The Transition from Puppy to Derby
The transition from puppy to derby is a little different in the cover dog trials than elsewhere in the field trial world. If you show up at a fall derby stake with a future horseback shooting dog than it better be broke. It doesn’t matter what the Guidelines say or what you can find in any written criteria, today’s derbies in the horseback world and released bird walking trials are not going to win if they are not broke. In the cover dog world, when we run the derbies on wild birds there is still the tradition of placing exciting derbies that are not yet broke. That said, for the most part they darn well better be staunch and since wild birds are not usually right along the trail, your dog needs to stay put while you find it. One caveat here, if the judges are splitting hairs between two derbies where everything else is equal, they will probably give the nod to the derby with more finished bird work, but it is extremely rare that you get to that point when judging.
If you are preparing a young dog to run in the fall derby stakes, you need to know what most judges are looking for. Most of the people who judge cover dog derbies want to be excited by what they see. They want to see a young dog that is breathing fire, displaying great drive and application on the ground. The derby needs to attack the cover with enthusiasm while displaying lots of eye appeal when you do get to see him. The later it gets in the fall the more you’re going to see of the dog and the bigger it better run. Hopefully the derby will find a bird on his own, but it is not that unusual for cover dog derbies to be called back and placed on quail in a bird field.
So, my objective for the summer with LJ is to get him ready to win in the fall. At the same time, I am keeping in mind that he will only be a derby for a year but will hopefully compete as an adult for 6 to 8 years. I also have to keep in mind that he was a May whelp and won’t be two years old until his derby season is almost over. It is really important to try and figure out how far you can go with each young dog. Wynot Ace won his two championships while still a derby other dogs don’t break through at the top levels until they are 4 or 5. Some puppies are ready to be broke before the fall of their derby season others need more time. The trick is in knowing how fast you can go with your own dog. Most of the top cover dogs today are extremely smart dogs not just great athletes. Sometimes, a young dog will get a better read on its handler than vice versa. By this I mean that some dogs learn quickly how to avoid what you want them to do.
A Lab trainer demonstrated this point to me most graphically at a seminar I attended many years ago. He had a dog that didn’t want to submit and didn’t like getting hit with an e-collar. When doing some drill where the dog was supposed to take his cues visibly from the handler the dog would try to get out of doing the task. When the handler raised his hand with the transmitter in it, the dog would ki-yi like he was being beat to death before the handler even pushed the button.
That’s part of the reason that I let puppies develop naturally as much as possible their first hunting season. I think it gets them more ready for the formal training that will follow as they have learned the rudimentary parts of the job through experience. That is not to say I would let a puppy run completely wild and rip out birds for a year, but, like I stated in an early post, your puppy will stay with (for the most part) and hold most of its birds until you are close enough for a shot, you don’t have to put a lot of pressure on them that first season. You’re more likely to end up with a “happy” running dog if you can limit the pressure early on. On the other hand, if you have a dog that that doesn’t listen and rips out birds continually then you have to turn the screws. Yard work is my least favorite part of training dogs and I avoid it as much as possible but there are certain things you have to do. Handling and whoa training are the two fundamentals that you need to work on with any prospect. A little puppy that won’t listen will spend a certain among of time on a checkcord learning that “come” means come now not when you finish chasing butterflies or eating the flowers. When they turn on the checkcord before you have to give them a firm pull, you can transition to the collar. Once I have a young dog collar conditioned, they never run without one unless they are in a trial. You never know when you’re going to need it, the woods are full of distractions with fur and quills and there are days when even a multiple champion like Wild Apple Jack needs a little tune up. If you have to go back to the truck to get the collar, you have lost your training opportunity. People who brag about not needing a collar for their bird dogs are either lucky or liars.
When you are getting a handle on your dog you can also start working on whoa. I picked up a “piggin’ string” at a Rick Smith seminar years ago. Delmar turned them into “Wonder Leads,” by adding a couple of leather washers and selling them for about double what you can buy one on-line from a roping supply site (under $10 vs. around $20). They work great and you really don’t (and probably shouldn’t) need to say anything to a dog when you are first using the lead. The Smiths preach the Silent Command mantra primarily because most of get excited and give a dog conflicting verbal commands. What I do is start out silently just walking in the yard keeping the pup in heel and then stopping it. When it starts stopping when I do, I begin walking around it in a tight circle that allows me to stay in contact with the pup through the lead. Once the pup is responding quickly to the lead every time you can add the simple “heel” and “whoa” commands. Once the pup is getting the hang of this you can add an e-collar around its belly. Tony is a bigger advocate of the bellyband then I am but I will definitely use it with a pup/derby that refuses to get staunch and later when we are breaking a dog.
The big trick at this point as the pup transitions to being a derby is to start getting then reliably staunch and handling well while taking as little as possible out of their run. One thing you can count on in the vast majority of well bred field trial dogs is that they will most likely run bigger and harder when braced with an unfamiliar dog and handler as well as being followed by judges and a gallery. They are just hard wired to be competitive. So, if you let your pup run out on the very edge of control as you get ready for its derby season you can bet that its going over that edge when run in a trial.