By Eric Mathes
When I dropped off my young dog at the trainer in Illinois a few weeks ago, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I traveled back for a visit. I took my black dog Crash to a good friend of mine to spend the next six months training a few hours south of Chicago, near a town called Fairmount. Leaving work early last Friday, I made the near six hour journey south to see my partner in crime. It’d been almost three weeks since I’d dropped him off, which seemed much longer in the frozen Wisconsin winter. I wasn’t going to inspect the progress, as Crash hadn’t been there for long, but it was my only work-free weekend in March, so I thought I’d get in a little trip.
Crash is now six and a half months old and growing like crazy. After passing the five month mark, his legs started growing like little weeds. I started with this cute little pup, but before long had an uneven, lanky dog who was waiting to grow into himself. I really didn’t want him to grow to be a 75 pound monster, but only time will tell. His trainer was saying that he was growing a bit since I dropped him off, I just didn’t know what that meant.
As we pulled up the house of my trainer/friend Jon-Michael Rull, I jumped out of the truck with some hustle in my step. Jon-Michael greeted me in the yard with a beer and we headed to the barn to let some dogs out. As he opened the pen, I called Crash’s name and he came running over and about tackled me to the ground. We picked up where we left off again and played around a bit in the yard. Giving him a look over, Crash was starting to fill out his long legs with a little more mass, giving him a fairly muscular shape for a young dog. He look as healthy as ever and I was happy.
As I said, Crash has only been away for a few weeks and I began his basic training about a month before he had left. Upon arriving, Crash has been going through collar conditioning to introduce him to an electronic collar. He is a very attentive dog and has picked up new lessons rather quickly. Through collar conditioning and healing drills, Crash was also introduced to gun fire for the first time about a two weeks ago.
“Have you ever shot a gun around him?” Jon-Michael asked in a text message. Figuring there was a story behind the inquiry I called him right back. “Well, we introduced some shooting today,” he explained. “The first shot, from about 100 yards away from the dog, send Crash running under the truck.” We both had a good laugh because it’s all part of the game. Since then, Crash has accepted the noise in his daily training regimen and it’s on to the next lesson.
I woke up at about 6:30 a.m. the next morning and had to double check the temperature. I threw on my boots and headed outside with a cup of coffee in a balmy 34 degrees. It felt like an afternoon in May as I let a few dogs out to run. Soaking in the sunrise, I looked out onto the miles and miles of open farm fields. After a quick breakfast, we loaded the dogs and gear to head out to some nearby training grounds. We made quick work at an elaborate set up in a big grass field neighboring a river bottom. The setting was pristine compared to the winter desert in Wisconsin and I spent the day breathing in the warm air.
Gun dog training set ups can range from simple to very complex. Our set up this day would offer a variation of challenges for dogs of all skill levels. After watching a few experienced dogs run through the set, it was Crash’s turn to pick up birds. I was eager to go through the motions with him as I let him out of his dog box.
His young age is apparent, fueled by desire and undiscovered instinct. I heeled him and grabbed a shotgun from a stand and loaded it. Sitting at my side in the holding blind, Crash looked up at me with confidence that he knew the drill. I looked down and nodded back. I walked Crash to the line and sat on a short stool. My young dog heeled and sat on my left side as he has learned to do and looked out ahead for his first bird. We would run four, single marks ranging from 50 to 200 yards. He would do each one individually and would get some help if he lost his way. The game at this stage is all about confidence building and positive reinforcement.
As I fumbled a few shells into the shotgun, Crash sat and waited. His patience is astounding at a young age. Ready, I called for the first bird to be tossed by the electronic thrower and shot in its direction. Keeping an eye on the dog, I hold his long lead line with slack in case he makes a break for it. After I shoot, as the bird is falling, I reassure Crash with a sit command. Willingly he accepts and waits. I call his name clearly and he fires off the line. His charge excites me and I couldn’t be happier to see him run with such eagerness. Crash hits the birds and picks it up quick. I whistle for him to return and he makes a bee-line back to me. As he runs back I send him as much praise as I can to let him know that what he just did was amazing. Happy dog, happy man.
Without much hesitation, Crash heels again at my side and we eye the next mark, running through each of the next three birds without a major correction He’s right where he needs to be and ready for the next step. I left shortly after our training session that day with a feeling of excitement for the next few years to come. It’s not only a few month process, but a long journey that we will both make together. I look forward to checking in again next month to see where his progress has taken him. Crash is a great dog and I’m very happy to have him.