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Scott Rall: Oh, how bright the light is

Scott Rall Daily Globe outdoors columnist During an episode of an outdoor show called "Due North Outdoors" filmed in 2010 there was a shot of me typing this column. I am no better typist today than I was five years ago when this event happened. T...

Scott Rall
Daily Globe outdoors columnist 

During an episode of an outdoor show called “Due North Outdoors” filmed in 2010 there was a shot of me typing this column. I am no better typist today than I was five years ago when this event happened.
They had a screen shot on my computer screen that had the headline, “Axle preforms valiantly on his first solo outing.” There is something special about taking a new dog out on their very first real wild bird hunt.
That first wild bird retrieve only happens one time with each dog, and I tell every dog owner that we take special time to photograph the results of that first outing if successful. If they are not successful on the first outing, just make sure that when the dog flushes and retrieves its first wild bird to record it properly. If you have five dogs over your lifetime, this event happens only five times.
I had the opportunity to experience this again this year with my new dog Sarge. He is 16 months old and is just a great dog with a great personality and all of the fundamentals to become a great hunting companion. When a dog gets trained by a professional they spend the first month on general obedience. After the dog has learned to listen and has learned the ins and out of correction with an electronic training collar, field work will begin.
A trainer will try to duplicate the sights and sounds and actual activities that a dog would be exposed to in a hunting situation. They start out easy and get more difficult as time progresses.
During this training process the dog will retrieve many birds. These include ducks, pheasants and chukars. All of these birds are purchased from companies that raise them commercially and it is one of the cost components when you have a dog professionally trained. There are many training tools that a professional uses, and one of them is called a winger. This is a 6-shot giant slingshot that is loaded with dead birds.
When the dog is in position the trainer remotely activates the winger, which will produce a duck sound followed by a shot and then the dead bird is launched into the air. The dog watches and when commanded to do so will run out to the area the bird landed (called the fall) and look for the bird. When it finds it they will pick it up and bring it back. This simulates a duck hunt from a blind or boat.
Another tool used by a pro to simulate a hunting situation is called a release box. These are remote control boxes that, when activated, launch a live bird into the air. As the bird flies off the trainer shoots the bird and the dog will again follow the bird to the fall and make the retrieve. Both of these training tools can be used for singles and doubles, and depending where they are placed and the distance from the dog, can make each effort easy or very difficult. All of these are designed to simulate actual hunting.
Even with these tools there is nothing exactly like a wild bird. Training birds are not generally strong fliers - nothing like a wild rooster busting from tall cover at Mach 3.
As a trainer you can expose a dog to a wide variety of different situations. These include both water and land work. They can be up close or very long distance work. In the end a trained dog has what I call fundamentals.
A trained dog is much like a vocation school graduate in the field of diesel mechanics. They have a tool box full of tools and they know how to use each tool. What they don’t have is any experience in the field doing diesel mechanic repair. This is why a young dog cannot compete against a 5-year-old experienced dog. Much the same as the student graduate cannot compete against a seasoned mechanic who has been working in the field for many years.
I tell new dog owners not to expect anything exceptional from a young dog until halfway through the second season. The average hunter only shoots about 4-5 birds in an entire season. If you hunt more often than that your dog will gain experience faster.
I took Sarge on mine and his first-ever hunting trip to Montana to hunt sharp tail grouse. This season opens earlier than the pheasant season in Minnesota. The season is also open for Hungarian partridge. I have seen more Hungarian partridge around here this year than in years past, but they are still very few and far between. This is not the case in Montana.
Every young dog will have one day in its life when something very special happens. I have seen this many times and every time it is obvious if you know what to look for. I call it “the light bulb came on.” A young dog will run around in the field and have fun just being out. They will flush a bird every now and then, but early in a dog’s career many of these flushes will be by accident.
There is a distinct time and it is different for every dog when in their head they say “Now I know what I am supposed to do.” I am not out here just to run around. This thing on the end of my face called a nose has a purpose and I now know what that purpose is. From that moment on the dog behaves and acts differently.
All of the training situations on earth cannot replace the actual act of hunting. Training instills in the dog the proper fundamentals so when the light bulb comes on they are prepared and ready to go. It is so cool to watch and see and I have been lucky enough to see it many times.
Sarge made his first flush and retrieve on a wild bird on a Hungarian partridge in Montana, but the light bulb never came on until three weeks later. We were pheasant hunting near Leota and he flushed a rooster all by himself. He was in range but the bird busted about 25 yards beyond the dog. It was a longshot and I considered not taking it, but I wanted to give Sarge his reward for doing a good job. The dog’s reward is feathers in its mouth. I took one shot and only broke the wing.
Sarge bounded to the spot but the bird had already started to run off. He looked up as to say “where did it go?” He put his nose to the ground and took about 10 steps and then looked up again. This happened about 4-5 times and each time he was moving in a direction dictated by his nose.
About 40 yards from the spot the bird had hit the deck, he caught up to it and the chase was on. The bird was very alive short of a broken wing, and by the time Sarge had him in the grip many of the feathers had been removed. He retrieved the bird and was just as proud as any running back that scored a winning touchdown. It was a big day for a young dog.
Trailing cripples is not a skill very many young dogs possess. It is a skill learned over time. I was impressed to see the light bulb come in this dog after only three weeks of wild bird hunting.
Many times it can take many months and sometime longer. His brain is still growing into his already full-size body. Many times the mental maturity of a dog is slower than its physical maturity.
In the infamous words of my hunting friend and companion Don Dinger, when the dog makes a great retrieve you holler, “This is why you feed them all year.” Sarge, from what I have seen so far, you have great potential. The best part is we should have about 10 more years to see it develop together.

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