With the heart of bird-hunting season fast approaching, a fellow's thoughts turn to dogs and all they bring to the mix. A dog can make a hunt or ruin it, but of one thing you can be sure: If your dog does well, he's a natural; if he doesn't, it's all your fault.
So it pays to give your pal a little refresher before setting out, and I was pleased to arrange a morning outing last week with big Dan Rice, who runs Braveheart Kennels at Point of Rocks.
Braveheart is a multifaceted operation with dog training and boarding facilities, guided upland bird and waterfowl hunting, shooting lessons and game birds for sale. What makes it unique is the location, just an hour's drive from the District. Better yet, Rice has access to hundreds of acres of farmland along the Potomac even closer to town in upper Montgomery County, where he runs most of his hunts.
It was there we met in the dark before dawn last week to set out goose decoys on the last day of Maryland's early resident Canada goose season. Rice, a burly, bearded guy who worked construction before a motorcycle accident knocked his right arm out of commission six years ago, brought along his best Labrador retriever, 2-year-old Mango, and I brought my semi-trusted 3-year-old, Nellie.
"I'm going to leave Mango in the truck so I can work your dog," said Rice, who fairly brims with confidence. When he pulled out a small, collapsible, camouflaged doghouse for her to hide in while we tucked ourselves away in portable blinds, my only thought was, "Good luck."
"Kennel up!" he said. She looked at him as if he'd just stepped off a spaceship. Clash of the titans. This was going to be interesting.
Rice gave Nellie a nudge with his boot and hissed at her, at the same time mildly zapping her with the electronic training collar. To my amazement, she glowered briefly, then dropped her tail and slipped into the tiny tent without a fuss. And there she stayed.
Geese didn't fly much on a bright, warm morning, but we managed to bag two and the dog acquitted herself well -- far better, in fact, than she ever has for me. It was clear that in a few minutes, Rice had established clearer mastery over her than I had in three years. How did he do it?
"Most people don't understand that dogs are pack animals," Rice said later. "The only thing they care about is who's the boss. If you won't be, they will. Once they understand you're the boss, they're happy to do what you tell them. They will not challenge the boss, as long as they know who it is."
When the sun rose and a cool breeze picked up, we packed up the goose gear and headed to neighboring grain fields to work awhile with Mango and Shelby, a client's German shorthair pointer, on pen-raised upland birds.
In the light of day the farm stretched almost as far as the eye could see, rolling fields of sod interspersed with sorghum, soybeans and other small-grain crops. To find such a massive, open expanse just a few miles from jumbled Gaithersburg and Rockville was mind-boggling, a reminder of how valuable Montgomery County's unique agricultural preservation program is at protecting what little is left of rural landscapes in the D.C. suburbs.
Rice set out a half-dozen chukar partridges in the thick cover of a sorghum field, then let Shelby loose to find them. Pointers and setters, unlike retrievers, are trained to sniff out birds, then lock motionless on point, leaving it to the hunter to walk in, flush the bird and take a shot. A bird dog quivering on point is a thing of rare beauty and Shelby, who is just 2 years old, did not disappoint.
Of course, finding pen-raised birds where you put them down in a shooting preserve is not like nosing out wild birds in the wild. Rice conceded the experience and the challenge are not the same, but defended it on grounds that wild quail and pheasant have all but vanished from these parts, and you can't train bird dogs without birds.
After Shelby did his thing, Rice brought out Mango, whose upland obligations are quite different. Retrievers are mostly used to find and retrieve downed waterfowl, but some upland gunners also use them as "flushing dogs," to rout out pheasants and the like from deep cover. The idea is to turn the dog loose, then whistle it to a stop when it "gets birdy," meaning it grows agitated and excited as it gets close to a bird.
Rice put out a half-dozen cackling pheasants, then turned Mango loose to find them. Once again the process worked as advertised, though a flushing dog proved harder to read than a pointing dog. You have to know the dog well enough to tell when it's getting birdy as opposed to just running around for the sheer joy of it.
In the end, only one pheasant managed to get away, and good luck to him with the red-tailed hawks hovering nearby.
Rice and I repaired to his kennel at Point of Rocks to sip iced lemonade and discuss the wonderful world of dogs. He trains all types, he said, and reckons the biggest problems he encounters with house dogs and hunting dogs alike are lack of exercise and overfeeding.
"Bad behavior is largely due to lack of exercise," he said. Dogs that do nothing but sit around all day, then go for a 15-minute walk on a leash are bound to flip out and start gnawing shoes and peeing on the carpet.
As for obedience training, he said it's more about training the master than the pooch. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, it's the owner that needs the training, not the dog," said Rice.
Right. Nellie -- get over here!
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Braveheart Kennels has a Web site, http://www.braveheart-kennels.com , or can be reached by phone at 301-874-1785.
Mango, a 2-year-old Labrador retriever, delivers a downed pheasant to dog trainer Dan Rice at a farm near White's Ferry as shotgunner Mike Bailey looks on.
Photo Credit: By Angus Phillips For The Washington Post Photo