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Backing

    
Two views of a point. This pair of seasoned Vizslas have almost 20 years between them, and they know what they're doing. Click an image to see a larger version in a new window.
 
  
A Vizsla brace at work.
1. The dog in the foreground
has his nose on the bird.
The dog in the background
is watching the first dog.
 
What the backing dog sees.
2. Same point, but from
the backing dog's point of
view. The pointing dog
froze in this obvious
position, which tells the
whole story to both
hunters and bracemate.
 
When running a brace of dogs in the field, one of those two dogs is usually going to scent the game bird first. In the case of pointing dogs, that first dog should lock up in a classic point, and hold its ground until his handler deals with the situation. But what of the second dog? If she's away across the field doing other work, then so be it. But when the the bracemate is working near the pointing dog, it's just a matter of time before she realizes that her counterpart is standing a bird.

Dogs (such as wolves) in the wild have ancient instincts to work together and hunt as a pack. They know that if they rush in on their prey, they may very well spook it and lose their meal for the day. So there are some DNA-level habits at work when a bracemate comes up on another dog that's already on a steady point. The second dog will ideally see the first's stylish, head-high point, and immediately stop in her tracks, essentially pointing the other dog. It doesn't matter if she knows where the bird is, she will sense that the other dog knows, and if she has good field manners, she'll honor the first dog's point, and wait patiently while the drama unfolds.

In a true hunting situation, this behavior is critical. Consider:
  • You don't want the second dog rushing in and spooking the first dog's bird.
     
  • You may not even be aware that the first dog is on a bird, but the second dog's behavior can clue you in, and you can follow her stare to see where the first dog is standing his game.
     
  • When the pointing dog's bird flushes and is shot, you want to know exactly where every person and every dog is and what they're doing. That's much better than picking bird shot out of Princess's hide at the vet because she rushed in and jumped up at the bird just as the gunners did their business.
     
  • Encouraging (demanding, really) a solid backing performance from your pointing dog reinforces that all-important field relationship: she works for you, not for herself. If she didn't find the bird, it's not hers to work.
     
There's almost nothing more gratifying than watching a mature gundog decide, in the heat of the hunt, to come to a screeching halt and honor another dog's fine work. Maturity is usually the key, too. Younger dogs don't have the perspective to understand that the bird being worked isn't the last bird they'll ever see, and can rarely handle the pressure of watching another dog work that bird without some additional control or restraint. When things go right, though, backing bracemates are a joy to behold. With good breeding, maturity, and much practice, a bracement will honor not only the other dog's point, but also his fetch of the the downed bird without interference.

Solid backing is an important enough skill that it's a pass-fail issue in both senior and master hunt tests and field trials. If circumstances in a hunt test don't provide for a natural backing opportunity, judges will go to real trouble to set up a dog on point and arrange for each bracemate to be handled into the scene in a way that will test their honor. That process, and judges' decisions about how well the dogs handle it, can be among the most contentious issues in a hunt test. Preparing a dog (and her handler!) to deal with that pressure well can be one of the hardest, and most time consuming aspects of training a pup, but success in polishing an honorable dog is payment in full for the work.


 
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