I had always imagined running a dog or two in AKC's and/or NAVHDA's hunt tests. But due to my career, the ridiculously long hours I used to work, and living overseas or other locations too far off the beaten path I never got to do any of it. So now that I have the time, it seemed appropriate to try it out.
I fully understand why my mentor isn't a fan of these things, and to be honest I've learned these avenues aren't really my jam. Having said that the part I do like is being able to showcase a field dog that was "trained" using Force-Free techniques. So why do them? I hope to open a few eyes to the possibility of using modern techniques to guide (train) their hunting dog. Not only can a field dog can be trained using humane means, but exceptionally high levels of performance can also be achieved without the need to "take any hunt" out of your dog - an expression I sadly hear all too frequently in and around this type of venue.
With that being said, we signed Fizzy up for a Double, Double being held outside Kennewick WA, and I went. She did a great job, locating on average 4 birds on each outing, with only 5 to 10 minutes in the 'bird field' no less. She ran well, made nice stylish Spinone points, and held each one until I could get to her. In some cases, this was an extended period as I was on one side and she the other of the bird field.
Fizzy went 4 for 4 with great ease as a yearling. If her retrieve was a bit tighter, she would be ready for the AKC Senior Hunter test and just a few heart beats away from Master level! So as part of her journey we will help guide her in making a few improvements in her performance. She has been both interesting and fun to work with so far. I expect to have a lot of fun with this dog once our flight pen gets filled with birds here soon! Afterall, it's about the dog(s) having fun with them and getting out of the house once in a while.
You might think with six weeks of hunting lined up we would be wiped out and ready to come home by the end. If you did, you would be mistaken. I did have to miss a day of hunting to retrieve Robert for his Christmas break visit with us, and we elected to take the following day off to do family things. We did have a few days of heavy rainfall threatening to take a day away from us, but it all worked out and we made at least a short hunt work somewhere.
As mentioned, it was a big trip, with 6,606 miles driven in total, 3,498 of which were put in over 39 days of hunting. The dogs smashed 165 pounds of dog food and we hiked 180.44 miles in the pursuit of these little birds. We made new friends, had some good times with old friends.
It was clear many of the coveys had late hatches. In the early season, several birds that had been harvested were surprisingly small, covered with copious amounts of pin feathers and even bare chests! Oh my, if only we had been able to “shoot and release”, some were so small. This only reinforced our normal hunting practice of hunting only covey rises, doing what we could to deliberately leave singles and flushed birds be where they were and move on to the next. This tactic worked well for us overall, and we managed to locate 83 unique coveys of Mearns quail during our time.
The dog-by-dog report:
Fowler: did his typical work, which is to say, he did a nice job. Sure, he’s almost twelve now and he’s slowed down a bit. But his nose still works, and if he smelled them, he had them. He found his fair share of birds, made nice points, and of course did a fine job of locating and retrieving downed birds.
Powder: had another great Mearns season even though she started this season very overweight and out of shape due to the late season Singleton she gave birth to. We had also hoped to work her using the Higgin’s Method to improve a few elements of her performance, namely steadiness after the flush/shot, but that too was sidelined by a bad shoulder injury and then her pregnancy. Despite losing that opportunity Powder crushed her eighth Mearns season. Moreover, she has done a fantastic job of teaching our other dogs the ways of the Mearns given her deliberate and consistent style of working and reliable points.
Tule: had a banger early season and upon retrospect we made some errors that didn’t help her end on the note she deserved. Tule ended her summer wonderfully steady and cooperating with our other dogs with a remarkably high level of fidelity. She was a total rock star for me while guiding at Sage Canyon Outfitters. The key was, we believe, she hunted with our dogs. Dogs she knew and trusted. Dogs managed in our way or the Higgin’s way. We thought she was ready to hunt with others, and well, we were wrong. As her Mearns season progressed her performance slackened. It was unfortunate and it’s on us 100%. We will get right by her this coming summer!
Ila: man, she had a rough go of it. She had a disproportionate number of hunts that held little to no birds. We even back hunted a number of those areas with her mother to again come up empty handed. Her performance was good, she did her job. But after so many dry outings it seemed to affect her confidence towards the end. As a side note, I so desperately wanted to capture video of her work for my mentor, and somehow it translated to my worst work with my GoPro, ever. And that is saying something. A videographer I am not. I recorded countless hours of the inside of my pack mostly… Jenna did begin to record us occasionally with her phone towards the end. Ila’s feet are as if set in concrete on a covey rise, and after shots are made. She even caught a quail on a covey rise without moving a foot! Ila also did great work on her ‘alright’ queue, which is the opportunity to relocate or even flush when given the queue, little more than a step or two mostly just to observe the bird flying away – just fantastic. We were frustrated for Ila. Overall, she did the work one would expect when there was work to be done from dog that will hopefully soon become a recognized Higgins Gundog. We intend to expand upon her Field skills this summer, again using only Higgins/LIMA methods. I am excited!
Fizzy: now here is our success story. We started her with the Higgins System as a young pup, and she did great. Maybe a little too well. She very quickly and easily became steady to release with essentially no effort. Then she kinda seemed to stop caring about birds. With that we backed off and focused on letting her be a puppy. Not that the Higgins Method uses high pressure or the use of any lightning to get the job done. It just happened to be too much too fast for her, and we needed her to ‘love’ birds more. Fizzy started her Mearns season following, but not dogging our more experienced dogs. Due to Powder & Folwer’s pronounced stalking behavior, and me making improvements in consistency with my handling she just began to naturally co-hunt with and back them. From her earlier exposure, she knew putting up birds never pays the bills. She was a killer on singles, the only dog we intentionally hunted on flushed birds. As season progressed, she began to work more independently until one day I blew her off, opting to pay attention to Fowler & Powder. Fizzy had the covey, but overcooked it, and found herself in the middle of them when they flew. She stood there and watched them fly. As the birds flew off, I called her over and praised her for returning. After that, she knew the deal with coveys. When in doubt hang back and point. She went on to have a killer puppy season and we look forward to finishing her out the Higgins Way this summer.
My mom and son visited for the holidays; we did some cool stuff and saw lots of rainbows. I caught a flushing bird in my hand! It was a good trip, and it all went by far too quickly. We are already looking forward to our return. Until then take care,
Brian & Jenna
We used to send this by email to our clients many months in advance, now it lives here getting updated from time to time and the link finds its way to your inbox. Yes, we know, it could be a year or more before a new Two Gun pup will cross the threshold into your home. Which means, right now is a wonderful time to start looking into different training options and methods, as there is little pressure. You can read, ask questions, seek out advice, find a local trainer: observe training sessions, etc. and really see what is going to work for you. Making these kinds of decisions once you have the puppy is a whole lot like attempting to fix an airplane while it is in flight...generally not advisable. So here it is, I have dusted off the Recommended Reading list yet once again.
What do these books have in common? They are in tune with modern canine behavioral science vs. the old school ways. We believe in working smarter and not harder whenever possible and these resources will certainly help you to do so.
Don't Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training, by Karen Pryor
The Puppy Primer, by Patricia B. McConnell
- for that matter, any Patricia B. McConnell book on training/dog behavior
How to raise a puppy you can live with, by Clarice Rutherford
When Pigs Fly! Training Success with Impossible Dogs, by Jane Killion, founder/creator of Puppy Culture. This book picks up where we left off with the Puppy Culture protocols, we used with our puppies and isn't just for "impossible" dogs! However, those who are intending to develop your Drent for field work please disregard pages 80-84 her ball & tug games run contrary to your aim.
Dog Sense, by John Bradshaw
The Genius of Dogs, by Brian Hare
Absolutely Positively Gundog Training, by Robert Milner. To learn the mechanics of "Positive/ Force Free Training" and developing a retrieve based on stimulous control.
The Drentsche Patrijshond for the North American Fancier, by B. P. O'Connor
Since we have you here in the mindset to learn and read. In short, the "early" pediatric spay/neuter is being strongly implicated/tied to joint irregularities, tendon injury, and even increased the risk of many cancers, amongst many other developmental issues, please take some time to review these scientific articles:
There are also some great training resources on YouTube:
HigginsGunDogs: Brad's methods emphasize a dog's natural cooperation. He uses his experience and background in training falcons on pointing dogs. We have trained with Brad, and as the Mandalorian says, "This is The Way". Don't waste your time with other methods or gimmicks.
McCann Dog Training: As I have delved more and more deeply into the use of LIMA (Least Invasive Minimally Aversive) training techniques I have also become a huge fan of McCann as they offer a wide range well put together videos covering all manner of training challenges, and even offer online courses here.
Standing Stone Kennels: I had them on here, then I took them off. Now they are back. They do some things very well, and other things I don't care much about. But they are focusing more on low pressure/positive methods to train dogs. Worth a look.
Well, it is done. Our second shot at producing a litter of pups using imported frozen semen. We learned a great deal last summer, and we did our best to apply all the lessons learned. Let us now hope it pays off, because this is an expensive endeavor both emotionally, and financially!
Ila ovulated sometime late on the 24th-ish based on the test results. So, we had her bred on the 27th, 28th, and the last shot was just completed this morning.
Ila ended her hunting season in excellent condition, and at a healthy weight. We switched to Inukshuk Pro a year ago and have strong results for the dogs with it. Normally we battle weight loss during hunting season, but this is now a thing of the past with this food. While this may seem like a small thing, she started her heat cycle within a few days of our return from 6 weeks of non-stop hunting in Southern Arizona. So, we aren't playing catch up to get her up to a healthy breeding weight.
Yaris' frozen semen arrived in perfect shape, thawed perfectly, and was in the exact condition his semen report indicated. No surprises or complications, which is always a welcome addition to such a situation for all. Ila did her part and was super compliant, allowing all the handling and manipulation needed to pull the procedures off like a real champion. Each one of the three procedures went off without a hitch - textbook perfects each time!
So, whatever it is that you do to create good providence, we kindly ask that you begin now, if you haven't already done so.
Products tested: Wrangler RIGGS Workwear Ripstop Ranger Cargo Pant, Pyke Gear Northcutt Upland Briar pant, Cabela’s waxed/oiled Brush pants, Filson Oil Finish Double Tin Cloth Pants, Orvis Upland Softshell Pant, and Filson’s Shelter Cloth Brush Pants.
Disclaimer up front. No one asked me to write this, and possibly there is one manufacturer who would wish this to be unpublished the way my review on their website was. By that you may have ascertained no one gave me any of these pants, I purchased everyone one of these with my own hard-earned cash and used each pant for at least one full upland season if not more. Meaning at minimum I have a minimum of 85 to 100 days or so wearing each of these pants in hunting, training, and/or hiking situations. I don’t think anyone cares about a review done on any product that the tester has had only a weekend of exposure with.
I will rate each pair on: Protection, Packability, Comfort, Durability/Repairability, and miscellaneous factors that may be unique to a particular pair of pants that significantly affect its usability for better or worse. Then I will rate each pair as an overall value.
Pyke Gear Northcutt Upland Briar pant
Protection: 1 of 5
Packability: 5 of 5
Comfort: 5 of 5
Durability/Repairability: 2 of 5
Overall Value: 1 of 5
Coming in DFL. These are expensive pants coming in at a whopping $250 full retail. Pyke recently cut the price to $180, but this didn’t increase the value proposition. Let me tell you why. When you order your Northcutts’ you will receive an email from Mr. Pike himself, offering to answer any question you may have, or offer assistance as appropriate. I was impressed. My pants arrived, and again I was impressed, but also concerned. These pants are super lightweight, and they run large in the waist. I reached out to Mr. Pike regarding fit, and never heard from him. My Pyke’s became my go to training pants due to their ability to handle cold mornings and still manage hot temperatures towards the end of each training session. As long as I wore a belt, these pants were rock stars, and I couldn’t wait to take them hunting. As a note, the front pockets are rather shallow. I haven’t lost anything I have put into them, but then again, I am paranoid whenever I put something in them and check repeatedly. For early season Sharptail in Montana these bad boys were pretty sweet for reasons already stated. The first chink was their extreme light weight and open boot cuff. Dense grass caused the pant leg to ride up and the fantastic stretchy material showed its first downside as well, once something was pulled in, the material just ate it and deposited crumbs all up and down my legs, into my socks and boots – boo hiss. But okay that can happen with other pants, and we’ll get to that down the line here. Still, I was enjoying my Northcutts for the most part, then came Eastern Washington Pheasant season. My wife and I hunted a ditch filled with thistle and honestly it turned into the worst field experience I have ever had. The spines penetrated the “protective” facing material then was consumed by the stretchy comfortable inner material and the result was wearing a pair of pants made from chopped up Brillo pads. My legs had been mauled by thistle crumbs, my socks and boots filled with them as well. Each step was a nightmare. I drove home in my underwear. Even after washing and drying with several tennis balls it still took over an hour to hand pick all the pokeys out. Later I took these pants to Arizona to hunt Mearns quail. Everything in Mearns country wants to hurt you, and all I can say is the more protection you need, the less these pants give. You will be left with bleeding scratches from catclaw, and if there is a sharp pokey thing you don’t want to be a part of, rest assured, you will feel it and there is a high probability you will be gifted with one or more scabs from the encounter. Also of note, the interior of the pant cuff will attract gobs of grass awns, cactus spines, and so forth. Why is this so important? Well, if you don’t take the time to manually remove them at the end of a use, they will still be there after a wash and be deposited your boots and/or clean socks the next time you wear them to walk. Gifting you the start of a walk with something pokey someplace in your sock and/or boot – yay! Additionally, the base pant material has proven to be highly susceptible to abrasion, pills easily and thins rapidly while doing so. This pair does not yet have a whole worn through but where my Final Rise rests there is a dollar bill sized area primed for failure. Lastly, I wrote a product review on the Pyke website since Mr. Pike will not actually write back to you. He did reach out after that. We spoke, he claims to be building a prototype for me to test. Shortly thereafter my review vanished from Pyke Gear’s Northcutt page. I think that says volumes about what is going on there.
Cabela’s waxed/oiled Brush pants
Protection: 4 of 5
Packability: 1 of 5
Comfort: 3 of 5
Durability/Repairability: 3 of 5
Overall Value: 4 of 5
Second to last. I’m not even sure these are made any more, but I wore them and killed them, so they need to be part of the pack in the event you might find something similar on the market. I recall these things costing less than $100 bucks and more than $50. They sure looked the part, and the oil was easily felt. You are just supposed to slap them on and wear them, no washing. So that is just what I did. The first several wears were like wearing pants made of grease-soaked paper towels – you know the kind. Imagine frying bacon strips on a Saturday morning, when you have determined a strip is ready you carefully lay each one out on a paper towel to absorb the excess grease. I imagine Cabela’s sorted through everyone’s trash for a generation and made these pants from those grease-soaked towels. You are welcome. If you stick with them, it does get better, but in your first few showers your legs will be fully waterproof as they will be coated in whatever material they soaked the pants in - so you have that going for you. They are also incredibly hot until the finish wears in. For packing, you must put them into a plastic bag before you put them in your suitcase if you would like to avoid staining everything these pants touch. Like Pykes, these pants could ingest grass up into the legs, easily solved by dropping trou mid-field and pulling everything out. The break in on these pants isn’t for the faint of heart but if you made it you were rewarded with a decent and protective pair of pants for a reasonable amount of money. The cotton material these are made from lasts until it doesn’t, so unless you eagle-eye holes and such one day they will go from seemingly fine to looking like you lost a fight with a badger. On the other hand, you will look like an Old Timer who has really put the miles in with the heavy wear these pants will show in fairly short order.
Filson’s Oil Finish Double Tin Cloth Pants
Protection: 5 of 5
Packability: 1 of 5
Comfort: 3 of 5
Durability/Repairability: 5 of 5
Overall Value: 4 of 5
Fit for a post-apocalyptic world, so as long as you need not run from anyone or anything - ever. I paid about $190 for mine several years ago. These pants are brutes! They are heavy, can be hot, and are thick. Similar to the Cabela’s pants already discussed you have to protect your other garments you pack from these pants due to the oils impregnated into the heavy weight cotton canvas of these pants. Also, these guys are thicker than two pair or three of any normal pair of pants, if you are limited on space these bad boys are not your friend. If you are hunting in the cold, these pants might be welcome, but for early season prairie birds you will regret wearing them. The boxy cut and extreme weight can also make serious hill climbing a mildly uncomfortable chore. The legs are the most open out of all the pants tested in this review and are susceptible to grass intake. On the upside, they will pull grass to the top, so reaching in and pulling the offending piece of prairie out through the top isn’t a big deal, and if you are hunting in mixed company you don’t have to disrobe in the field as an added bonus. Possibly the single greatest issue I have with these pants is the weight paired with the studs for the suspenders. I must use a belt when wearing these pants to keep them up. The belt then presses the studs into my hip bones, which after a few days can lead to deep bruising that lasts for a week or more. The only way I have been able to mitigate this is by wearing suspenders with heavy gauge leather buttonhole ends. This has proven to keep the inner part of the stud from grinding relentlessly into my hip bones. Repair is easy if you happen to catch a snag on barbed wire, and it seems as far as wear goes, they may outlast me.
Wrangler RIGGS Workwear Ripstop Ranger Cargo Pant
Protection: 4 of 5
Packability: 4 of 5
Comfort: 3 of 5
Durability/Repairability: 3 of 5
Overall Value: 5 of 5
for the 2020/21 season I was looking for a way to not spend a lot of money to be protected in the backcountry, so I gave this unlikely pair of pants a shot. If I recall correctly, I paid $55 bucks at my local ranch store for them. For money these really are hard to beat. They offer no protection from water or moist grass, so use gaiters. Like the Cabela’s pants they wear secretly and suddenly holes will randomly begin to appear towards the end of season in high wear areas. The upside is the wear isn't excessive. You could reinforce/repair these I suppose if you were careful to inspect them after each wear. They do have a boxy cut like Filson’s double tin, but the lighter weight fabric makes it less of an issue, so how much that affects you will likely be up to how you are built. For me it wasn’t awesome, but it wasn’t terrible either – just not my most comfortable pair of pants. The knees are reinforced, and Wrangler has left a part of that reinforced patch unsecured to allow for a little more flexibility. If you have to go under a fence or kneel down in the dirt to retie your boot, sometimes these will pick up sand and dirt. This can be concerning at first, but nothing a hearty pat can’t resolve. All in all, in a pinch I’d use them again.
Filson's Shelter Cloth Brush Pants
Protection: 5 of 5
Packability: 4 of 5
Comfort: 4 of 5
Durability/Repairability: 5 of 5
Overall Value: 5 of 5
I used a pair of these bad mammer jammers for fourteen years! Yes, you read that right. 14 years. Man, people loved to hate them, telling me how awful they were in one way or another. Never have I had so many people so eager to share their unsolicited thoughts on any piece of gear I have used in fifteen years. Meanwhile they kept buying pants. I just sewed a new patch on. I sent them back to Filson twice for seam repairs. They did exactly what they said they would do, and my pants came back fully reinforced and put back into service. When wear appeared, I was able to patch the area with ease and resume wear. In fact, I harvested chunks of material from that pair of Cabela’s pants to use as patch material for my beloved Filsons’. I sewed a leather cuff at the bottom early on, and I walked thousands of miles in them. By the end of last season, the material had become thin enough I could feel a cutting breeze through them – still they offered full protection from everything Arizona could throw at them. These pants are old school and don’t have a few features, like a crotch gusset, that could be all that is needed to improve fit and how they allow you to move. Even so, they wore more comfortably than all the pants listed here to this point excepting the Pyke Northcutt. For early season hunts, I simply learned to not wax them up heavily, or only below the knee, and that helped the pants to run cooler. Full disclosure I bought my pair on close out for $55 bucks! Which really made mine the ultimate value. I do think it’s rather obvious even if I had paid full price they were a great overall value given the length of service I got from them. Still if I were to spend $250 on a pair of brush pants again these are what I’d spend my money on. Nothing else has come close, or has it?
Orvis Upland Softshell Pant
Protection: 4 of 5
Packability: 5 of 5
Comfort: 5 of 5
Durability/Repairability: 4 of 5
Overall Value: 5 of 5
The “untimely” death of my Filson’s prompted me to look towards some of the high-tech pants on the market and as you well know I bought a pair of Pykes, and these. To be honest at first, I was smitten by the Pyke pants and this pair of pants may have remained band new for another season until the lack of protection issues arose. Sure, I wore these infrequently during the summer while training, I forgot about the leg vents which when used really do help cool off the pant and significantly increase the comfortable temperature range you can use the pant in. Overall fit and finish of the pant is sweet, I mean for $180 bones you’d hope so, right? They are fairly stretchy and so move well with you whatever it is you are doing. The zippered front pockets took me a bit to get used to, as I was averse to the feel of a zipper on my hand, but there is not denying the usefulness of having 4 zippered pockets at your disposal. Sadly, directly after drafting this article the front right zipper failed. It must not have been zipped fully, and the zipperhead was pulled free from one side – there is no provision to get it back on track, so there it is just being a piece of junk. One great feature is the snap-cuff located inside the ankle area. You can leave it open or make it tighter and pretty much eliminate the need to use gaiters. Even when the cuff is left loose, it has had a 100% prevention rate on letting grass and stuff from sneaking up my legs! The synthetic facing material is pretty darned good. You may feel an occasional prick or scrape from a thorn, but I have yet to be left with an actual scratch in my skin, something very import for my friends on blood thinners. The base material can attract some types of plants, most notably Houndstongue burrs, and Arizona's state weed the Velcro churro, but relative to the Pyke’s or my wife’s first and second gen Ladies Prois Pradlann Field (which for the record are magnets for the stuff) pants it’s nothing a couple of easy flicks can’t manage. The base material doesn’t offer much protection from pokey stuff at all, so changing direction in a patch of catclaw is something you will do only once. These Orvis brush pants find a nice balance between comfort and protection. I would buy another pair without reservation.
For the three of you who follow my blog, recently renamed The TGK Blog, you will know that I enjoy spending time with my dogs. I’ve come to learn ‘training’ and hunting with them are simply different avenues to cultivate a stronger relationship with them as companions. I’ve ‘trained’ dogs since I was ten years old, and I learned as most of us have at that age by following an adult and using the method they used. It was easy to accept, as there didn’t seem to be any other way to go about ‘training’ a dog. The books that were available at the time only further supported the process. I remember when the Monks of New Skeet’s books were the hottest thing on dog training next to a branding iron ready to go…
I recall being introduced to ‘clicker’ training in the early 90’s when I lived in Alaska. The way it was presented made me more than just a skeptic, to be honest; I thought it was a joke. I did see there was intent to train without the use of force/pressure/use of harsh aversives. But I just didn’t get it.
It wasn’t until I moved to New Mexico and began training with Janet Miller that I saw ‘balanced training’ in action, and I immediately liked it. I saw the benefits of using things the dog liked to get them to perform versus just making them do it because it is what I wanted. When I got into agility with Shadow, my Golden, through Janet – that was all positive. But I wasn’t clever enough to recognize it at the time. Still, my time training with and learning from Janet redefined how I worked with and wanted to work with my dogs.
Years later I re-discovered the Drent and really wanted to make this bird dog thing happen. I read dozens of books on training a dog for field use. All of them required the use of force in one way or another. Nothing I was comfortable with, in fact, one book I ordered as a reprint of a famous out of print training book went into explicit detail on how to properly hit your dog with a 2”x4”! Feeling shocked, I recall throwing that book away. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to train with a few notable gundog guys in New Mexico and Washington. At the puppy end of their programs, it was all fun and games, but to get high trials levels of ‘performance’ aka steadiness, the need for the use of force was there. Still, they weren’t doing some of the incredibly harsh things some so-called trainers were doing. Things that were as shocking if not more so than the 2x4 guy… Fast forward a few years, my own style had become more and more LIMA (Least Invasive Minimally Aversive) through fits and starts in a clumsy haphazard way that tends to occur when a person is without a road map or mentor. I often wondered about how this could apply to the world of Gun Dogs. In the Gun Dog world Positive/Force Free/LIMA ‘training’ is rare as hen’s teeth, and as I have learned, a highly taboo topic.
When Jenna had lived in Western Washington state, she trained in a group that used the Gibbons-West method; a low-pressure, low-force way of training for her Fowler dog. This intrigued me – so it was possible! Why had I not heard of this? It made sense to me that training gun dogs should be able to be done without the use of force, after all in nearly all other facets of dog-sport the use of force in training is taboo these days. From Agility, Dog dancing, Flyball, frisbee, even in Mondioring and so many points in between people have been getting high drive dogs to do totally amazing things. More importantly, how have they done it? Well, the more amazing the behavior has been, the more likely it is that the handler/trainer has gotten the dog to offer the behavior and then rewarded the dog for doing so. Then the act of performing became rewarding for the dog. The dog chooses compliance…
Jenna suggested we try to train with Brad Higgins. Contact was made, and the appointment set. I don’t recall the last time I was so excited to learn something. From the moment you arrive, you are being educated. This I loved. I will not bore you with repeating the experience here, as I have written about it already. In short, I will say this, we both had a wonderful experience and came away with our eyes opened further and our heads reeling from trying to take in so much added information. We returned home with elevated expectations for the hunting season and how we would ‘train’ the following summer. Sadly, our original quail lady had elected to skip out on far more than producing quail for us, so our big summer of working with Ila and Tule was tabled. I did, however, add several books to my pile to read.
Just like leading up to our first Higgins experience dumping out old irrelevant information was without question the single greatest hurdle to learning the new. Learning is a journey, a fantastic one if you are ready and wanting to grow. I had become inspired and given the impetus to make another big step in the direction I had been pointed for a long time. This time with purpose and direction and possibly a mentor. With this experience fresh in my mind, I reread several canine behavior books – now with a whole new level of meaning and a much deeper level of understanding. I also joined force free training groups, added all kinds of books on learning theory, modern force free training methodology to my reading pile.
Over that summer I realized I, more than Ila, needed to go back to train with Brad. I returned to Nevada and with Brad’s help we focused intently on my handling. Brad videoed me and he critiqued my handling, missed queues, off timing, and the few things I did well. It was then he went from teacher to mentor. I had a lot of respect for Brad before, his care and passion are unmistakable, and dare I say it, palpable. We covered a lot of ground, I learned a great deal about myself and what I was doing, or rather what I thought I was doing. I spent those days so focused and deep in concentration I ended up with a truly crushing migraine – I had thrown everything I had at learning.
It should go without saying, Jenna and I had a great hunting season, better yet we had secured a new quail lady! Amanda has been fantastic. She works hard to deliver healthy strong birds for our program, and we are appreciative of her great attitude and commitment towards helping us achieve our goals. For this first summer of having a flight pen full of quail, we used Pharaoh quail. Amanda brought in a strain that was going to be edgier than the normal docile pharoah for us. While some were flightier, most were not so impressive. We learned the lighter color the bird was, the more likely it was to act wild. Ultra-rare it was when a rich-brown or dark grey one got up and left Dodge.
With the Higgins method it has been my observation that the use of pressure and harsh aversives are replaced with structure. To be successful with the Higgins method you need birds that will act wild, and you need to adhere to a deviously simple protocol. With some patience and a few good birds, the dog comes to understand you are critical to its success as a hunter. Better yet, the dog believes you are the key to his success! With this ‘truth’ installed in the dog’s mind his level of cooperation is amplified. All you have to do is not screw it up. This relationship is built upon trust and cooperation. The more this is allowed to grow, the higher the level of performance you will get from your dog: better bird management, points that are stauncher and more dramatic, and yes, even better retrieves. All by basically just slowing down, being quiet, paying attention and being calm - of course a gross oversimplification.
this may So back to our pharaohs. One of the more interesting and useful parts of the Higgins Method is allowing the dog to flush. Yes, it seems unusual and maybe even quite contrary. But after your dog has established its point, and you have situated yourself the dog is taught the “all right” queue, where the dog has permission to charge in and flush the bird, or simply relocate, or stand and defer to you. But in many cases one or two explosive steps is all it takes to get a bird to break and its game on. Do you like to shoot doubles? Here is your chance. What we learned in ‘training’ is our birds wouldn’t go and the girls would simply scoop the bird up on the “all right” – which technically is fair play, but what wild bird would let that happen? Moreover, this ninja grabbing became problematic for us, most notably Ila learned to stalk in like a panther and snatch the bird. There is a clear difference between when a dog is managing birds and creeping. Ila still didn’t have intent to put the bird up because if it flew, she stood steady, but if it sat tight, she would panther cruise in until the bird was in her mouth.
We consulted with Brad, and he confirmed our suspicions – we had a bird problem. To move forward we had to ditch “all right” at least temporarily. But what to do about Ila, the furry bird snatching glacier? Since we don’t use “whoa” or zap our dogs, just what were our options? Well truth be told; the solution was incredibly simple. I knew the difference between Ila managing a bird on the move, and when she had intent to cruise in for a snatch. This was the cornerstone to the fix. When she went into cruise mode, I simply recalled her, I knelt and praised her for returning and we left that bird alone and went to another. She was denied her reward, which is all. It took two times that day, and another on the following training day. She hasn’t cruised since. No yelling, no whistle bleating, no “whoa'ing", no zapping, no dramas; it was that simple.
In all we had a great summer of fun Ila, Tule, and I. We ‘trained’ three or four days a week. I honed my craft and improved my timing by taking video of most of our sessions. I did learn I am a terrible videographer, but what I managed to capture was adequate for its intended purpose, for me to learn and improve. Yes, with the Higgins Method the handler is held accountable for what goes on and how well the dog performs. We understand what the dog will do when they make associations. With consistency in handling, it becomes easy for the dog to make the associations we find desirable. In this case awesome points and steadiness, basically the dog becomes non-reactive to birds flying, gunfire, birds being shot, etc. Chasing is eliminated entirely. All the things I just mentioned become queues to remain steady for the dog, all done without drama, pressure, hollering a 'command', or zapping the dog. Early in the program dogs are helped to make the association that flying/flushing birds mean to be steady without verbal commands or queues be it verbal or electronic. We then make the association that they may flush the bird, but become steady again once the bird flies, again without command or queue from us, the flying bird is again our queue for steadiness. This is much easier than you might think.
Once the gun gets involved a lot of energy is added to the situation, and once we have added a bird tumbling to the ground, there is again even more energy added. For us, this isn’t an insurmountable obstacle for us, and one we can defeat without the use of any kind of harshness. Our dogs learn the gunfire is also a queue for steadiness. Even while hunting at our local preserve hunters in other fields shooting will cause our dogs to pause briefly. Typically, the opposite of dogs trained conventionally, who when they hear gunfire usually rocket off in the direction of the report of the shot! Because so many of our birds were very weak to get off the line, I had to put a bit more emphasis on gunfire, being a queue for steadiness to ensure the safety of the situation. Again, this was done without the use of force. I simply leaned a little further into the associations we had already built.
How did I do that? To be honest it was simple and based on modern learning theory. Done again in the Higgins way, as quietly as I am capable of. By emphasizing my return to the dog after the shot, varying the time to get back, and varying the time for release once I got back to the dog, my queue “hunt dead” was properly reinforced as the association I wanted to make. Releasing the dog is easy, there is a lot going on, a lot of energy and excitement in the air, and usually a downed bird to be found and retrieved. Once we had the release ironed out, on occasion I would let the girls go without returning to them, but only if they remained steady and turned to look for me – anticipate my return to them. This will be the area I focus on through the upcoming hunting season. I intend to be mindful of making a point to return to them on occasion before offering the “hunt dead” queue. Just a few times here and there will be all it takes to keep the whole thing together.
I ended my ‘training’ season by starting our Spinone pup using the Higgins Method with remarkable success and having two Drents that were dead nuts bang on steady to release.
With the few birds I had left I elected to try working Tule & Ila as a brace. They both played the game by the same set of ‘rules’, and they both used the same queues to the same level of fidelity no less. I wasn’t nervous about running them together at all. I just wanted to see how it would go down. Tule works closer, Ila tends to run bigger. As a pair it’s about perfect. They worked so well together, very cooperative! If Ila has the bird, Tule very naturally will honor her. Once I walked past her, she would resume working and either establish her own point or would again ‘honor’ depending on the wind or situation. Ila is by default of her personality is a risk taker, instead of ‘honoring’ she would work around and set her own point in her own way at the distance she thought was right for the situation – never with the intent to compete or interfere. Yeah, so just like that I now have a brace of Higgins dogs. Lucky me.
Haha, I say it like it just happened, but in some ways it did because we all just had a lot of fun over the course of last summer. We learned a lot from one another. Trust, timing, teamwork. I improved my handling, timing, and consistency. My patience and persistence grew by using the video because I stopped repeating mistakes, and even when I did repeat an error it was never to the degree it was before – improvement is the name of the game. So really it was through diligence and attention to detail I have a brace of Higgins Gundogs and an eight-month-old pup that performs better than most folks seasoned pros…
We even got to take our act on the road and offered guiding services for Sage Canyon Outfitters in Oregon where every client we took out made similar remarks about enjoying the slower more casual pace of the hunt, the quiet: no yelling or whistle bleating from me, and never hearing a dog squeal from being shocked – they all commented on that and how much it bothered them to see it happen to the other guys dogs. Additionally, they really liked being able to get set up around the dogs they watched work and with a ‘thumbs up’ all around the “all right” was given and easy shots presented to the guns.
I jest that Drents would make terrible guide dogs for the seeing impaired. But for those looking for game birds... A Drent is just the right medicine!
I was invited to come down and fill in during a guide shortage at Sage Canyon Outfitters outside Maupin, OR to take care of some big parties desiring a guide with dogs. Not only did these folks get treated to hunting over one of the rarest versatile pointing breeds around, but they also got to hunt over Higgins Gun Dogs.
Our clients got to hunt at a nice causal pace, without needing to hear me hollering at dogs, bleating a whistle and so on. They watched our Drents establish point after point, walk in and get set up for some easy shooting. Have the dog released to flush, then go back to being steady while the birds flew, and all hell broke loose time and time again.
Here are only a few shots. We got to meet some fun folks, and despite being gifted with some easy shooting despite what the tailgate photos may indicate. In the end, our clients had a great time, and the tips were generous. Best of all, we've been invited back!
I'm just a guy suffering with an infatuation with gundogs since childhood. Forty some years later this is what you get.