by Grayson Schaffer | on November 2nd, 2011 | in Features
Ah, Josh, the old damnation by adulation trick. But let’s face it, you just can’t help talking about Labs.
As dogs go, I prefer the ones that can wear their mud, pull shotgunned ducks from the freezing marsh, and show up for drinks at Spago without so much as a bath. (No offense, Jack, but the blow-dried look is so Westminster.)
The beauty in a well-trained Lab—training is crucial, because without it they’re as crazy as any cur—is a go-for-broke athletic drive paired with a blessed off-switch. I’ve got two of them that sleep under my desk all day and go everywhere and do everything with me. The yellow weighs just 55 pounds and is tough, calm, and faithful. He holds out a paw for me to snip his nails and pull cactus spurs, and even Superglue a ski-edge laceration. The chocolate, Danger, is faithful.
He’s not obedient, but he’s by far the smartest dog I know. They say border collies can learn 150 words. A toddler can do that. Danger has taught himself how to open the fridge like he’s got opposable thumbs. He pretends like he’s just going to the kitchen for water, peeks around the corner to see if anyone’s looking, and then helps himself. I read somewhere that deception is one of the most advanced forms of cognition and that only humans and maybe one or two great apes can do it. It requires empathy—placing yourself in your opponent’s reality in order to outsmart him (me).
Labs also inspire empathy. That’s why Hollywood mints tear jerkers about them every few years. There’s a reason Yeller and Marley were Labs. They do the cute human things with their eyes. That and it’s a lot harder to make a thrilling scene about a boy and his dog going herding.
A light-framed field-bred Lab, can run like a husky—even Iditarod king Lance Mackey mixes some Lab genetics into his sled-dog lines—swim like a Newfy, and snooze like Homer Simpson. They do a lot of the same working-dog jobs border collies and Aussies are good at, but they excel at one in particular: hunting.
Despite being brought up in polite urban society and kept safely away from our one or two southern uncles, guys our age are finding their way back to hunting. I don’t really have hard numbers to back my claim, but easily half the guys I work with have taken it up in the last five years—most of them not having hunted with their fathers. And on this score, there just isn’t a more versatile hunting dog than the Labrador retriever. I’ve skied a lot of powder runs and kayaked some nice rivers, and I’m telling you: watching a dog you trained find a bird and then make a long retrieve after the shot is every bit as good.
by Grayson Schaffer | on October 24th, 2011 | in Features, Training
Some people have Burning Man. For the last two years, I’ve cleared my schedule and made the 17-hour drive north to a certain repurposed mine-foreman’s house in North Dakota. On the agenda for the week: pheasants. My editor recently asked me if I was really taking a vacation and driving cross-country just to kill things—again. To be fair, chasing ditch parrots, as the Nodakkers call them, makes at least as much sense as driving to a place that’s good for riding bicycles or kayaking down a freezing rocky river where you could drown, or any of the other things we do for fun.
The simple explanation, for the uninitiated, is that bird hunting is actually more about the hunting dogs—British Labradors for most of us—than anything else. Here’s an animal endowed by nature to run faster, jump higher, and smell more acutely than any human. And through years of selective breeding, patience, reinforcement, and, who are we kidding, the occasional profane outburst, a good Lab will put those inhuman abilities to work for the handler. Occasionally, when everything aligns perfectly—bird and gun and scent and dog—it can seem like the connection between retriever and handler is plain English.
It’s that connection that brings this same crew—most of them from Alaska—together ever year. We all have dogs out of Mike Stewart’s Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Mississippi, and we all do our best to train using the low-force, positive-reinforcement ethic that Stewart promotes. Getting together means getting a lot of good dogs together. When you turn 15 dogs loose in the same pheasant field, there’s either chaos or there isn’t. Mostly, there isn’t.
Here, then, are the (unofficial) rules of dog etiquette for people who take their gun dogs seriously—but not too seriously.
- Your dog might be the best dog in the field back home, but that likelihood lessens with each mile driven.
- Undersell your dog—always. He can speak for himself.
- Everytime you’re about to brag about your dog, stop yourself and complement another dog’s fine retrieve from the day, instead. Don’t worry, this is not a selfless act because,
- Only the underdog can overachieve. The best the overdog can do is meet expectations.
- If your dog breaks and steals a retrieve from another dog, you must berate your dog loudly. This is for the benefit of the other hunter and will have no effect on your dog’s behavior whatsoever.
- OK, now put a leash on him.
- Never give another guy a hard time about his dog. Believe me, he knows.
- Instead, refer to number 3: Acceptable: “That dog sure has a lot of drive.”
- When your dog honors, then makes a long retrieve through heavy cover, and returns with a lightly wounded bird, you’d better sound at least as happy as an eight-year-old girl who’s been given a pony for Christmas. (Not saying my dog has ever made a retrieve like this. But man, Jay, Duke sure makes those long falls look easy, don’t he?)
- When your dog leans against you, it either means that he’s trying to dominate you or that he has an itch he’d like you to scratch. Your call.
by Grayson Schaffer | on August 1st, 2011 | in Features, Training
According to the literature, dogs aren’t good at generalizing skills. If you teach your dog to rollover in one direction in the living room, teaching him to rollover in the other direction out in the yard will require starting from scratch. That’s what I thought about generalizing, anyway. Then I tried to put Danger on a diet.
A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that Big D was getting a bit wide in the midsection—probably as a result of knocking over his food bin a few times and New Mexico’s national forests and hiking trails being closed to prevent the rabble from torching the place. So I cut his rations back to one cup per day. That’s when the trouble began. Anybody who’s ever had a chocolate Labrador will tell you that they’ve got a wookie’s love of food. Danger will watch you out of the corner of his eye and knock over the trash if senses any inattention. I used to grab him by the ear or the hair of his chin and scold him, but lately he’s been simultaneously crying over his punishment and still leaning down to the floor to scarf a few more morsels before I can reach them.
Then, two days ago, he became self ware. I’d taught him to get beers out of the fridge as a party trick. To open the fridge, he tugs on a rope that’s tied to the door. But since he didn’t generalize the skill, he never thought to just tug open the fridge anytime he got hungry, which is all the time. But hunger is a great motivator of innovation. On Monday, I left him in his kennel in the yard but didn’t lock the gate with a carabiner. He flipped open the latch, ran around to the front door, shoved that open with his nose, taught himself to open the fridge, cleaned it out (including a pound of cheries), was still hungry, opened the door to the pantry, and ate five pounds of dog food.
My bad, right? I’d stupidly left the tug strap on the fridge. On Wednesday, with the strap gone, Danger presumably transferred what he knows about hooking a paw around the inside of a gate to pull the fridge door open. That was fridge heist number two—two more bricks of cheese and a pound of chicken. By this morning, he was opening the fridge when I was in the next room.
Since Danger has been on a diet, he’s eaten at least 12,000 calories worth of raw meat and dairy products while adding enough fiber (those cherries and a pot of black beans) to keep himself regular. But there’s a valuable lesson to all this: If you train while your dog is hungry, it’s going to make him smarter—or at least more determined to earn those treats.
by Grayson Schaffer | on January 25th, 2011 | in Features, Media
Today, Outside magazine and New Belgium Brewery (Fat Tire, Ranger IPA, etc.) teamed up for the spring launch of Mighty Arrow. Get on over to their page ( http://bit.ly/mighty_arrow) and post your dog pics and videos. They’ll donate a dollar to the Humane Society for everyone who gets involved. Here’s the video Cooper and I made for our contribution.
by Grayson Schaffer | on December 23rd, 2010 | in Features
Last week, Cooper and his cousin Henry took a trip down south to find some ducks in New Mexico’s Waterfowl Management Areas. There’s nothing like a calm, dependable buddy who’s willing to swim through ice water to bring home your dinner.
by Grayson Schaffer | on November 1st, 2010 | in Features, Things Dogs Wear
Just in time for the first snows and ski-resort openings comes the redesigned Ruffwear Cloud Chaser soft shell. This iteration of the classic canine warm-up retains the reflective piping and fleece-lined water-resistant upper. The critical improvements are in the bottom portion of the jacket, which is more ergonomic and made from a lightweight stretch material that will move with your mutt better than ever. And the snug-fitting collar and arm(leg) holes will keep snow from building up inside. $75
by Grayson Schaffer | on October 20th, 2010 | in Features, good eats
Keep an eye out for a new high-end dog food brand. Nulo (nutrition + love) uses whole meats like lamb, beef, salmon, and chicken bulked with brown rice. Danger and Cooper tell me it’s good food and their coats have definitely been shinier lately. Just don’t go to the store expecting to find Nulo on shelves. The Austin, Texas-based company is taking another shot at the online-only model that made the ill-fated sock puppet of Pets.com the poster child of the Internet bust. It’s actually a great concept. Unlike a lot of pet food that can spend up to a year on shelves, this stuff comes fresh to your door every month. Shipping is free on the first bag, and a 32-pound sack will run you about $60. Definitely worth a try.
by Grayson Schaffer | on September 27th, 2010 | in Features, Media, Small Furry Blog
So you think you’ve got big dog problems? Check out the small dog problems Steven Kotler, author of A Small Furry Prayer, which hits bookshelves this month, deals with on a daily basis. Kotler, who also wrote West of Jesus, and his wife, fellow author Joy Nicholson, moved from Los Angeles to Chimayo, New Mexico, a few years back to start Rancho de Chihuahua (www.ranchodechihuahua.org) as a sanctuary for small dogs. Amazingly, they’ve managed to preserve both their sanity and their relationship. The book is a sidelong look at the world of dog rescue as told by a novice—Kotler—who fell into animal activism by falling in love with an activist. If you’ve ever thought the world dog rescuers live in is probably a kooky place, Kotler and the bazaar culture of northern New Mexico don’t disappoint. When you put 30 chihuahuas and their L.A.-transplant rescuers in the black-tar heroin capital of America, crazy things are bound to happen. When I asked Kotler whether all of the stories—from the coyote that wanted to play with his pack to the altruistic lesbian dogs—he responded: Not only are these stories all true, but there are a dozen others that are even crazier. I didn’t include those because nobody would have believed them.
Read an excerpt of the book in Outside’s October issue and then buy it
by Grayson Schaffer | on August 12th, 2010 | in Features, Media
We’re headed to Vail August 21 &22 for our next Adventure- and Gun-Dog Seminar, based out of the Tivoli Lodge. Sponsors are undwriting most of the costs for this event, so it’s only 25 bucks. Round up your doggies and get to Vail! Call Cathy Stewart at (662) 234-5788 to sign up.
by Grayson Schaffer | on July 12th, 2010 | in Features, Training
Here, Mike shows you the right way to introduce your dog to watercraft in four easy steps. Remember, you and your dog should wear a life jacket. Ruff makes some nice ones for dogs.
by Grayson Schaffer | on June 16th, 2010 | in Features, Training, Video Clips
Stream crossings are often where your dog’s obedience will go off the rails. Usually what happens is you set foot in a creek and your dog bolts to the other side. If you’re lucky, you’re not in his way. We prefer to train for stream crossings so they happen in an orderly manner and you never get knocked down. To perfect a stream crossing, all you need is a rock-solid heel, where your dog knows that even though the terrain has changed, the rules haven’t.
by Grayson Schaffer | on June 7th, 2010 | in Features, Media
Mike and I spent the weekend doing Adventure Dog demonstrations at the Teva Mountain Games in Vail, Colorado. Here’s the daily round-up of the games, courtesy of Serac Adventure Films. —Grayson
by Grayson Schaffer | on April 17th, 2010 | in Features
On Saturday, I introduced Danger and Cooper to the curious world of hunt tests. Like other extremely specialized pursuits, hunt tests have their own peculiar language and cast of characters. I do my best to translate. . . Roll the clip!
by Grayson Schaffer | on April 8th, 2010 | in Features, Training
by Grayson Schaffer | on March 23rd, 2010 | in Features, Time Wasters
Not exactly a training tip for this week, but we had a lot of fun figuring out how to strap a camera onto Cooper without having it bounce around.
by Grayson Schaffer | on March 15th, 2010 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Training
by Grayson Schaffer | on March 9th, 2010 | in Features, Video Clips
Danger contributes some nice camerawork to our ski outing on Friday.
by Grayson Schaffer | on March 2nd, 2010 | in Features, Training, Video Clips
Last week, Danger and I got to hang out with the Telluride ski patrol and learn a few tricks. One that didn’t go as well as planned was Danger’s attempt to ride the chair lift. . .
by Grayson Schaffer | on February 18th, 2010 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Training
Here, I’ll use Cooper to demonstrate the stepping stones to a remote sit. Stopping a dog on the whistle is as important for skiing as it is for retrieving. Stopping your dog is the first step toward handling him—sending him left, right, and back like a football receiver.
by Grayson Schaffer | on February 10th, 2010 | in Features, Training
All dogs have the ability to swim underwater, but not all will. Here, we get Danger used to putting his head under in a controlled environment. All you need is a bucket and some jerky.
by Grayson Schaffer | on February 9th, 2010 | in Features, Training
This one is borrowed from horse trainers. Making right-angle inside turns forces your dog to watch your legs and make sure he’s in position to avoid getting stepped on. It’s kind of like a dance step. Practice often and your pup is bound to become a good partner.
by Grayson Schaffer | on February 8th, 2010 | in Features
Generally, digging dogs are a nuissance but I thought we should teach Danger to dig on command in case he ever needs to dig me out of an avalanche or help me burrow in for the night. How to do it: Bury some jerky in the snow or soft dirt. Show him where it is. Click him for digging down to it. Simple stuff. Just remember to click the actual paw stroke. I found that Danger would look at me and take one swipe at the dirt to test whether that’s what he was being clicked for. Fun stuff.
by Grayson Schaffer | on January 26th, 2010 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Training
Every dog’s got to know his name. That’s how your pup is going to know when it’s really his turn to heel, retrieve, or get on the couch.
by Grayson Schaffer | on January 5th, 2010 | in Features, Training, Video Clips
We’re going to keep harping on this point all winter. Dogs that get close to skis receive gaping lacerations. It’s just that simple. Here are three tips to help ease your mind and your dog’s pain. Nothing keeps me awake at night like the thought of skis cutting doggy tendons. You can see, even in this video clip that Danger and Cooper aren’t perfect. In the heeling part at the end, Danger crosses over my right ski and was very lucky not to have gotten cut.
Next time, we’ll work on positioning—teaching your pup when he should be at your side, when he should be a ski-pole’s length away, and when he should be behind.