HOW TO PICK A BIRD DOG!
Once you're really turned on to field trialing, you may want to find a hotshot pup that'll knock everyone's socks off in the field! Here's my method of locating Superpup; perhaps you'll pick up some clues to help your own search:
I start first with bloodlines, researching lines of dogs that have proved for several generations that their hunting instincts are well established and are passed down predictably. Since I am a confirmed conformation devotee as well as a field fanatic, and believe that a Dual Championship is the ultimate goal and achievement for both breeders and owners, I will first eliminate any lines that have been bred strictly for field, with little or no emphasis placed on conforming to the breed standard.
I want to see plenty of Show Champions in a pedigree as well as either some Field or Dual Champions or Master or Senior Hunters, to know that some top field trial competitors or high class personal hunting dogs have gone into the lines. At the least I'd want Versatility or Working Certificates or Junior Hunter titles on the parents and grandparents to suggest the potential for natural hunting ability in the pups.
Physical soundness is crucial for a field dog. I look for strong OFA histories in the first two or three generations (or radiographic hip evaluation by another competent source,) plus an absence of general genetic abnormalities, when I talk with the breeder. Forebears who have bloated; have had foot, shoulder, or leg problems unrelated to specific injury; have had early cancer; or who have severe allergies or other poor stress responses are to be avoided if possible, especially if the pedigree is heavy with them.
Temperament is another critical factor, although it may not be an issue until one is considering individual pups. Unless the litter has been hand-raised by the breeder from birth, I highly recommend that you stay away from pups raised by shy, nervous, or poorly socialized mama dogs! That attitude transmits almost immediately from dam to pup and is almost impossible to correct; you cannot reasonably expect these pups to grow into self-confident, assertive field dogs, no matter how much effort you put into working with them.
It is most useful to predetermine the breeder's experience with hunting and field trials before you consider any litter. Since the breeder has the advantage of spending the greatest amount of time with the pups, he/she should be able to suggest the likeliest field prospects from the litter. I ask about the performance records of the breeders selections from past litters and what his purposes were in choosing to breed these particular two dogs. The chances of finding a top field contender from a backyard, chance, or strictly showbred litter are indeed slim!
As part of my investigations, I find that it never hurts to attend local field trials and hunting tests and to talk with the owners of dogs whose performances have impressed me. I don't confine my consideration only to breeders currently actively running dogs in trials. Many a litter of personal hunting dog pups may also have a potential trialing jewel in its midst!
I would advise you not to be afraid to call or write to persons advertising hunting and/or field trial dogs in magazines like Gun Dog, Pointing Dog Journal, or Sports Afield, but before having a pup shipped to you, be very certain that you and the breeder mean the exact same things when you speak about hunting and field trial particulars. Otherwise you may find yourself with, for example, a close-working dog suitable for Pennsylvania's forested non-retrieving trial grounds, or one bred to run a mile or more ahead of you on Tennessee plantations with scarcely an objective in sight. Neither dog, although fine healthy animals and quality birddogs, will excel for instance on typical Northern California field trial grounds.
Once the search has been weeded down to a few breeders, it is time to start looking at pups: Always call ahead and explain what you're looking for to the breeder. Arrange a specific date and time to see the litter. If you cannot keep the appointment, or will be over an hour late, common courtesy dictates another call. The breeder has scheduled a time for your mutual convenience, when the pups will be at their best. It is to no one's advantage to surprise the breeder and see the pups when they are too hungry or too sleepy to work well, or when the breeder is preoccupied with a dirty puppy pen, another client, or is having his own supper!
I like to bring a new puppy home at approximately seven weeks of age, and I like to have several opportunities to see the pup with his littermates before that. Seeing the pups for the first time and trying to pick yours out on the day that most of the litter is due to depart will not give you an accurate appraisal. The pups will be over-stimulated by all of the activity and their responses will be skewed by their individual personalities and reactions to stress. Ideally I would like to see the pups at five weeks, six weeks, and a day or two prior to picking mine up. This can be inconvenient if distances are great or the weather uncooperative, but one preliminary visit under quiet circumstances between five and seven weeks of age is virtually mandatory. Avoid the days on which the pups have been wormed or have received any puppy shots or other unusual experience.
Other than other household members, I would advise against taking anyone else along for your initial look at the litter, unless you plan to have the pup live most of his life at a trainer's. In that case, do bring the trainer with you...and let him pick out the best pup for him to work with! Otherwise you will be confused with too much input and differences in preferences and interpretations of puppy appearance and behaviors. After all is said and done you must make your own decisions, based on the pup's appeal to you. You have to want to have a relationship with this particular pup before anything will work between you and him!
Remember also that just because you have made one, or even several, visits to a litter, you are not obligated to buy a pup out of it. Do not be afraid to tell the breeder that his pups just don't quite meet your needs. Be courteous, but also be honest: the breeder may be briefly insulted, but you do not need to live 10-15 years with an unsatisfactory dog or have the trouble of returning him at a later date or finding him another home. Don't be the fall guy for a breeder's hard luck story or "special deal. "And don't worry that if you pass this litter up a better one will never come along; as long as you are willing to wait, just the right choice will eventually come your way!
It's now time to take a look at some puppies. Before your visit, ask the breeder if he has worked the pups on a fishing rod and wing and/or on any live birds. If he hasn't, ask if he minds if you bring a rod and wing with you, to play some games with the pups. (We'll discuss how shortly.)
You will be looking for a number of different
characteristics in evaluating a pup's field potential:
1. The position of the pup in the litter vis-a-vis his littermates, i.e., his place in the pecking order.
2. The pup's response both to familiar and to new objects in his environment.
3. The pup's response to people, both familiar and strangers.
4. The pup's reaction to the fishing rod and bird wing.
5. The quality of the pup's natural pointing instinct.
6. The length of the pup's attention span.
7. The pup's interest in carrying objects around in his mouth.
The current vogue for temperament testing is not very useful in evaluating field trial potential. The best clue is to question the breeder and anyone who has spent a lot of time with the litter. In general, breeders will be truthful: An experienced breeder will not want to place a dog that he knows won't work out for trialing into a field trial home. An inexperienced breeder won't know what particular answers you want to hear and will most likely give you his honest opinion, if he has one.
Ask these sorts of questions of the breeder and keep a separate list to record your own observations of the litter as a whole:
1. Who are the most dominant pups in the litter?
2. Who are the cuddliest?
3. Is there a loner?
4. Is there an "escape artist?"
5. Are there any who can't seem to concentrate on anything for long?
6. Are there one or two who are always the first to investigate any new objects put into the puppy pen?
7. Who explores outside the most?
8. Who is always carrying something around?
9. When someone sits with the pups, who are the first ones to climb into that person's lap?
10. Who are the first to catch on to new experiences, like pan feeding, potty training, etc.?
If the answers to questions 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 10 point to the same few pups, especially if they are not the ones also mentioned in the replies to 2, 5, and 9, the odds are that these are the pups that you will want to focus your attention upon.
Hopefully there will be at least two or three pups in this batch and you can now remove them from the rest of the litter for your own observations. It will be important to be able to identify which pup is which at some distance now, so if the breeder does not have them marked in some easily distinguished fashion, ask if you may tie a bright piece of yarn or ric-rac around each pup's neck while you observe them.
Be prepared in advance for this by bringing with you several 16"-20" lengths in markedly different colors. Tie them loosely around the pups' necks and trim off any excess hanging ends. Pups who have been wearing collars or ribbons won't notice any change, and the ric-rac or yarn is lightweight enough not to upset greatly those unused to collars, especially when there is something new and interesting in their environment to grab their attention. If a pup is so bothered by a piece of yarn that a bird wing cant distract him, then chances are he isn't a pup you really want to consider! As an adult he's apt to be more interested in pulling burrs out of his coat than in hunting!
Take your small group of pups to an enclosed outside area, preferably a yard that they have already had some chance to explore and investigate. It will be helpful to have an area that is at least 10' by 10' and clear of obstacles such as patio furniture, stairs, or large bushes. You may have to do some rearranging of objects to achieve such a space, and be sure to ask the breeder's permission first!
If the breeder has been working the pups on the rod and wing, he will probably have an idea where he prefers to work them, so try his suggested site first. If he hasn't worked them at all he will probably be interested, cooperative, and helpful: After all he is going to learn a lot about his pups too, and should do his best to make sure that they perform well.
As long as they don't become overly intrusive, it is fine for the breeder and any other persons present to watch the pups work the rod and wing. To minimize distraction, suggest that all persons present except yourself stay in one localized area, well back from the cleared spot, refrain from excess noise and activity, but certainly share their observations with you, since you won't be able to work the rod and watch all of the pups simultaneously!
Don't start right in with the pups on the rod and wing as soon as you all go outside.Sit down for a while first with them; let the pups find out where they are and observe how they interact with each other and their environment: Roll a tennis ball into their midst; spin a crackly aluminum can; drop an old glove nearby; toss a couple of sticks a short distance in front of them; sit down and stand up a few times; make funny noises with your lips while they are climbing on you; stand and clap your hands and run away a few paces; squat down and whistle.
Make no abrupt movements, especially not at or towards the pups; nor harsh, shrill, or excessively loud sounds. Do not swoop upon one, or snatch him up from the ground without warning. Observe reactions. It would be helpful to have a notebook to record your observations for later study, or even a small recorder for oral observations.
Mark down anything noticeable, i.e., "'Green' pup took one look at that can and charged it; 'Red' backed off from it.""'Blue' pup always seems to have something in his mouth and will fight to defend it.""'Brown' is too busy bossing other pups to interact with other objects in environment."
I don't like visitors to a litter to do anything new with any pup on an individual basis during the five-to-seven week period of age. All the pups know of life at this point is being a member of a litter. The dam has by now at least partially weaned them and is spending many hours a day away from them. But there is always a littermate around for security. The pups' learning patterns and social behavior have all been developed in relationship to the litter entity, and it is within the litter that you will see the pups at their confident, socialized best.
Once you remove your pup from the litter (when you take him home,) your first job will be to replace the litter with yourself as his source of security and confidence. So why drag the poor little tyke off by himself any earlier to encounter unknown people, objects, and situations alone without the backup of his bulwark of littermates?
It's no wonder that even a pup known for his boldness in the litter may appear timid and hesitant under these circumstances! Especially if he's the sensitive kind of pup who is very responsive to his environment: one who should grow up to forge a solid working relationship with his owner, one who will listen to and hunt for him in future days afield.
It is only the "mindless idiot" type of pup - who is so wrapped up in himself that Armageddon Itself could come and go and he'd never notice if he was busy chasing something, or fighting, or digging a hole - who will shine under these circumstances; and you won't have much hope of getting his attention with a shout or a whistle when he makes up his mind to chase that bird or rabbit into the next county!So please first observe how the pups react to you and your new objects from the established security of a group of littermates!
If you later observe or test them on their own, don't be disappointed if they don't react the way they did in a group. Once you establish yourself and your environment as the new security system, most of their virtues will begin to reappear. Remember, literally everything in the world is a new experience for these little fellows at this stage!
Once the pups are relaxed and enjoying exploring and interacting with their surroundings (5-10 minutes,) it is time to introduce the rod and wing.Any kind of fishing pole will do (I've even made use of broomsticks and buggy whips!) as will any kind of wing.In a pinch you can even use a handkerchief or other light fluttery piece of cloth!
Game bird wings are good; I prefer a full pheasant wing; some folks will use just a couple of feathers. Wings can usually be had for the asking at field trials, hunt tests, fun days, training sessions, and from field trainers and game bird farms (who may charge a nominal 25 cents each or so.) You don't have to do anything to preserve the wings and you can store them easily in Ziploc bags in the freezer. Remove them as needed and there should still be a lot of scent to them when thawed. You can purchase small bottles of various game bird scents at sporting goods stores or through sportsmen's catalogs to refresh the wings, but remember that most of the attraction of the rod and wing exercise is visual rather than olfactory.
Use a fairly heavy grade of nylon fishing line or household twine and tie the wing to the rod, allowing it to dangle two-five feet beyond the end of the rod; you'll soon find your own most comfortable position. You don't need to pierce the wing to attach the line; just draw it tightly through some of the long feathers, work it down to their base, and tie a good knot.
Now it's time to play: Pups who have been worked a few times previously may see the rod and wing appear and get very excited, running about, clustering up to you, or even beginning to point and pounce at shadows, other objects, or each other. Let us assume for now that this is their first experience with rod and wing.
Drop the wing onto the ground a small distance away from the pups. Let it hit hard enough to make a soft plop. If any of the pups notice it, hold it motionless as they begin to approach it. When they are within an inch or two of contact, begin to pull it along the ground away from them, at a pace that they can just keep up with.
Try to avoid letting any pup actually catch the wing. If that happens (and it will!) praise the puppy and stroke him gently while he has the wing in his mouth or under his feet. If he is standing on it, reach under his chest and lift his front feet off the ground, then gently ease it away from him and begin the procedure again. If he has a death grip on the wing, reach under his chest and lift him all the way off the ground, making no attempt to take the wing out of his mouth. Hold him near your face and gently blow into his nostrils, and its a good bet that he will open his mouth and you can repossess the wing.Try to avoid forcing his mouth open, and in no case enter into a tug-of-war with a pup over a wing.
Make a note of which pup caught the wing and watch his reactions now:notice if he seems to be looking about for the wing, if he approaches it more rapidly this time, if he audibly sniffs the ground and/or displays a lot of tail action while looking for it, if he is more aggressive in pursuit of it, or if he loses interest and wanders away.
Repeat the procedure until all pups have a chance to encounter the wing. If the sound of it falling to the ground fails to attract them, try lifting it up onto one edge and letting it flutter back and forth in the pups' line of sight. Do not at this time jerk the wing around rapidly, or let it land loudly directly behind any pup, and by no means ever drop it directly onto a pup!
If the majority of the pups react with interest and enthusiasm to the wing, make special note of any pup who seems frightened by it, backs off repeatedly from it, or runs and hides. Hiding is different from running off to play with something else or with a littermate, but the really birdy pup will probably key in strongly to the wing. A timid-appearing pup may just be having a bad day and deserves a second chance at another time a few days later. But a second bout of timidity or total lack of interest in the wing would push me strongly toward eliminating that particular pup from my consideration, unless he is obviously sick or greatly distressed over something else.
If the entire batch of pups being tested fails to respond to the wing with enthusiasm, then your timing may be off in one of two ways: Either your use of the wing is too unskilled to kindle their interest (not likely!) or the exposure is inappropriate at this moment. It may be too hot; the pups may be too full or too sleepy to play; they may be upset from recent shots or worming; or they may actually be ill. Try this litter once more at a later date. If you have a friend with field experience you may now ask him to come with you the next time. If there is still no response, you should consider looking elsewhere for a top field prospect!
Let's now get back to the pups who displayed an initial interest in the wing: As one pup starts to become quite involved with chasing the wing, it may be helpful to remove the others, unless they are off in another area and occupied with something else. (The single pup won't miss his littermates for this brief time while he is so focused on the wing.)
As the pup working the wing grows more confident and enthusiastic, you can begin to move the wing faster along the ground or actually flip it through the air a few inches above the ground and drop it briefly in different places. Try always to keep it within the pup's line of sight.If he loses it, let him search for it briefly. If he can't locate it, pull it along the ground or flip it through the air and drop it into his sight; then let it flutter on edge a bit to attract him.
During this play you may also encourage the pup verbally, saying such things as, "Good boy/girl...where's the birdie? See the birdie; find the bird; good dog!" Only positive praise should be used, and it is best if only one person talks. Words coming from several directions may serve to confuse and distract the pup.
If the pup catches the wing DO NOT chastise him or shout, "No!" or "Bad dog!" Remember, all aspects of birds are to be positive and you don't want to tell the pup he's bad for catching the wing when you'll be asking him later on to retrieve a bird for you! Praise him for catching that wing (after all, it's you who was clumsy for letting him do it!) Say, "Good pup, you got the birdie!"
Don't drag the wing out of his mouth, but encourage him to carry it, and praise him whether he brings it in your direction or runs away with it. The point is that he has demonstrated willingness to move while carrying feathers in his mouth, a positive sign of retrieving potential.
Let the pup carry the wing a few feet. Then go to him, or keep him by you if he has come to you. While he is holding the wing in his mouth, stroke his back, tell him what an absolutely wonderful little pup he is, and then blow softly into his nose and take the wing when he releases his hold.
He may release the wing immediately, will more likely take several chomps on it while resisting its removal, or may release it and bite you hard for taking it away.The first two reactions are acceptable; to me the second shows a bit more strength of character and self-confidence. In either of these cases, the wing should be put out immediately for the pup to work again, until his attention span wavers or you have seen all you need to of this particular puppy.
If you get the third reaction from an angry and aggressive pup, don't let him have the wing again right away. You should demonstrate at once to the pup that his behavior is unacceptable, not harshly but firmly. Pick him up in the air, give him a shake or two, and say, "No! Bad puppy!" (In this case you are correcting him for showing aggression toward people, not for anything to do with birds.) This should be enough to interrupt his chain of thought and you can now put him down and show him the wing again. If he continues his aggressive behavior with it repeatedly, choose another puppy. This one will be stubborn and hard to train.
Never overwork the pups. As soon as their attention span falters, put the wing away. Schedule another session for several hours later or another day. On second and third exposures you should start to see ever-growing enthusiasm as the pups become familiar with this game. Certain pups will probably display consistent behavior patterns, and these should be the most interesting to you. While one lackluster performance on the wing shouldn't cause instant rejection of a puppy, two, and certainly three such should be cause for elimination. Also look for length of attention span to increase with time and the number of exposures.
As the pups respond with enthusiasm to chasing the wing, you should begin to notice a new phenomenon: After a series of rapid starts after the wing, a pup may suddenly slow down in his pursuit of it. He may drop his body into a crouch, perhaps with stiff tail; or he may prance forward with high head and tail, thrusting a forepaw out with each step: He is beginning to learn to stalk.
As his advancing movements get slower and slower, he may freeze in mid-stride only inches from the wing. Look fast, because this is his first point! To be followed almost immediately by a quick pounce at the wing!
At this time it is essential to flick the wing away just as the pup breaks his point and begins to pounce, since he needs to learn to hold point on his birds. The goal is for him to realize that the bird will fly away if he jumps at it but will stay in place as long as he stays on point. If you happen to misjudge and he does capture the wing, repeat the praising procedure as above. Remember: NO NEGATIVE CORRECTIONS ABOUT BIRDS!!!
Hopefully by the second or third visit you can get at least one of your prospective choices to hold point for several seconds. If the breeder is interested, ask him to work the pups on the rod and wing briefly at least every second or third day between your visits to the litter. If his is skillful with the procedure, his input will be very helpful to you. If he is unwilling or skeptical, or a complete klutz, don't press the point: he could do the pups more harm than good!
If, by your third visit to the litter, no pups show any indication of even an eyeblink or "flash" point, you again may want to reconsider your options: A strong pointing instinct is an inherited trait and it will be a lot harder to develop competitive field ability in a pup who is weak in this area.
You may also test the pups with live birds. Some pups who show little or no interest in the rod and wing really turn on with a live bird. Coturnix quail are the ideal bird for initiating young pups. Essentially an ornamental bird, they are small (between tennis and softball size,) inexpensive (usually $1.00-1.50 each,) and remarkably hardy given the maulings that they repeatedly survive from puppies.
They also don't fly very far, so can usually be recaptured by humans if the pups lose them and saved to use another day. They live nicely in a parakeet cage or cat carrier and do just fine on chicken scratch and water. They are small and gentle enough not to frighten a young pup, yet smell, sound, and move like the larger game birds.
Very strong coturnix that have been raised in a flight pen may need their wings trimmed to keep them from flying too far. Most of them only manage short hops of five feet or so, but I have known some to fly close to 100 feet...too far for puppy eyes to follow!
In lieu of coturnix you may use small pigeons, but you will have to pull four or five flight feathers on each wing to keep them within puppy range. They can be a rather hefty mouthful for a very young pup attempting to carry one around, and some pups simply do not like the taste of pigeons and will refuse to retrieve them while gladly carrying all sorts of other birds.
Introduce the live bird following a short rod and wing session. At first just toss the bird into the midst of or nearby the pups in your testing area and watch what happens. Hopefully the bird will flap its wings and hop about, attracting the pups' attention. One or several of them may chase it or pounce upon it simultaneously. Generally one will emerge victorious, bird in mouth, and begin to carry it off.
Sometimes another pup will grab a mouthful of bird and begin a tug-of-war for its possession. Note which pup most often wins these contests. If the two pups that are vying for the bird both become distracted by their rivalry and forget the bird to continue their fight, you may be seeing potentially overly aggressive or easily distracted dogs whose basic birddog instincts could be stronger.
Of course you will note any signs of timidity or total lack of interest and eliminate these pups also.Give any pups who seem overwhelmed by other littermates an individual chance to encounter the bird, just as you did with the wing earlier.
Once you have narrowed your choice to just a few of the pups, ask if you may take them into a yard area with some fairly tall grass clumps, bushes, small brush piles, or other likely hiding places for game birds. It would be helpful if the pups have already had some chance to explore and play in this area. Be sure that the cover isn't so thick or thorny that the pup will have difficulty moving through it, and that there is little chance to him of injury, distraction, or of being frightened.
Again just toss the bird out at first (it might be time for a fresh bird by now!) Once the pups are well aware of it, stick it in a clump of grass or brush in a spot that the pups will encounter in exploring the area and looking for the bird that "got away." Watch for any pups that run about with their noses low to the ground and listen for any audible sniffing.
Observe the reactions of any pup that comes across the bird. Don't be dismayed if some seem to run back and forth right past or even over the bird without noticing it: their noses haven't been educated yet! You may need to sit on the ground very near the bird and direct the pup to it several times before he makes the connection. But if he obviously sees and smells the bird and then leaves it to run off to play with a littermate or with another object or to crawl up in your lap, he may not be the pup for you.
Look for pups that move quickly, obviously searching for something. When they find the bird any of several behaviors is acceptable: pointing it by sight or scent, pouncing on it, picking it up and running off with it are all good signs. A pup that lies down a few inches from the bird, then barks and/or paws at it, is a bit unsure of himself and is demonstrating the persistence of the original "setting" behavior. A little more exposure to birds may build his self-confidence, so don't rule him out yet.
By now you should have begun to reach some decisions about this litter. You should know if there are any pups that interest you and have narrowed your choice down to two or three; or perhaps one puppy has emerged as your favorite and the only question is, "Is he the one?" Remember that a puppy is only potential, that although at seven weeks of age he may appear to be exactly what you need, making him into the dog that you want for field competition is up to you. Having picked the prime candidate, the work has just begun!