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  • David A. Van Wie

Winging It

Autumn sets in a pretty impressive point at a pheasant wing attached to a fly line and rod.

Generations of breeders have produced countless generations of dogs selected to emphasize one or more traits, whether that trait is physical, behavioral or temperamental. For many centuries, humans bred dogs for a working characteristic, such as swimming, herding instinct, or strength for pulling a sled.

When kennel or breeding clubs and dog shows became popular in the 19th century, many breeders emphasized looks or bred to meet a standard for a registered breed. In doing so, some breeds lost certain behavioral traits that might be difficult to evaluate in a show setting. Breeding dogs to perform in field trials certainly emphasized behavioral traits in a competitive situation, but perhaps at the cost of training a dog for uncontrolled hunting conditions.

In the case of Llewellin setters, breeders focused on hunting performance while allowing much more variation in the physical characteristics of the dog, which has resulted in a wide range of coloration, coat characteristics, and even size. Lean, athletic dogs with high stamina are typically favored. Llewellin breeders also selected for a friendly temperament that fosters a tight bond between the human and the dog, who must work as a team and communicate well. (Right now, Autumn is sleeping with her head on my foot.) They also looked for dogs with a nose (yes, she likes how my feet smell) and premium instincts for hunting and, of course, pointing or setting.

The purpose of a dog pointing at a bird is two-fold. The dog’s job is to let the hunter know they have found the bird, and hold it in place until the hunter gets in range. Dogs are trained to point by scent over sight. Sometimes they know exactly where the bird is, and other times they know only generally based on wind direction. Setters are trained to get close enough to cause the bird to freeze to avoid detection without flushing the bird or making it run. It is the hunter’s job to flush the bird, not the dog’s.

A Distinctive Instinct

We noticed that Autumn had the pointing instinct within the first week or two of her being home. When she chased a tennis ball around the house, I noticed that she would sometimes stop and point when she got close to the ball, and then move in slowly to pick it up. The ball, of course, reinforced this behavior by holding still. If she came in fast, the ball would bounce and roll away. Autumn quickly learned to fetch the ball with a brief, instinctive point built-in to her tactics.

Yes, sometimes she likes to bat the ball to make it roll around so she can chase it. She is a puppy, after all.

On The Wing

The book Gun Dog by Richard Wolters suggests teaching the dog to point both by sight and scent by using a real bird wing attached to a fly line on a fly rod. I loved this idea because it gave me another excuse to play with a fly rod in the off season. I had an old rod and reel kicking around so I rigged it for this purpose.

At 12 weeks old, Autumn shows her pointing instincts with a pheasant wing in the yard.

I didn’t have a bird wing on hand (I do have a bunch of grouse feathers in my fly-tying box, along with plenty of chicken capes and necks, but no wing), so I purchased a couple pheasant wings and some bottled pheasant and grouse scent from Gun Dog Supply.

I couldn’t wait to go out in the yard to give this a try. Autumn was just 11 weeks old when we first went out to play Wing It.  I flipped the wing out onto the grass and dragged it along for a few yards to get her attention. She caught on quickly, approaching the wing slowly, and then she immediately went into a point! Amazing! Talk about instinct. I guess we have a couple hundred years of breeding to thank for that!

Of course, she eventually chased the wing, trying to catch it, but I would flip the wing into the air, making it fly away like a bird before she could get it. I settled it down on the grass and we did it again, with her pointing before she jumped at the wing. And off it went!

Wolters suggests playing this game until the dog gets sick of having the bird fly away every time. Before long, she got tired of chasing it and instead would hold her point, or set, to keep the “bird” from flying away. I would then tell her WHOA, give her lots of praise, walk in to make the “bird” flush, and give her an enthusiastic GOOD DOG with lots of love and patting.

We’ve been playing this game every few days since then.  We also work on WHOA when she is walking on the leash; she will stop and wait for me to come release her with lots of praise (and sometimes a treat) for holding still and waiting in WHOA.

More Adventures

We’ve been going on other adventures to build Autumn’s confidence and introduce her to the big wide world. Recently, I took her to Pine Park in Hanover where she met a big scary (but friendly and playful) dog who was also out for a walk. She wanted to play, but the bigger dog was a little too energetic and dominant, so we went happily off on a different path.

Autumn encounters her first flowing water. Scary!

We hiked along the Connecticut River and up a stream back toward the golf course. Once we got well away from the big river, I let her off the leash to explore on her own. This was Autumn’s first encounter with flowing water. She was fascinated and curious, but scared to step in the cold water or cross the stream. When I jumped across and called her, she paced nervously back and forth before finally mustering her courage up to jump across it herself.

CB gives the puppy a rest on our hike up Pinnacle.

Cheryl and I took her for a hike up to The Pinnacle (aka Acorn Hill) here in Lyme. We walked about a mile up and a mile back, and she was happy to have us carry her a few times when she was looking tired. But she enjoyed the trip and was very polite when we met a dad and his young daughter on the way down.

Bill Buckner

Now that Autumn is bigger and sometimes too energetic to play in the house, we play fetch with a tennis ball out in the front yard. She invented a game I call Bill Buckner. I throw the ball down the driveway, she goes flying across the yard, retrieves the ball, and comes running back with the ball at top speed. She DROPs the ball on my command, and we do it again.

Soon she learned that as she approached at full tilt she could DROP the ball and it would roll to me like a grounder. The first time she did it, she surprised me and the ball rolled through my legs. Hence the name: Bill Buckner.

Puppy Kindergarten

Last week, Cheryl took Autumn to her first Puppy Kindergarten class in Lebanon, NH. Cheryl wanted more opportunity for her to socialize with other dogs and to get additional training tips and guidance. I decided to pass on Puppy K, as I spend too much time with her already. Autumn, I mean, not Cheryl.

The Kong toy filled with puppy chow is a great pacifier.

Cheryl reported that Autumn was very polite and well-behaved. Autumn found one puppy she really liked and another she thought was too aggressive, so she adjusted her attention accordingly.

The instructor offered many tips on rewarding calm and polite behavior, teaching Autumn to respond to her name, redirecting inappropriate behavior or the “puppy zoomies” to alternative activities, and teaching her that she must earn what she wants with the proper cues.

Autumn is already very good at SITTING and STAYING while we put her food in her dish. She sits and waits patiently for the OK. She will also do this during FETCH games: she will STAY after I throw the ball or stuffie and wait until I release her with OK before she chases it. She’s not 100% perfect, but getting there!

One great tip we learned is to rotate toys on different days, so she doesn’t get bored with each toy. We also got her a Kong toy that we load up with treats and she pushes it around trying to get the treats to fall out. I call it her pacifier.

We still have a long way to go with training this young lass, but she is quite a good student. Whether in the classroom or out in the yard, she is exercising her curiosity and instincts to solve problems and get rewarded for proper behavior.

Django & Autumn agree that treats are worth a temporary truce.

As Autumn calms down gradually, her pal Django continues to get more tolerant of this energetic intruder. They share a common interest in treats or crumbs in the kitchen. We are trying not to encourage begging, but it can be so darned cute.

And on we go, winging into December!

Autumn demonstrates WHOA on a late afternoon walk in the field across from our house along the Connecticut River.

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