, no longer than 15 minutes. She’s been able to pick up the basics: sit, stay, and retrieving while learning the vocabulary we use around the house and afield. Her eyesight continues to improve and I notice her now tracking birds in flight. We try to keep everything a positive learning experience with lots of praise and treats for reinforcement.

The puppy business has been pretty good. In the mornings Ida comes rambling upstairs all legs and a full belly. She jumps on the bed with an excitement that will not be contained for whatever the day brings, as long as it’s with you. That attitude is infectious and a great reminder of the joy when everything is new and present.

Pavlov Didn’t Have Bird Dogs

I’m forced to sneak about my own property like a burglar, held captive by bird dogs trying to secure their place in the truck. Regardless whether the destination is a wild place or the tame grocery, they are not willing to wager their spot.

A few short weeks ago I could announce my exit to the entire house with a slight possibility of one lazy eyelid being raised in acknowledgement. Not now.

I can’t pickup the keys with the slightest jingle; I can’t put on a pair of shoes once worn afield; and I sure as hell can’t put hands on a shotgun without there being a full-blown dog riot.

I have little doubt that there are other signals, the subtlety lost on those not tuned to the hunting calendars. But these two bird dogs are tuned. They have come through months of off-season depression and lethargy interrupted only by bowls of kibble or the occasional visitor bearing new scents. The first cool evenings of late summer and a pause in the drone of air conditioners ushers in an end to hunting-hibernation.

Physiologist Ivan Pavlov believed he had dogs figured out, conditioned reflexes with salivating jowls and running for the dinner bell. But I’ve begun to wonder whether these bird dogs are the ones ringing bells.

I’m now conditioned to tiptoe on wooden floors and sneak down back stairs to reach exits without arousing suspicion. It’s getting more and more difficult to make it to the garage unmolested and slobber free.

I hope I’ve not become the Pavlovian subject of some genius bird dog experiments.

One thing is certain: Our attitudes have changed. Who leads that shift or identifying the catalyst is academic and likely unimportant. I think these bird dogs are smarter than Pavlov’s salivators. Hell, they might be smarter than Pavlov. They are convinced they can prove it if I’d just let them in the damn truck.

Pavlov Bird Dog

Winners of 2016 Companions for Conservation Contest

Knoxville, Tennessee (August 4, 2016) – SportDOG® Brand, the industry-leading manufacturer of electronic dog training products and accessories, has announced the winners of its third annual Companions for Conservation contest. Three lucky young hunters will soon be taking ownership of started Labrador retrievers, trained SportDOG Brand® Senior ProStaff members Tom Dokken, Derek Randle, and Chris Akin.

Earlier this year, SportDOG called for families with children between the age of 8 and 18, who have an interest in hunting and conservation to submit a dog training, youth-education project, hunting, or wildlife-habitat related photo via social media or online web form. In order to be eligible, the applicants must also be members of a conservation organization.

Dokken, Randle, and Akin will provide training through the started stage for the three prize dogs, which are a black Lab, yellow Lab, and chocolate Lab, respectively – valued at $5,000 each.

11-year-old Weston Jowett from Frankfort, Michigan, will be the proud owner of the black Lab, trained by Tom Dokken. Weston is a Ducks Unlimited Legacy Greenwing.

Weston Jowett and Black Lab

Haley Singleton will welcome home a yellow Lab trained by Derek Randle. 8-year-old Haley, a Ducks Unlimited member, is from Conyers, Georgia.

Haley Singleton and Yellow Lab

Cy Young from Mountain View, Missouri, will soon enjoy hunting with a chocolate Lab, trained by Chris Akin. Cy is 12 years old, and a member of Delta Waterfowl – Riceland chapter.

Cy Young and Chocolate Lab

For more information about our conservation initiative, visit http://www.sportdog.com/companions-for- conservation.

Climbing Mountains for Elusive Birds

Bird Dogs, End of Day

The wind is gusting at my back collapsing my empty game bag. It’s a chilly reminder, as if I needed one. In the distance I can still pickup Steve and the deft setter Winchester, navigating their way uphill beside the creek that tumbles the opposite direction in this cut.

We’ve got them on elevation. The dogs and I have side-hilled and climbed the length of the valley for the last hour. Rio, still young and over-enthused, points songbirds. But the lab Wyatt is close at hand and no longer trifles with such things, confirming the same story as the tailwind, the gamebirds have eluded us.

It’s beautiful country. As the breeze taunts, it nudges us from behind assisting the climb, coaxing us to continue.

It’s overcast. Apparently that doesn’t even count as a category of weather on the Kenai Peninsula, just the norm. Anytime the sun makes an appearance it seems a gift.

I figure if we keep climbing at this pace we’ll reunite with the rest of our hunting party at the head of this valley at relatively the same elevation unless the dogs are convincing enough to deviate.  We’ve got some talus slopes to negotiate and another half-mile from the way it looks, though distances get distorted because everything is so massive traditional senses of scale are askew.

The birds have made themselves scarce this trip. Rio confirms they’ve been here at some point; Lord knows with that nose it could be last week, last month, last hunting season. They are on this mountain somewhere. And Wyatt counters with confidence that they aren’t within gunning range now. We’ve done this dance so many other places, it takes on the comfortable rhythm learned over years and countless miles together.

Steve and Winchester have their own rhythm, it’s our first chance to see it play out as they climb. It’s why we’ve struck a separate path up the mountain. These guys are proficient, economical predators in this mountainous amphitheater. They know these birds. They know this country. The movements are crisp and in sync. We’re up in the cheap seats, stumbling uphill, taking in the show and I imagine Steve looking up wondering what the hell we’re doing.

But the dogs will all be running together soon enough, fouling any cadence. We just have to make it to the finish of this climb.

I pick my way through fractured granite to the stream and scoop a few handfuls of water. I’m not thirsty but I’ve convinced myself that maybe if I drink the Kool-aid the mountain will give up its secrets. Rio joins me for her own dose and I notice the rocks have carved her front toe and are receiving scarlet prints for their effort. She’s unfazed, oblivious to anything beyond the pursuit of bird. I admire her.

In the distance there are shots. Winchester has led Steve to a bowl above the area I thought we’d connect. Rio and Wyatt take off in the direction and I see two birds land on a ridge above us, maybe 200 vertical feet. It’s all the verification I need. I want these birds for the dogs. I want them to know that their blood and effort have purpose, that their calling is true.

I don’t remember the climb or when I snapped the action shut. I’m watching the rocks as the dogs scour. There’s a wild flush, one “gentlemen” wouldn’t shoot for fear the dogs would acquire bad habits. I have no such fears, my dogs are the teachers and I am the student. There’s no place on this mountain for gentlemen or their mule-drawn carriages. But birds jumping off ledges into the abyss make for odd shooting perspective, one I’m not accustomed to and it shows.

There are other birds here, and we continue uphill. Rio locks on and I see the Ptarmigan above me. This bird will not have the luxury of the abyss. I send Wyatt to propel it skyward as I dig my toes into the loose gravel of the slope. Everything makes sense in this moment. And the grin on my face has no effect on the mount of the gun.

Alaska Ptarmigan Hunting
Bird Dogs on the Mountain
Wyatt Retrieves a Ptarmigan
White-Tail Ptarmigan Detail

SHOT Show 2013 – BugBand

Many of you followed along as I hunted the North Woods with Rio the young Jornada llewellin on her first grouse hunt this fall. Prior to that trip I had always thought that Frontline was bullet proof protection from ticks. But even though I had just applied a new dose, after every walk in the woods we’d return to vehicle and I would notice 15-20 deer ticks all migrating towards Rio’s head.


We obviously needed something to apply from tip to tail, but that also wouldn’t be harmful if ingested since dogs will obviously lick. None of the local shops in the rural area had any suggestions. They obviously hadn’t heard of BugBand who have a full line of natural products derived from geranium oil.

I’m excited to put these to the test while grouse hunting. Though there are all sorts of guns and gadgets at SHOT, this is truly one of my big finds. Anything that helps protect my hunting dogs from evil disease-ridden ticks is a good thing.

Why We Hunt With Dogs

This morning I took my lab Wyatt out for a weekend stomp on public ground. Yesterday while in the field at first light I saw several other trucks with hunters trying to hunt the same field which we beat them to that day.

Needless to say, the public options close to population centers here in Nebraska gets lots of attention. And I think that can get a bit discouraging for some.

But I find it helps to look at this concentration of hunters as a challenge. There are smart birds in these fields that hunters and dogs walk past. I’ve always believed that for every bird you see there are at least two that you never lay eyes on.

We got up and out at first light again because the only public field you can guarantee that has not been hunted in a day is the first one.

Wyatt worked well all morning and we finally were coming to the area I suspected would be holding the birds. Of course one rooster got up long and cackled as it made a safe escape. But out of the corner of my eye, in the opposite direction, I saw another bird flying low and silent. This was the old bird we look for. Smart birds don’t cackle when they take off. This one  flew about 100 yards upwind of us into a hillside with light cover. Now that is strange and something I hadn’t seen from many roosters. Normally their policy is the thicker the better.

I got Wyatt headed in the right direction and I figured we had this old bird dead to rights. It was strange that when we made it to the area that I had marked him down, Wyatt picked up some trace but not the typical hot scent of a recent bird. And now I know, that bird flew to light cover because 1) in light cover he wouldn’t drag across nearly the amount of grass and weeds thereby leaving a smaller scent trail and 2) he could run more freely in the light stuff.

We circled around a couple times and though Wyatt was acting birdy, he never indicated that a flush was imminent.

We turned back toward the heavy cover and I wrote off this rooster as smarter than us. I stopped to look around  just to speculate exactly to where he had disappeared. And with this pause, five feet to my left the old bird jumped skyward from a small tuft of weeds amongst a hill of ankle-high prairie grass.

A bit startled, I fumbled with the safety and the mount but the shot was true and the bird crashed. Wyatt was only a couple seconds behind for a routine retrieve. But the bird was gone.

I had crushed this pheasant. There was no doubt in my mind that I had hit him with nearly every pellet of the ounce-and-quarter 6s.  And yet somehow he had managed to shake it off and strap on his running shoes.  Wyatt was on the trail but that bird headed right into some of the thickest, nastiest cover and dry creek bed that we’ve hunted in this state. I put a glove on one of the weeds where the bird hit the ground to mark the spot, then just stood there and listened as Wyatt thrashed through the rough stuff. After about five minutes, the brush busting ceased around 75 yards from my marker glove.

I suspected my little buddy had found the bird and was now just adding a bit of drama. So I shouted for him to bring it up and I beeped his collar a couple times to break the silence. Lo and behold he pushed his way from a brush filled creek bottom with that old super bird in his jaws. I was smiling ear to ear and the folks in the neighboring county could probably hear my praises. A bird that was lost is now destined for pheasant alfredo.

And that’s why I hunt with dogs.