Dog Days, Dog Nights

‘It’s an international organization. We promote the training and ownership of hunting dogs and hunting itself. We go out once a month and do training days and hunt tests. There are 50 members in our San Diego Chapter.”

That’s Ericka Dennis speaking. She’s an officer in the local chapter of NAVHDA (North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association). I wanted to know the dog count per member.

“Five or six. We have specific breeds [27] that are accepted into the club. They’re all pointing and flushing breeds.”

Having a hard time imagining a Descanso Field & Stream cover. “How is San Diego County for hunting with dogs?”

“It’s pretty difficult to find places to train. It’s hard to find a property that has a pond and [enough land for] dogs to run on. So, sometimes we pick our poison. We’ll go to Lake Elsinore, and then we’ll go to places that don’t have a pond so we can shoot birds for the dogs. Imperial Valley has all of it, so we try to go out there three times a year.”

“How did you train your dogs?”

“The dogs have a natural instinct to hunt and point. You have to teach them not to jump on the bird or run after the bird until it’s shot. We teach them to stop when they see a bird and be steady on point.”

“How do you do that?”

“We use the ‘silent method’ of training. It’s touch. You use ropes and things to hold the dog in place. It doesn’t hurt them, just stops them from moving. You don’t say anything to them. They learn, when they feel that stimulation around their flank, to stop. Some dogs never get it, and some pick it up quickly.”

“How do you teach the ‘Don’t rip the bird to pieces’ part?”

“Usually, that’s something you can’t teach. You want a dog that has a natural, what we call, ‘soft mouth.’ Be able to hold the bird and not mangle it.”

Dennis tells me she has four dogs — all Bracco Italiano — and the star is Regina, “a female who’s pretty spectacular in the field.” I ask where she begins training.

“You teach them to track a wounded bird. You get a dead bird and drag it through a field and then take them by the leash — there’s a little feather pile — and get them to smell the bird in their nose. Ideally you have someone else do the dragging so the dog is not following your scent. You put the bird out ten yards and say, ‘Track, track, track, track.’ And the dog runs off and gets the bird. Then you put the bird out 20 yards, then 30 yards, and you keep going out until the dog realizes when you say, ‘Track, track, track,’ that means there’s scent on the ground and, I have to find the bird.

I ask, “How does that work for a bird that’s flying, is shot, falls to the ground? There’s no scent on the ground.”

“That’s a little bit different. That’s a hunt, point, and retrieve sequence. You start by putting five to ten birds in the field. You let them go find birds [while you say] ‘Find, find, find, find.’ Keep doing it until he realizes, Wow, I’m going to find birds and this is fun. This is exciting.”

We chat about the mechanics of daily dog-trainer life. Dennis tells me, “The Department of Fish and Game puts on junior pheasant hunts every year in the Jamul area. A lot of people don’t have dogs, so I’ll go down there and loan my dog.”

“That must be fun.”

“Yeah,” Dennis makes a sweet laugh. “I do that almost every year. They’ll pair me up with a young person and his parents. We go out in the field, and I’m guiding my dog and guiding the kid. Most of the kids are very good shots. They know what they’re doing. The dogs find birds for them, we’ll flush, and they’ll shoot. Kids get to take the pheasants home, and my dogs get to have a little fun.”

“When you go out on a club outing, what makes a good day for you?”

“When a lot of people show up. We’re always looking for new members. We’re all about helping each other. You can’t go out and train your dog by yourself. You have to have two to three people helping you. You’re handling and training your dog and they’re shooting or putting the birds out for you, or putting ducks on the pond. We’ll go out with two, three, four people on an off day just to get extra training in. We rotate around. One person’s a gunner, one person’s the bird-planter, one person is the dog-handler.”

Want more information? Hie thee to sandiegonavhda.com.

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