Thursday, May 17, 2007

Working Like a Dog

In an email exchange following my post on Meet Mr. Grizzly, Gregg, Steve and I wondered whether such dogs as Stevens describes could be made today. Your opinions invited and welcome!

Matt: "My question is: Without the lifestyle (ranching, cowboy-ing, big game hunting on horseback, life pre-electric and pre-internal-combustion) setting the challenge and the training environment, could we produce dogs of their equal today?"

Gregg: "I think we can. The dogs we have today are up to the challenge (at least a handful of the hunting strains that I am familiar with are). The real question is, are the people up to the challenge. Like I said, the dogs were born out of necessity, and their abilities were honed by the same. Are the people willing to inconvenience themselves to the extent that it will take to produce such an animal?

It was a harder life, even for the wealthy rancher. The hunting trips that Stevens guided were no piece of cake, especially when you compare it to today's big game hunts---where you 'pack in' on SUVs, or you ride a horse that's already trained (Stevens trained his own) and packed for you (Stevens packed his own).

If you personally have never been driven to the point of exhaustion but were expected to go on, much as we hope are dogs will, how can you train and breed for that kind of endurance?

If a breeder doesn't have integrity, honesty and compassion---not to mention indefatigable drive---how can we breed for the same? Flipside: How would we be able to recognize it when we get it?

A friend and I argued about this for years. He weighs 280lbs on a six-foot frame, and it's been too long since he had pushed himself as hard as he would push the dogs. My friend lost something during those years, and that was the ability to read when a dog is tired. I won't push a dog any harder than I'm willing to push myself. "

Matt: "I've said virtually the same things about falconers and hawks, particularly about Harris' Hawks, many times. These days I am not such a paragon of hard work as I used to be, but I have been and do know what it takes to make a very hard-going hawk that expects to catch game under the worst conditions.

Are you prepared to hunt through heat and hard rain, not stopping unless the hawk does? Are ready to wade through dark water without special prompting--just on speculation something is in there to flush? Are you willing to move forward, hour after hour through high cover, simply because your hawk is still hunting? And can you do this 9 out of 10 days in a row, then again for another 9 days.

If so, you can make almost any hawk into a hard case trooper. Even one of mediocre natural ability will outperform the thoroughbred who sees less air-time and only flies in fair weather.

What you can do with a 'top-ten-percenter' under such a regimen is amazing. I've seen it myself and even done it once (with a Harris named Pico). I could not do it again today and don't think I will be able to do it again until the kids are grown. Until then I will be flying the best hawks I can, but none will be as good as they could be.

When I think of someone starting falconry without the willingness or natural ability to WORK HARD, I wonder (silently, usually) why they are even going to bother."

Steve: "It's the same thing with dogs: If [the hunters] have the desire, that makes the dogs. I have seen it again and again. And a naturally-talented dog like Taik just gets better and better. I don't think she is PHENOMENALLY better than my others, but because she goes out every time I go out, she seems positively telepathic. "

And adds: "Blog please!"

So here we go. How much work is enough to make a good animal? Is hard work enough? Or can a trainer's long experience take its place?


Todd said...

I don't think that you can substitute anything for conditioning. In order for a dog to perform at his peak, the dog must be in peak condition. I think though that training has more or less importance depending on what the dog is used for. I know what you use Rina for, and she would kick my dog's collective asses at what she's good at. I think that my dogs would kick yours at what I condition them for. We don't do (or need) near the training that you do.

OK, this is all said with the caveat that I know what I do with my dogs is not the real thing, but it's as close as I'm able to get with kids, job, and funds at this time. I do know that with the proper opportunity, I will continue to do right by my dogs well into the future.

Todd said...

Edit: Basically, training is as important for what you do, while conditioning is more important than training for what we do.

Matt Mullenix said...

Todd thanks for posting! I think your idea of conditioning for "what you do" is a good one, and maybe begs the observation that since few of us hunt big game on horseback over wilderness terrain like Stevens, maybe we don't NEED dogs that can do that.

This would make my original question moot, except perhaps for the handful of professional shepards out there. Or maybe K-9 police officers... What say you, Gregg?

But my point about the quality of person remains, and I offer myself for example. There are nearer limits to what I can do now, here a bit past my prime and several years into the general exhuastion of parenthood.

The spirit is strong but the flesh is weak. :-)

Matt Mullenix said...

Also, regarding training v. conditioning: Gregg can attest (to some frustration I bet) that what I do with Rina is the product of very little formal training! :-)

She is the product more of her own enthusiasm for hunting, combined with mine and the hawk's. Where the conditioning question comes in is whether she would quit before either of the other of us? And the answer to that, given umpteen times this past season, is "no."

Rina has enough stamina to hang with us---more than she needs, most days. Our local bird hunting is less strenous than proper coursing, so probably she has not been tested fully yet.

Henry Chappell said...

Interesting post.

There's no substitute for on-the-job training. I've owned three German Shorthaired pointers. The first one I would call moderately talented, but I hunted her hard and often. My next two were very talented pups out of excellent bloodlines. Both showed great promise early, but were essentially weekend bird dogs. Guess which one made the best dog.

I have a friend, an East Texas backwoodsman, who hunts raccons and squirrels with mountain curs and feists - serious meat and hide dogs. He hunts every day of the long squirrel season and chases coons year round. He hunts to eat. In 2006, he and his dogs caught 208 coons. You get the picture.

My friend is a man of very modest means. His dogs are other people's washouts and castoffs. He has rescued several from abusive situations. These dogs all seem to turn out fine because he hunts them every day, puts no pressure on them, and gives them a chance to learn from his experienced dogs. Because he's more interested in results than style, he lets each dog get the job done in its own way, within limits.

Very few of us can hunt our dogs as often as we'd like or as often as they deserve. I doubt that many modern hunting dogs reach their potential.

Paul said...

Great topic! With conditioning comes confidence, and I think that's the bottom line to success with most endeavors - physical or intellectual. I spend way too much time doing physical conditioning with my tiercel goshawk, but the result is a bird that knows it can smoke any quarry he's programmed to chase. Doesn't matter if it's a saluki chasing jacks over the open plains, or a falcon taking multiple stoops and remounts, if that animal is well field hardened they can optimize their focus on the quarry rather than trivial aspects of the chase.

Covenant Giants said...

Too much apparently - I write an email and end up on prime time ;-)
A sound conditioning program is vital to the development of a good working dog. What I was referring to in my original email was "heart." I would never test a dog that was not in excellent shape. But this simply means that it will take a little longer to reach the point of depleted reserves. What I'm looking for is how the dog responds once this point is reached.
The criteria will be different for every discipline. I don't expect that my coonhound will ever chase a Jack at top speed for two minutes + then bring it to bag. I know that Cari, my new lurcher, will never go into a dicey situation and bring down the bad guy. And as much as I love Jasso (Schutzhund III Giant Schnauzer), he will never have what it takes to make a good lion hound in the arid, high altitudes of Arizona. But, with a little cross training, I could see how they fair in each of these situations. This would be the difference between maximizing their potential for a specific task verses determining whether they were breed worthy or not.
Where the police service dogs are concerned, I can't afford to cut them the same slack in training that I would a sport dog. I look at it this way; not only is the officer depending on a fair but firm evaluation and assessment, but his (or her) spouse and children are depending on me as well.
I've worked dogs that I know (because they are flesh and blood) have a limit, but I could never, in good conscience, find it. They make the grade, and will stay in the fight when things go bad. For the imports, I have to look beyond their training (good or bad) and their level of physical conditioning to find the bottom line where their genetics are concerned. Let me just add that heart (grit, bottom, whatever you choose to call it) is not the only consideration when looking at a dog for a breeding program, but for me, it is the foundation that the other traits are grounded on.
Maybe talking about character and integrity might appear a little out of place when it comes to the breeding of working dogs. But it's been my experience that if a man will lie to me about the quality of his brood stock, he will lie to himself as well. And herein lays the real tragedy. I know too many breeders who breed inferior animals under the heading of "acceptable risk." It's usually based on the titles, pedigrees and the health checks they've accumulated.
A good start, but not the whole picture.

Full circle, we have dogs that can make the grade; I was wondering about the human side of the breeding equation.

What was the question?

PBurns said...

To clarify, We're really talking about two kinds of conditioning: Physical Conditioning versus Operant Conditioning, right?

I hunt different than most, so my comments may not be too germane.

My terriers laugh at my physical condition, but I have to point out that I am carrying 40 pounds of tools with me in the field, and they carry nothing but their tail :) If I was riding a horse 40 miles and they were running along beside me, the tables might be turned.

Working smart versus working hard is a balance point with terriers. A dog can be as tough as cut steel, but if it tries to use that physical toughness in the hole, it's eventually going to get whipped and come out with a lot of stitches and perhaps a big vet bill attached. A small dog with experience and brains can do a lot more than a dog with rippling muscles and no discretion. A smart dog can work four hours in the hole and still walk home OK. A too-tough guy may get his snout handed to him in under a minute.

Is a smart terrier one that has been trained? Not in the classical sense, because you cannot train a dog when it is underground as you cannot see it, and it cannot hear you if it is baying. The thing that trains a working terrier is the critter in the den pipe. That said, you can give the dog experience with a lot of critters in a lot of situations, and the best dogs assemble the experiences into a larger totality and ability to problem-solve. Over time an owner and the dog communicate, or at least get used to each other's way of doing business to the point they can reasonably predict how each other will act. In the world of working terriers, that passes for a pretty rich bond and real success. It's a little short of formal operant conditioning, however.


Matt Mullenix said...

I thought we might be talking past each other a bit with two common usages of "training" (OC) vs "training" (physical conditioning).

But with such good comments as these, the tangents are welcome!

If it's M.Stevens' dogs we want, we are talking about a mix of training in both the above connotations. From my reading of "Grizzly," it seems clear that his dogs received careful instruction as well as plenty hard labor. There was ample room also for Patrick's noted on-the-job-training, but with bears substituted for groundhogs!

I think every working animal (dogs and hawks certainly, but probably horses and everythng else) requires a mix of instruction, work and random experience. My observation with regard to the human variable is that we must provide wholly for the first two parts of an animal's education, and enough opportunities for the third to let it put the pieces together on its own.

Is that about right?

JohnnyUK said...

Here is my fourpennyworth on working dog conditioning based on a lifetime of partly trained working spaniels , and 2 more recent labs, which were specialy selected for breeding, temperament and confirmation - and loads more time ,as I am semi retired , so the dog is with me 90% of the day- I now know this makes a hell of a difference to the relationship .. .

It is axiomatic that Working dogs should be physically fit and selected for the activities required. I am now convinced that heredity plays a major role in how far you can go. Then you need basic obedience , and tons of time , encouraging natural instincts and traits by relevant training exercises , and 10 times as much praise as rebuke, BUILDING TRUST to a point where the dog will go when bidden unquestioningly , and persevere until called back.
I believe that magic bond , once formed is evidence of the historical link between man, as hunter, and the dog as partner, which has evolved and remains despite all the modern breeding fads and changes in our lifestyles.

Steve Bodio said...

One difference between hounds, sighthounds, terriers etc on the one hand and gun dogs and, say, police dogs on the other is that there is less training, though all the other stuff Johnny says pertains. The former breeds just do what comes naturally, though they need real experience and exercise to get good at it.

Of course they must come when called, stay, load in cars etc but their actual hunting is natural.

Curiously, my sighthounds are generally better natural retrievers than my spaniels were! I had to train them, and don't bother to train the tazis, but they retrieve anyway.

Covenant Giants said...

“Gregg can attest (to some frustration I bet)”

No frustration on this end.
The day Soo (my wife) and I met Matt for the first time he asked a couple of questions about obedience training and basic house manners, so I told him my best lies, the ones that I get paid to tell. Then he got wise and asked the real expert, which would be Soo.

When he started talking about working his whippet on sparrows, quartering, pointing and flushing...add honoring the hawk to this list...I said “sure, it can be done” but never in my wildest dreams figured that he was serious about it.

I like it when people call me to task and make me stretch a little (most of the time).

Rina was a shy little thing whose breeder had suffered under the winds of Hurricane Katrina. Good breeders, they were just dealing with a serious challenge and the puppies didn’t receive all the amenities they usually provided.
So Matt and Rina didn’t have an ideal start.

Matt did the leg work, he worked her in obedience enough to provide her with some security and develop a relationship with her. Then, he kept her in the fields, the woods and the parking lots (remember the toe nail) this is where her real education started. It was a very nice balance of many of the things that have been suggested here.
My help was limited to cheerleading from the sideline via the internet.

My last hunt with Rina and Smash was truly impressive. The temps were in the thirties, we had an ice storm on the way with weather advisories broadcast over the radio every thirty minutes. It had been raining the better part of the week and the temps dropped severely the day that Matt and Eric arrived.
For two days Rina worked like a seasoned pro, and produced enough birds (in front of some stylish points, even by bird dog standards) that Matt was forced to stop early on the second day because Smash was well over his top end weight.

Slow start, good season, heckuva a finish!
Onward and upward.

The next season can be yours Matt ;-)


Matt Mullenix said...

Now I've reached my season's goal: To become a Gregg Barrow "story!" Thanks Gregg.

That trip was a great one for a lot of reasons. But Rina's insistence on working through that awful weather will be a lasting memory for me. On that day, the hawk and I gave out before she did.

Kevin C. Paulson said...

Very interesting set of posts! I have never had an animal that I have been able to push to any kind of level of fitness and work. I do know however that on various hunts, I am starting to get to the point where I am not willing or able in some cases to do the kind of hunting I was able to do at age 21 and I am planning on getting back to that level of training and work ethic to achieve something close to that level.