Like I stated in my intro, I knew I had something different from any other GSP I’ve owned from the beginning with Sue. At 9 weeks old, he was already not only SWIMMING in Lake Michigan, but also retrieving better than some adult dogs I’ve seen. He has been incredibly bold and work driven from the beginning. He came home with me at the end of June, right in the middle of our NAVHDA training season—our chapter gets together every Monday night to keep our bird dogs sharp in the of season. I started taking him out to NAVHDA training nights soon after, where he got to hang out in an Xpen and get beat up by his sister Rosie, meet lots of other dogs and pups, and hear gunfire in the background while having a ball so as to equate gunfire=happy times from the get go. Ozzy, while certainly not my first time training a dog by any means, was my first foray into hunting and pointing dog work. I didn’t expose him to birds until he was over a year and I think that’s one mistake I’ve learned from him. I don’t believe in following any set timeline in training but rather reading each individual dog and going at the rate that suits them depending on their confidence, how they are progressing, and how much pressure a dog can take. But, I do think the earlier a bird dog is exposed to actual birds the better.
Sue has shown from the beginning a lot more hard headedness than his sire. One of the first nights out NAVHDA training, we put a crippled bird in the pen with he and Rosie, and they about lost their minds. In fact they got so amped up they didn’t want to share and we soon had to take the bird away. Next training night, I played a little retrieve with a dead bird and Sue had no hesitation in picking it up and bringing it right to me.
We then introduced him to a live bird on a string, to let him chase it and build his interest and prey drive. Again, more bold puppy with no hesitation whatsoever. I think we only did this once or twice with him before hiding a bird for him and taking him out to see what he would do. Now, with pointing dog pups we like to put a wing on a string for them when they are little for cute pointing pictures, but that’s not real pointing. It’s sight pointing. Here’s how it REALLY works: a bird dog goes out on a mission, following his nose and scenting the air, and when he hits that bird scent, a solid scent cone, his instinct locks him up and freezes him into a point. I never get tired of seeing my dogs lock up on point; it really gets your heart going to see. But it doesn’t get much better than a 12 week old puppy going to work for his first time in the field and locking up steady on his first bird. Goosebumps!!
He did such a fantastic job and was so naturally steady and so intense, we introduced the gun pretty quick. When I say steady, this little pup was holding point until I kicked the bird up. The gun is introduced in this manner: when the bird is flushed and the dog is chasing the flushed bird, a starter pistol is shot in the opposite direction. This way the dog associates something positive with the sound of gunshot. As the dog progresses you start shooting closer til eventually the shot is fired over the dog and once the dog is comfortable a shotgun is used (much louder than a starter pistol). Sue never even really acknowledged the gunshots so intent was he on his bird work. After a few weeks we were putting several birds out in the field and he was just cleaning up. It seemed a bit crazy to me, but I started thinking about getting him in a NA test. I had run his dad at about 14 months old….Sue was 4 months. But he was doing such a phenomenal job, it seemed silly to wait until spring when his training would have progressed further. This would TRULY be a natural ability test. So, I found an opening with the Ohio chapter where the Invitational is held, took a deep breath, and sent my entry!
With only a few weeks to go, we had a little bit of work to do. Now, the Natural Ability test is really supposed to test exactly that, and dogs should not be over trained for the test. I agree with this assessment, so I really only had Sue on birds 2 or 3 more times after I sent his entry in. However, what does need some training work is the tracking phase. I start pups on hot dogs, beginning with a pile of cut up pieces and a short trail of pieces. The dog self rewards putting his nose to the ground, pretty simple. Do that just a few times, and then I take a hot dog on a string and lay a track, starting with a couple of cut up pieces and ending with a jackpot of pieces. I do this a few more times and keep building the distance and duration. I think tracking behavior is naturally there in these dogs, but it needs a little bit of molding and these simple steps do so. When I bring the pup to the initial pile I give the cue “track” so they learn that means nose to the ground search. After a few times of this, since Sue was so bird driven already, I set a few drags with dead birds, starting the track with pulled feathers. Worked like a charm, and he even brought the birds back to me, which was pretty impressive for a 4 month old pup. Like I had done with his dad Ozzy, the day before the test I got a live pheasant to run a test track with him so he did it at least once before the test, and encountered pheasant scent. I didn’t quite get enough flight feathers off the bird before I released him so he did a lot of bouncing and attempts at flying and was long gone when I brought Sue out. He put his little nose to the ground and worked the scent to the fenceline where the phez had disappeared. I was happy. I felt more than ready.
My mom decided to accompany me to the test, and I’m so glad she did. She got to see a really cool show put on by Sue. Got to the test bright and early, and as is usually the case with most dog events, it was hurry up and wait. Sue was next to last in the running order. Field work was first, with a break to cool the dogs as they came out of the field, then they would go right to the phez track after their field portion. When it finally came to be little Sue’s turn, it was quite warm out. It’s the case in most bird dog events that the only way to see the action is a walking gallery if that’s permitted. As I was the handler and asked the judges, my mom was permitted to walk the field with them. I turned Sue loose and he went to work, quartering the field but the judges told me there wouldn’t be anything til we hit the turn way back in the field. Sure enough, we hit the turn and little Sue locked up, staunch and steady. The judge had me kick up the bird and Sue chased for a second but was easily called back. Now it’s my understanding that most judges only need to see 2 or 3 points, but these judges seemed to be entranced by this steady little pup. They let him point 6 or 7 birds! One of the judges said to my mom “this made my whole trip down here worth it, to see this little pup clean up this field.” Finally, they told me to leash him up as they needed to leave a few birds in the field for the last dog. Needless to say, I was so goddamn proud I thought I was going to burst!
Sue got about 10 minutes to cool down, get some water, and get his head on straight for the phez track. Now, I will say, I am not a fan of how they set these tracks. They were using an expanse of pretty close cut grass that edged up to some cover. The phez was turned loose aimed towards the cover. All that is fine, but I don’t believe there was enough distance between tracks. We waited in the blind for our turn (neither handler nor dog is permitted to see the phez) and when we were called up I was shown where the phez had been released. Sue put his nose down and went to work. No further commands are allowed once the dog is turned loose. Sue was working what I assume was his track pretty well but the wind was swirling around and I think he got whiff of the next old track over and looped out to it. He kept this up for a bit…he would come work his track and run big loops over to the last track. He finally broke into the cover where his had been and the judges had me call him in. I am glad they didn’t let him keep working til he had the phez because they can often spike and scratch a young dog and burn them on phez.
The judges huddled up and seemed to be in a heated discussion for quite some time. I think they were really having trouble deciding how to score Sue on that track because while he didn’t stay strictly on his it was clear he was working other scent and not just farting around out there. He worked both scents independently of me and didn’t quit until I forced him to. I was very happy with his work and ready for whatever score the judges gave me. We then broke for lunch before moving to water. All this time there were also 3 dogs running in Utility. I did not get to see their field work in the morning but was happy we were going to get to watch all their water work so I could get a better idea of what to train for.
Utility dogs went first at water, with the heel course up to the line, steady in the blind, and a single mark with shot distractions. Then it was time for the Natural Ability dogs. I had no qualms about this portion of the test whatsoever. The judges are looking for the pup’s desire and willingness to swim. You are given a bumper to throw, not too far, and send the pup. It’s not about the retrieve but all about swimming. This is done twice. If a bird has to be used to entice a dog in, points are deducted. After the water is done, the judges give the dog a physical exam. Sue went in boldly for both of his retrieves, and retrieved to hand to boot! The physical exam was comedic—the judges made fun of his testicles, calling them little peas. I said well he’s still a baby AND he just went in some cold water! They couldn’t give him a real mouth exam either as his mouth was still full of puppy teeth.
As is common in dog events, we had a lot more waiting. The Utility dogs still had two rounds to go—the duck search and the drag. I was happy we got to watch the duck search because I had not yet gotten to observe one. The most successful one was a dog sired by Sue’s granddaddy Cash, so kind of an uncle? After the duck search each Utility dog ran the drag which went very fast. It was then time for the judges to tabulate all of the scores, which takes some time, but is rather nerve racking after waiting all day. Finally, they gathered us to announce scores, starting with the Utility dogs. No Prize I’s in Utility, but it’s a very hard test. Most had been knocked in the field portion. I knew Sue had done well but was overjoyed to hear he had earned a 110 out of 112 possible points for a Prize I! He was only nicked on the track where he was given a 3 out of 4, just like his dad.I could not have been more proud of this young guy, earning the same scores as dogs over a year old! He was in the top 20 youngest GSP’s to earn this kind of score 🙂
Having proven his natural instincts and breeding, we spent the fall going on a few hunts. I did not take him duck hunting as he was still a little guy and that can be some intense gunshots to expose a young pup too. I also just let him be a pup and do puppy things, and when winter rolled around we started on some basic obedience work and the next portion of my blog—the clicked retrieve and HRC work!