Firelight Bird Dogs

Firelight Bird Dogs

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Blest Be The Vines That Tie


by Randy Lawrence

Made during one of the very first Delmar Smith Bird Dog Clinic, this check cord has tales to wag.

Ok, so I confess.  I used to be kind of kinky for check cords.

They were in the middle of my everything.  I bought them.  Made them.  Worked dogs with them.  Worked horses with them when I was too lazy to fetch a lunge line.

I lost them.  Found them with the bush hog (!) and three times over the years had to cut them out of the riding lawn mower blades.  I broke them towing heavy things when I couldn't find a log chain or snatch strap.

I experimented with different lengths, thicknesses, material - even colors.  I mean, "Who could ever lose a blaze orange cord?"  I did.  The second one under the lawn mower ...

I soaked them in the horse trough, left them in a mud puddle to give them a gritty body.  I loaned them, never to be returned, and have been gifted them in the wrong ply, wrong shape, wrong clip, by well-meaning folks who didn't understand the kind of proprietary zeal I had with what they saw as "just a piece of rope" (or poly or nylon or hemp or any number of other unsuitable materials).

Nossir.  No, ma'am.  A check cord has to be slick so it can snake along behind the dog with fewer hangups than a Buddhist monk.  It has to be stiff but supple for easier translation of ideas between the dog and me.  Length and weight depend on the age and "burly factor" of the dog and what we're trying to accomplish.  

I know that a "lock jaw" snap is more secure, but my hands are trained for the standard bolt type connector...on a swivel of course.  After thousands of trials and triple that number of errors, the dogs and I have figured out what works for us in making connections.  We teach "Heel" with what we fondly call "The Hillbilly Half-Hitch."  We use a check cord with "Come here, *&#@", on quartering drills,  reinforcing steady to flush.  Most often a check cord just makes it easier to recapture a dog and bring her back in to be set up, loved up, coached up...then sent on, our handy handle vining through the cover behind her.

Pro Trainer George Hickox uses a check cord to employ what my friends and I call "The Hillbilly Half-Hitch" in honor of the Kentucky dog trainer who showed us this in 1982.  George is using it here as part of a steadying exercise for a very intense GSP; we use it with our setters only for very rudimentary "Heel" schooling.

I have seen miracles worked with check cords in the hands of master communicators.  I have seen train wrecks with check cords, too: over-controlling, under-schooled splatterninnies on one end and confused and annoyed canines on the other.  I have seen city hands scored with rope burns and have helped to untangle panic stricken gun dogs.  I have seen how quickly clever dogs (and horses) learn exactly how far he or she has to remain from the handler to keep the slithering, tantalizing end of that cord just...out...of...reach.

The root problem is this: As basic as it is, a check cord is mechanical.  It still can be misused.  It can actually interfere with connecting important dots, can douse enthusiasm, can encourage laze "training," can take the place of important repetition and shaping that takes longer but embeds a more lasting and deeper bond between handler and dog.  I have seen folks (with whom I've never trained again) run backward to time an outgoing dog just so that the animal is flipped arse over applecart as punishment for breaking some poorly trained and communicated command.  I have seen dogs learn to flag and go soft on point because some control freak was diddling with the checkcord instead of positioning him or herself where best to support the dog's stand.

I am check cord poor these days.  I have but two: a heavier model that is (embarrassed pause here) 80 ft. long.  A puckish setter fancier took one look at it and said, "That must be your pointer cord."

(OK...maybe there might have possibly, allegedly been a pointer on the business end of that cord a time or two.  She's not talking and neither am I.)

That bully cord was once bright red.  But I left it out all last summer on the porch after using it to pull that devil riding lawn mover out of a tough spot in steep terrain.  Now it's kind of a pale pink.  I am here to admit I am a secure enough male to flip a pink check cord.  

Jus' sayin'...for the record...

But I digress.  It seems the only check cord I use now, and I use it less over time, is probably 40 years old.  It was handcrafted by the patriarch of dog training clinicians, Delmar Smith, a patron saint of all we try to do with dogs and horses on this old farm.  By 'handcrafted," I mean a friend of mine paid crisp American greenbacks to wait in line at one of those early bird dog clinics, listening to Delmar tell stories while sitting in the shade during lunch, cutting lengths of 5/16" nylon, wrapping one end with electrician's tape around a bolt snap, and burning the other end black with a lighter.

We've had to replace the snap once.  If I think of it, I re-burn the free end when it gets frayed.  We're due for a singeing as I type this.

I wish I could bring back (most of) the dogs that wore that cord.  (Some of them) would wear it far less this time around.  

Delmar Smith's "Best Way To Train Your Bird Dog," ghostwritten by the best and brightest gun dog writer of them all, Bill Tarrant, was the first training book I ever purchased.  I still have that copy, signed by Bill.  It is stained, spine-warped, dog-eared, and fittingly puppy-chewed on one corner.  I don't necessarily recommend it as a cookbook, suburbanite-suited dog training manual, but I do consider it one of the very few Bibles in our sport in terms of fundamental methods, attitudes and ethics toward bird dogs and game birds.

From "Best Way To Train Your Bird Dog" by Delmar Smith and Bill Tarrant 

It only took about ten readings for me to understand that the three unifying principles of the book that matter most are Delmar's (and Tarrant's) notion of "Point of contact, repetition, and association."   In Delmar's training rubric, the check cord is just one mechanical means for "point of contact."  

For too many years, I needed all of those check cords (and a bunch of other gadget gear) in part because of all the knowledge I didn't have about establishing the very spirit of those three cornerstones.  Admittedly, part of that was the sort of dog I was running at the time.  Most of it was due to my infatuation for what I mistakenly perceived as short cuts and my moronic insistence that communication on the roll collar-pinch collar -chain collar-check cord-eCollar ran only downhill.

"Me, Tarzan.  You, Bird Dog.  Ungawa!"

The Firelight setters, Labrador retrievers, and (may God have mercy) Great Pyrenees that are charged now with my advanced education will put up with exactly none of that stuff.  They show me over and over that they do best when "point of contact, repetition, and association" is a broad bandwidth streaming into every aspect of our living together.  We all have things to say; we are all duty bound to respect those things in context.

Yogi, the Occasionally Great Pyrenees says, "Check cord, schmeck cord!"

My crew insists that school be in session from dawn til after dark, and "point of contact, repetition, and association" inform our every interaction, from who goes through a door first, how we take our meals, crate manners, the sanctity of the kitchen countertop, what is a "toy" and what is an expensive leather boot, when I want a 55 lb. English setter in my lap and when I don't, how we walk into the farm feed store and...oh we go about our business in the field on birds.

We all do best when I spend more time receiving rather than sending.  Clumsy as I am, they are mostly patient and give me do-overs on lots of our interactions.  It's mostly a virtual check cord for us now, but I've brought the pink T-Rex cord in from the porch.  It's hanging in the mudroom where all and sundry can be reminded that Tarzan can still swing, albeit on a much more informed vine.

(Note:  Training suggestions in this blog are based on the experiences of the author of individual posts.  They have been proven to work for that individual with his or her dogs.  Neither Lynn Dee Galey nor Randy Lawrence presume there is just one way to develop a pointing dog;  however, these are "best practices" that have worked for them over a combined 90 years' field experience.)

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