Blue Shaquille x Snyder’s Liz puppies point the wing at eight weeks of age.
I’ve closely watched and kept records on the progress of hundreds of pups. Those records clearly and conclusively show that it is absolutely impossible at 8, 10, 12 weeks of age to pick out the best pup or pups, no matter who you are or what you know.
~ John Wick, The Tree Dog Encyclopedia
Betsy and I are often asked our advice on how to pick the best puppy. After 17 years of breeding, raising and training puppies, we have an answer. While it’s simply not possible to know precisely what an eight-week-old puppy will become, we think that if you follow these three steps, you’ll be happy.
Choose the right breeder. Choose the right litter. Just pick the puppy.
#1. Choose the right breeder.
Within breeds, there can be tremendous differences between any two litters produced by any two breeders. And while a great dog can come from anywhere, consistently top-notch dogs come from breeders with vision. Betsy and I are now producing our sixth generation of English setters and fourth generation of pointers. This depth of knowledge enables us to make comprehensive breeding decisions which result in puppies with predictable traits.
We continuously evaluate our own dogs, especially on ruffed grouse and other wild birds. When we go outside our kennel, we’re never impressed by pedigrees and titles; rather it is imperative to see and appraise the dogs personally.
Our commitment is to breed setters and pointers with outstanding instinct, talent, conformation and temperament.
#2. Choose the right litter.
A breeder should listen carefully to your preferences and requirements. Some distinctions for us are setter/pointer, male/female, retrieving instinct and hunting style.
At our kennel, Betsy and I like to show puppy buyers the dam and sire, grandparents (if possible) and any other relatives, including puppies with similar breeding. After some discussions, the choice becomes clear.
#3. Just pick the puppy.
This is the easiest part. Since at eight weeks of age it’s impossible to definitively know what the puppy will become, any puppy should be ideal—no matter the picking order, no matter whether it’s the first pick or last. Choose based on color, markings, relative size or just pick the puppy that most appeals to you.
Finally, remember this key part. What the puppy eventually becomes will depend to a significant part on how it is raised, developed, handled and trained.
Dogs, like us, are more than their genome. No animal develops in a vacuum: genes interact with the environment to produce the dog you come to know.
~ Alexandra Horowitz, Inside of a Dog
To have a good wild bird dog takes hours and hours of training, days in the field and several seasons of hunting. To have a dog capable of winning a wild bird field trial championship takes that and so much more.
…field trials were not instituted for the purpose of bringing to the front a dog or class of dogs eminently suited for the wants of the average gunner, whose primary objective in using a dog afield is to swell the game bag, regardless of the manner that his dog performs. Rather it is for the purpose of bringing to the notice of the public a class of performers best suited to perpetuate the most desirable qualities possessed by the high-class field dog.
~William F, Brown, Field Trials 1947
The field trial competitor must stop on a flush, be steady to wing and shot, hunt in the right places and cover as much ground as possible, yet still stay in touch with the handler. The dog should always work in a forward fashion and with style, strength and flair. And to win big, the dog must not just perform well; it must perform to near perfection.
Preparation for fall trials begins in late June. The dogs start a physical conditioning routine three to four times per week to develop strength and stamina and to toughen their feet. In July, dogs are tuned up on their manners around birds with planted birds. For the next two months, the trainers/handlers spend many days traveling to areas where the dogs can be worked on wild birds. Physical conditioning continues and diets are strictly monitored to keep the dogs in peak condition. When the venues are horseback trials, another time-consuming level of commitment is necessary to condition and train several good horses.
After months of this intense preparation, the trainers/handlers again hit the road to attend the trials—some of which can be hundreds of miles away—and then spend more time at the trial. Each dog gets one chance, usually for an hour, to prove to the judges that they deserve to be named a champion.
Many things can go wrong and some are out of control of the handler. The luck of the draw is a major consideration. So too is incompatible weather, time of day, lack of birds or incompatible brace mates. It sometimes seems that the odds of everything coming together for a specific dog to win are nearly impossible.
This fall, three dogs produced by our kennel won wild bird championships. Good genetics are essential, but these owners/handlers deserve all the credit.
Betsy and I are proud of these dogs and thank their owners for their hard work and commitment.
2xCH/RU-CH Ridge Creek Cody (CH Can’t Go Wrong x CH Houston’s Belle)
Cody is owned by Larry Brutger of Saint Cloud, Minnesota. Larry handles Cody in amateur horseback shooting dog trials and professional Shawn Kinklaar is the handler in open competition. Cody, handled by Larry, won the National Amateur Pheasant Shooting Dog Championship held in August near Circle, Montana. Larry also is successful in AKC field trial competition with Cody and his other setters.
CH Houston’s Blackjack (CH Can’t Go Wrong x CH Houston’s Belle)
Blackjack is co-owned by Frank LaNasa of Isanti, Minnesota, and Leroy Peterson of Slayton, Minnesota. Frank trains and handles Jack in open and amateur horseback shooting dog competition. In September, Blackjack was named champion at the National Amateur Prairie Chicken Shooting Dog Championship held at the Buena Vista field trials grounds near Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. Frank is renowned for running championship pointers; this is his first championship win with a setter.
2xCH/RU-CH I’m Blue Gert (I’m Houston’s Image x Blue Silk)
Gert is owned by Dave and Rochelle Moore of Big Lake, Minnesota. Dave trains and handles Gert in wild bird grouse trials and hunts over her extensively. In October, Dave handled Gert to runner-up champion in the Minnesota Grouse Dog Championship held in the Rum River State Forest near Mora, Minnesota. He has also been successful in wild bird field trials with other setters and pointers.
JTH Izzie (CH Westfall’s Black Ice x Northwoods Prancer)
Even though Izzie is just a derby, I feel compelled to include her because she has all the makings to be a champion. Izzie is owned by Jeff Hintz of Ham Lake, Minnesota, and Tucson, Arizona. Jeff hunts, trains and competes in field trials in both locations. Izzie won first place in the Danforth Social Society and Fine Bird Dogs Open Derby held in late summer. She placed second in the Region 19 Amateur Derby, which was a horseback stake. In October, Izzie finished second in the Minnesota Grouse Dog Reuel Henry Pietz Derby Classic and won first place in the Moose River Grouse Dog Open Derby.
Ruffed grouse hunters do have valid reasons for missing a shot. Few hunting environments are more difficult and challenging. Even with leaves down, the grouse woods can be dense. It can be hard to see the dog on point, much less a bird thundering away through an aspen cut. And when grouse fly at 20 miles per hour, a hunter needs to make split-second decisions.
However, there are times when an easy shot—known as a butterball—is presented and missed. It happens to our guiding clients. It happens to me and I’m fairly certain it happens to anyone who hunts grouse.
No matter the circumstances of the missed shot, the excuses usually start flying. Or as one client corrected me this fall: “Reasons for missing grouse were not excuses at all, but merely explanations of the facts.”
With tongue held firmly in cheek, here’s my list for 2012.
• It’s too early in the day and I’m not fully awake.
• It’s too late in the day and I’m tired.
• It’s too dark.
• It’s too bright.
• The sun was in my eyes.
• The bird flushed too far out.
• The bird flushed too close.
• I was too tired after rushing to the point.
• I wasn’t ready for the flush.
• I was off balance when the bird flushed.
• My gun jammed.
• My shell didn’t contain any shot.
• I couldn’t get the safety off.
• I forgot to eject the empty shells.
• I was loading shells into my gun.
• My choke is too tight.
• My choke is too open.
• The brush was so thick I never had a shot.
• A tree was blocking my view of the bird.
• My shotgun pattern went into a tree.
• I was falling down.
• I was getting up.
• I saw the bird too late.
• The bird flew too low.
• I thought my partner was going to shoot.
• I was letting my partner shoot.
• The dog was in the way.
• I had my head off the gun stock.
• I got poked in the eye with a branch.
• It was a left-to-right crossing shot; I prefer right to left.
• A tree stopped my swing.
• I shot too quickly.
• I waited too long to shoot.
• I shot behind the bird.
• I shot above the bird.
• I shot below the bird.
• I shot in front of the bird.
• I shot for the dog…twice.
• My boot was untied.
• My foot got caught.
• My cell phone was ringing.
• My glasses were fogged.
• My glasses fell off.
• I had the wrong color lenses in my shooting glasses.
• My hat fell over my eyes.
• My legs were weak.
• I was having a sugar low.
• My shells are too slow.
• My gun is too butt heavy.
• My gun is too barrel heavy.
• My gun doesn’t fit me right.
• My gun has an improper balance point.
• The bird was too slow.
• The bird was too fast.
• There was too much air around the bird.
• I think I may have hit the bird.
Don’t laugh. After a day spent training bird dogs, guiding grouse hunters or competing in field trials, you might think I’d want to read some easy fiction—a Randy Wayne White book or the newest Daniel Silva. Betsy teases me: “How can you possibly want to read about dogs?”
While I do, occasionally, read fiction or other types of nonfiction, I really do love to read about dogs, birds and training.
One of the more successful ways to train a dog uses the principle of training with reinforcement. Don’t Shoot The Dog! by Karen Pryor is a 2009-revised edition of a book originally published in 2002.
Reinforcers may be positive, something the learner might like and want more of, such as a smile or a pat, or they may be negative, something to avoid, such as a yank on a leash or a frown.
~ Karen Pryor
While a good share of this book advocates training with “positive” reinforcement, Pryor explains the proper use of “negative” reinforcement to modify behavior. She makes excellent distinctions between shaping, extinction, stimulus control and clicker training. She does so in a practical as opposed to a theoretical manner and uses anecdotal examples to make her points.
The trick to making “No!” effective is to establish it as a conditioned negative reinforcer. For example, anyone who feels it necessary to use a choke chain on a dog should always say “no” as the dog does the wrong thing, and then pause before yanking on the chain, giving the dog a chance to avoid the aversive by changing its behavior.
~ Karen Pryor
This book is informative and an easy read. It’s beneficial to anyone trying to train dogs—or, for that matter, any creature.
Steve and Bud are tired but happy after a memorable South Dakota pheasant hunt.
Steve Snyder, Jerry and I are sad to report that Magic’s Rocky Belleboa (call name Bud) died on October 11.
For a week or so, Steve had noticed that Bud was ailing. He was a bit thin and just didn’t seem right. A visit to the vet and some exploratory surgery showed why. Bud’s abdomen was filled with cancer and the heartbreaking decision had to be made.
How fitting, though, that this strong, powerful bird dog went out with an unforgettable performance—a final swan song perhaps. Just four days earlier, Steve had taken Bud hunting and Bud had a beautiful point and retrieve on a South Dakota prairie chicken.
Bud was a dream come true for Steve, who wanted to enter the world of grouse trials. In late 2007 Steve discovered that Tim Post from New York was selling his multiple champion, Magic’s Rocky Belleboa, out of Post’s own Magic’s Stokely Belle by Long Gone George. Post entrusted Dave Hughes and the Foreman brothers to Bud’s training and handling and when Bud was four years old, he started winning.
In 2006, Bud won the New York State Grouse Championship and North American Woodcock Championship. Those wins earned him a spot in the 2007 Grand National Grouse and Woodcock Invitational where he was named Runner-up Champion. To top off the amazing string, Bud won the 2007 Michael Seminatore English Setter Award.
When Steve learned that Bud was for sale, he called Jerry and me. We knew of Bud and were intrigued.
2X CH/RU-CH Magic’s Rocky Belleboa (2002 – 20012)
Bud was handsome and had a beautiful blocky head with a dark nose and deep brown eyes. He had excellent conformation and weighed a solid 52 pounds. Bud had tremendous endurance and desire, always searching for birds. He ran with style and pointed with intensity.
So the three of us concocted a deal where we would co-own Bud; Jerry and I would train him but Steve would foot the bill. “We will not be under-funded,” Steve commented.
What fun we all had! We trained and worked Bud in North Dakota, northern Minnesota and western Wisconsin. We traveled to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota for field trials. We planned special advertising campaigns for Pointing Dog Journal and The American Field and its big Christmas issue.
Ultimately, and this just might be his legacy, we bred him to some wonderful dams, including Paul Hauge’s multiple grouse champion, Houston’s Belle. Here is just a sampling of some truly great Bud puppies: Liz, Ranger, River, J.B., Manny, Madge, Jagger, Jenny, Foster, Cooper, Tucker, Haley, Lucy, Rainy and Rosco.
Sometime during the year 2009, we three decided that it was time for Bud to retire. He then became a permanent resident of Steve’s kennel where he was the star of countless hunts. And for these last three years, Bud lived the privileged life as Steve’s coddled pet—well deserved for such a talented bird dog and multiple grouse champion.
Pencil drawing by Shawn McCarthy.