Firelight Bird Dogs

Firelight Bird Dogs

Friday, August 20, 2021

"Dif'er'nt Ain't A Bad Thing"

By Randy Lawrence

This really isn't my story to tell.  I just can't help myself.

Firelight Moondance is a friend of mine.  Lynn Dee Galey had marked her as "special" from the whelping box on, so I was thrilled when 'Dance spent some time down here in southern Ohio a year ago, helping me through a hard time during my father's decline, entertaining me with her quirky antics in exchange for some kindergarten bird work experiences we had together.

"Quirky" plays well on this old farm.  In fact, it's almost an entry requirement, starting with the guy whom the horses and donkeys and mules and pigeons and cattle and dogs think works for them.  'Dance fit right in.  

So don't expect me to be unbiased about anything about her, from her pedigree to her name to the somewhat unorthodox way she's gone about coming into her own.

But today Lynn Dee Galey sent me a photo of her youngest in-house Firelight.  Seems they were walking one of the sandy two tracks near their home in Michigan when this happened:

Lynn Dee writes, " Walking up the road, and 'Dance went on point.  Allowed me to walk up, calm and composed, and the grouse flushed.  I didn't want to harass the birds, and I suspect there were chicks somewhere around, so I praised her and picked her up.  But good job, 'Dance; good job." 

Lynn Dee Galey's trademark Vermont Yankee reserve aside, this is pretty small beer in the grand scheme of bird dogs.  My old friend Nelson Groves, the godfather of Southern Ohio grouse hunters, would have snorted and said, "Well o' course she stood there." (To Nelson, dogs didn't point; they "stood there.")  "That's what her ol' mother did, and her daddy did, so that's why I hired her."

But 'Dance is one of those "dif'er'nt" youngsters, with tons of precocity in one instant, and then goofy, almost willfull, adolescence swamping her the next.  Time and the kind of bird exposure that Lynn Dee will provide her, from the High Plains to the Lake States, will tell the tale, but you'd be a fool not to bet that Lynn Dee knew what she was doing when she kept 'Dance from a particularly promising Firelight litter.

Heck.  'Dance has known it all along.  Just ask her (she WILL talk to you).

Me?  I was late to the party.  But she had me at the first time she leapt to do a Suni Lee-worthy backflip and stuck the four-footed landing, all in the name of her conviction that she could indeed get enough air to catch a homing pigeon steaming high overhead en route to the loft.

"That's some weird (stuff)," said I to myself.

Naw.  'Dance is but a tad quirky...which makes her just my kind.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Sgt. Hulka, Andrew Marvell, And Early Setter Training

A week or so ago, a gun dog compatriot forwarded me a very sober, very detailed training description texted by an acquaintance with a (very) young dog.  My buddy is a rather staid, stoic veteran who was startled at the scope of his earnest correspondent's "program" with a puppy.  He presumed a reply was expected, but he confessed, "I'm just not sure what to say."

Me?  Lemme at 'im.  I either wanted to run and rescue that young setter or at least channel my inner Sergeant Hulka from the film Stripes and type to this person,  "Lighten up, Francis."

The two gravest errors we make with well-bred gun dog prospects are (a) not doing anything, (b) doing too much, too soon, and (C) colloquially speaking, bein' clueless about who's learnin' who what.

I get it.  We bought a BIRD dog, not a LhasoShizuDoodle.  We want to do birddoggery stuff - you know, with birds and pointing and gunfire and fetching and and and...

There's time for that.  Trust me.  There's time for that.  

But tempus is fugitting on other really important primary school matters.  How many folks do we see with young gun dogs who start doing field work being dragged to the session by an over-hyped English setter that doesn't know how to walk on a lead?  How many young dogs have gone into their first hunting season without a reliable recall, who don't look to their Person for partnership, let alone leadership?

When novices (and some who should know better) get gulled into asking me what they should be doing with their dog (hehehehe), they are always disappointed, mostly because the "work" I think they should be doing seems so boring:  Crate training.  Walking their dog on a lead.  Helping the dog be a good citizen in unfamiliar surroundings, with other people, with other dogs, cats, llamas, iguanas, etc..  How about reliably coming in when called...the first time?  Bonding, bonding, bonding, which means spending time doin' life together.  Learning together.

I'm stunned at how little time some would-be handlers really want  to spend with their dogs.  It is the human partner's fundamental obligation to understand her dog, which means spending the time and patience and thought it takes to establish that critical piece.  It's on us to understand how our dog sees her world;  it's on us to establish communication that runs both ways, which, frankly, should be the only kind of communication in which we're interested between others of our own species, let alone our dogs.

Every minute we spend with our dogs is a chance to learn something about them and about ourselves.  Our job is to take best advantage of that opportunity.

We do to young gun dogs exactly what our culture has been doing to our young people for years - never asking enough or asking too much too soon.  Only by being invested, by observing and being thoughtful, can we know what it is our learning partner is ready to tackle next.  That's the danger of many school curricula and, dare I say, cookbook dog training books and videos.  Such programs get applied without taking into account the individual.  That way frustration and heartache lie.

Lighten up, Francis.  The great advantage of not being a pro is your time isn't money in this venture.  This is your recreation.  So...DO that:  Re-create yourself as a collaborative learner with your dog, a deal where you learn how he communicates and try to get better at understanding that vernacular.  Learn how he receives communication from you which goes 'way, 'way, 'way beyond our insipid "commands" to every imaginable nuance of body language and vocal tone.  Establish rapport.  Roles.  Expectations.  Accountability.  Respect.  Love.

Live with your dog.  Learn your dog.  Support that dog early and often in walking at heel, accepting confinement, coming when she's called.  Do that with expectations commensurate with the dog's age and experience and opportunities.  There's world enough and time to do birddoggery stuff, Andrew Marvell.  For now, lighten up and learn to learn together.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

The Off Switch (Too)

by Randy Lawrence

Ever since Lynn Dee hit "publish" on the last blog post, "Breeding The Off Switch," I've been fretting.  I felt as if I wasn't able to express just how rare and difficult it is to produce setter puppies that hunt like speckled demons, but can be civil, in fact, chill at home.  I think I made it clear such qualities were desirable;  I'm not sure I acknowledged just how rare all of that is in the kind of dog I want to hunt.

For my sport, I want a fast, bold dog with fire and verve and courage, one with the conviction to range likely cover as widely as necessary for us to find a bird to kill, one he's pinned, cornered, overawed into sitting tight until I can stagger up alongside and put it to wing.

When my dog's on point, I want to see the same fever in him that I feel right then in me, like he could almost burst into flames so hot is the bird taint on him.  I want him to look so good, so BillBleepingHarndenFoster molten gorgeous that there's always a dilemma of camera shutter vs. trigger.

And if it's the trigger and we get lucky, I want him to streak to the fall, maybe even pounce on it, and bring that bird back high and handsome with the same expression to him that I know I'm wearing.

I've written it before:  We ain't so cool when we get it right.  Not do we make apologies when we party.  He wriggles and wags and acts the fool.  Heck, I've been known to bust a move, too, even now when "bustin' a move" risks an arrhythmic, geriatric white guy bustin' somethin' that might fall apart any minute now anyway.

October Blue Doc

When we move on, it's together.  I trust my dog.  I trust whom I've become to him in all the hours we've spent together since he came home to the farm.  So he goes like thunder, but with the kind of handle that no eCollar or Iron Check Cord Nazi can put on him, the one that has him checking in without coming all the way in en route to another likely stretch of cover.  He swings by because he wants to know where I am because he trusts me, too...

...and that's the handle we were able to forge because he came with that Off Switch.  I wanted him with me because he was easy and smart and beautiful.  I could take him fishing.  He eats dinner with me.  He checks the cows with me and only occasionally gives the barn cats a rip.   He goes into the dog-friendly feed store and cannot stand it until the clerks made a fuss over him.  He's quiet in his crate, he's quiet in the kennel, but best of all, he's quiet at the foot of my bed at night where he and the rest of my misbegotten menagerie keep the Dark Night away so we can all sleep.

Lots of folks can breed a pretty dog.  A number of people can breed a kind, mellow, lovable pet that makes into a bird dog of sorts.  But when Cliff and Lisa Weisse did their homework, looked over dozens of outside studs, then had the courage to outcross to (Heaven Forfend!) a Llewellin named Houdini's Man O' War, they just happened to birth a true paladin in October Blue Doc.  

Houdini's Man O' War

Lynn Dee Galey putting Doc to her superb Firelight females has seemed to enhance those qualities, something I know she does not take for granted.  And me?  I see the Doc/Firelight sons, daughters, and grandpups starting to find their way and...well...I can't help it.  I've still got a move or two left to bust.

Firelight Cool Hand Luke

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Breeding The Off Switch



By Randy Lawrence

It was the kind of text I love to get, a report on a puppy with a bit of October Blue Doc in the pedigree:

"Friendly, affectionate, loves to run in the woods, thought pigeons were terribly exciting but so calm.  Just walked around, and when we sat at the patio table he laid down near us and chilled.  Owner keeps telling me that he has never had a puppy so...composed."

A photo was sent, showing the puppy lounging in his open crate - his crate - watching his folks go about their business.

Only time and chances on wild birds will determine what kind of gun dog this little guy will be, but the gratifying thing to me is that he is already keen to cast and hunt, already fired up about birds, but came equipped with an "Off Switch," that makes him an easy keeper, the kind of dog that his people want to be around in their home life.

Granted, his people are doing a good job.  The pup has a clear sense of Place, not just his crate, but his Place in the family.  They've helped him learn to learn, they've rewarded his sensible behaviors, in fact, catered to them.  In short, they've built on what his Mama and Daddy gave him.

Pointer breeder Robert Wehle marketed his dogs as "genetically trained."  Some of that was, to be honest, marketing.  But what he meant was that he strived to produce puppies with sense and sensibility, in short, the Off Switch we're talking about here.  His expression was, "They know when school is in session."  They know when it's not, as well.

That's not a small thing.  Too many of us settle for bird dog prospects that have but one button:  "On."  Or maybe two:  "On" and "On-er."  They get it honestly, from parents that have so much "game" to them that they can't face it.  They are up and down.  They pace.  They are constantly into things.  They have no sense of place.  

In short, they are a nuisance.  Those are the youngsters that are too often consigned to a kennel where all of that energy just burbles, bubbles, and boils over.  What passes for conscious thought is "Anywhere but here," something that carries over into the field.  

My writer friend John Rogers once said, watching such a dog bouncing off the chain link,  then disappearing over a far field edge, "Aye, but thou hast been too long in kennel pent."

When it's school time, such animals have focus issues, energy issues.  They are distracted by anything and everything.  One such dog we had to work in a big enclosed pole barn, just to get any obedience work done, because every tweety bird that went overhead sent him into paroxysms of nonsense.  He made a grouse dog, of sorts, but never really managed to get "all of his stuff in the same shoe."

"Give me drive in my bird dog," people say.  "You can always take some of that out, but you can't put it in."  Puh-leze.  What good is all of that "drive" when I have to hunt a youngster half a day before she settles into the business of hunting with me rather than pinballing about the woods like a jackal on acid.  If I have a well bred youngster from the best, proven wild bird stock, collected enough to get around in front of me in good country, game contacts will instill all the drive we can use, and more.

October Blue Doc went hard.  He ranged to cover and conditions.  He pushed coverts with a predator's verve and intensity, but in his time with me, he never forgot we were out there working together to put birds up for the gun.  

But Doc had that Off-Switch.  At home, he was a companion farm dog, the one who rode shotgun into the village post office and cadged treats from the nice ladies in the bank drive-through.  He slept through guitar rehearsals and lounged on the porch while I visited with my Amish friends.  He loved affection but never made an issue of it.  He wanted to be where he could see me, but he didn't need to be on top of me to be reassured that he was The Man.

I fear that I write too much about Doc in these blog posts...but I won't apologize.  I feel as if it's OK to brag on him because he wasn't mine.  Cliff and Lisa Weisse bred him, and he was Lisa's hunting dog.  When he came into his retirement with me, Doc had known for a very long time exactly who he was.  From our time together, he knew what he was to me, too.  The puppies blending his blood into those established performance Firelight genes carry themselves in much the same way...and I never get tired of hearing about it.

The Off Switch: October Blue Doc entertaining guests at home.