by Randy Lawrence
Firelight style: (Kate/Mack youngster, Kali, on spring woodcock, March 2021)
I tried. Honestly, I did. 36 years ago, not long after English setters and pointers had taken me over, I uprooted my five-generation home life and moved to be closer to the grouse woods we were only then learning to hunt. I arrived just in time to witness a Ruffed Grouse population free fall, numbers plummeting to historic lows from which they likely will never recover.
So we bless the woodcock, autumn and spring. We relish the very few renegade pheasants that skulk on the margins of antiquated farming practices. We own a battered little travel trailer and haul long distances to hunt during the season. But on those long nights when I toss and turn, sneaking glances at the setter puppy snoring in his crate at the foot of my bed, I can hear the voices that have haunted me for nearly a decade now: "Only a fool would dedicate himself to bird dogs in a place with no wild birds."
But such a fool am I. That will not change as long as I can stumble along behind a nice dog who can convince us both that there just might be a bird to point somewhere out there.
Like everyone else I know who is serious about this game but lives in a game bird desert, I have tried every method I could find to bring a young dog along. We keep three free-standing lofts stocked with hardy homing pigeons. We own state of the art release traps and a half-dozen "whoa" boards. Along the wall hang check cords of every imaginable length, weight, and flex.
On the woods edge above my house stand two low profile wire mesh keeps fashioned after those once used at Nilo Farms in Illinois. We have a "Dog Training Grounds" license and in season, we live trap over two hundred quail from those pens and turn them out between our travels, just to keep us "hunting"...after a fashion.
Yes, it's cute. But less is more in terms of sight-pointing with the wing-on-a-string.
But the truth is, no matter how expertly we manage all of the above...it's still artificial. Far too often, we make assessments of young dogs based on how well they navigate our well-meant shenanigans and tricked up introductions to "bird work." Between thee and me, most of this, from overdoing the old "wing on a string" pointing drill (curse you, Richard Wolters, for the sight-pointers your book encouraged), to virtually leading pups downwind of death-dizzied, broken feathered, poorly conditioned pen birds stuffed in green cover is mostly about one thing: the owner is almost desperate to see his little darling point.
I confess that I get extra twitchy when someone with a well-bred puppy worries to me over the corollary to "Will She/Won't She Point Angst": They are concerned with their young dog's "lack of intensity" on point or, my current favorite, "lack of prey drive."
I get it. Some youngsters have more innate point than others. Some are more precocious about searching game. When I fly pigeons out of my shoulder pouch, some will give a chase then come back in and nearly undress me, trying to climb into that bird bag. Others (some of whom grew up to be savants) chase a couple, then go sniff horse dung.
"Lemme know when you wanna fly another of those noisy buggers."
I am no different from most folks. What I don't do is lie awake at night, distraught over the Dung Sniffers, or dyspeptic when the dog shows more "Stop" in her practice points than "Electric Slide."
There is much talk in athletic coaching circles these days about "The Process." The assumption is that if we have a thoughtful, proven way of doing things that gets desired results, then what we should do is "Trust the Process."
After forty years, I have a Process (we'll dignify it with a capitol "P," just because it makes me feel better to do so). The Process begins with the kind of Prospect that has the best chance to succeed: a puppy from sane parents who sport that other important "P" word: "Proven," as in "Proven on Wild Birds of More Than One Species and Over More Than One Season." My Process depends on Prospects who come from a Proven genetic background.
There it is.
I spend the next hopefully decade and a half putting that Prospect in Position to within the Process.
Firelight Seth figuring out prairie birds. The intensity that will come with experience and confidence is not yet evident.
Five years and wild bird experience charged Firelight Seth's "style."
Do we train? After a fashion. But the better the Prospects that find me, the more "training" becomes socialization, manners, forging a connection, leash etiquette, and coming when called. Do we do "bird work"? Some. We call it "Playing The Scales," fundamental work that we are careful not to overdo.
The key is, whatever we do with practice birds we do completely on the schedule of the weather, the pup's confidence level, cover conditions, etc....and we do it more sparingly than ever to lessen the risk of mishaps, to lessen the risk of a young dog going stale.
I "get" training groups. I used to host them myself. I had the land, the birds, the gear, and an almost embarrassing evangelical zeal "to help others" with their dogs. It can be beneficial to pool resources and equipment; having several dogs to work means the individual is not running hers over and over. Well-managed training groups with a clear set of objectives and a prevailing patient, accepting attitude about an individual dog's prowess and progress can be a real boon, especially to the open minded novice who lucks upon the right kind of mentors.
But training groups meet on human schedules, not relative to the circumstances listed above. Some of the nicest weather and amenable cover for people on clock or calendar can be the worst time and place for scenting conditions if we have contrived pointing drills on the program.
Some groups over-rely on equipment. I believe that the use of radio launchers may be the most commonly abused bit of training gear in our arsenal, from making dogs "trap shy" from explosive flushes to ham-handed, stubborn timing on just when to push the release button: "If I just hold out another ten seconds, maybe Puppy will point!"...as Pup creeps, circles, flags, does the Macarena...
Firelight Deacon, "playin' the scales," spring woodcock before his second season.
Clumsy blank gun etiquette. Too many check cords or the wrong kind in the wrong application. Too many people talking or whistling. Too many hands on dogs that are trying to figure things out.
Youngsters appear "soft." They lack "intensity." They "don't show enough prey drive."
Most of that's pigeon poop. It's people desperate to see their puppy point. It's people obsessed with trying to do something, anything, so they feel like they are training. It's not about youngsters not showing enough; it's people not showing enough savvy...trusting neither Prospect nor Process.
I am embarrassed to admit that there was a time when I thought I could tell what a dog was going to be after watching her perform under these galling circumstances. I would like to go back and ask forgiveness of every dog and handler I subjected to my splatterninny takes.
But dogs and more insightful handlers than I gave the lie to that misinformed perspective enough times that, clumsy pun intended, I got the point: Maybe we ought to let these youngsters develop on their individual schedule under far more authentic conditions before we even dare venture an opinion about what they might become in the field.
Firelight Cool Hand Luke (Firelight Kate X October Blue Doc)
But even after becoming more "Bird Dog Woke," I couldn't resist offering advice, albeit in a different cause.
I once affronted a phone caller passionately lamenting "lack of style on point" in his young dog.
"Get a cat," I urged, tongue so firmly lodged in my cheek that I feared a puncture wound. "That's what all the great gun dog photographers do when they need a fiery picture of some field trial champion; they let him point a cat. Nothing puts more hot point in a pup than a nasty barn cat."
I told him to site that trap close to an inviting "escape tree," as if that was some sort of technical term, and to keep his hands off his dog and not speak to it while it was on point, you know, just as I was sure he'd been doing all along (cough, cough, eye roll, cough).
I suggested he might want to have a ladder and welding gloves at the ready if he wanted to fetch said feline for another go.
I didn't hear from that guy for some time.
People are people. That means that with some training groups, members aren't helped to maintain a healthy perspective about the Progress of their Prospect within the Process. They become competitive. Instead of keeping the faith with their dog, they compare her aptitude to that of their friends' dogs.
I once found myself sitting with a long-time friend, a veterinarian, who had brought her admittedly rather dim, galumphing young shorthair to an expensive three day, "dogs under two years" seminar hosted by a famous pro. As the weekend was winding down, it was commonly whispered between newly minted "experts" present that Doc's dog Phineas was firmly lodged at the bottom of the class.
Since that was in my Bad Ol' Days when I still knew everything about pointing dogs, I plopped down next to my friend late on Sunday afternoon to offer a little "hang in there" sentiment. The good doctor looked at me and smiled.
"This has been a great weekend," she said. "We had a fine time. I learned a lot, but the big deal was that it confirmed what I already knew."
Doc chuckled as the big liver and white dog at her feet rolled over to cadge a belly rub. "Phineas is a mighty athlete," she said, reaching down to oblige her dog.
"We just have yet to find his event."*
Firelight Storm in the Michigan grouse woods
(*Epilogue: Doc and her husband, a springer spaniel devotee, retired not long after, kept a home on the Northern Plains, and shot prairie birds over Phineas's stolid points in between fits of spaniel mania. Phineas, indeed, finally found "his event.")