The complete and unabridged version
So, what’s it like to hunt over a Drentsche Patrijshond, one of North America’s rarest versatile pointing breeds?
And what if the game you were hunting was one of North America’s most prized birds, an uncommon species many hunters have pinned to the top of their bird hunting bucket list?
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess most of you do not know what a Drentsche Patrijshond, aka Drent, is and without boring you with a textbook introduction to the breed, I’ll offer this snapshot. The Drent is nearly four hundred years old, and, unlike the German versatile breeds, it was developed in a more organic way. For example, in the Dutch Province of Drenthe, located in the northeastern part of the Netherlands, commoners had the right to hunt. But most of them were quite poor and couldn’t afford more than one dog. Therefore, that one dog had to do it all; keep vermin out of the barn, pull a cart full of produce or cheese to market, play with the children, warn of approaching strangers, and yes of course, hunt. The rest I hope to convey with an account from the field.
I am by all accounts a Mearns quail hunting nutter and have spent no less than one hundred and thirty days over the past eleven years hunting them along our southern border, I’ve identified two different color phases of the female and four different crest patterns of the male. Forecast reports, bird counts and weather, mean little to me, as I am drawn to the region for its ruggedness and austere beauty, locally produced wine, and of course the opportunity to meet up with friends to hunt these amazing little birds.
This hunt took place a couple of years ago. Accompanying me was my favorite and cutest hunting partner ever, my wife Jenna. We had planned to hunt with a duo of dogs. First, Jenna’s boy Fowler, a classic Nimrod-type Drent, who is at the heavily coated end of the spectrum for the breed. He was eight years old at the time and sports a fluffy white tail you simply can’t miss. Additionally, he happens to be the first NAVHDA UT titled Drent. He would hunt with my girl, a Drent with heavy Clovis-type influences, a coat at the opposite end of what is considered allowable and nearly all white. She moves like a flash of lightning, scales rocky slopes like Spiderman, is my medical response Service Dog, and is one of the most honest dogs I’ve hunted over. The difference in type boils down to subtle variations in skull structure and overall bone mass of the dog. A Clovis dog will have a bit more of a heavier and domed skull and carry more bone than a Nimrod type, with a flatter and more wedged-shaped skull. Both are wonderful examples of each type and really show the allowable variation within the breed between them. Of note, there is quite a bit of allowable variation in the breed and one really needs to spend time learning breed to know what ‘right looks like’ – but once you know, it’s easy to spot those who fall outside the boundaries of fair play.
On this hunt, the action had been slow but steady. Down from the year before – an all to familiar trend. Yet, when we asked other hunters about their hunts, it seemed like we were finding more birds than most of them – again, nothing new to us, but that isn’t to say we don’t work for it. After all, some days are hard.
This day’s location was brand new and was chosen primarily by looking over satellite imagery and making comparisons to other areas where we’d had success before.
As we wound our way to a suitable parking spot, attempting to avoid as much of the catclaw and mesquite branches as possible, I can tell you this; it did not look anything like the traditional old man strolls you see in video footage or photos you see in print. This place looked daunting. This was going to be something: a proper canyon, much bigger than we had realized. Still, we were committed, being so far off the beaten path, with the sun already coming up. How hard could it be? After all, it had already been a tough season, so why not hunt this ragged gash tucked deep into the Madrean Sky Island habitat of the Chihuahuan Desert?
The end of the trail for the Power wagon was break under a large evergreen oak. The peaks towering ahead of us were a bit over a thousand feet above the boulder strewn creek bottom we parked on. This was going to be interesting; we had all the right habitat even if it was much rockier and vertical than what most people are looking to hunt, or so we thought. We booted the dogs up and readied ourselves for a long hike.
As Jenna was gathering snacks for the hike, and I was relieving myself of my coffee rental, I heard “the dogs are on point!”. Standing there, with the wrong gun in my hand, I said “what!?”. “Powder and Fowler are both on point” she said. Less than fifteen yards from the front of the truck, on the steep bank of the mouth of the canyon, the dogs were sharing a point on a covey of Mearns. Both neatly crouched, as is most typical, frozen in time and space on the steep embankment. A Drent’s tail is a good barometer as to what may be in front of him or her. A flagging tail generally indicates the dog is unsure; maybe the birds are running out? But when they are sure, you will see that brushy tail outstretched, positioned between two and three o’clock, in-line with the backbone much like the tail of a weathervane – it’s just how they are built, there is no changing it. A Drent’s tail is there mostly to knock things off the end table. I carefully made my way forward with a handful of shells hastily jammed into my front pocket. And that is when I realized just how steep the embankment was. The covey flushed as I neared Fowler as a dry branch snapped underfoot. Most of the birds flew straight up and into the sun, but one juvenile bull made a tactical mistake and veered left. My shot connected just before he crested the rise of this spit of land which would have allowed him to really travel. With minimal interference from me, Powder was on the retrieve. Drents have a strong retrieving instinct and can rival more traditional retrieving breeds. In fact, doubly so if the right training methodologies are employed. The breed has a reputation for being both soft and stubborn, but I challenge the notion of stubbornness after having trained a dozen or so Drents. Using traditional training methods, Drents will become either bored, frustrated, or worse yet, intimidated and will shut down, leading many to think they are stubborn. Since I have converted to ‘Force-Free training’ for all aspects of my training program; from the mundane, to field and retrieving work. I’ve not experienced a ‘shut-down’ (stubborn) dog since. Moreover, this change has enabled me to tap into the Drent’s innate desire to please and work with their ‘boss’. We were on the board right from the start. How about that?
With this rather immediate and unexpected success, we set out into the canyon. In Sky Island country, conditions and temperatures can change throughout the day depending on the orientation of the land in relation to the sun, and of course changes in elevation.
We rounded a bend, barely ten minutes from leaving the truck. My GPS told me Powder was on point up ahead and above us in the full heat of the sun. She had worked just out of eyesight. A Drent will adjust its range depending on conditions and terrain to remain in loose contact with the gun, with ranges typically flexing between thirty yards for deep brush and out to around one hundred and fifty yards or more in the open. The Drent was, after all, built by foot hunters for foot hunters to hunt patchwork fields customarily separated by dense hedgerows and the brushy edges of watery dikes surrounding polders. But that wasn’t the case here. I began my ascent up the steep side, carefully negotiating the crumbly slope dotted with scabby grasses. Every step up was reduced by half as the soft unset rock gave way. I had to use the edge of my Kenetrek boots in an effort to gain purchase. Progress was slow, and the heat of the unfiltered sun was withering. Yet, Powder held her point. The covey was moving, but they were in no rush. She would take an occasional step and re-establish her point. Drents are highly intelligent and learn early how to gauge scent as well as the movement of their quarry. Mearns are renowned for holding tight for the pointing dog, which is only somewhat true these days. It seems, too many hunters have taken advantage of the Mearns’ predictability. This coupled with increased hunting pressure of recent years, has all the dedicated talking about the change in Mearns tactics. Some will hold, while many will run like their more common desert brethren. Most recently I’ve witnessed coveys flush wild from a hundred yards away or more – if I wanted to hunt Huns, I’d go to Montana! These are not the Fool’s Quail of yore, which have enticed many to hunt them.
As my body heat began to fog my safety glasses, I opened my vest for ventilation. Powder held her point but when I paused to catch my breath or sort my gear out, she looked back to verify my location and progress. This is quite typical for the Drent. As a breed they are naturally cooperative team hunters which thrive under benevolent leadership. I believe the Drent to be ideal for the hunter who wants to hunt with a friend and is willing to trust their dog to make decisions versus a four-legged tool – there are other breeds for that.
As I neared her, my steps became more tentative on the steep unstable surface. I worked to get above her, managed to get parallel to her and paused. The footing was better, and she hadn’t moved in some time. The birds were close. Powder shifted her gaze to me, then looked forward and stretched her neck. I released her to flush the birds. I set my bead on the dark underside of a large bull quail flying uphill towards the deep grass. With a puff of feathers and cartwheeling wings, he pitched in. I asked Powder to make the retrieve. It was an easy find, as he was caught in a dramatic flutter as gravity wedged him into the base of a dense tuft of grass. Two birds down already. It was shaping up to be a genuinely nice day. Might I have enough tender Mearns meat to make a batch of my somewhat famous quail Posole by the end of the day? For sure I’d be able to put them to use in my quail Marsala recipe. Maybe I was getting ahead of myself...
Moving down hill is quicker than going up, so within a moment we were back to Jenna and Fowler and boy was he ready to go! A few yards further we entered the throat of the main canyon where the conditions swung a full 180-degrees. It was as if the canyon was alive and breathing. As the ‘outside’ temperature was rising, it was causing an inversion in the canyon, forcing freezing cold air from the upper reaches of the system down and out the mouth. Then after a few minutes this ‘push’ would stabilize, and just as you could get feeling worked back into your fingers, another push of arctic grade air would snake through, stinging our eyes, cheeks, thinly gloved hands, and sending chills into our cores.
Was it the second push of this artic air, or the third? One of them caused Fowler to move forward in an entranced walk, as if here were stalking something. He moved in this way for over a hundred yards. He took a long pause in the creek bottom; the thermal belt had paused again.
Powder caught up but was staying clear of Fowler. She knew he had something she hadn’t caught a hold of. Then the cold air drainage restarted, our glasses fogged, and Fowler began to move again, this time couched, like panther stalking its prey. Powder moved alongside, also stalking. But it was clear she still did not have the scent; she was just mimicking Fowler’s movements as she carefully picked her way through the dense catclaw.
Fowler scaled the short cut bank to a grassy plateau choked with catclaw and dense grass. A few mature evergreen oaks dotted the braided boulder laden creek bottom. Both dogs froze like statuary, a bit more upright than normal. But here was no way for Jenna and I to get through the catclaw, we had to stay in the creek bed and work our way around until we could find a break and work our way in.
As we did, the Drents took turns, one pointing the other backing, and then switching roles. This team stalking is something we are very used to, and just love being a part of it. As we rounded the bend to get onto the island with the dogs, Powder slipped down into a braid of the creek on the far side. She had managed to work up wind of the covey and come back in from above.
Team Double Dutch had the covey in a pincer with only one way out, across the other portion of the creek bed, and up a rocky landslide which had tumbled from the canyon top a thousand feet above. I didn’t need to release the dogs to flush. As I found stable footing, I found myself in the middle of the covey. Birds erupted from all around me, I fired, then fired again – a double. Birds continued to flush! There were at least two dozen of them. What a find! This was easily two if not three family groups together, a regional conference. If I’d had better presence of mind I could have reloaded and taken more as several quail were late to depart in a delayed popcorn flush. Were we the first hunters to make contact with these birds this year? With three rich covey finds in this first hour of hunting and four birds in the game bag this was setting up to be a wonderful day afield.
As we made our way further into the canyon the cold air pulses continued at regular intervals, the gentle whooshes lasted just long enough to make us wonder if we were crazy. Then they would subside long enough to rewarm ourselves as we trekked further in and up the rocky creek bottom. Each bend was different. Shaded, cool and comfortable, or fully sunlit and broiling hot. Around yet another bend the scene would be wrapped in shadow, a place where the hoar frost grew to epic proportions in its freezing shadowy depths.
It was in one of these shadowlands that we noticed both dogs on point; Fowler high up in the sun near a partially burned oak and Powder low in a bramble of brush, grass, and younger oaks. As I approached Powder her point intensified, I had to pause to take stock of the situation. She checked in with me, then I resumed by circling to her right and coming over a slight ridge covered with some tall dense grass. A single sunbeam had managed to penetrate the cold and darkness around us. Meanwhile just a few feet away, Powder lowered her head, her breath melting the frost on the grass in front of her. It was a tight spot to be in. I gave her the release command, but all she did was look me in the eye, then look ahead and nod her head as if to say – they are right here!
Sure enough, there was a covey right in front of me, tucked away in a patch of gently warming frost-free grass. I carefully looped the shotgun over my shoulder and lifted the camera up to rattle off a few shots hoping desperately the autofocus would find a way to grab a quail or two through the grass. I put the camera away, grabbed my gun and took a step.
All hell broke loose! Quail shot out of that grass like popcorn on a stove top; bouncing off branches, zinging here and there, and just when I thought the show was over, one hen lit through my little window. It proved to be an unfortunate decision for her, but still there was enough vegetation to keep it from being a super clean shot, and she buzzed off a short distance. Easy for Powder to relocate, but where was Fowler? Funny thing about Mearns, their habitat is immense. You can find them on flat easy walks in the open chaparral, or tucked away under clumps of cat claw, most of all, you find them where they are – in the most unlikely and damnedest places. He was still up on the hillside, still pointing – good boy! Powder located our little hen with a bonus point and flush at her release. Five birds and six shots today – I’m on fire and still have a dog on point. By the time I was able to get to Fowler, his tail had begun to flag, which was a sign of things to come.
Still Powder backed him once she got to within a few yards… and that’s when the large Coatimundi (Nasua nasua, a member of the raccoon family found in Arizona) decided to make a break for it and climb to the top of the tree. We had a good laugh and were glad that the big male Coati didn’t want any trouble.
Pushing ever higher the canyon opened and began to resemble more typical Mearns country. This one, however, was on a breath-taking scale. We had gained enough elevation to make our way into the chaparral where the winds could blow. And with the wind blowing, we knew we’d probably have some running birds, even in a place like this. It wasn’t long before our beloved Drents made bird contact again on a lower bench which led up to the highest reaches.
Powder and Fowler were exchanging roles, pointing and backing, with Fowler mostly in the lead. Up and up we went, and the higher we got, the stronger the wind. The birds were running. We’d catch a glimpse of one here and another there cutting and running from grass clump to catclaw in the scabby open area and gusting winds. They were like phantoms. I’m sure I had seen them darting about. Fowler managed to get a nice long point, but we just couldn’t get up hill fast enough to his side. Powder was running from side to side behind us, as if marshalling nervous birds, stopping to pause when Fowler pointed.
Then, just as we thought we were in the money and ready for a shot, the most peculiar thing happened. The quail began to talk. I’ve never heard them chatter like this before, a harmony of high-pitched alerts, sounding much line a bubbling spring to notify their mates of a strategy change. For us, it was a wave of excitement washed with confusion; after all, how could they be so close, yet never appear? But when the chatter stopped, the grasses jostled violently as the quail began running again. The covey had split up and were hauling ass every which way, except towards us. We continued to press them to the top. This was a grudge match now. Once at the top, on the backside of a depression, and out of the wind, Fowler nailed a solid point. Powder backed. I was able to walk in like royalty, right past Powder, then past Fowler. The few remaining birds flushed. I took one on a nice passing shot as it headed into the air current. The other barrel I let off just because I enjoy the sound and wanted to strike fear into their little hearts (no seriously, I missed like everyone does).
We had a great day, our dogs had a great day, and we had a long walk back to the truck. Despite the Drent being established nearly half a millennia ago half the world away by farmers for farmers to hunt hedgerows and patchwork fields, it seems to me, the Drent’s qualities are perfectly suited for hunting these native polka dotted kings of the high desert. Our success, is perhaps a case of having the right tool for the job? I’d like to think so. Scenting conditions can be difficult in the heat of the sun and scabby dry grass, having a dog that will calmly work areas and stay on task, make effective calculations on its own, and work as a team seems to be a winning combination. Since this was an out and back hunt, I found one of Fowler’s favorite songs in my music library, Prince’s Purple Rain, and put it on speaker as we headed back down our boulder strewn path.
We’ll see you all again next year.
Well hello to you my loyal reader. Sorry it has been a terribly slow year for the blog, just because it has been slow here it doesn’t mean we have been just laying around drinking beer and eating potato chips! If only life could be so grand!
Obviously, we had an exciting and gorgeous litter of puppies from Tule and Fen. After they all went to their homes, we took action on something we have been making casual threats at for the past couple of years and added a non-Drent to the household! You may have seen Fizzy on our social media. In short, we each had our list and had come to be okay with at least one breed from each other’s list but after hosting Laura Reeves for our puppy evals, we were presented with an opportunity we just couldn’t pass on – a Spinone Italiano pup. Not just any Spinone, but one from a breeder who has a proven knack for producing a disproportionate number of the top winning Spinone in the nation! So just like that, Fizzy came into our lives.
In addition to looking high and low for remarkable studs to “import” for our program, managing a litter, volunteer Instructing for Ladies Hunting Camp, we become a distributor for Inukshuk Professional Dog Food, and getting this super cool Spinone as already mentioned. Additionally, we built a flight pen for keeping quail. If you have been following us, you know we use the Higgins Method for force-free field ‘training’ for all of our dogs (to include the Spinone). One of the biggest challenges with using the Higgins Method is the need for birds that will fly. You can get the basics done in a shockingly short amount of time, however, to polish your handling skills and get to a high level of performance, your need for good flying birds is significant. On the bright side, each session is a replication of a hunting scenario where you and your dog learn and gain experience as a team. With proper attention to detail your team performance will creep ever closer to perfection.
Well, the quail situation took a massive hit one evening shortly after my son’s summer visit began. Two nights after a large intake of quail, we had a Trash Panda probing our flight pen, and despite shoring up defenses it/they finally made their move and massacred 40 quail. It was a tragic sight to behold. Terrible if not terrifying was the aftermath. A buddy of mine lent me a live trap to use. So the trap was set and our Ghost in the Darkness managed to take all the bait, without getting trapped and still dig into the pen, and left a dump right in the middle. It is clear we are dealing with an experienced urban troublemaker. We went back to the drawing board with our security plan, dug trenches, sank heavy gauge fencing, weighted with bricks and rocks, and added a solar powered electric fence rated to contain large unruly livestock. We have had two confirmed attempts to breach since, but the juice has been too much. Giddyap, zap, zap, motherf’er!
So, in short, we have been running to and from puppy classes, doing bird work with our dogs, and *gasp* living a bit of life. Yeah, I know that too takes time and energy too. With that, blog posts have been negligible, and my consumption of books has been reduced to a trickle. On the upside, Jenna and I have come a long way with our team handling, and it shows in the improved performance of our dogs. Ila is nearly finished, Tule is holding her own, and baby Fizzy is legitimately doing great work for us – but in all honestly her lower energy level has made the process very easy.
It’s mid-August now, just a few days away from Powder’s x-ray which is a stressful time for us. Her pregnancy was confirmed by ultrasound, which was of some comfort. But to be honest all it really did was mark the start of The Great Wait. How many are in there? Will any be reabsorbed? Will they all arrive safe and full of life? Those are all great questions. Powder’s x-ray is close on the horizon, and that will be a big help. A quality x-ray can show us many things and help us to set expectations for delivery day. Until then we wait. Trying not to get overly excited and get our expectations too high, while at the same time trying not to judge how she looked during previous pregnancies to arrive at some guestimate as to what may or may not be happening. The random whelping supplies we needed to replenish our stocks have all arrived, the whelping room has been cleaned, set up, and arranged.
So, with that I need to get ready for the concert tonight. Until next time, take care and thanks for stopping by.
I’ve been holding on to this for quite a long time… life has been keeping me busy of late and so I haven’t done much with it other than to think I should do something about it from time to time. Well, it appears its time has come do something about it!
So, let’s talk briefly about the travel crate and what ‘right’ looks like. I’m very happy I came across this infographic as it shows us what is more likely to be safer and prevent injury to your dog in the event you are in an accident or have to take some abrupt actions to avoid an accident.
We have seat belts and airbags, your dog? Well, is it loose in your car? In the bed of your truck? Or is it in a kennel and if so, is it secured and sized correctly? While your dog’s crate at home should be fairly roomy his travel crate should not be. In fact a travel crate your dog should be touching 3 of 4 walls at any time when laying down, and it should be snug enough that it encourages your dog to lay down and discourage moving around!
This snugness keeps your dog from being tossed around inside the kennel in the event of sudden changes e.g., hard braking, accident-avoidance maneuvers, or possibly an accident. But for this to really work, your dog’s kennel will need to be secured fast in your vehicle. Consider tiedown straps hooked into your vehicle’s child seat restraint moorings, a seatbelt alone is likely to allow slippage. The same goes for bed of your truck, if not more so. You will want to keep his kennel as stable and securely mounted as possible to allow the kennel to help protect your dog.
With all of this having been said, it is important to recognize that being in such a snug environment you now have a responsibility to ‘air your dog out’. Dogs do spend a great deal of their day sleeping, and this is what most will do when traveling, however they cannot stretch out from time to time, and can cause some stiffness in some dogs. The rule of thumb we use is, for every 3 to 4 hours of driving your dog should get about 30 minutes of time to stretch, walk, and potty.
So three years after this was originally published, it's time for a little update. So if you are one of the few people who check in here from time to time, thank you and I hope you enjoy.
In the world of dog food there is an abundance of mythology and folk lore surrounding what constitutes a good dog food and kibble manufacturers have a kibble for every budget out there! Many companies cater to our instinct to provide the best we can afford to our four-legged family members using powerful modern marketing strategies which take advantage of our instincts and desires by leveraging our biases, and ignorance. Yes, it's like that.
Most likely, just as you have done, we have poured over tons of dog food comparison websites in search of the kibble with the most stars or dog bones a particular website will dare honor a kibble with.
About eleven years ago now I found The Dog Food Project when I was living in Spain and this is where I learned most websites use flawed and/or biased grading systems to honor kibble with stars or dog bones as they see fit.
In short, effective marketing equals popularity. Popularity drives demand and demand drives price. Meaning popular doesn't mean better or more cost effective.
So how do you avoid buying the Ol' Roy's and Beneful's of the dog food world, which are considered to be the worst dog foods ever produced? Just as important, how to avoid the Gold Plated and Hyper-priced dog foods, like ZiwiPeak and K9 Natural that really aren't worth the extra money - in our case feeding those diets would cost us over $3,000 per month to feed our brood! Presently we spend about $68 p/month to feed our four Drents.
Selecting a good dog food really comes down to a few things, and it requires some time and energy on your part. So here is what The Dog Food Project has taught me:
1) Understand the Label
2) Know what to Avoid
3) Recognize the good stuff
Now you know, not all of the 'bad' ingredients aren't as bad as we have been "taught" and not all the 'good' ingredients aren't as good as we have been "taught". You have the basics down, it is time to read some labels and make some choices.
Has your dog shown sensitivity to an ingredient? Can you be sure it was actually the ingredient you think it was? Did you have an allergy panel run? The FDA recently published an article that links grain-free diets to certain health problems! So unless you have an absolutely clear reason to go grain free - why bother with it.
What is your budget? How many dogs do you need to feed? What is their activity level? and so on. You will learn there are a number of very affordable high-quality kibbles hiding in plain sight. Most are made by the big companies like Purina, Eukanuba, and Royal Canin... Sure they have low range feeds, but they also have put tons of R&D money into their 'hi-line' feeds. There are also a few other manufactures out there who cater to providing for the working dog which also tend to represent very strong value propositions e.g. getting a lot for your money and your dog!
Yes, you read Part I right, Ila didn’t get to go Chukar hunting. Not quite a year and a half old, she still has to pass her OFA exams, prelims or not, and Fowler had been nursing a sore wrist. They were going to get to hunt Valley Quail. Sure, we have them in our surrounding areas at home, but not in places where you can hunt them mostly. In fact, one of the best indicators of Prime Valley Quail habitat is – can they be hunted here or not? If it’s legal, odds are you will not see them, and if you do, they will be like an apparition – did you really see what you thought you saw? If it’s not legal, the little winged turds will strut around with reckless abandon. Some say their call sounds like Chi-ca-go, all I hear is Suck-it-Monkey.
Jenna is becoming an adept habitat researcher. Juggling OnX, Google Earth, researching various blogs (seriously, I have no idea how she finds this stuff), and heaven only knows what. She decreed, “we need to hunt the area around the old center pivots up the road”, and so we did. We took the road to the west of the irrigation assemblies; it was a checkerboard of private and public lands. Which to me wasn’t exciting. But if you reference the above paragraph it had the effect of increasing the likelihood of finding these tricky little guys. As if on cue, we were approaching a break from private to public, and a covey was crossing the road – they were legal. Flirting with disaster, living on the wild side, all of fifteen feet of legal. If we got them to flush north, we could hunt them.
Quickly I got Ila out and let her work the covey – yes, straight out of the truck! Bam, she had them. I didn’t fool around and moved smartly past her point hoping to flush them deeper onto the public land, and maybe get lucky. Flush they did and just like the Rebel Fighters attacking the Death Star, they juked and jived through the sage brush as if they were rocking their speeders back home in Beggar’s Canyon, just like Luke Skywalker evading a squad of TIE fighters. No shots for me, worse yet, they flushed almost perfectly parallel to the property line – still barely legal (don’t Google that).
As Ila and I approached them again, many were easy to see, running on the desert floor here and there. She would point, look to me. Relocate. Point again. It was a chaotic scene for sure. She made a good point in front and pointing at me. The quail flushed at me, and regrettably I shot. The bird was rendered to a lump of quail-burger hurtling through time and space. I ducked so as not to be hit by it. The quail’s ruined carcass hit the desert floor with an unceremonious ‘thock’. Ila still steady despite all of this. I gave her the ‘hunt dead’ with quail still running hither and thither. She really didn’t know what to do, but she slowly worked towards me. Then abruptly the covey flushed again back to the truck. Clearly, they had the property line wrong by just the right amount! Ila located the crumpled bird and really had no interest in it. She literally looked up at me as if to say, “what is this”? I gave her a ‘here’ cue and stepped away. She grabbed the shattered bird ever so reluctantly and brought it towards me. Gawd, what a hit. That poor quail was a terrible mess. But hey, we were on the board!
We hustled back to the truck, where our friends were waiting. Ila picked them back up and quickly made a point. The quail were over this and began flushing north more deeply into the public land in desperation to get away from us. One bird abandoned the ‘Beggar’s Canyon’ mindset and flew high. It was an unfortunate decision for him. What a lovely little cockbird. Ila retrieved him with aplomb to hand. We decided it was time to let these guys be and departed for the area South and East of the old irrigation rig.
The southern edge was home to a large coulee running west/east filled with high brush, just the sort of thing valley quail love. It was a short out and back, and so we ran Fowler here due to his wrist injury. Within moments he was in the birds. They weren’t making mistakes and it wasn’t long before he was showing sign of being uncomfortable, so we wrapped it up. Another much larger but similar coulee system ran north/south joining the previously mentioned drainage not far from where we were parked. Tule and Powder hunted hard, but the only thing they managed to find were rabbits, and we discovered an ancient stand of giant sage. We took a moment to marvel these enormous bushes. Several of which exceeded ten feet in height.
Back to our regularly scheduled programing. All Ila, All the time. It was late in the day, and we wanted to give Ila another shot at the valley quail. We decided to put her on Fowler’s run and see what may come of it. She picked the quail up, pretty much in the same place Fowler did. She made her point between the steep edge and the tall, thick, and impassable brush. I gave her an ‘alright’ in hopes she might get them up for a shot. But what happened was she worked the birds through until she emerged on the other side where she went back on point. I was flabbergasted as to what to do next.
Thirty some odd yards away, but she may as well have been a mile away on the other side of molten lava – I wasn’t going to be able to get to her. The quail cracked first and flushed. A pair came back over towards us, I have no real idea where the others went. Ila stood steady to the flush. I waited a moment, then asked her to come in, which she did with great enthusiasm. I told Jenna I had an idea where the two birds went, and we set out in their direction. Ila canvased the desert floor then suddenly, she skidded to a stop ending with a dramatic point. Clearly the bird was pressured, and it flushed giving me a high-speed passing shot. The first shot caused him to rock in the air, the second caused him to fold up. I looked back, with Ila still standing, gave her the ‘hunt dead’ cue, and off she went. We searched, and searched and was near to giving up, when suddenly the little dog found the bird tightly nestled in a thorny bramble at the base of some desert brush!
In the area, we were able to cross over the channel cut in the desert floor without difficulty and began heading back to the truck. It wasn’t long before Ila became birdy. Point, go, point, go. She was managing running birds. Then somehow, they were visible. Possibly a dozen or more, running to and fro. Crossing one another’s paths with Ila standing in the middle of them. Picking her feet up like a cat on a hot tin roof. I gave her a recall since she about to lose her edge and start chasing them around. Then the quail went up and over the small ridge never to be found again. This is why it’s called bird hunting and not bird getting. The dogs are always learning and improving, just as I to continue to learn and improve as an amateur naturalist and dog handler. I suppose I too will only get a little better so as long as we continue to learn together.
It’s been said many times already but please indulge me, just one last time. We had one heck of a busy summer. Tule and Powder have not just timed their heat cycles together, but they have taken it to a level we think few would believe. Their cycles are not the same duration, and they ovulate at different times in their cycles. Starting their heat cycles on the same day, well, that’s for rookies. These girls started when they needed to start to begin their ovulations within twelve hours of one another! Yeah, it’s like that around here. They also gave birth barely eighteen hours apart. It was very generous of them to allow us some rest and the threat of getting some sleep. But within short order we had a baker’s dozen of gorgeous pups to attend to. You can visit their litter pages HERE & HERE to see and read about these glorious pups. These litters came a bit later in the summer than we would have preferred, but it’s not like we get a vote…and as we were gearing up to receive our clients for pick-up week, others were hitting the field and getting into birds.
We had been kicking around plans to hunt Eastern Idaho since last winter, but when it came time, we heard the call of the Montana Hi-Line. We had never hunted the region, and it had been a full decade since I had hunted Sharptailed grouse – I no longer had a dog with experience on the species. As we juggled client communications and care for the pups, Jenna did what she does best and hatched a travel plan. With just a tiny bit of input from me she lined out an excellent itinerary – holy crap, we were going!
Like crazy people, the last pup left and the next day we were on the road, hoping that our newly installed and minimally tested sprinkler timers would not disappoint. We started our journey exhausted, but it was fueled by the hope of being like those we saw on the various Facebook groups we are members of.
Montana’s system of block management is quite frankly a wonderful example I feel more states should try to emulate. Landowner recruitment is good across the state and in some areas nothing short of amazing. Better yet, the properties enrolled in the program, generally speaking, are pretty darn good, or in many cases downright amazing – quite unlike what we have here in Eastern Washington…
For our first hunt, we had selected a place where three large parcels converged, one Bureau of Land Management (BLM), one state owned, and the other a beautiful piece of block management land. We stopped to look over the map to locate the sign-in box and to our surprise, we were gifted with an enormous covey of Sharptail crossing the road. From the private block management property to the BLM property – no sign-in required, have a nice day.
We took our time and put both Powder and Fowler down and within moments, they were on the birds – but the birds had really covered some ground in these few minutes. As you might expect, Team Double Dutch worked them perfectly and I was able to pull two Sharpies from the first covey rise. One for each dog. How about that?
That follows here was a series of poor decisions on our part. We had assumed Ila was ready to hunt in a brace, and that running her with Tule, our other Higgins dog, would be fine… yeah, about that. They weren’t ready to be run together and the experience was an unmitigated disaster. Each dog caused the other to make an error, and those errors only created more energy management problems, and errors. It was like a hurricane made of fire. Ila was running around like a total lunatic, chasing every bird, and not heeding any input from either of us – so far from her norm. The disaster culminated in her putting up a large covey of Sage Grouse, and promptly running them off the block of BLM. Finally, she regained control of herself and was returned to the truck. It was a quiet, tense, eternally long walk. At least for me that is.
We took Tule back out and as we did a new covey of Sharptail came over from the block management property to the BLM and landed about one hundred and fifty yards in front of us. Can you believe this? Tule had also regained her self-control during the intermission, so she was allowed to hunt these birds. She over pressured her first contact and they flushed. She remained steady. We caught up to her and set her out again. This time much more careful, but more or less the same result, too much pressure. The birds were spread out now, so it was all about remaining calm and allowing her to work. Then, bam. We had a point. The birds were running, so Tule carefully began tracking the bird(s). Point. Stalk. Point. And so on. She was being very careful now and then it happened. We had The Point. She had one dead to rights. I moved into position and released her to flush. She did so and I did my job for her and took the bird. Once it was down, Tule was released for the retrieve. Tule did a great job working the rest of the birds, and just like that we had a limit of Sharptail in a matter of no time.
Now to let us fast forward to Ila’s redemption. We had explored nearly the full expanse of Greater Middle of Nowhere, Montana. Some places more productive than others and some much less so, but that’s hunting for you and to be expected when you don’t have any honey holes mapped out. Ila and I came to a nice-looking piece of block management filled with a lush carpet of prairie grasses. Two of its edges were bordered by cut wheat fields – promising. Just as I was finishing up my sign-in card a local pulled in. Geez, I thought to myself, “It’s not that big, you saw from a mile away I was here…really”? He seemed just as off put by being beaten to the spot, yet he went and signed in. He opened the conversation sheepishly asking how I had intended to hunt the property. I basically stated I was planning to try to keep my pup into the wind as much as I could by doing a rather large counterclockwise loop in the large rectangle set before us. He offered to go to the far end and hunt the fence bordering one of the cut fields. I said, “sure”. In hindsight I’m positive it came out quite curtly, much more so than intended, but in the moment, I thought I had done a good job of sounding out a compromise. Ila and I set out, and he drove off.
I have been blessed with some really nice hunting dogs. However, no matter how good your dog is you have to get through their puppy and juvenile phases. Ila is cresting her juvenile phase and so is subject to some young Drentisms. Said quirks can be outright comical most times, but in the same breath can be so frustrating when the timing isn’t optimal. All my Drents have enjoyed pointing field mice and working up a few meadow larks as a pup, some more so than others. Then there is Ila. She has taken the art of hunting mice and larks to a rather elevated level, really, I should just call it what it is – fine art. Few have seen such exquisite work from any dog! I have a friend who regularly produces National Field Trail Champion German Shorthairs – Terry, who has seen countless dogs work in the field would have his spine shiver to see her work (on field mice).
With that said, yes, the first thirty minutes were filled with this ‘great dog work’ on field mice. My soul slowly filling with despair. I was thankful that Jenna, my beloved, wasn’t with us for the first time ever – she would have been spitting red hot nails. Yet Ila went from mouse nest to nest, working each one with such great care, then mounting such dramatic and stylish points as ever recorded in Drent history. Each time, my excitement was like a veritable tidal wave. Rising. Climbing far above the ocean floor. Rolling. Growing. Climbing. Cresting…then crashing into oblivion. We walked on. Ila happy as a lark. Hunting for whatever may be possible.
In my mind I had resigned. Partially a good thing. Being detached can be quite amazing for your energy management and how that may potentially affect your dog. Her search was arrested abruptly. She geared down and was for a moment channeling her grandfather, Booker. A panther, stalking in the grass. God it was beautiful. This wasn’t a field mouse; it was something special. “Jesus”, I thought, “It’s happening”. She carefully stalked and gently eased into a point. I still had ground to cover forty yards at least to even consider being in range. Her point only magnified. Intensified. Did she grow in size? This was it. I carefully positioned myself. She differed to me and a moment later I gave her the queue to flush. She launched herself into the grass with abandon and a hen pheasant erupted. She remained steady without any encouragement from me, and we watched her fly away. I went and knelt by her side, stroked her up, and told her what a good girl she was. Was this it? It was time to hit the part closer to the road, where the local was to theoretically have hunted.
Within a few minutes I was able to see, he never came to our field, but instead hunted the coulee bisecting the other cut wheat field which ran up to the road. Soon after Ila began a ‘wiggly butt’ march. Clearly a sign of being birdy, but not with the level of self-control I wanted from her. I handled her away and watered her. No matter once released she resumed the behavior within moments. Then without warning they flushed – Sharptail! She stood and watched. I shot at one like a fool. We regrouped, shared a snack and a drink then set back out. Just like before, the wiggly butt started again. She was tracking Sharptail. But was she being too aggressive? One flushed wild. She stood, and I let it go. Inside I was like, damnit. Our chances are near done, if not… But we did still have a long walk back to the truck.
Again, her body language was telling. She had bird. This time she was more controlled. More calculating. Still, far out of range, but I know if it’s going to work out, it will. If she gets the point, it doesn’t matter how far out she is. She trailed the birds, I trailed her. This game of ‘cat and mouse’ went on for some time. It was intoxicating. Then suddenly it happened. Her point. She was nearly two hundred yards out. The exhaustion of the sleepless nights and never-ending work of the puppies, these days of relentless hunting and driving from sunup to sunset, washed away. It felt as if I floated through the thick as molasses prairie grass. Still she stood, as if hewn from granite. I drew closer. She stood. I started think, it’s going to work, she has them. She stood. I closed ground. She stood. I realized I took a line which veered me left of her by a fair distance. Floating or not, the grasses where dense and high. Making a bee line just wasn’t practical for me. As I drew abreast of her still a good twenty yards away. She differed to me. I paused wondering what the right answer was. It was then the covey flushed from between us! I looked to Ila; she was statuesque. I picked out a bird and shot – it fell. I looked back to her, still standing, motionless, watching the birds. I looked back, and thought, I can take another. So, I did. It was soft hit and did quite a dramatic ‘danza de los Muertos’ for our benefit. Still, she stood. Watching the covey vanish from sight. I came to my senses and released her to retrieve. Still she stood – LoL. I released her again and stepped off, she followed suit and there is it. A covey rise double on Sharptail over my fifteen month old pup.
Yes, there was much, much more to this trip than this brief excerpt. We had a grand time, met up with a former client, and fellow DPCNA Board member and now friend. We also had several Sharptail hunts ruined by hundreds to pheasants… We were also left wondering why we had not been doing this every year.
Would you consider your gundog a valued member of the family? Or maybe even your buddy? Then maybe you should take some time to hear me out, because there is a better way to get a high-drive dog to perform like a rock star in the field than what is commonly accepted. The Higgins Method will help you to capitalize on the relationship you have with your dog, and only make it better by bringing you closer by building you and your dog as a team.
But before I get to that, I’d like to help frame up my personal experience and how I’ve come to this conclusion. I’ve trained dogs for about forty years now and to be honest, I still feel I have much to learn and improve upon. I acknowledge this and actively take active steps towards educating myself and developing my skill set. Done so by reading dozens of books, watching countless hours of videos, and seeking out hands-on training for myself. Part of this ‘mission’ of mine has led me to train with the best trainers and groups I could work myself into. Since I became serious about gundogs, and the training of gundogs, I have only redoubled my efforts in this arena. So, while the number of gundogs I have trained outright is not exactly an impressive number, I have learned by watching others and participating in the training of hundreds of dogs.
One of my gifts, or curses if you will, is to notice patterns where they don’t seem to exist. It happens most when I am at peace yet fully engaged. Suddenly the connections begin to appear. When it occurs, these connections help me to rather quickly rule out or rule in information, what is effective and what is not, identify trendlines, and so on. It is a quality of mine people have both loved and despised in my previous professional life…but that is a story for another day.
Getting back to it. I’ve had the opportunity to train and befriend some really notable gundog people, several with a presence on the national level. People who I am friends with and hold great respect for to this day. I saw why and where their method worked, the parts of their programs that were money in the bag, their overlaps and similarities; some parts being practically magical and then the parts that just worked be it for whatever reason: force of will is a commonality. And yes, the differences too.
Of particular interest, in dog sport, the ‘positive methodology’ (poorly named, hence it being so poorly understood by many) rules supreme! I mean really, pick a sport from Agility all the way to Tactical dog ‘training’ and just about every point in-between ‘positive’ is The Way, not just a way. With one notable exception, the gundog. The poor gundog, which spends most of its time as a humble family companion, is trained in a brutish old-world way. Why?
I’ll venture this – it’s tradition. Most or all other dog sports are relatively new, and therefore people haven’t been steeped in a particular mindset for a full generation, let alone multiple generations. On the other hand, we humans have been doing the gundog thing for a few hundred years now. The whole hunting over a gundog isn’t just an institution steeped in tradition, it’s been painted, and written about both academically and poetically. Training the gundog has been brought to a state of near mythical proportion. How do you change that?
The old way is centered on the perception that the handler must control the high-drive dog. This control must be absolute. Stop when I say stop, go when I say go, as if the handler knows better in all situations – anything else is disobedience and subject to punishment. That’s assuming the dog even understands why. We can get more into that later if you’d like. The use of force to get what the handler wants when the handler wants it is the easily moved forward backstop. When in doubt, add ‘stim’ seems to a tried and true panacea for all gundog problems. Maybe you even bought videos, books, or into a membership with some organization advocating the use of force. Worse yet, not just advocating the use of force but actively promoting and normalizing it. Some methods are better than others, but at a certain point they all neck down and follow a similar methodology which is wholly dependent on the use of force. How draconian a particular method is seems to be related to how much force the prolific trainer needed to use to generate “success” - then their followers’ line up eager to replicate what they perceived ‘worked’ for so and so. As always there is talk of washouts, dogs that couldn’t hack it, the abuse they don’t want to talk about. Yep, I said it, abuse. That and my sense of pattern-detection has kept me from being able to go all in with all the variations based in this old-world methodology.
Okay, now all the traditionalist out there are looking to burn my house down – that’s fine, it’s insured, its value it tracked appropriately, and we are looking to leave Washington. Just let me get my dogs out first, please. Trust me, I’m not being dramatic, the responses I’ve gotten on a variety of forums has only been met with varying degrees of hostility. One does not threaten tradition casually or make hamburgers from a sacred cow...but my grill is hot!
Okay, enough of that. Let’s talk about the Higgins Method. First and foremost, the Higgins method is entirely Force Free and capitalizes on the intelligence of the dog, the dog's natural desire to be cooperative, and energy management for dog and handler – wait, what!? Yep, that's it in a nutshell. In short, Brad uses a truck load of good flying birds presented to the dog in a way where the dog gains an understanding that in order to be fully successful it needs to cooperate with you, the handler – all without the use of force. Once the dog believes this, the rest is up to you. How long will it take for you to trust your dog and believe it will play its role for you? Once you have achieved the fifth stage of grief, also known as: acceptance, a team is born. Once dog and human are a team, hunting is a relaxing exercise in watching your dog perform. You’ll need to put your constricted chokes away and possibly consider adding spreader loads to your arsenal.
Ila has been brought up this way. We used compatible Force Free techniques to shape every behavior of hers leading up to her Higgins introduction. Afterall, it is hoped that she take over her mother’s role of being my Medical Response Dog at some point in the future. Ila is deeply in tune with me because of this, to the extent that her performance is tied to how true my handling is. If I do my job right, she will do hers right. Not that I look forward to becoming a sloppy handler, but as she continues to mature, her dependance upon my exact handling will lesson. For the record, she has been steady to wing, shot, fall and release since six-months of age – without a single zap. Wouldn’t you like to know what it feels like to bring a Gatling gun to a knife fight? If so, it’s time to ditch the old paradigm and step into the era of modern canine learning and bring this to your beloved gundog. Once you do, you can focus on your tactics, getting your dog get into the best cover, and supporting their effort to find every bird in the area for you. Sounds rough doesn’t it?
This is more or less a companion piece to the Higgins Gundogs review I made last year. We are clients of Higgins Gundogs, and receive no preference or benefit from writing anything ‘pro-Higgins’. To that end, Ila is still in pursuit of her Higgins Gundog title. Which will only be earned when she and I can unequivocally demonstrate our mastery of team dynamics. We are hoping to achieve this goal in early 2021.
As a long standing and current representative of the Drentsche Patrijshond Club of North America and a Preservationist Breeder of the Drent I field a good number of questions on a very regular basis. One of the questions that I’ve get hit with several times every year is Drent coat care. In general, most start off more or less the same, “…I am reading about people saying you need to trim a Drent, and/or cut the hair on the ear and/or body hair to keep it from getting to long. Also, since I have you how much effort do you put towards grooming/combing to help with seasonal shedding?”
So what I’ve done here is to try and capture what a person really needs to know about Drent coat care: body & ears:
Drent hair, tends to be pretty fine, but surprisingly dense, so regular combing and brushing almost totally eliminates the need to bathe your Drent. Even if they get really dirty or a little bit muddy, just put them in their kennel to dry. Once dried, take them out and brush (outdoors preferably). This works great unless the mud is super goopy, and your Drent ends up with dreadlock-like looking mud mats in their fur. Then you will want to get after that with a hose or some other running water with some pressure behind it before it all dries hard. Otherwise a nice comb and a pin brush are what is needed most of the time to keep your Drent looking smart!
Drents do not have a true undercoat, unlike breeds like Labs, Golden Retrievers, huskies, etc. But they do have a decent amount of hair, and they do pretty good in cold in environments, in particular if they have been given a chance to acclimatize (they will grow a denser coat). The Drent may not as good as a Lab in icy cold water, as they do not have the sebaceous oiliness common to the retriever breeds, but way better than a GSP, or English Pointer, based on my experience. I've managed to hunt over both breeds with my Drents. Working in heat is very much up to the individual dog and how well they have been acclimated to the heat…
Like most breeds, Drents tend to shed twice a year. Managing the seasonal change is generally handled with a comb, followed by a pin brush, finished with a boar bristle brush. At the height of a Drents shed, we recommend using an undercoat rake with a set of double-row pins. I have pictured a rake with a single row, which is fine, but the double is...well twice as good. Start with the undercoat rake to loosen and get the bulk of the hair which is ready to come out. Start cleaning your Drent up with your combs, working from coarse to fine. Then when you are about to wrap the grooming session up break out your pin brush, the dog will love, they feel amazing, and it’ll do a nice job of sweeping up much of the stragglers. At this point you may see some dander, and so enters the Boar brush. The boar bristles will clean all that up and help to distribute the natural oils, making the coat nice and shiny. If the bristles whiten, take the brush outdoors and pat/rub the bristles on a stone or brick – that is all dander you don’t want in your house. This is also great for people allergic to dogs, like me. As a side note: humans are not allergic to the hair, hairs, or fur – but we are allergic to a dog’s dander (and saliva - so there really is no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog, it all BS and marketing). By reducing the dander on the dog it makes the dog easier and more pleasant to be around.
Usually a brief weekly grooming session handles everything pretty well, and between shedding seasons, you might get to skip for a few weeks. That is if your Drent doesn't carry the brush to you for the extra attention. Normally, we trim nails every Wednesday, and each dog gets a quick brush down. Having four they all line up for their turn - it's a nice trick.
I'm just a guy suffering with an infatuation with gundogs since childhood. Fourty some years later this is what you get.