Monday, September 24, 2007

Early Season Grouse Hunting in Northern New York

September weather in New York is routinely gorgeous. Warm days, cool nights and bright blue skies seem to be the rule. But while perfect for golf, such mild weather is often a bit too warm for the hunters and much too hot for the dogs who pursue early season birds.

The annual pilgrimage for “early grouse” in northern New York is therefore a glorious triumph of Hope over Experience. Forgotten in the current hunt planning are memories of last year’s debacle where the woods were too hot, too dry and too thick. Surely it will be better this time!

On Friday the 21st, I met my friend Don M. and his veteran Lab “Tino” for breakfast at a pleasant diner north of Syracuse. When the last coffee was chugged, we headed for some coverts where we lazy “locals” usually wear tall rubber boots against the region’s ubiquitous seeps, springs, streams, puddles and ponds. This year, the covert was almost bone dry. In the first two hours working behind Tino, we flushed just two “partridge.” I whiffed spectacularly on a right-to-left bird that flew straight across a wide open lane. After watering Tino and settling him in his crate, we tried a spot up the hill with my English Cocker “Gordie.” He went birdless in 90 minutes, even though he worked the cover relentlessly.

Still, Don and I had an enjoyable afternoon, and over a cold one we planned to meet again before he and Tino head to North Dakota for ducks later this Fall.

I stayed overnight in Watertown, enjoying a wonderful Italian meal at Cavallario’s Cucina . The service and food were so outstanding that I’ve added their website in the Links section. Plan on enjoying a meal there when you’re in northwestern New York.

On Saturday the 22nd, I met another old friend who I hadn't hunted with in two years. Jim T. had left his fine English Setter “Katie” at home. Kate’s getting along in years and has some medical history, so Jim decided to rest her on this trip. He was also interested in seeing how young Gordie the flushing dog would work for grouse, so the decision was easy for him.

Since Jim was nice enough to write up his impressions of our hunt, I think I’ll simply supply the link to his story. I think you’ll enjoy it. Click here to go there now.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Pup's First Title

Our local club hosted back-to-back Hunt Tests on the weekend of September 8 and 9, 2007. My English Cocker “Gordie” and I trained hard together all summer, especially on his delivery to hand, so that we could gather the last two qualifying scores required to finish his first title. You can catch up on that part of the story, if you’re interested, in the entry called “A Pup's First Ribbon, Revisited Again,” below.

Saturday was sunny, very hot and humid. I got to the line a bit after 1 p.m. and, after the judges gave me the day’s rules, I cast Gordie off to the right. I was pleased but not surprised when he quartered his ground well and quickly produced his first bird. The chukar went straight up in a leisurely climb about 15 yards out, and the shot was so easy that it flummoxed the wing gunners each into emptying both barrels. The bird flew weakly off toward a tree line forming the left boundary of the course, and crash landed in thick scrub about 85 yards down field. I thought the bird was at very least pricked as I watched it fly away in a wobbly manner embarrassingly familiar from my own shooting. Gordie is very good at marking this kind of bird, and I really wanted to let his skills shine on the long retrieve.

The lead judge didn’t know that this was Gordie's game, and because it was so hot, wanted me to recall him while he was still fresh. I told the judge to give me a bit, that Gordie was going to produce the bird. The judge was skeptical, and let me know it. Just then, a chukar flew out of the trees, my hard charging pup right on his tail. At this testing level, by the way, the dog is not required to be steady, so this chasing was OK. The bird flew across the course into dense cattails and disappeared. Gordie arrived shortly thereafter and once again tried to recover the bird. The judges were more interested in his efforts this time; but after he hadn’t produced the bird in about 40 seconds, they instructed me to recall him. And in he came to my 4 toots. I hupped him, gave him a good long drink and a splash for good measure, and cast him off again.

After a bit of a run, Gordie produced his second bird. It flew straight back over the judges and then the gallery, so no shot could be taken. Gordie gave scant chase and was easily recalled. I again watered my dog, who by now was feeling the heat, and prepared to cast him off again.

Instead, the judges produced a dead chukar, and gave it a toss while the wing gunner fired a shot. Gordie flashed out to the bird, brought it to within 6 feet, then dropped it and sat there panting. I had seen this behavior before. I waited a moment, called him in, watered him, then sent him with a "Back!" Gordie trotted to the bird, picked it up, and walked it back and dropped it into my cupped hands when I commanded “Give.”

”Thank you,” said the judges.

Not being a veteran campaigner, I had no “read” whether the judges liked what they'd seen. If we had actually been hunting, I'd have been well satisfied with the way Gordie performed on his first and second contacts. But my rookie handler's eye doubtlessly sees things in a softer focus than the judges'.

So it was a long wait to hear whether we’d be called back for the water retrieve. Finally, the marshall announced "Dogs called back for the water are #1, #2, (small pause), #3, (a much longer small pause), ... #4...." I acknowledged Gordie's good fortune with an Aeolian exhale and a quick thank you to the Big Guy. We were still in this thing.

We had worked on the retrieve from water daily for two weeks, and for some reason I felt uncharacteristically comfortable. At the toss of the dead chukar and the report of the 12 gauge, Gordie remained rock solid at the line. When the judge tapped me and I released him with his name, my dog made his typical “big air” entry and bee lined for the bird. And then it was over in an instant: he grabbed the bird, swapped stem for stern, swam straight back and carried the bird directly from the water to my waiting cupped hands. Good dog! I walked him back to the car and enjoyed a few claps on the back from friends and fellow testers.

After a short wait, Gordie was awarded a qualifying score – his third – for his day’s work. Worn down from the emotional roller coaster we’d ridden all day, we drove the hour home so we could have a nice meal and just flop on the sofa and chill.

Sunday dawned cool and gray with on-and-off rain that lasted through lunch time. It was a much more comfortable day for the dogs to run. Gordie was first off the line, and he put on a good show in the cool, fresh field. His quartering was crisp, his response to whistle instantaneous, and his marks were perfect. He did give me some pause when he persisted in dropping his birds short. After stopping to reposition it, he brought the first retrieve directly to hand. I elected to take a step toward him and picked up the second bird. Given his strong overall performance, I decided to give up a style point with the step in trade for nailing the performance shut.

”Thank you,” said the judges.

Not a chatty bunch, judges, are they? My long-suffering wife banters more pleasantly with me when I come home late for dinner with a loopy grin from a 19th hole marathon with my foursome.

That step I took toward Gordie’s second bird got longer and longer in my imagination as the afternoon wore on, and by the time callbacks were announced for the water retrieve, I was convinced we'd been tossed. But happily enough Gordie was once again called back. He was a single good retrieve from a title.

Gordie was nicely steady to the tossed chukar and the shot, and the judge tapped me, but very lightly. Not sure whether it was a tap or just another geriatric twitch, I didn’t release my dog. Then the judge was in my ear, and I feared I had done something wrong. But she was simply telling me to send the dog, so I whispered “Gordie!” and he was off. Then I turned to the judge, and without thinking, simply said “When my wife taps me, I know I’ve been tapped.”

By the time both female judges stopped laughing, Gordie was at the bird. His retrieve was almost as good as Saturday’s. When he just missed my cupped hands with the bird, I reached 8" over to take it to end his time under judgment. I would have gone for perfect delivery to hand if this were a training situation, but this was like getting the third out in the bottom of the ninth. As my Little League coaches always said, just get both hands on the ball.

It was an expectant wait with my fellow testers for the committee to make its announcements. But there were no bad surprises, and Gordie took his fourth Junior Hunter qualifying score. After we hear from the AKC, we’ll have to upgrade his stationery to Flash Gordon of Windmillwood JH.

I think I am prouder of this than he is. When I chatted him up about his accomplishment over some Irish Whiskey after the feathers stopped flying Sunday night, he licked himself down below, scooted his butt over our new carpets, and "retrieved" the bedroom TV’s remote clicker to me on the living room sofa. Fifteen minutes later, he was curled up next to me, zonked, only occasionally farting contentedly.

(Gordie's post title photos were taken by talented pet photographer Kim Ludwig. Thanks, Kim! You can see more of her work here).

Sunday, September 09, 2007

A Pup's First Ribbon, Revisited Again

(This story first appeared in November, 2005. It's a natural for revisiting with updates until I can rename it "A Pup's First Title." The updates begin at the south end of the original text. The latest, and last, addition is dated June 10, 2007.)

November 13, 2005: Gordie and I entered his first judged events this weekend. Today we ran what is called a "Hunt Test." Many dogs are entered, but there is no single winner. It's a sort of pass/ fail event, so that at the extremes either all dogs or no dogs might receive a "qualifying score." Usually the number of those receiving qualifying scores is somewhere in between.

His job was to find and flush two birds hiding in the brush on land. After the gunners shot the first bird that Gordie flushed, he was to locate it in the field and retrieve it to me straightaway. After taking delivery of the bird, I'd send him on again, hopefully for a repeat performance on the second bird.

Later, a duck hunting scenario was fabricated where two men with a gun and a pile of the late lamented birds hid on the far side of a middling size pond. They blew a duck call to get each dog's attention. Then they tossed a dead bird through the air into the pond and touched off the shotgun to simulate an actual duck hunting event. The dog is to swim out, find the bird, and swim back and deliver it to the handler.

14 month old Gordie did all this with a flourish, and won his first qualifying score toward Junior Hunter. With three more, he gets to wear the title "JH" in all his correspondence, kind of like the Duke of Earl. We intend to travel through Canadian border and Middle Atlantic states beginning again next Spring to nail down these qualifying scores. In the meantime, we'll continue to enjoy our hunting season.

April 22, 2006: Gordie and I traveled to the Hillendale Club in central Pennsylvania to run in the junior division of the Mid Penn English Springer Spaniel Club's licensed hunt test. Although I wanted to run him both days, plans at home for Sunday limited us to the Saturday event.

The grounds, cover and valley views at the Hillendale Club were outstanding, even in the rainy 47 degrees in which we huddled over our check-in coffee. The tests were sequentially scheduled, with 8 Masters running first, then 8 Seniors, with 12 Juniors bringing up the rear. Gordie ran 27th of the 28 entries, so it was 12:30 before we saw action. His quartering was brisk, his marks just fine, and his first retrieve perfect. Gord dumped his second delivery a bit short, but recovered with a minimum of cajoling to bring the quite dead and soggy chukar within a long step. We were rewarded for this performance with a call-back for the water work.

At the water, Gordie executed an "expectant hup" as the gunners arced one of the dead chukars from the giant "sling shot" and touched off a 12 gauge. His entry was crisp and eager after the judge tapped my shoulder, and out he went in his pleasing, "low slung" and direct style in the water. In my limited experience, he seems as comfortable in the water as any young dog I've ever seen.

When Gordie arrived at the poorly floating bird, he somehow whiffed on the retrieve and dunked the bird underwater. Undeterred, Gordie began a series of shallow dives looking for it. Happily, the bird bobbed up, Gordie grabbed it, and 15 seconds later the three of us were united on the bank.

At 4:30, over a warming tot of adult beverage and much mutual back slapping, I received Gordie's rosette for this second qualifying score. I'd have 5 pleasant hours in the car through the Allegheny Forest to mentally review his performance, make mental adjustments in his training regimen, and make plans for his next test.

June 10, 2007: OK, I have to fess up from the get-go. I should have put this post here when Gordie and I returned home from two days of testing in north central CT over Memorial Day, 2006. Gordie performed at both ends of the excellence scale, and exposed my weaknesses as a trainer. I spent the rest of 2006 thinking about his performances, and only today did I have the chance to test my plan for improving them. Let me explain.

On Day 1 of the CT test, Gordie ran a wonderful land series. He quartered well, found his birds, made strong marks and finds right on the money. It was a very warm day, and the vegetation was green and thick. The judges therefore excused his stopping 10 feet short and dropping his birds (chukars) in a fit of panting. Upon urging, he picked up each bird and brought it to an acceptable 1-step distance. So far, so good. As a hunter, I was pleased with his performance, as it would have nicely put two birds in our bag.

It was therefore with a mildly excusable cockiness that I enjoyed holding forth at lunch and as we milled about for our turns at the water. When his number was called, Gordie was rock steady at the line, and made a beautiful, aggressive water entry. He was out like a shot and back, carrying the bird in the shallows 15 feet from earning his third qualifying score. Then, to my surprise, the gallery’s laughter and the judges’ distaste, Gordie started tossing the bird in the air like some Iron Chef twirling pizza dough overhead in frenzied competition. Once, twice, three times and more, up and out went the soggy chukar, with Gordie in hot pursuit for another go. After this had gone on for maybe three minutes, the inevitable “Ahem. Mr. M., you may pick up your dog” came. Thanks for coming, drive home safely. Good Night.

About an hour later, I snitched a dead chukar, went to a similar shoreline on a different pond, and tried this again mano a cano. I even stood farther back from the bank than usual to remind Gordie that the retrieve didn't end at the water's edge. Of course, Gordie made a perfect retrieve and delivered the bird thoughtfully to hand. No wonder Keith Erlandson described them as “wicked Cockers.” At least I could enjoy a pleasant evening meal and expect better results tomorrow.

It really was an attractive entry

On Day 2, Gordie ran an even better land series. A fellow whose family name is well regarded in eastern spaniel circles asked me who had trained Gordie. When I told him that the fault was all mine, he was complimentary not only about Gordie’s pattern, but at the apparent strength of our partnership. He had noticed the way Gordie happily heeled to the line, kept his eyes riveted on me when hupped at the line, and how he ran today requiring virtually no whistle commands. It was, of course, very nice to hear. Here’s how a chukar taking off looked to Gordie. He picked the bird cleanly when it fell back in that tree line moments later.

Once again, though, the day was spoiled by failure at the water. Gordie made short work of bringing his bird back to shore; but once there, he released it to shake and was reluctant to bring it to me. After some cajoling over 90 seconds, he finally brought the bird within a step. I took the bird, and the judges told me they’d let me know. I’m still waiting.

In the months after May, 2006, I thought about Gordie’s poor delivery. Since I don’t feel confident with my ability to force train him – I have only a little trouble with the idea of force training, but I am not interested in its benefits if I can’t do the training myself. Since he is a decent hunting companion, I am reluctant to possibly mess up the acceptably “country broke” dog I already have by gumming up the force training regimen – I am seeking some other way to “reach” this otherwise cooperative and, some say, naturally talented dog. The idea came to me in March, 2007.

We were swapping the trainer/ gunner roles in a field out back during a nice break in the late winter weather. My buddy must have fringed a chukar Gordie flushed with only a pellet or two. When Gordie went to the fall, he caught the running bird and brought it toward me and prepared to set it down 10 feet short, currently "as usual." When the bird started to run off, he scooped it up, moved to a safe spot once again about 10 feet off, and set it down again. This time, Gordie caught the bird as soon as it started to run and, as if he sensed that shenanigans were in his birthright but not this bird’s, brought it to me to put an end to the chukar’s nonsense.

Because I was still hot about the incomplete retrieve, the possibilities this posed for training didn’t hit me immediately. Over time, though, I decided that with the next opportunity, I’d set out a wing-clipped bird as his first contact. Maybe chasing the bird and discovering the need to hold on to it would help his delivery. So when our club met today for a simulated test/ trial, I had the planter set out a wing-clipped chukar, and asked him to be ready to roll in a flyer only if Gordie successfully delivered the wing-clip to within 1 step. The results were incredible.

Gordie had a good set of chases before he nabbed the chukar, and then he not only brought it all the way in, he hupped right in front of me with the still-struggling bird held gently in his mouth. Wow! I gave the planter the wing-clipped chukar and indicated to everyone that we’d try a flyer. The gunner made a good shot to give Gordie about a 40 yard chance. He has shown repeatedly that such finds are no trouble at all for him, and it wasn’t this time. Boy, was I happy when he did a reprise of the delivery hupped at my feet.

I knew that I should quit right then and there “with a winner.” Since it was a fairly hot day though, specially for one wearing a fur coat, I decided I’d take a dead chukar and let Gordie have a refreshing water retrieve in the pond. Pushing my luck, I hupped Gordie about 20 feet from the pond’s bank, then set the chukar down half way between. Gordie stared at the bird but didn’t budge. So I tossed the bird, counted to three, and released him. When he exited the pond, I was back at the spot 20 feet away. He brought the bird smartly toward me, then… hupped right before me and offered me the bird!! To reward him, I loved him up with petting and soft words, and then, never taking the bird from him, let him proudly parade at heel back to his crate with his prize visible for all to see.

I have no idea whether it was my plan with the wing-clip, whether Gordie is simply gaining a bit of maturity, or whether the planets were aligned just so. But Gordie behaved perfectly. I intend to try this technique several times when the weather cools later in the summer and we're planning our testing schedule for the Fall. Check back now and then to see how we're doing.