NEAR GRAND FORKS, N.D.-Little Gimma knows the drill. Fetch the frozen pigeon when the gray-haired man with the gentle voice throws it and then get showered with praise.
It's all part of the game for the 5½-month-old British yellow Labrador, a first step down the road to becoming a well-rounded pet and hunting companion.
"Go get it. That's a girl, bring it here-good girl, honey!" the man says as the enthusiastic pup brings him the frozen pigeon.
He throws it again, this time a little farther, and the game continues.
"Good girl, bring it here," he says. "Good girl, sweetheart!"
Gimma clearly enjoys the game and the praise that follows.
And so it went Tuesday when gun dog trainer John Staley of Grand Forks put little Gimma through the paces on his 160-acre training site. Owner of Big Sky Kennels, Staley, 67, retired in June 2013 as director of the Grand Forks Park District and these days devotes much of his time to pursuing his passion: training flushing dogs such as British Labs and springer spaniels.
You might say Staley has gone to the dogs-but in a very good way. There's nothing like watching a young dog figure out the routine of picking up a bird's scent, finding the bird and then retrieving the bird after it's been shot, he says.
Staley laughs, using words such as "fanatic" and "obsessed" to explain his passion.
"For me, it's euphoric," he said. "That's why I've gone totally crazy. It just runs my life."
Staley even raises pheasants, quail and ducks to use as part of his training regimen.
"It's terrible," he said. "I wouldn't buy a lake cabin. I wouldn't buy a boat-and I love to fish-because I'd never use it. I'm obsessed."
With fall hunting seasons approaching-grouse and waterfowl seasons begin in September and pheasant hunting follows in early October-Staley offered some tips for hunters to get their canine companions ready for fall.
He also demonstrated field training techniques both with Gimma-he's training the pup for a family in New London, Minn.-and Kodiak, an 8-year-old British Lab Staley says is one of the top three dogs he's ever owned.
As a hunter and trainer, Staley says he favors the British dogs because of their genetics. In the case of British Labs, that means a gentle dog that weighs less than 80 pounds and has a natural retrieve and a soft mouth.
American Labs, he said, are bred for size and speed, often at the expense of retrieving ability.
"I just like the British dogs," Staley said. "I like the fact they're bred for traits where a dog would be really calm in the house but then also would get in the field and-boom!-you'd have a field dog."
Gimma already is showing her potential as a field dog.
"She's used to chaos-lots of kids and lots of friends running through the house," Staley said. "She's a family girl."
For hunters preparing their dogs for fall, it all starts with conditioning and re-establishing rapport, Staley says. That's especially true with dogs that haven't encountered a hunting scenario since season ended last December.
"What I always found important is the dog has to get reacquainted with the fact they've got to give the bird up," Staley said. "Even dogs that are well-trained, I find they get sticky mouths, they want to keep the bird and they want to start running out ahead to get the birds."
Staley says he tries to balance what he calls the "natural wolf" in the dog-the instinct to hunt-with its ability to be trained.
"You need to re-establish the rapport in the relationship that the downed game is the hunter's, but it's a partnership," he said.
Frozen pigeons are a good starting point, Staley says, and more enticing for dogs than a throwing dummy. A number of people in the region raise pigeons for fancy, Staley says, and hunters should be able to find birds by looking through the want ads.
Eventually, he says, dog owners can transition to live pigeons or live game birds.
"You can fix just about any problem in a dog with wild game," Staley said.
If a dog wants to run ahead, Staley says he'll "roll in" a bird, tossing it into the air while blowing a whistle to get the dog's attention and draw it back to make the retrieve.
"They come back around when they find it, and they found it next to you," Staley said. "Their experience to the hunting season is always the bird's out ahead, so that's why they run out ahead. They're running ahead to get the bird."
Again, though, there's a balance, Staley says.
"You don't want to overtrain dogs to the point where they're robots and they're afraid to move," he said. "On the other hand, they can't run wild all over. What I find is the dogs can find birds, smell birds and retrieve downed game better if they're not over controlled."
Giving dogs the practice with real birds and reacquainting them with the routine will make for a more enjoyable hunt once season begins.
"If they're steady or if you can get them sitting, then you can play games with them-you draw the dog's attention back to the hunter," Staley said.
Staley also avoids electronic shock collars in his training routine.
"They work, sure," he said. "But I could go into business today and make a lot of money if I put out my shingle and said my business plan was fixing screwed-up dogs from electric collars. They're everywhere. It's a brutal tool that sends a message, and if you don't know what's in the dog's head at the time you punch that button, they can get scared of game, they won't touch a bird and they won't hunt."
Staley said he "straightened out" three dogs last year that had been affected in a bad way by electronic collars. The key, he said, was using live game and positive reinforcement.
"I turned them totally around because I'm using live game all the time," Staley said. "That's why I keep all these birds. Live game and using a positive influence to get them to do what I want and bring out the wolf."
This time of year, Staley says hunters should be working their dogs two to three times a week. Get the dog in the habit of staying close, he says, and "roll out" the occasional frozen bird or bird with clipped wings if the dog starts to stray.
"Using those positive reward-type techniques is a good thing to be doing now," he said.
So is getting the weight off, Staley says, a recommendation hunters also should heed.
"A good thing I like to do is take your bicycle, go out here on one of the wildlife management areas where you've got a prairie trail, you ride the bike and the dog runs along with you," Staley said. "That way, you're getting exercise, as well. It works great."
Tuesday afternoon, Staley put Gimma through a short training session with both frozen and live pigeons. He also gave the young Lab her first exposure to the noise of a gun.
He started by unkenneling Kodiak and throwing a frozen pigeon for the veteran and the novice to retrieve and get the competition going.
After a couple of throws, Staley put Gimma on a leash about 50 yards away, forcing her to watch while he threw the pigeon for Kodiak to retrieve, shooting a noisemaker pistol at the same time.
Gimma was so focused on the bird she didn't even notice the sound of the gun. Eventually, Staley will work up to .410, 20 gauge and 12 gauge shotguns as he gradually moves closer to the pup.
"Go from about 50 yards to 25 yards," he said. "The next day, start at 30 and go to 15. The next day, start at 20 and go to where you're next to the pup.
"All the time watch the pup's ears. If it's watching all the time, it's so jealous the other dog is getting the retrieve it doesn't care about that gun. On the fourth day, you hold the other dog back and send the pup. Give him about three retrieves with the gun."
It's a laborious process, but a gun-shy dog is useless for hunting, Staley says.
"I'm running across so many people that have created gun shyness in dogs," Staley said. "Don't just go out and buy a puppy and go out there and shoot a bunch of rounds. It's so scary. Once you've got a gun-shy dog, you can't fix it."
Staley keeps his training sessions short-20 to 30 minutes-but sometimes trains a dog more than once a day. Heat also is a consideration now and early in the hunting season. Keep the dogs watered and give them a break if they start to show signs of stress such as listless behavior.
Think of the dog as a partner and use its energy and expertise judiciously, Staley says, and the results will be rewarding both in the field and at home.
"It should be a pet, too," he said. "In my opinion, you're missing out if you don't get the whole package. You can get the family pet that's fun to be with the eight or nine months of the year you're not hunting.
"Why not have the full benefits of having the animal that you really like? That's what we go for and we've got them; they're there. They've been bred for that."