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Dogs: It's easier to wind them in than wind them up

WORTHINGTON -- It can only happen once for the dog and happens very seldom for most dog owners. For Tracer, it happened a few weeks back. The last time it happened to me was two years ago with a black lab named Axle.

What I am referring to is that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a newly trained retriever to find, flush and retrieve its first wild rooster in a pure hunting situation. Most trained dogs will have retrieved hundreds of birds in training. Many of these will be birds that were either dead already or live birds shot during a training exercise.

But to go on a pure hunt, chasing wild birds that have had to outsmart every other predator in the wild for their entire lives, makes wild bird hunting much more difficult -- and that much more satisfying.

Just as with people, the individual character of dogs is widely varied and most often very different. Most young and inexperienced retrievers enter the field the first few times a little nervous. They have never been to that spot and never seen that particular type of cover. They can be a little apprehensive and lack confidence. Some dogs will have to hunt many days in the field until they get that one perfect setting where it all comes together and confidence builds.

The difference between Axle's first rooster and Tracer's first rooster is like the difference between night and day. Axle was a dog that, from the start, was very timid. So timid, in fact, that I thought he was going to wash out of my training program. He trained OK and did the work but was always a little reluctant to really get out there and charge into the work at hand.

Once, during training, he even ran back a few hundred yards to the truck and stayed there. He was very close, at that point, to turning into a really nice house dog and pet for my daughter, Brittany Remme, who lives in the metro. In all things -- and with dog training in particular -- patience is a must and must be applied in great measure when necessary to match the personality of the dog.

Axle got the additional time he needed and several months later was hunting better than I could have ever hoped for. Today, I would stack him up against any dog his age in the Midwest for pheasant hunting.

Back in the beginning, he was almost a washout. Today, he hunts with precision and charges into heavy cover that makes other dogs stop and think.

Tracer, on the other hand, was the absolute opposite. He was a charger from the get-go. At only a few months of age, he was going places and doing things most young dogs could not do. He trained great and was more than a handful to control. In the world of dog training, I have a saying that goes like this: "It is much easier to wind them in than it is to wind them up."

Young dogs must get non-stop encouragement from the handler to help them build desire and intensity. I love dogs with tons of go-power. Many other handlers do not. They prefer a meek and mild dog that rarely, if ever, gets very excited. They are easier to handle and have much less tendency to hunt out of the range of the gun. Dogs with lots of go-power need more attention and concentration from the handler.

It only takes a few seconds for a high-energy dog to be 50 yards away, flushing roosters out of range.

When a dog lacks go-power, the only thing the handler can do is be excited and use a voice that conveys this excitement to the dog. Sometimes, this works and, sometimes, it doesn't.

On the other hand, an excited dog with lots of go-power can be more easily controlled by command and correction of the handler. If a dog charges out too far, a "here" whistle is blown and, if needed, a small correction on the collar is used to bring the dog in.

A high-energy dog can be wound in easier than a timid dog can be wound up. The tools and techniques are different and the outcomes can be as well. My Tracer is a high-energy dog. He will sit when told, but even with his hind side on the ground, the rest of the dog is always on the move, squirming and moving his front feet just waiting until he is released.

If we finish a walk and I bring him to heel, he will sit there as instructed. If I don't keep an eye on him, in a short time, he will break from that sit (non-compliance) and start hunting again in the nearest available cover. It's hard to get really stern on him for that. He has an insatiable desire to hunt and find birds. I spend my days afield making sure I keep an eye on him at all times.

If I tell Axle to sit, all I have to do 10 minutes later is look at my feet and he will still be sitting there. He hunts great, but has a different personality that is not near as high energy as that of Tracer. Both dogs function above the standard, but do so with different methods.

In the end, Tracer would probably flush more birds over the length of a season for the sole reason he covers more ground and will most likely run across more scent paths.

I love both of these dogs the same, but they are far from the same dog. Each is individual and different and both provide this hunter with more than enough opportunity to pull the trigger.

The photo is of Tracer's first solo rooster. I think he looks proud of himself and it was only seconds after the photo that he was out looking for his second solo rooster.

One issue I am working on now is his propensity to try to steal a bird from another dog already making the retrieve. This is done gingerly as to not kill his intensity or desire for birds.

To deal with this young dog issue, you do the following:

If another dog is already making the retrieve, you blow the "here" whistle. The "here" whistle command is for all of the dogs -- not just the one with the bird in its mouth. If the bird-stealing dog continues toward the dog with the bird and not back in the direction of the handler as commanded, the non-compliance is corrected with a big vocal "here" command and a small correction with the collar.

Timid dogs can be very problematic in this regard. A small percentage will perceive the correction as birds are bad and might well not try to make any more retrieves. Tracer, on the other hand, with his high-energy and intense desire just took that correction without missing a beat. This is where the saying, "it is easier to wind them in than it is to wind them up," shows itself.

Dogs with high desire are easier to deal with than their more timid counterparts in many elements of dog training.

I have four labs to hunt with at any one time. Their ages are 11, 6, 3 and 1. I am not sure when I will get my next opportunity for a dog's first solo rooster. Remember to take a photo. These memories only come around every 12-13 years in a one dog household.

Scott Rall is the Daily Globe's outdoors columnist. His column can also be read weekly at