A friend of mine recently commented about the progress Sadie has been making with some interesting questions (quoted below):
How do you even train something like that? Who was the best out of all your hunting dogs over the years? Can you tell a difference between their skills?
My response is as follows:
Wow… “How do you train something like that?” What a question! Most of what a dog does in the field is instinct – drive/desire, nose, point/flush (what the dog would naturally do when they “make game”, or smell something, game dominance. This is combined with training to refine the dog – drive/desire is combined with a recall (commands of “Come”, or whistle), and quartering (hunting back and forth to maximize the natural drive/desire of the dog to optimum range for a shot, and thoroughness of working the field. What they do with their nose can likewise be refined with training (“whoa” can be combined so dog holds a point). Game dominance can be combined with retriever training so the dog will “hold” the game, bring it to “Heel” (next to the handler), and “Release” on command. Without the training, the dog would pick up the game, and make-off with it.
It is important to understand that part of the drive/desire of all dogs that is instinctual has to do with their Pack tendencies, and that is their desire to make the Alpha (handler) happy, and complete their jobs within the pack. Sound funny? There are actually studies that show that Wild dog packs that have better defined roles can take down bigger game through executing actual strategies, working together. These packs have strong Alpha dogs that handle challenges appropriately from other dogs in the pack. This is also what makes them train-able. Everything is broken down into integral parts where the dog is rewarded for appropriate behavior, and punished for inappropriate behavior (including refusal).
Greatest part is that Dogs also learn naturally through experiences. Couple of examples from this weekend: First, the cover was very different – call it “Blotchy”. I think you can see it in the picture of her pointing. Sadie learned to range out and check each individual “clump” of cover, and moved very quickly between them. The second example was as we were working a tree-line. Tree-lines are typically two rows of randomly spaced trees narrowly divided by a ditch, or creek. On the outside of the tree-line is a strip of high grass, about 20 yards wide, and bordered by a path, or road. Dad would walk down the path (he is 71). Sadie primarily was working the trees around the ditch. I kept sending her out to Dad to check the strip of high grass. Well, eventually, she found a rooster in the grass. After that, she would quarter (move back and forth) between Dad and myself – checking the trees, then moving through the grass. This also happened to Gretchen (the first pointer that my uncle owned before Buck and Heidi). Gretchen smelled a bird in a tree-line, but could not find it at all. She searched all over – convinced that it was there somewhere. Well, eventually it flushed – very loudly – it was up in the tree. From that point on, Gretchen would run to a tree and jump up and look up into it.
What happens consistently, is habituated in dogs as well. So, to wrap it up with the retrieving training, I get her out almost every day, and make her pick-up (“Fetch”), and “Hold” a dummy – even walking around her around the neighborhood with it in her mouth – until I tell her “Release” when I expect her to drop it. So, in the field, after I shoot a bird, and Sadie’s Prey dominance is in full-swing, I expect her to chase down the bird, and pick it up. I command “Fetch”, and she knows she must hold it in her mouth, and “Heel” (just like she has been doing in training) until I command “Release”. That allows me to take pictures like this:
Equally hard question: “Who was the best out of all your hunting dogs over the years? Can you tell a difference between their skills?” Start with the second question… I can definitely tell a difference. Sadie is most like Gretchen and Heidi (kinda cut from the same mold). All three had incredibly hard Drive/Desire. Sadie has the most control of the three (most time spent training…). Buck was obviously a hunting machine in his prime, but we rescued him on the down-ward side of his career. Sophie was the easiest dog to work with. Sophie was easiest to control, but her drive/Desire was not as high as with the others. Kaylie (who you never hear me talk about) probably had the same, or less drive/desire. She only made it on one, or two hunts before she was “retired”. Drive/Desire is probably the top indicator for good performance in hunting. Don’t get me wrong, Sophie was an outstanding hunting dog, but I had to push her out, vs. reign (pull) her in. Her flaw in low Drive/Desire became her strength in how thoroughly she would work the field, and hold point on a bird (that dog could hold on a bird for hours, I swear). LOTS of birds found their end over Sophie.
As to your first question, Sadie has a long way to go, but I think she will be one of, if not the best dogs I have hunted with. Of course, I am not eager to find that out – legends grow with time after dogs pass on to the rainbow bridge. So, in my Uncle’s mind, no dog will ever hold a candle to Gretchen. For my Dad, no dog will ever be as good as Heidi, and for me, Sophie will always be my first dog (who, by the way, was valued as much for her companionship in hard times…). It will be a long time after Sadie is gone before I can judge her against the other dogs.