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From Top Gun to Top Dog, bird dog training advice from a video rental junky...
or
....Why It took me 11 Years to Graduate from the USAF

The Checkcord

The feel-good training article of the summer!!...Two thumbs up!!- Freckles (well, if I had thumbs...)

Consider this...

In modern day birddogdom, no issue is more critical than the issue of the use of birds in training. To be more specific, how one introduces our young dog to birds and then how we manage it's future contacts with birds in training will make the biggest difference in how our new hunting partner performs for us in the field. The thing that makes the second biggest difference is all of this obedience stuff I am always harping on. In this piece, I hope to describe a tool that is a dead-ringer for avoiding the pitfalls in this area that I and many folks have fallen into as new bird dog handlers and would-be fighter pilots.

It is likely that the majority of bird dog owners and bird hunters live "in town" these days. For certain, almost none of us has the luxury of bringing up our pup on a training diet consisting of only wild birds. The situation for the bird dog owner as we approach the sty century is one where we may only get a dozen or so weekends of solid hunting each year, maybe alot less. The most obvious thing is that we don't have time to spare to allow a young dog to "get the hang of it" maybe by trailing an older dog around but certainly not by making tons of mistakes on birds while we are out burning up precious vacation days and time off. Birds and the time to hunt them are just to scarce for us to delude ourselves into thinking that we will really fully enjoy our hunting season waiting for the new recruit to get his act together.

There was a time when young pups could be turned loose on long seasons and endless birds and one could count on the pup to come into his own in time with enough birds killed over him in a season to still consider the whole affair a success. However, I am not old enough to remember such a time. Such a set up nowadays is a luxury only for the independently wealthy and eternally hopeful. I am neither and my prospects for the near future aren't cherry.

I figure I am like most folks here in 21st century birddogland. I want that new, yearling dog to hit the ground and be able to know enough about what the game is about to be able to find and point enough birds for me right off the bat to make my outings feel like a hunting success and not dog training. I am not talking about full bags everyday or even the number of shots or covey's found. I don't shoot well enough to worry about these things because I don't have time to shoot enough clays in the off season either, but that is my problem, we are talking about the dog here...I don't mind taking a young, inexperienced dog out as long as I feel that the dog is hunting for me, finding birds, especially when I know the birds are around and not coming unglued and acting like a heathen if the action gets hot and heavy. I am perfectly happy to see a new prospect nail only easy coveys or even nothing but hen pheasants all day, just as long as the dog is doing it for me and doing it where I can see him do it .

What we as trainers today need to assimilate into our training to produce such a dog that is capable of even this "minimum standard" is a mind set not unlike the theory behind the Navy's "Top Gun" Air Combat school. (You do remember the movie by now, don't you? Well forget it!! Kelly McGill is has nothing to do with this little deal and I wouldn't bet that Tom Cruise could pick a Brittany out of a line-up 2 times out of 10, but just just the same...) In the Vietnam war, it was found that a fighter pilot was exponentially more likely to survive his one year tour of duty IF he survived his first ten missions of that tour of duty. Follow?...Ok..consider...Pilots in combat were far more likely to be shot down in a dog fight if they had NOT already been in ten aerial battles previously. Once US pilots had ten combat missions under their belts, the odds them of being shot down plummeted toward zilch with each passing mission. So, rather than further risk pilot lives in combat to gain the necessary "ten mission" voodoo, (and to give legions of future, semi-talented hollywood movie makers something to do) a method was sought to have the pilots gain the experience of those first 10 missions without putting their lives at risk in actual combat.

The result was the development of the Top Gun School at Mirimar back stateside to put new pilots through a rigorous training course of 10 staged, but very realistic "air combat" missions, mondo binge drinking and intense debriefings to bring their dog fighting skills up to the level of a pilot having those 10 "live-fire" missions in combat before they ever even shipped over to the theater of battle (or to a battle of the theater, take your pick, Roger that...) The resulting pilot survival ratios from the war skyrocketed after this course was started (not to mention the tremendous box office receipts...).

So, the first order of business is to get the new pup a name, say like Ace, Viper, Cowboy, Cobra Leader, or Red Baron.. then...

What we must understand is that a new pup, like a new fighter pilot, is going to screw up a large percentage of the time when the hunting experience is new. (However, at no time will the dog in question get to drive fancy motorcycles down palm lined streets...however the fighter pilots may from time to time pee on the floor!!) The trick here is to devise a plan to allow the dog to get the experience on birds and make all the mistakes in the off season, when we are not driving hundreds of miles and spending a weeks pay on motel rooms, out of state licenses and overpriced hotel pay per view reruns.

Once a dog has been through a good obedience course (or flight school) and has been introduced to birds and the gun, the time to put the dog "under fire" is at hand. We will find when we take him out, say in late summer, that he is hunting nicely and pointing wild birds sometimes, but busting birds at other times. We can increase the dog's learning curve and bring out a more refined hunting and pointing instinct through the proper use of a remote bird launcher. OK, now that all of the purists out there are done cringing, again, keep in mind, this is for those of us that don't have constant access to wild birds for our dog, but do in fact, have a paid up life membership at Blockbuster.

A remote bird launcher is a radio controlled cage/catapult system that we can use to repeatedly simulate spooky wild bird behavior over and over again in a training situation. These systems are battery powered and operate through a radio signal from the hand unit to the launcher which we can instantaneously control. Most of the units are one seaters, but Rockwell has a two seater trainer on the drawing board. The training possibilities are endless, whether just staunching or steadying a dog up, or working on honoring or stop to flush or even retrieving. A remote launcher gives us the chance to precisely control when and where the bird will be found by the dog and how and when the bird reacts to the dog.

There are several brands of launchers out on the market and they are all more or less the same in operation. And the best news is...not one model has a clock you have to set. There are units that can operate two or more launchers independently as well as all the backing dummies and training collars to go with them. Then, there are the units that I own. Let your billfold be your guide. They all work the same as far as the bird and the dog can tell. The bird is placed in a spring loaded cage and locked in and placed in the cover. (I find that simpler is better. I have trouble keeping all of this technology straight; 24x CD ROM drives, gigs,550,00,000 bps modems, 4-head VCR's, GPS units etc. The other day I got so overwhelmed I accidentally loaded a pigeon in our new VCR...no, that wasn't the bad part...the bad part came when I hit REWIND!....don't ask....) The unit, once hidden in the training field becomes the target, err...prey...err...anyway..the dog is brought in to work the bird and through close observation of the dog and many repetitions of hunting and "busting" this planted bird, the dog becomes much more bird wise, very quickly.

(Just like Tom Cruise...only with talent)

A word about the birds to use in training. I like homing pigeons alot as they are cheap and they stink alot and can be used over and over again. (Some folks have said about the same about yours truly...) Also, a word about planting the launchers in the cover. This is one area where just about everyone I know that thinks he is some kind of dog trainer can use more caution and better judgment to great advantage and save alot of training time. Some hints from someone here who has made every mistake there is...twice. Do not take the launcher out into the cover by the same route you will bring the dog back to hunt. Read that line again. Take the extra time to come in with the dog from a different way and disturb the cover as little as possible around the launcher. Always where clean, cotton gloves when handling birds and launchers. Those little shiny shoes are optional. Don't spend alot of time in the area near the trap and don't kneel on the ground to set the launcher up. Get in , get it set up and get out quickly. You may need some practice at this. No, really...it will pay off big time in the long run. Especially if you can remember to TURN THE DUMB THING ON EVERY TIME!!.

We don't want the dog tracking us to the bird or coming to fully realize that this is all a setup when he smells "manstink" all around every find he comes to. Remember a bird dog's nose is at least a million times better than ours and attention to detail in this will mean the difference between beautiful high, tight points on training birds or dumb looks from the dog that say "Hey!! Waldo...you dropped your bird over here again" Also, put the launcher out with the bird in it and allow it to sit out in the field for awhile before bringing the dog in to work the bird. This allows the wind to carry more scent out further and give the dog a fair shot a winding the bird a long ways off. It also allows our scent to fade from the scene with the passing of time. Of course, a multi-unit system is very useful in managing all of this. It also pays to take note of wind direction to plan your training session and to make sure your blank pistol is loaded BEFORE you flush the bird.

Now, when you are working the dog into these planted birds, the idea is to watch the dog very closely as it hunts the field. You must remember exactly where you put the launcher as you hunt the dog back to it. Do not use flags, flash tape or empty popcorn buckets to mark the spot, for obvious reasons. (Well, obvious to some of us...anyway...) I like to use a prominent flower or weed, crash wreckage or other natural landmark as a marker. I still forget and lose the trap sometimes anyway, just the same. Once you see the dog detect the presence of the bird upwind, I prefer to just have the dog come on in, whether it points or not. The idea is to watch the dog closely and launch the bird once the dog is too close to the bird. This will become very easy and obvious in time, I have been told. (Again, only to some of us..) You will notice that the dog will increase it's pace and just road in on the bird once it catches wind of the bird. I figure once that dog has stopped quartering the wind and has dropped it's head and is bearing straight in on the bird from 6 o' clock, it's time to fire that bird out of there, whether the bird is 10 feet or 100 feet away. Of course, this is all made much harder if you insist on training at night. I just watch the dog. I love the instant control a launcher gives and besides it's the only remote control my family has let me touch in a year. It can be used to time the bird flush on a young dog so precisely that you can watch a recruit flash point and then be right on that button so that the instant the pup makes another move, even just setting or raising a foot, BANG! up goes that bird. A couple days with several repetitions in different locations of this routine and I will bet you can make a believer out even the most averagely (is that word?) talented suspect...err, prospect.

Through many repetitions and lots of praise, you will know that you are having success at this when you find it necessary, like me, to train your dog to "hunt dead" for and retrieve to hand...the transmitter unit for the whole affair which is guaranteed to drop out of your vest and become lost in the grass at least every other time you go afield. (Next month I am having mine surgically implanted, right next to my key ring and choke tube wrench)

If you will just take your dog and be consistent in this over and over again, the dog will develop into a very sure hunter and a rock solid pointer. The advantages over using planted birds alone are numerous and great (as long as you always remember to shoot the birds ONLY after they have been released from the launcher, tango-foxtrot!) . Number One, the bird is always where you left it when you come back (if you can remember where you left it....) and B, the bird can sit up and be alert and react to the approach of the dog while confined in the trap. I believe the a dog reacts to the birds it hunts by smell on a molecular level. A bird that is sleeping in the grass and not aware that it is being hunted does not give off the same intensity or type of smell as a bird that is aware that it is being hunted and is contemplating it's escape or demise. And finally (don't you believe it...!), never leave your wingman. Also, consider sound. Dogs have great hearing. I am convinced that they can hear a bird breathing and shuffling its feet in the cover as the bird evaluates the "fight or flight" factor as the dog hunts it down. Again, what would be more fun for you to point A) a bird that smells paralyzed with fear, chest pounding or 2) one that is asleep in the grass, oblivious to everything within 50 miles of it? or ...Kelly McGillis? I am amazed over and over again at trainers who take young dogs out and insist that allowing the dog to hunt birds that they have dizzied to sleep in the grass is teaching the dog something good. (Almost as amazed as I was at the cheesy ending of that movie...but not quite)

I recently was out training my dog and this guy, let's call him Val, who was there at the grounds with his dog comes up to me and says, "hey, would you plant these quail for my dog?" So, I went out like I like to do and just dizzied the half dozen birds a bit and gave them a good long toss each into some nice cover out in the 40 acres we were using to train in. The guy brings back his year-old pointing dog and hunts the field over and the dog finds no birds. "What did you do? Don't you know how to plant birds for a young dog?" I went to my car and came back with my crate of birds, "Show me..." I asked him. So, Val takes one of my quail and dizzies it and then he takes the bird's head and tucks it under the bird's wing and rocks it to sleep and walks out and then lays it on it's back in the grass. "This is how is how it is supposed to work" he says. He then brings the young dog in and the dog , to it's credit, winds the birds about 20 yards off and starts in on the bird; I cringe. At which point the guy starts bellowing "whoa...whoa!!" (among other things...) at the dog. I cringe again. The dog cringes. The bird continues snoring away, hidden in the grass. The handler intercepts the trainee about 3 feet from the bird and stands over him, yelling "whoa" (and still more things...) at the the poor beast, which now slinks almost to the ground in confusion and fear. The quail is still in dreamland, the dog wishes it were in dreamland. Val then flips the bird out with his toe and gives the bird a shove skyward, the quail "woodstocks" it for about 10 yards in the air and then augers into the grass, still half asleep. The dog dives for the bird, Val tackles the dog (at this point, nothing coming out of his mouth at this point, while beautifully enunciated, is physically possible in terms of physics, anatomy or mendels law's of genetics...) The dog looks up at the guy as if to say "Geez, why in the world do you bring me out here to find those darn things anyway?...." The fellow ends up this brilliant display by stacking the poor dog back up and bellowing "whoa!!" at it some more. The "training" session concludes with a hearty thumbs up and a "There, now that's dog trainin'!!..." as he drags his charge back to the truck. I am ecstatic. Finally, someone even I can beat at a trial!!...PLUS, I imagine he'll be leaving many birds in the field if he hunts much over this poor dog this season, unless, of course, the pheasant population of southeastern Nebraska is overrun with an epidemic of sleeping sickness.

The point of this story is that the dog was used to hunting birds that were lying there on their backs asleep in the grass, likely giving off scent that said "Here I am, I am asleep, I have about as much chance of escaping from you as a box turtle..." and the dog was trailing the handler straight to these birds, to boot. How much fun could that really be for the dog?

The birds that I had tossed into the grassy spots were likely up and toddling around, then went and hid as the dog approached. The young dog was not used to deciphering this kind of scent and when there wasn't a man's foot track to follow right in to a sleeping bird, the dog just sort of gave up and went looking for an easier, although much less fun, target. I later took my dog back into the field and she found and pointed three of those original birds within 10 yards of the spots I had thrown them into. The birds were there, they were just too tough for the younger dog to hunt down. The dog had not encountered enough "bogies" in the bird field to reliably handle the situation. His trainer had been throwing him creampuffs in terms of the bird set ups in his training. Our job is to run that dog through the wringer in terms of teaching him bird manners. A launcher overcomes poor flying birds and poorly planted birds for us when these would be our only options to running our trainee regurlarly on wild game birds.

I also had the fellow later watch me toss a couple quail into some of the heavier grass clumps in the training field so he would know right where they were after I challenged him that his dog could not find a bird that was not sleeping. He brought his dog into the birds, downwind. Each time, the quail I had put in the grass would flush right out as the dog approached and stuck it's nose into the clump to give it a now customary wake-up sniff. "You sure don't know much about young dogs", he told me "you want them to have success early on their birds, having the bird flush off like that doesn't teach them nothin' " Nothing, in my opinion, could be further from the truth. (Where would Tom Cruise had been without crashing his first fighter plane anyway...?) Any bird that a dog is able to point, even properly and spectacularly, does not teach the dog anything, once that bird is pointed. For a dog to truly learn and progress, it must be repeatedly placed in more demanding positions to teach true "honesty" on point. Hence, the "Top Gun" approach with the launcher. That is to say, the ability to hunt surely and to really reliably stick birds when a dog points is only going to be brought along by using birds that give off a scent that says "Dog, I know that you know that I am here and I am seriously thinking about getting out of here, FAST and NOW!! Over and out!! Birds resting in the grass will not get it done.

Using liberated game birds, MiG-26's or pigeons that are "slept" or "planted" into the cover or planted too hard for our birdwork will only develop bad habits in a dog that is trained on them once the dog truly learns to hunt and use it's nose to effectively locate game. Locating and pointing game are two very different things. If you use a remote launcher you can do away with all the checkcords, training collars, sidewinder missiles and even training partners as you begin to really train your dog to hunt and point birds. The dog will really just train himself if you have enough time, raisinettes and pigeons. Your young dog will not be distracted by these other things or bad air combat movies. The dog can then concentrate on using his talents the way he was bred to and have alot more style as it hunts and points. You of course, must be diligent in getting the dog out often to train and then praising the dog for proper performance. Any decent dog of any breed, once it figures out what you want, will apply itself to that task wholeheartedly once it figures things out and you reward the dog with plenty of hot, buttered popcorn.

By correctly using a remote launcher we can avoid having a dog that wants to get too close to his birds or fiddle around before pointing. As well, risking having the dog catch poor flying or tame birds is also a thing of the past. (Just like Meg Ryan's career...) This point cannot be stressed too much. (Just like Meg Ryan's career...) Also, false points can be avoided as well. With this method, correct exposure to hard flushing, "spooky" acting birds will make the dog hunt very carefully, with a quick boldness and pointing only when he has birds HERE and NOW! Roger, wilko, tango, charley, hike, hike...!!

I don't think there is anything, not even exposure to wild birds that will more quickly and reliably "cure" a dog of creeping on point than use of remote launcher. Remember, when using a launcher, don't stand around waiting for that dog to point. You are defeating the purpose if you are simply putting birds out to see how pretty the dog is on point. And again, ("pointing" lab folks pay attention here!) your are likewise defeating the purpose if you shoot the birds BEFORE you launch them. You will be sorely disappointed come hunting season. If the dog is "dinking around" in any way after smelling the bird and coming in to get closer to it, put that bird in the air, go gather the dog up and set that dog up again on another bird with the knowledge that now you are truly giving him the kind of education that comes to dogs that get dozens of chances to screw up.

With really young dogs (and some actresses, obviously) I think it is even a waste of time to take the dog back and stand them up in a pointing position where she was when the bird launched to reinforce "whoa" in the manner described in countless training books. This is great medicine for fine tuning a pretty staunch dog. However, with a raw recruit, your time is much better spent on just letting the dog come in to these set-ups and letting him teach himself a bit. You then have the advantage of preserving his style and praising him when he performs correctly on a bird rather than robbing his developing style with continuous, hands on, corrections. What we are trying to do is give the dog enough experience hunting birds that the dog will use his inborn instincts and abilities to perform correctly.

We are basically trying to simulate a years worth of hunting and busting wild covey's into say, a summer or so. You wouldn't waste time to stop and correct a young pup that has just hunted and busted a wild covey in the off-season, would you? Not when you knew there was another covey around the corner that he could have another lesson on in a few minutes, certainly? So, don't waste time correcting your young dog in the very beginning either, spend your time walking out and setting up the launchers in quality set-ups over and over again until the dog starts to get it. Then you can go back to the yardwork and start to perfect the "whoa" command, completely away from the association with birds. I guess the launcher is simply the poor mans "next covey". Nothing teaches a dog that has just screwed up better than hunting and finding his next bird. (Besides, if you take the time to really pursue training a bird dog in this way you will have the blessing of not having enough time to go see "Godzilla" this summer)

Again, this advice is for the majority of us that want to train our dogs ourselves, but do not have year 'round access to wild birds to train on, so please, all you purists, save your grumbling. I know you are right, training on wild birds is the best thing yada, yada...but the fact is, this is just not available to most of us. (If such a set-up is available to you, please give me a call if you need help keeping all of those birds in the air and God bless you...)

Please check all of your local regulations anytime you are using live birds of any kind for training anywhere. Regulations and showtimes may change and there are great differences from state to state, province to province on where and when you can use live birds to train dogs on. In most places you must have a permit of some type to posses game birds, especially out of season and in some places even the lowly pigeon enjoys protected status. In some areas, there are very tight regulations on the use of mechanical means to train dogs or monosyllabic actresses or launch birds with launchers or other means, at all, so check out the regs before you spend any money or worse, get yourself in trouble. If the rules are too tight where you live to permit the development of quality birds dogs in the off-season, I highly recommend that you move to a more enlightened area of domicile. Sure, they can find time to regulate this stuff but the Spice Girls get to make a movie. It sure beats me...

Proper use of a remote bird launcher will enable your dog to develop it's naturul ability and intincts in a way that is otherwise about impossible for us "weekend" trainer to otherwise provide for our bird dog. Once the dog is hunting well and pointing solidly, it is a small step to working to have the dog allow you to flush and kill the bird, which is a must. It is just a slightly bigger step to having the dog remain steady to wing and shot, if you desire