I’ve been chasing birds for thirty-five plus years now, and while the hunters I’ve known have come from all over and all kinds of backgrounds, 99.999% of them have been white guys (I hunted once with a guy from Puerto Rico).
So the first time I saw Durrell Smith’s work in Project Upland about African American dog trainers and bird hunters and their legacy in the southern quail hunting, I was intrigued.
Durrell has a point of view I haven’t heard before. His stories show me how much more there is to our sport — and how much is missing from my tiny, narrow view of it.
This piece by Durrell is on the Outdoor Life website now.
“There’s a deep, rich history of African American dog trainers in the South. It’s time to face the beauty, and ugliness, of those origins
I’m a diehard bird hunter and dog man. I love everything about it: The discipline and patience it requires, the glorious days in the field, and the long, storied history behind it all. But as an African American dog man living in Georgia, I know that there’s a large hole missing in the history of bird hunting and dog training. That hole is created by stories unheard and untold to the general public…”
From Outdoor Life: Durrell Smith is a 30-year-old native of Atlanta, an author, visual artist, art teacher, bird dog handler/trainer, and most notably, the host and founder of The Gun Dog Notebook Podcast. He writes mainly for Project Upland and is also a member of the Ga-Fla Shooting Dog Handlers Club in Thomasville, Georgia.
I met Craig back two twenty years ago when I started hanging around field trials. Since then, he has been breeding top-notch grouse dogs for hunters throughout the Northeast and bringing home ribbons from field trials throughout the country, including a first-place win at the 2007 Grand National Grouse Championship–the Superbowl of upland-hunting style dog competitions. While doing all this, he has also built a guiding and dog-training business in northern New Hampshire. So when it comes to top-notch bird dogs, Craig knows what he’s talking about. He has walked the walk, and his new book teaches you how to walk down your own path to success.
As it says on the cover, Craig Doherty’s Building a Grouse Dog, From Puppy to Polished Performer is a how-to, and across its 168 pages, and with dozens of full-color pictures, it covers everything from a pup’s first time out of the whelping box to finishing it up on its second season in the grouse woods and beyond. It suggests what training gear you should own, gives you tips on buying, using and introducing your dog to a GPS e-collar, and even discusses where to hunt Ruffed Grouse, and the gun to carry while doing it.
The lessons it teaches are practical, gimmick-free, and easy to apply to any pointing breed. They’re also kind to the dogs. Some current “alpha dog” training philosophies inspire people to be heavy-handed with their pups. Craig doesn’t practice that nonsense or promote it in his book. Instead, he believes “…you need to work at becoming a hunting partner as opposed to a hunting master” and tells you how to do it.
My favorite parts are the bits of wisdom Craig drops in throughout his book, insights like what the breeder of your next grouse dog should be obsessed with, the best time of year for your new pup to be born, why leather collars are not ideal, and how to deal with bloody tails. I’m sure Craig has spent years gathering this knowledge. Gaining just reading his book feels like cheating — but I’ll take it.
Craig was a writer and educator before he became a full-time dog trainer, and his storytelling skills and ability to break down complex ideas into easy-to-understand lessons are evident throughout his new book. So is his empathy for his students, four- and two-legged. Building a Grouse Dog, From Puppy to Polished Performer is easy to follow and a joy to read. Best of all, its lessons are easy to apply and it’s full of wisdom anyone interested in gun dogs will benefit from discovering.
Like I said in the beginning, great dog trainers are hard to come by. It’s even harder to find ones who can teach you their skills. Craig Doherty new book Building a Grouse Dog, From Puppy to Polished Performer does just that, and like true love, it’s something worth experiencing for yourself.
In this film, Project Upland’s A.J. DeRosa chronicles his experiences with his first bird dog. According to A.J.:
“If there is one thing I hope that people take from this film it is the true reality of bird dogs. We all start somewhere, whether you are the Creative Director of Project Upland or not. Failure is okay, it is part of the journey. This film is meant to break down the walls of unrealistic expectations, show all of us that no one is perfect no matter what resources they may have in this process or outward projection they give. Even the best dog trainers in the country started from nothing …”
Respect, like success, is something you have to earn. The first time I sent my pointer to the trainer, I visited her every weekend. But when I showed up it was play time, not work time. We went for runs, tossed a ball around, and goofed off. I was her buddy, and she treated me like an equal.
This worked for a while. But the first time I took her in the field, the flaws showed right away. Instead of following commands, she did what she wanted. If that meant coming when called, she did it. If it didn’t, I could blow and blow on my whistle. She wasn’t going to listen.
I talked to my trainer about the problem and he explained the issue: she liked me, but didn’t respect me. I had to earn her respect. Once I did, everything changed.
Martha Greenlee noticed a similar lack of respect when e-collars came into use. Read how it showed itself, and learn what she did to correct it:
“There are two basic ways to correct your dog during formal training. One way is with stimulation from the e-collar and the other is using physical correction. Physical correction was the primary form of correction to teach the steadying process until the late 1980s when Tri-tronics came out with a variable intensity e-collar. Unlike the “hot” single button e-collars that were the norm, this new e-collar had low, medium, and high buttons and five intensity levels. For the first time, you could adjust the intensity level of the e-collar to fit the situation and use it around birds without causing blinking problems.
As trainers experimented with these new e-collars, articles began appearing in some of the sporting magazines on how to use them in formal training. I really liked the idea of using a variable intensity e-collar and decided to buy one. At first, it was almost too easy to teach a dog to stand birds and not chase. After I’d taught a couple of dogs to be steady with the e-collar, I realized something was missing in their training and that something was respect. My dogs didn’t respect me. By relying solely on the e-collar and foregoing any type of physical correction, my dogs had learned to respect the birds but not me….”
A friend of mine has won some of the top field trials in the country. I asked him once about what it really takes to train bird dogs. Steadying barrels and fancy leads? Nope. Wireless launchers and the latest ecollars? Nope. He told me that the most important things are patience and brains.
Ross Callaway is the trainer featured in this video. If you watch him work this young dog, you can see that Ross has plenty of patience and brains.
I’m always excited to get updates from the folks at Steady with Style. I’ve learned a lot about dogs and dog training from Martha Greenlee’s posts, and I read every one as soon as I hear about it. This one is essential for anyone who uses a blank pistol.
“How you use a blank gun can help or hurt you in training. Recently, I was training with some amateurs that were fairly new to pointing dogs. They had done a great job introducing gunfire to their dogs, but now their dogs were older. Most were between one and two years old and every time their dogs chased quail, they fired their blank guns. It wasn’t my place to say anything, but I was glad I wouldn’t be teaching these dogs to be steady-to-shot. Their dogs had already made an association with chasing and the blank gun, and once formal training began, they would most likely launch themselves like rockets anytime they heard the sound of the shot.
A blank gun is different than a shotgun. Dogs understand the shotgun. They see it, hear it and watch the bird fall to the ground. The blank gun isn’t as simple for your dog to grasp. The shot can mean a number of different things depending on what associations he makes with the sound. Here are a few examples of how to think about the blank gun…”
I hate regret. Unfortunately, it seems to be another unavoidable part of life. One thing I regret is not being a smarter dog owner. Living with my English Pointer Puck has been a learning process, and that process has been full of stumbles, bone-headed mistakes, and just plain stupid moves. I’m fortunate that my little girl doesn’t hold grudges like I do.
Something I messed up from day one was how I used a check cord. The check cord is that long piece of rope trainers always have with them. In the right hands, it’s a powerful tool telegraphs a tremendous amount of information to you about your dog. Martha Greenlee talks about his in the latest post on her excellent Steady with Style blog:
“Check-cord tension is one of the most important forms of communication between your dog and you. How much tension is too much, or to put it another way, how hard should a dog pull is a question that is often asked but hard to answer. It is like asking a race car driver how fast is too fast. It depends on the car and the track. Same thing with a dog. It depends on the dog and the situation…” Read the whole post here.