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Thread: A Tale of Two Essential Behaviors for Great Gundogs - Part 1

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    Default A Tale of Two Essential Behaviors for Great Gundogs - Part 1

    A Tale of Two Essential Behaviors for Great Gundogs

    One spring day in 1980, I was running a dog on a typical field trial water blind. We started about 50 yards back from the water. The line entered the water at a very acute angle of about 20 degrees. 150 yards out the line extended past and downwind of a point of land where I had drug around a duck leaving lots of scent to waft across the water and tempt the dog to land. It is a fairly typical field trial test. I lined up the dog and sent him. He took the angle entry into the water beautifully and chugged on down the line. When he came abreast of the scented point, he took a sharp right turn toward the duck scent. I gave him a stop whistle. He ignored it. I whistled again. He ignored it again and landed on the bank and started hunting. I blew the whistle again and delivered a brief shock via the electric collar. He sat and looked at me. I gave him a cast. He bounded back into the water and resumed the line toward the blind retrieve.

    Just about that time a light bulb went off in my feeble brain. I rebuked myself, “you just shocked that dog for performing the behavior you most want from him on a duck hunt, where you want him to seek and follow the smallest trace of duck scent left by a crippled duck.”

    After that initial revelation I began to see the many flaws of our retriever trials with respect to our gundogs. However, about a year later I got a good look at what field trials and gundog behavior should be. I happened to go to England and was exposed to British Shooting and field trials. My reaction was, “This is the way good gundogs should work and this is the way field trials should drive breeding selection in gundogs.”

    Gamebird shooting in the UK is similar to ours. Much of it is conducted walking around flushing birds from cover and shooting them. They also do a good bit of driven shooting where the birds are “herded”and flushed over pre-stationed shooters, similar to what we do when stationing shooters at the end of a cattail slough while sending a few of the party to the other end to drive the pheasants toward the shooters.

    Driven shooting is a 2.8 billion dollar industry in the UK, a country with 1/5 the population of the US. It is an important industry for the farming sector. Because of the huge inheritance tax in the UK many of the large estates are pressed for cash. Some depend upon shooting revenues to put a new roof on the castle. Game birds are treated like a cash crop.
    UK driven pheasant shooting is based on the release pen. This is a pen of several acres fenced with chicken wire and protected with a hot wire from ground predators. There is no top and the birds are free to fly in and out. The birds are put into the release pen at about 6 weeks of age. They are well fed in the pen, which also contains plenty of trees cover and open loafing areas. The idea is to make the pen a place the birds really like to be. They are gradually encouraged with feeding to roam the surrounding country side. Early on they are gently herded back into the pen to encourage them to roost there. Dogs are frequently used for this “dogging in”. It takes a well controlled and biddable dog to perform this function. A rigorous predator control program is conducted by the gamekeeper to keep the ground predators in check. By the time shooting season rolls around the birds are roaming the countryside and are very wild.

    A typical booking would be a syndicate of 8 guns who jointly book a day of shooting. The shoots also sell shooting by the day on a per gun basis. The price is typically around 30 pounds per bird. Typically eight guns for a 200-bird day would pay a total of 6,000 pounds, which equates to approximately $10,000 at today’s exchange rates. Thus each gun pays $1,250 for a full day of shooting which will start around 8:30, have a 15 minute break around 11:00 for a quick nip of sloe gin or something similar; then another drive or two; then an hour lunch followed by several more drives with the day ending around 4:30.

    The other actors in this production are the beaters and the pickers up. The beaters move the birds into coverts where they will stick. Then they move though that cover and flush them at a graduated rate. The guns will be placed in a valley or just beyond a planting of trees in the birds’ flight path with the intent of putting the birds over the guns at high speed at 30 to 40 yards of altitude. The activities of the beaters are kept as much as possible out of sight.

    After the signal for the end of each drive, the guns walk back to the guns’ vehicle while the pickers up come in with dogs to gather the harvest. People gather the birds in plain sight, while dogs get the birds in cover and the runners. The dogs are expected to retrieve all the birds regardless of the difficulty of the retrieve. It is not unusual to see a "picker up" working 3 or 5 or even 8 retrievers simultaneously and in perfect harmony.

    Each uncollected bird is approximately $50 in lost revenue to the shoot owner. Dogs are also expected to add to the quality of the shooting day by having good manners as well as collecting all the downed birds. Out of control dogs make the shoot unpleasant for the paying customers and lower the bag of birds shot and collected. Out of control dogs are not tolerated.

    British field trial rules prohibit the use of birds thrown by a person. Thus in the UK the shooting industry has played a major role in the shaping of retriever field trials, because field trials are run only on a day’s shooting, by invitation of the shoot owner. The paramount behaviors expected of gundogs are good manners for the duration of the shoot, and the efficient collection of all the downed birds.

    A typical field trial would start with walking up during which the birds are pushed from peripheral fields toward areas where they will tend to concentrate for later flushing for the drives. A line of beaters extending across a field will walk down the field pushing birds towards cover at the end of the field. Interspersed down the line will be guns, dogs and judges. As the line progresses all dogs are expected to walk quietly at heel. Most of the birds move ahead of the line on the ground, but an occasional bird flushes and is shot. When two or three are down, or when a bird is only winged,the line is stopped and the birds retrieved. If the bird to be retrieved is a runner, the working handler will be told the bird’s approximate location and the dog will be sent. If the dog happened to see the bird fall then it will be a marked retrieve. If the dog happened to be looking elsewhere when the bird was shot, then it will be a blind retrieve. The judges don’t really care which it is. They want to see an efficient retrieve of the bird indicated. When the dog is send for a downed runner he will be working through and past birds that are on the ground in front of the beating line. He is likely to flush one. If, enroute to a fall, the dog chases a freshly flushed bird, the dog will be dropped from the trial.

    If the fall is a runner, the dog is expected to track down the bird and retrieve it, again not chasing any freshly flushed birds on the way. Frequently the runners track will take the dog totally out of sight for a number of minutes. If he returns without the bird it is a failure and the next dog is sent. If the second dog fails, then a 3rd one will be sent. If he fails the judges will walk out and look for the bird. If they find it, then they drop all three dogs. If they don’t find it, then they typically drop only the first dog that failed, since he should have succeeded with a fresh track to follow. The walked up phase of the field trial is an extremely good test of the dogs’ game finding initiative or hunt drive. It also gives the dog’s manners a strenuous test as he will be heeling in the line for several periods of 10 to 15 minutes or more while birds are flushing and being shot. The dog is expected to heel quietly and the handler is expected to be quiet as well.

    After the birds are gathered in holding cover a drive will commence. The guns will be stationed across a flight path the gamekeeper is able to predict. Generally the shooting and drives are designed with the aim of producing high fast birds to challenge the guns. At the good shoots the driven birds may be expected to be coming over at 30 to 40 yards and flying fast. For the driven phase of a field trial the dogs will be stationed in one or two groups adjacent to the shooters. You might see 100 pheasants zip over the guns during the course of a 15 to 20 minute drive with 50 or 60 birds being shot. The dogs are expected to sit still during the entire drive while those birds are falling all around them. Any dog that creeps, breaks, whines or otherwise disturbs the orderliness of the shooting will be dropped. After the drive ends and the shooting stops, the birds are retrieved. Each dog must honor the others until his turn comes. Sitting calmly for all the shooting and falling birds presented in a drive give the dog a strenuous test of self-control and manners. Additionally, the practice of picking up cripples first will operate again here, and each handler will be instructed on which bird to send the dog for. A great deal of control is required for most of these scenarios.
    Robert Milner

    "When he stood up to speak, battalions of words issued forth from his mouth and scoured the countryside in search of an idea, and when they found one, they swiftly and thoroughly beat it to death." ---- -Anonymous

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    Robert Milner

    "When he stood up to speak, battalions of words issued forth from his mouth and scoured the countryside in search of an idea, and when they found one, they swiftly and thoroughly beat it to death." ---- -Anonymous

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