Firelight Bird Dogs

Firelight Bird Dogs

Monday, February 28, 2022

Winter's Tails

 By Randy Lawrence

Whelping a winter's litter, like many things in life, is a great idea... theory.

Puppies weaned in March have plenty of time to get their legs under them and a few manners laid over them before being gently introduced to thoughtfully arranged field work come autumn.  In a sense, it's stealing a march from tempus which, for those of us who measure our own lives, in part, by those of our dogs, fugits far too rapidly.

But there's a price to be paid, especially in the freezer section of Michigan, where, last night, the temperatures sagged to -20 degrees.  Where Lynn Dee lives, winter whelping is an indoor sport and ongoing adventure and not for the faint of heart or fussy of olfaction.

Lynn Dee's home is ingenuously arranged around her dogs.  At no time is that more apparent than during puppy rearing.   Still, tending the whelping arena is not a stand-alone activity.  Lynn Dee has a half dozen adult dogs sharing her digs, each of whom is convinced that he or she is every #%*&@ bit as special as Annie and her pups.  Just last week, a breeding female emeritus who shall remain nameless (but whose initials are "Firelight Kate") signaled that she'd had enough of being a bystander to all the focused hullabaloo.  Her response was to decorate the Other Dogs' Lounge with the contents of her own dog bed...just to remind Lynn Dee that SHE was not far removed from Center Stage.

Beyond juggling the egos of other Firelights, who've been reminded every day of their lives of how special each one is, a winter brood requires extra everything:  extra heat, extra litter box materials, extra clean-up.  Not just once in a while, but pretty much around the clock. After all, there is a balance between intake and outgo.  Puppies poop. 


Even the most conscientious breeder who seldom pauses the pickup has to sleep sometime.  Lynn Dee confessed to me today that puppy-tainted air makes it hard to enjoy the cup of morning tea needed to gird her loins for biohazard clean-up so is thankful that she can simply close their door for that respite.  The utility room washing machine with loads of puppy bedding seems to churn around the clock…

…that is until the fitting over one of the water pipes cracks and starts calling Noah to commence ark building late one night.

By a turn of good fortune, Lynn Dee was still up, tending to things.  She heard water running where and how water is not supposed to run, ran in to find flood waters gathering, then had the presence of mind to hit the conveniently located breaker switch to the water pump, then grabbed towels to dam up the utility room to prevent a whole-house-and-puppy-room tsunami.

Disaster averted…but had Lynn Dee already been to bed where she would not have heard that ominous splish-splash…

Next morning, luck continued to smile on Firelight fortunes in the form of a plumber who just happened to be coming up that way for the annual Sno*Drift Rally performance car race.  He said he could do the repair later that day.  Meanwhile, Lynn Dee surveyed an innocent bystander to cracked pipe crimes, her aged washer, and decided it was long past time for an upgrade.  A quick trip to town, and a new machine was on the way.  Before one could say “Soiled Puppy Bedding Meets The Local Laundromat,” cleanliness, godliness, and order was restored to Firelight HQ.

("Down The Slide": Edmund Henry Osthaus)

But that's just one bit of anecdotal evidence that shows why a winter litter requires more from the breeder.  Understand, too, that indoor accommodations must be continually expanded to provide secure, spacious footing for a veritable 32-legged crime wave.  There is a soft vinyl floor covering protecting the carpet in the puppy room;  every time the Puppy Corral is re-configured, or the vinyl simply “walks” away from the wall given riotous puppy romping, the flooring has to be moved along with the converted whelping bin, the litter boxes, the Blue Battle Bowl (more on that later)…

To do all that requires someplace to stash puppies. “I found that side door crates make wonderful temporary puppy crates,” Lynn Dee says.  “I lay bedding on the side/bottom for them and with the door open on top, they can’t escape as I take them in and out.”

When all is back in place, the games can begin all over again.

With each passing week, Lynn Dee adds creative ways to keep puppies stimulated with purpose-built playpen gear.  This week, sections of plastic chain dangle toys of all sorts into the puppy arena.  The  Battle Royale For The Blue Bowl has been an exciting addition to puppy play.  The heavy duty bowl rocks and rolls as different individuals commandeer it for as long as possible.

During quiet times (and there are some), Lynn Dee is constantly lifting puppies out of their den for one on one time, constantly socializing them with her voice, soothing background music and her schedule.  Nothing about this nurturing environment is left to chance in molding healthy, confident gun dog prospects.  Even in the dregs of winter, at Firelight HQ, autumn is always calling.

("Priscilla" by Edmund Henry Osthaus)

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Between Pyrite and Firelight

 by Randy Lawrence

(Firelight Encore Deacon)

Lynn Dee calls it the most delicate part of being a breeder:  helping buyers get matched with the best possible puppy prospect for their hunting and home lives.  To that end, she spends considerable time and energy and angst and technological windmill tilting doing videos of each available puppy to afford those on the waiting list a more informed perspective.

Once the materials were posted on Youtube, I was invited to have a look.  The first and lasting impression was what a beautiful batch of bird doglings Annie, Nash, and Lynn Dee had produced.   But when Lynn Dee asked for feedback, I had to say that I would have liked more commentary about her observations of each puppy's personality as they have gone from neonatal nubs to pointing dog prospects.

As politely and as patiently as she could speak after a maddening day of posing pups and battling backwoods internet connections, she reminded me that to do so was to suggest that as well meaning as such intel might be, to crib from mutual fund moguls, "past performance may not be indicative of future results." 

Obviously, this flies in the face of the Social Media Puppy Pickers who come to the breeder's home armed with everything from tennis balls and behavioral checklists to tarot cards and Magic Eight Balls.

A long ago, seasoned birddogger friend once sat in the shade, sipping his favorite "brown water," while I puffed and preened over a weanling pointer puppy going solid on a grouse fan flicked to and fro over the lawn at the end of fly rod and line.

"You know what that proves?," he opined.  "You got grouse feathers on one end of that stick and a fool on the other."

I was red-faced and justifiably deflated in the moment.  Since then, I have never gone to the wing-and-string (in public) ever again.


But knowing better isn't always doing better.  In texted conversation last night I bristled at the notion that one of the smartest, most intuitive breeders I have ever known couldn't divine something, anything from the endless hours of close attendance at the whelping box rail.  Instead, her good videos of puppies in the hand and puppies at play were painstakingly narrated with pointing out color and markings.  Even relative size within the litter was mostly absent from the production.

That's because Lynn Dee refuses to feed the bovine parallel to puppy poo to her buyers.  For example, consider predicting potential size.  She knows that the smallest male puppy in any litter might one day turn out to be a 55-lb. bruiser.   The big and brash brawler who muscled the nursing line, the feed pan, and play toys, just because she was a bit bigger, may develop into the most easy-going and deferential of companions.

Likewise, Lynn Dee the former counseling psychologist, has done her research.  Science has proven over and over that predicting disposition, trainability, tenacity, drive, etc. from puppy playpen markers is panning for piles of pyrite.  As legendary malapropagandist Yogi Berra was wont to say, "You can look it up!"

No organized cadre of breeders has more vested in early identification of top candidates for further extensive and expensive training than the guide dog folks.  And yet in study after study of generations of large test groups of puppies reared under identical conditions the results come back the same, over and over:  assessment tests of very young puppies have very low predictive value for temperament or performance as adults!

That's because, according to biologist Carol Beuchat, "the tests...use(d) on a puppy aren't appropriate for an adult and vice versa."  That means that whelping box play behaviors can only be what Dr. Beuchat calls "proxy traits," ones we hope will be predictive about an entirely different adult dog performance value...." but in studied practice, very seldom are.

So if what we perceive as disposition traits in puppies generally have such low reliability in predicting performance, isn't puppy picking a canine crapshoot that should discourage any thoughtful buyer?

Of course not.  That's where the kind of selective breeding Lynn Dee has been doing now for eight generations of Firelight English setters kicks in.  As a serious, committed breeder who has hunted widely on different species of wild game birds, Lynn Dee is objectively doing exactly what top guide dog and war dog programs do:  stacking the genetic deck with what scientists call  "estimated breeding values":  behavioral and physical traits they value most in the field and in the home (Beuchat, 2015).

Estimated breeding values can't possibly carry much genetic clout in the slap dash practice of "breeding my good 'un to you'rn."  Estimated breeding values that stick are not about isolated individuals.  Their formation requires decades of hands-on hunting and living with parents, siblings, and progeny and, over and over, carefully putting elite individuals to others like them, then choosing the best and (sometimes reluctantly, even heartbreakingly) passing on the rest.   That's breeding a better bird dog proven in the coverts and tied to performance, reputation, integrity - standards that thoughtful, elite breeders are continually trying to refine.

That's why, year in, year out, litter by litter, the most successful puppy pickers don't choose a puppy.  They choose a breeder.  More specifically, in a very real sense, they put in their candidacy for a puppy with a breeder who consistently turns out dogs that range and perform to their tastes in hunting, that are wired for how they want to live with their bird dog.  Only with that background in mind do smart buyers consider the breeding pair.  The ideal would be to see them in person in the field.  Barring that, we can rely on video,  on references, or descriptions by folks whose acumen we trust.

On the other side of the table, Lynn Dee collects deposits from potential buyers she carefully screens for being the sort of folks with whom she'd be pleased to place a puppy.  The general profile of Firelight owners she seeks are experienced hunters who first of all arrange their autumns around wild bird hunting - a LOT of bird hunting.  She wants people who live closely with their dogs, who insist on training their own, who use maximum savvy, patience, and woods time rather than what the late, great gun dog writer Bill Tarrant liked to call "coercive" or "friction-less" methods.  

Lynn Dee forges relationships with her buyers to stay in contact throughout the dog's life, not only for cordial support, but also to court feedback about how each dog grows into its life's work, always and forever collecting information on those "estimated breeding values" she holds most dear.  With Firelight producing, on average, less than two litters a year, that makes choosing her buyers as high stakes as buyers choosing a puppy...which keeps all concerned with their eyes on The Prize:  companion gun dogs who hunt with intelligence, tenacity, athleticism, and style in order to produce more birds for the Gun.

Beuchat, Carol, PhD.  8/26/2015. "Genetics, Behavior, and Puppy Temperament Testing." The Institute of Canine Biology.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Uptown Wolves

By Randy Lawrence

It took some 32,000 years and much wrangling between different branches of the natural sciences, but  in the early '90's, the American Society of Mammalogists and Smithsonian Institution used DNA evidence to finally confirm that Canis lupus familiaris, our domestic dog, is indeed a subspecies of Canis lupus or Gray Wolf.

With all due respect:  "Duh..."

Many of us cut our own canine teeth on nature shows of some sort or another, and much of that footage on wild canids has always been easily recognized in our dogs' behavior.  Take Firelight Dreamboat Annie with her litter of puppies.

Just a week or so, Annie began bringing gifts to her puppies.  First, it was a favorite toy.  Lynn Dee had to be vigilant to make sure it was not the heavy bone that Annie chose the first time, something that could be dropped to bonk delicate puppy noggins.  In the photo above, she's sharing a toy that is a great deal less menacing.

At night, Annie gets a biscuit snack.  Soon she was hauling that into the whelping box, the she wolf bringing prey back to the den to share with her pups.  Lynn Dee now has to break the biscuit into bits to make sure Annie eats, rather than ferries it, back to her crew.

 A calm, well-adjusted dam shapes her brood as surely as have her wild ancestors for eons.  Breeders like Lynn Dee remove all of the external forces that might pressure a litter of wild wolf, coyote, jackal puppies (or poorly maintained domestic ones), freeing the female to keep order among clean, well fed, confident youngsters.   

In The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling writes, "For the strength of the pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the pack."   Annie's pack of sturdy individuals takes their cues (and considerable inherited talent) from their bold, self-assured mother.  When it is their turn to run the woods or prairies,  sifting scent, parsing cover, learning the ways of grouse and pheasant, quail, partridge or woodcock, may they be partnered with savvy human hunters who know how to take advantage of all that Annie put into her puppies.  That's a surefire path to a howling success.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

The Spark of Upland Dreams

By Randy Lawrence

It goes so fast.  One minute, they are inert mini manatees, rolling and roiling up and down their mother's side, blindly looking for milk.  Then suddenly, their eyes are open, they begin finding their legs, and just like that...Boom!  They are puppies.

Surely these are among the most studied puppies anywhere, as Lynn Dee arranges the rest of her pack, the rest of her life, around a watchful tending of this Dashing Nash Bandit/Dreamboat Annie litter of "dreamcatchers."

Firelight Moondance checking out whelping box commotion.

Impressions form of this puppy or that.  There are markers Lynn Dee relies on from her experience, evaluating heads and bodies and emerging dispositions.  But always there is the part she cannot explain, and that’s the “it” factor.

It’s part experience, part study, and a whole lotta intuition, projecting personality and performance. The puppies’ genetic background and Lynn Dee’s hands-on, hunting 'n' home history with her dogs are huge factors.  Sometimes a certain puppy's demeanor, build, maybe even expression, will earn a private nickname - a “Little Sally” or “Baby Tweed/Storm/Seth/Flint/Doc/Kate”, imagery from dogs who have carved their niche into the Firelight Totem over generations.

Lynn Dee recalls another litter was between 2-3 weeks when she had one of those "Ah Hah!" moments. "One female looked up at me and in those eyes was Patch," Lynn Dee recalls.  "Patch was four generations prior and was the best grouse dog I have ever had the privilege of owning."

Lynn Dee says, "So when I saw Patch's eyes in that puppy face, I knew she was The One."  And she was: that puppy became the wonderful Firelight Kate.

Lynn Dee will gather intel for her placements, matching what she knows about this litter with what she has learned of the folks waiting for a Firelight of their own.  It’s more feel than science, and Lynn Dee will be the first to tell folks that what she or they might see at the whelping rail is just that:  what she or they see at the whelping rail.  Still, no matter how many times they might visit, even the best and most veteran set of eyeballs could be as discerning as the woman who whelped them, their dam, their granddam, their great-granddam…

Those of us who live and hunt with one - or more - of Lynn Dee’s setters know all this to be central to the Firelight Difference:  the smart, committed birdhunter at this whelping box and so many that have come before.  These next few weeks will be shining times for Dreamboat Annie’s huddle of new upland dreams, sparked there in the grouse woods of northern Michigan.