By Nick Green
Calvin quartered the field beautifully that September evening. With his nose held high, he looked like something that belonged in a painting — almost setter-esque. The field was familiar to him. It was where we had trained all summer, making the 2.5-hour drive one way each Friday from Mason to Meauwataka.
I have to back up, though. My fiancé, Emily, and I adopted Calvin, a small Münsterländer, in May. He was gun-sensitive (he cowered when he saw a gun and ran away when I worked the action), sharp with the previous family’s toddler and had no bird exposure. Calvin was my first bird dog and he was what most would call a “project dog” and even a “lost cause.”
A series of events led me to our trainer, who wishes to remain unnamed. He’s a reserved man — the kind that you can tell is calculating every flick of a dog’s tail, movement of their eyes and lift of their head and computing those actions in his head. He only stands 5-foot-7-inches(ish) tall. Yet, he commands respect, and the dogs know that.
From the get-go, our trainer meant business. I was given homework each week, I was schooled in the art of force fetch, I rehearsed the training verbiage that I would use and I became accustomed to leads, check cords, bumpers and treats being with me everywhere I went. Essentially, I was trained to train my dog.
People either start yelling at you or they wholeheartedly agree when you start talking the nuts and bolts of force fetch. For some, they feel negative reinforcement (the whole basis for force fetch) isn’t a viable dog training option. For Calvin, who is a “soft” dog, it lifted his confidence through the roof and formed a bond between him and I that I’m confident wouldn’t have come any other way.
It wasn’t easy, though. There were days when Calvin and I battled during force fetch. We both left with wounds — physical and emotional.
In fact, Emily even passed out during one of the sessions from the tension. About 95 percent of the time, though, Calvin did what was asked, and I came to understand that we were teaching each other about ourselves throughout the process.
Fieldwork accompanied table work each Friday, and from day one, Calvin was birdy. The first day we met our trainer, he put out a pigeon for Calvin to see what would happen — this helps him to determine if there is a foundation on which to build. I had to slowly work Calvin into the bird, as he wouldn’t range more than 10 yards from me at that time. He slammed on point, and our trainer said, “Yep, he will be a bird dog.”
Despite reading every book I could get my hands on — from Joan Bailey’s “How to Help Gun Dogs Train Themselves” and “How to Have the Best Trained Gun Dog” to the tried-and-true Richard Wolters’ “Gun Dog” and even the NAVHDA green bible — I was and am an amateur dog trainer.
Calvin continued to progress throughout the summer — eventually, I had him heeling and picking up only the items I told him to off the ground. More importantly, he was ranging out to 50 or 60 yards, pointing birds from up to 10 yards away and holding that point until I got to him — a verification that all of the “whoa” work and confidence building I was doing with him was paying off.
I worked with Calvin three to five nights a week on my own and spent 10 to 15 minutes with him each day that we trained.
We still couldn’t get over the gun, though. He didn’t like loud noises. We tried giving him treats and shooting off in the distance, a CD meant for helping with gun sensitivity and banging things around him while he was eating. Nothing seemed to work. I used primer loads in the field when the pigeons would flush, and Calvin still showed a sensitivity.
It was the beginning of September, and bird season was just around the corner. I told our trainer it was now or never for Calvin and the gun. Many trainers would frown on this because of the uncertainty. We had exhausted all of our efforts, though, and there was only one thing left to do — shoot a bird for Calvin.
We knew this would go one of two very different ways: Calvin could have associated the birds that he loved with the gunshot that he hated and shut down. Or, he would realize that the gunshot meant he got a bird. Thankfully, it was the latter.
This brings me back to that early-September evening. While I watched Calvin work, I was reminded of how far the both of us had come. My trainer smiled at me and gave me a nod as if to say, “We are almost there, look at what your hard work has done.”
It was dry and we had almost no wind that night — conditions that are tough for veteran dogs, let alone a young one like Calvin. He was about 20 yards from us when he caught the scent of one of the chukars we had planted. He locked up.
I calmly made a large circle around Calvin while repeating “good woah, good woah” in a calm voice. Our trainer carried the gun, as I trusted his shot more than mine, and we only had one chance at this. Slowly, I crept into where I could see the bird, kicking the grass as I went. Suddenly, the chukar flushed.
BANG. The bird dropped about 15 yards from us. Calvin was at the point in his training where he wouldn’t chase very much. He was not broke, but he was fairly steady because of the uncertainty of what the gun meant. He froze, then continued to wag his tail when the bird fell. Immediately, I walked him to the bird, and he picked it up.
That is where it clicked for him. I could see a look in his eye that I hadn’t before — he now understood what the four months of training, hundreds of planted pigeons and blood and sweat that went into table work were for.
Within a week, I had put Calvin on about 10 birds and dropped them all for him. By the seventh, he stood staunch, marked the bird as it fell and waited for the tap on the head and “fetch” to run out and get his prize. We had made it. Since, he has become bold and we have started to work on steady to shot and fall. I am hopeful we will be there by this fall.
Moving forward, this column will touch on my experiences as an amateur dog handler and new upland hunter. It will track Calvin’s progress, as well as introduce our German shorthaired pointer puppy, Summit. I will touch on the grouse woods, preserve hunts, our triumphs, our defeats, what has worked for me and share with you the story of me and my best friends — Calvin and Summit.
As I finish this piece, Calvin lies asleep at my feet in my office. I can’t help but get emotional when I think about where we started and where we are now. As he sleeps, he makes groaning noises, and the twitch of his noise tells me he is dreaming. I would like to think his dream is about a bird. In fact, I know it is.