Story and photographs by Troy Rodakowski
I have now embarked (no pun intended) on a new journey with a brand new gun-dog pup. He is a relative of my old pal and in many ways reminds me of him when he was little, including all the chewing, biting, puppy messes and training that will one day, hopefully, lead to a full-fledged hunting partner.
Working dogs, as we like to call them, live for two things: 1) you; 2) the hunt or the specific job they are trained to do. Long hours of work and training pay dividends in developing the perfect companion, and this of course does not come without sacrifice from other activities.
I have hunted with several breeds including Labradors, vizslas, pudelpointers, Weimaraners, shorthairs, spaniels, beagles and many more. They all have their own excellent attributes, which makes them special and a fit for our personalities as owners. With the upland and waterfowl seasons quickly approaching we prepare our gear, and, most importantly, we prepare our four-legged companions with training and exercise. Frequent outings into the field are a must with the flame of the coming seasons burning strong. Smells of autumn wafting on the breeze invigorate the senses.
Many folks like to take their dogs to game-bird farms or ranches as a warm-up, and I think this is an excellent idea that can be very insightful when planning for a successful year. Some wildlife ranches open around the middle of August and offer great shooting and training. Hunt and retriever clubs also offer field-trial events throughout the year to keep your dog tuned and in good physical condition. Many times they even offer trial grading towards hunt championships and classifications. These are both important aspects in one’s routine to have better success during the season. “Getting a pup and even a seasoned dog off to a good start or refreshing their memory is important,” says George Dern, owner of the DK Wildlife Ranch in Crawfordsville, Ore.
Having a companion and good hunting partner is all many of us desire to be satisfied and feel accomplished with our canines. Once again, I have chosen to take on the challenge of training a puppy and watching him grow and succeed, much like a proud parent watches their child transform into adulthood.
As I go through the chewing, biting, puking, pooping and endless energy of the puppy stage, I look to the future of a partner to share memories with and sometimes wonder if I was somewhat crazy to take on the challenge once again. I remind myself of what is to come and how much I will miss my buddy being small and pretty darn cute. Dern recently reminded me, “Start your pup off slow and get them excited about birds and feathers. That excitement will build as they mature.” With fall approaching many of us are looking forward to the morning we grab our guns, gear and pooch to chase game birds.
A seasoned dog can sense the change in the seasons, and they do not want to miss a chance to please us. In fact, I have even seen that look after missing a bird. You know the one! The one that says, “Hey, I did my job, obeyed, found the birds and listened to your commands. Now why did you miss again?” Well, because I need more practice on the trap and skeet range, little buddy. As a master I hate to disappoint, and I have found that my shooting skills are not always up to par. Regardless, our furry friends keep doing their job no matter how often we might miss the target.
With any job, there is always a chance of injury, and with hunting dogs it is no different. From small scratches to broken bones, pulled muscles to being sprayed by a skunk, or worse, bitten by a snake, field dogs are put at risk each time they go out. Some dogs have even lost their lives doing what they love and were trained to do.
“We lost a dog in one of our ponds after he had an apparent heart attack following a routine retrieve,” Dern shared. It is heartbreaking but a reality we deal with as sportsman and dog owners. I know a few hunters who have lost good hounds to mountain lions, bears and the environment. It is a risk we take and reality we live with as the owners of working dogs. Accidents happen, especially in the wild.
Regardless of the breed or dog you have and are proud to call your hunting companion, we all share a similar bond as dog owners. “They are more than just pets and hunting dogs; they are a huge part of our lives, and for many of us it’s more than just a desire; it’s a necessity to have that relationship,” says Gary Lewis, author of Hunting Oregon. It’s tough and rewarding work, but worth a lifetime of love and companionship. As we watch our companions grow old, and unable to do what they love, they are just happy being by our side to share time with us. Remember, as you watch that point or retrieve with your best friend this season, make sure you are there for them so together you can keep doing what you love. Good luck and happy hunting. ASJ
“C’mon, hop in … C’mon,” Meyer kept enticing the pups in his calm voice as he and the other dogs continued paddling. Soon both pups were having their first swimming session, part of the training Meyer initiates in the spring and throughout the summer.
“The key is not to force them, but make it fun,” smiled Meyer as he pulled the canoe ashore. The training session lasted nearly two hours, and all five dogs did great, even the pups. During that time, Meyer didn’t raise his voice once.
Now is the time to be training your dog for the upcoming hunting season. As is the case with hunters, dogs need to be in shape for the hunt too, and just because summer days are hot doesn’t mean dog training should be delayed.
Good training starts with clear communication. Meyer, who I’ve been working with over the past year, has been training dogs for over 40 years. For 25 years he was a professor of animal breeding and genetics at Oregon State University, and watching him patiently work his dogs is something to behold. His willingness to help me, a first-time hunting dog owner, speaks a lot of what kind of man he is. His eagerness and dedication is addicting, and his passion to see dogs succeed is admirable.
“The older I get, the more I’ve come to realize you don’t need to holler at a dog to get it to do something,” shares Meyer. “They just need to know what you’re expecting of them. If they don’t respond the way I want them to, it’s likely due to miscommunication on my part.”
I’ve been on several training sessions with Meyer and never once heard him raise his voice towards a dog. They always respond to him no matter their breed or age. Patience and keeping it fun and positive are key elements of Meyer’s training foundation, and a good starting point for all dog owners looking to build a better dog.
Swimming is one of the best ways to get a dog in shape so they don’t overheat.
Meyer regularly swims his dogs all summer long. “Swimming is one of the best ways to get a dog in shape this time of year so they don’t overheat,” he notes. “You can’t get this kind of conditioning by repeatedly tossing a bumper into the water. In fact, when I’m training with a bumper, I’ll only toss it in four or five times – that’s it.”
Meyers’ swim training usually lasts a couple of hours. He’ll paddle the canoe to one shore, let the dogs get out to play and warm up, then do it again … and again … and again. He ends every training session on a positive note, with the dogs wanting more and this includes swimming.
Jess Spradley, trainer and owner of Cabin Creek Gundogs, offered this advice when asked about summer training tips: “Get the dog’s feet in shape. Just like a human’s, a dog’s
feet have to be in good condition for the hunt.”
Spradley’s favorite training surface is gravel followed by pavement. This time of year, do it early or late in the day when temperatures aren’t overly hot. Be sure to have plenty of water for the dog to drink. Shaving their coat this time of year will also help keep them cool, as will pouring water over them during training sessions.
“Don’t mix play and work,” Meyer advised me. “When training a dog for the hunt, make sure they know it. When playing with them for fun, make sure they know the difference. Don’t use training bumpers as fun toys or vice versa.”
Spradley points out that pointing breeds need to be regularly exercised, while Labs are happy with a stroll down the street. Spradley prefers to train dogs that have been exposed to at least one season of hunting and were taught basic guidelines by their owner. “When they bring a dog to me, I ask what they’ve done and they often say, ‘Nothing; we didn’t want to screw it up.’ That’s valid, but not a good idea as the pup’s gotta learn some basic guidelines in order to achieve a higher level of training.”
This summer, make time to start building a good hunting dog. Practice patience, clearly communicate your expectations and make it fun for your dog. When those elements are solid, everything else will fall into place. ASJ
Author’s note: You can visit Howard Meyer with Chipewa Kennels at chippewa-gsp.com, and Jess Spradley with Cabin Creek Gun Dogs at cabincreekgundogs.com. For amazing Pudelpointer’s visit talltimberpudelpointers.com.
Posted in Hunting Tagged with: Cabin Creek Gun Dogs, Chipewa Kennels, Dog trainer, Gun dogs, Howard Meyer, hunting dogs, Jess Spradley, Oregon State University, Pudelpointers, Scott Haugen, Tall Timber Pudelpointers, training
While driving through the night to beat the sunrise over the hunting grounds that were still a hundred miles distant, our furry hunting partner was tossing and turning in the backseat, dreaming of coursing over harsh terrain and climbing vertical rocky outcrops for a bird he has found. Occasionally he would rise to press his soft muzzle on our cheeks to nuzzle and make sure all was well.
Moments after reaching the entrance to the hopelessly barren and ominous terrain where nature has somehow orchestrated the survival of birds, Winchester is long gone, only visible by the GPS screen communicating his location. A half mile distant, and about 800 vertical feet above, his body goes rigid; only his tail “feathers” blow in the mountain air. You would think he was cast in stone. Finally, after ascending to his position, I search for the small, fuzzy blobs of camouflage feathers that are surely there. Slowly I begin to doubt. I look again to Winchester for reassurance; he ignores me. I turn back and glimpse gray-and-white ghosts flying up the mountainside. Ptarmigan. Ah, no matter. Winchester has struck out again, up the mountain and is coursing the slopes with his head held high, a tireless hunter cast in the memory of his storied English setter ancestry. Moments in time.
One summer day in 2010, Winchester bravely made the trip from his birthplace in North
Dakota to the Delta Airlines cargo office in Anchorage, Alaska, and forever changed our lives.
At seven weeks old he ran across the parking lot on his wobbly puppy legs and promptly pointed a songbird. After catching him, with the assistance of some friendly folks who were mesmerized by this black-and-white ball of energy, we immediately knew he was going to be special.
Pointing dogs are not your typical gun dog, and big running setters are, similar to their only serious competition in the gun-dog world, English pointers, incredibly gifted physical specimens that astound the senses with their prey drive and bird-finding ability.
The wide-open spaces of high country become theaters as their human hunting partners are mesmerized by the ballet conducted before their eyes. The edge of nowhere, places where few have been or will ever go, where even horses cannot climb, these magnificent animals unfold a drama that can find us sentimental gun-dog folks teary-eyed, and grateful for the front row seat to the show.
When Winchester showed up at the trap and skeet range at nine weeks of age he had already been exposed to gunfire in a way that convinced him it was a good thing. A fellow shooter asked, “What are you going to do with a bird dog in territory that has no birds?” It’s a common reaction we Alaskans with gun dogs hear. Most folks here are conditioned to the spruce grouse that are typically taken on the side of gravel roads where they come for grit to aid in digestion, and a dog is hardly required for success. Most hunters, even bird hunters in Alaska, don’t consider ptarmigan as a viable proposition for the gun dog. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game concluded with annual surveys that 90 percent of ptarmigan are taken via snowmobile during the winter months when they can be easily found and shot with .22 rifles or pistols. When they flush they don’t flush far, and some hunters follow the flock, shooting until none are left.
There is an exception to these standards: the whitetail ptarmigan. The smallest member of the ptarmigan family is also its wildest.
Whitetail ptarmigan inhabit country that is foreboding to any type of vehicle traffic, and they live where Dall sheep dwell, way up high. Just getting into these areas is an adventure in itself. If there is a perfect match for running gun dogs, it is this bird. Spreading out across the range they will inhabit a 2,500-acre mountain valley. Setters, with their physical gifts and ability to operate in cold environments all day long, are uniquely qualified to find the birds.
At six months old, Winchester was climbing into sheep country and finding whitetails as if he had been born doing it. Some gun-dog folks were critical of allowing Winchester to run around mountain country at such a young age. Worried that we might be doing something detrimental, we called the breeder to inquire. He laughed and said, “Yeah, most folks don’t get what these setters are about. As long as he is happy and wants to go, let him go.” After the first year of watching Winchester unfold in the field, I was certain that he exemplified the qualities of an extraordinary gun dog – a true once-in-a-lifetime prospect.
Before Winchester’s first birthday we had already decided another setter was necessary. In spite of their physical prowess, even the best of the best dogs cannot hunt in the mountains day after day. Winchester’s GPS collar showed his typical day in the high country covered 30 to 35 miles. So, with a dual purpose in mind, Parker arrived at the same Delta cargo office shortly after Winchester’s first birthday. Having come from the same kennel with equally magnificent bloodlines, she would be Winchester’s relief until she was old enough to breed, and then she would make more setters; two that would hunt with their papa into the foreseeable future. Best laid plans.
When Parker turned two the process of breeding started. Well, it could have started; Parker would have nothing to do Winchester. Parker was smitten with Red, our Irish setter who was neutered. For two cycles she avoided Winchester’s advances, and it seemed unlikely they would ever conceive, but just after her third birthday she came into heat again, and something changed because she was quite receptive. On June 30, 2014, the blessed arrival of the puppies quickly turned into a nightmare because Parker was having extreme difficulties. She was seen by the vet, who induced labor to get the process started. Her labor lasted for three days, bearing seven pups in the first 24 hours and then four more over the next two days. It was a very large first litter, with one stillborn and several extremely small. An emergency trip to the vet, lots of bottle feeding and hoping for the best wasn’t good enough; we lost five more. The last little one was a beautiful tri-colored girl who we held in our arms to comfort until she passed.
We aren’t breeders, and although we had prior experience with litters, this was different. These puppies were special; losing so many was heartbreaking and life changing. After that, any thought of letting the survivors go to other homes was unthinkable. Four boys – Colt, Hugo, Cogswell, Boss – and one little girl named Purdey would never have to leave their family. “Have you lost your minds?” people would ask. Granted, when you already have three chocolate Labrador retrievers (the duck hunters) and three setters it does appear to be a bit irrational. We had the good fortune of unique circumstances which allowed us to foster the relationships that are so important for four-legged hunting partners: my recent retirement coupled with enough space for them to run and grow, and an extraordinary love of dogs. Possible? Yes, if not a bit daunting.
Timing found the pups too young for real hunting when the season rolled around in fall. The experiences with all of our dogs have shown that a critical element in building a relationship is taking them out of their comfort zone and into the field, where they learn that you will always be there for them. Colt, because he looks so much like Winchester, went to the field first. At nine weeks old he rode in his first bush plane to a mountain lake that’s an ideal base to hunt ptarmigan from. Winchester had been injured earlier and could not make the trip, so we hunted with another fella who had a Lab and a setter. Colt ran the mountains with all his might. When he got tired he rode in a small backpack or my wife Christine’s game vest. He had the time of his puppy life, and the way he interacted with us showed the strong bond that trip formed. A few days later, Boss flew into Redoubt Bay with the Labs, and donned camouflage face paint to hide his little white setter face in the blind; he loved every minute. Cogswell, Hugo and Purdey all made overnight camping trips before they were three months old.
There may be something better than a setter puppy snuggled into your sleeping bag, but whatever it is escapes me at the moment. It is said that puppies that stay together, like ours
have, will form a “superbond,” and be less bonded to their people. That might happen, but for
now they are ten months old, and there is no question who they would rather be with. The difficulty is refereeing the fights over who gets to lay in the recliners with us because they won’t all fit – we’ve have tried.
The next chapter for these pups will be written this fall when they follow their magnificent father’s lead into the high country for the season opener. The moment in time when he points the first bird and all of his pups back him up will be the reward of all time. The trouble, the vet bills, the chewed items and everything else that comes with a setter family will mean nothing, and that moment cannot come soon enough. ASJ