Apr 20, 2012, 10:11 AM EDT
By Jerry Sather
I’m a second-generation dog trainer. My dad worked with bird dogs for many years. Hunting over his dogs is a big part of what inspired me to become a dog trainer as well. Much as it bugged me as a teenager, Dad wasn’t one for taking training days off unless the thermometer here in Southern Minnesota dropped below zero and stayed there all day. I can remember him telling me often, “Look, if you’re going to hunt in the rain, then you better train in the rain.”
The ringing of that advice in my ears was especially strong one day last week as we worked on preparing Versus Country Raider and the other Labs Unlimited Kennels dogs for the season’s first local hunt test this weekend. The thermometer on the kennel lean-to said 38 degrees and it was raining lightly – when we started. By the time the last dog was through the land marking series with a keyhole blind down the right edge, it was raining hard and not showing any signs of letting up.
Not only have I been known to hunt in conditions like that, early season hunt tests here in the North Country can be that bad and worse. Once a hunt test or field trial starts, about the only thing that will shut it down is truly life-threatening conditions like lightening and tornadoes.
As we prepare the dogs for hunt tests, it’s important to simulate the actual conditions we’ll potentially face at the event. That includes weather, to be sure, but also the kind of tests the judges are likely to throw at the dogs.
The land and water series at all testing levels (Junior, Senior and Master) are developed by the judges based on the terrain of the test grounds and wind/weather conditions. Once you’ve run enough of these things, you get to know individual judges and what kind of tests they like to set up. So factoring in the test grounds and knowing the preferences of the judges, I’ll focus the dogs’ work in the days leading up to a test on the conditions I anticipate we’ll face at the event.
For example, many judges will set tests, particularly at the Senior and Master levels, to really challenge the dog’s steadiness. They’ll create situations in which it is very tempting for a dog to break from the line before it’s told to leave. For example, they might set up a gun station to shoot a flyer a very short distance from the line with lots of yelling and shooting prior to the bird being thrown. This not only challenges a dog’s ability to stay steady, but also to concentrate and remember multiple marks after the excitement of seeing that big, fat one laying out there in the open just yards away!
Knowing this, we work on steadiness drills leading up to the test. We’ll also create training scenarios that duplicate the anticipated tests as closely as possible. We’ll use highly visible white pigeons or ducks for the short retrieves in doubles, triples or quads.
Trained dogs learn from their mistakes just like smart humans do. So the key is getting them to make the mistake in the training environment so that we can correct. Then when the dog sees the same scenario at a test, it “thinks” – “Ha, I’ve seen this before. I know what I’m supposed to do here” and, as importantly, it knows what NOT to do.
We’ve been keeping it real for Raider and the team for the last couple of weeks. With that training, and of course a little bit of good luck, we’ll be reporting on Raider’s first AKC Senior hunt test pass next week as well as ribbons for all the other dogs. One hundred percent passes would be a great way to begin the new season! We’ll let you know if that turns out to be reality … or not.
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