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A Diamond in the Rough

Part IV: First Birds

There comes a time in every bird dog's life when he takes the giant step from rote obedience training to the unpredictable experience of live birds. After diligently progressing through a winter of socializing and yard work, I was anxious to expose JJ to the real thing. Preserve season, and with it my access to released birds, ends on March 31st in my home state, so on the last weekend of the season, he and I made the trek to the country.

JJ's apparent lack of interest in the scent of the quail has caused me some degree of concern
I'd like to say that JJ's first exposure to birds was an unqualified success, that he showed a natural tendency to point, a sharp nose, and an abundant desire to find birds. This would be taking editorial liberties, to say the least. A more accurate description would say that although my wildest expectations were not met, it was not a negative experience either. The biggest challenge proved to be the unavoidable gunfire present on a preserve. As discussed in earlier installments of this series, JJ is quite shy of loud noises, and on the last weekend of the season, hunters are trying to fit in one more afternoon of shooting before the long summer. I had no intentions of shooting birds over JJ, but the steady report of shotguns echoed on all sides of our field. He was not cowed by the noise, but he was aware of it and at times seemed hesitant to proceed.

I planted three birds, separately, for JJ. He exhibited the same behavior on all three. Approaching the bird from the downwind side into a gentle breeze, he did not appear to differentiate its scent from any other. I'd dizzied the birds fairly well before planting them, insuring a tight hold and a short flight after flush. When JJ failed to show an intense interest in the scent, I flushed the bird and allowed him to chase it, restrained by a check cord. He did show interest in the bird when it flew, which I took as a positive sign, and even managed to catch one and pick it up in his mouth. I'll discourage this behavior later, but for now, I'm willing to allow it as I feel it encourages enthusiasm for finding birds.

JJ's apparent lack of interest in the scent of the quail has caused me some degree of concern, and is the primary reason for the delay in posting this installment. I still have not pinpointed a cause, but have narrowed the list of possibilities. Genetically, some dogs are more adept at finding birds than others. "Finding birds" entails two factors: (1) the desire to search an area for birds and (2) the ability to discern quail scent as the object of the search. JJ may, in fact, be at a genetic disadvantage, one that may never be overcome. Obviously, this is not the assumption I am making and our work in the coming months will center on more focused efforts to bring out whatever natural ability he has. There may come a point, however, when I am forced to admit that he will make a much better house dog than hunting dog.

A second possibility concerns damage already done to his instincts. To the best of my knowledge, JJ was never exposed to quail prior to our session in March. Not knowing every detail of his history, however, I cannot discount the chance that he received some work on birds at an early age. His gun-shy nature could have turned him into a blinker, which would go a long way toward explaining his lack of interest in the scent. Blinking, as with most gun dog problems, can be overcome, but it takes lots of time and lots of birds. This gives us something to look forward to during the dog days of summer.

Instead of revealing a treasure chest of innate ability, I believe that this first session in the field revealed clues to the training methods needed in future sessions. Of utmost importance is that gunfire or people not distract JJ. He needs to be free to focus on the birds. He needs to associate the scent of quail with the bird itself and with my approval for finding it.

Further bird work will have to wait until the fall. For a multitude of reasons, including the breeding of wild populations and my lack of a state trainer's permit, we will spend the summer solidifying JJ's obedience. I may experiment with bottled scent, but have yet to develop a methodology that I am comfortable with.

JJ's social skills continue to improve, and although some of my friends might disagree, he is beginning to accept new faces much more quickly. Subtle changes in his behavior around the house pop up from time to time. He no longer leaves the room when a ceiling fan is turned on. He races to be the first dog out the door in the morning. He's learned that the shiny lid on the treat can is a good thing. All in all, I'm glad to have him around.

Diamond in the Rough series

Part I   Introduction
Part II   Early socialization issues
Part III   Basic Obedience
Part IV   First Birds

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