by Susanna Love
The allure of cool crisp prairie mornings with the sun’s early rays reflecting off of bird dogs in pursuit of wild upland game as their genes have destined them to do since birth. That is the essence of what draws Ronnie and I to take a select crew of bird dogs to the Big Sky Country of Montana for a month of training. This year Ronnie and I migrated through Montana with a medley of eager, inexperienced green broke dogs, a handful of wizened veteran gun dogs, and everything in between.
Camp life, while romantic in theory, is chock full of daily chores of keeping animals happy and healthy on the road. First light finds us greeting each dog as we unload them from their warm, hay filled crate; some of the dogs, reluctant to rouse themselves from sleep, are insistent on a long yawn and a good stretch before jumping out to see what the day might hold. In the still dim light, dogs are watered and picked up after. An hour or so after rousing the first groggy eyed dog, we reload and head to spend the day in the field to hunting sharptail grouse and Hungarian partridge.
Equipment did you say? Oh, yes we carry a bit of equipment. Each hunt finds us loaded down with a few pounds of water in our camelpacks, pliers (in case an unsuspecting canine bites a porcupine), first aid equipment, mosquito repellant (yes, there were still quite a few of the little buggers around!), command leads (you never know when they will be needed), and maybe a snack or two, just in case. Ronnie works his SportDog collars and totes his 20 gauge and shells. I run my TriTronics e-collar and tote my Nikon D300s. Last, but most definitely not least, we each carry a Garmin Astro handheld to monitor our dogs and track our movements on a topo map. Checklist of equipment complete, we put our e-collar and DC 40 Astros on the dogs, and away we go. Dependent on conditions and the dogs, some braces we might walk half of a mile over flat farm land, while others continue for miles at a time, covering many expansive coulees before returning to the truck.
Each dog has their own lesson plan in the field and they let us know what that lesson plan is as we go. One shorthair told us with his behavior “I’m self hunting and I think I’ll jump in on the next bird I find.” Easy enough for the teachers. That dog we handle to get him going with us and stop him every time he made his first move to flush a bird. In short order his mindset is more compliant and his bird work much more honest.
Some of the old hands that have come back to us for multiple yearly tune ups just need a bit of polish and to get physically fit and ready for this season. The young dogs that had just graduated from our formal training classes might encounter a sharptail grouse for the first time and you can see it written all over their young faces as they throw a confused glance our way as if to say, “Guys, did you see that? Thaaaat huge thing got up right at my feet! I wasn’t supposed to point it, was I? Seriously???”
After a full day in the field, we retire to camp. Feeding and caring for the dogs often until even the westernmost sky has lost all color and submitted in to darkness. Turn the generator on in the horse trailer to fix a quick meal and get ready for the next day. Listen to the coyotes howl a chorus a mile away…and then hear the dogs respond 15 feet away, snug in their crates but always primal and non-human. All of the work is worth it for the privilege of working with such an animal.
As the month progresses along we see each bird dog improve as they hone and diversify their hunting ability, getting better prepared for the season ahead with their owners. The miles on the ground and birds under their belts help to develop the crew into earnest hunters. The new experiences of “life on the road” broadens horizons and readies everyone for the 2010-11 hunting season. Our September wild bird training excursion is a real success.
Thank you to all of the owners that sent their dogs along with us. We enjoyed working with each dog. Have a great hunting season, we know your dogs will give you all they’ve got!