It was a cold and dank evening in mid-December, but the fire crackled and popped soothingly in the fireplace. I held a glass of pinot noir in my hand, and periodically sipped a little of the delicious red wine while I slowly stroked Dixie’s head and contemplated the fire. The young springer snored reassuringly with her head in my lap. Every so often, she would kick a little, whimper under her breath, and chase a pheasant or two in her dreams.
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V
"On this particular Sunday, I had committed the unpardonable sin of closing the bedroom door with Dixie downstairs in Door's company, thus separating the springer from her well-earned nap on the bed. Unbeknownst to me, I would soon pay a terrible price for that indiscretion."
As Dixie slept, I reflected on the year, and what we had and had not accomplished. In the eighteen months since the young spaniel had come to live with us, she had exerted a profound influence upon our lives. She had wormed her way into our hearts with the tenacity of a wood borer. But it was not a totally pain-free experience. I chuckled softly to myself when I recalled the "flying Dixie" incident. In the early days, Dixie was prone to jumping up to greet us when she had absented herself from our presence for any lengthy period of time. Dixie defines "lengthy" as any time interval in excess of four or five minutes.
One Sunday afternoon the previous March, invoking one of the few privileges that middle age confers upon hardworking Americans, I indulged myself. Calling out to Door, my wife of almost thirty years, I said, "Honey, I think I am going to go upstairs and read for a little while." This phrase is my euphemism for "I am going to go to our bedroom, close the door, lay down on the bed, open my book, read one-half of a paragraph, and promptly fall into a very deep sleep." Dixie invariably accompanies me during these sessions of quiet contemplation and repose, positioning herself on the bed near my feet. This is no doubt to guard me from the hideous vampires, hobgoblins, and other Dantesque creatures that periodically inhabit my dreams - the product, my bride tells me, of an overactive imagination, too many horror movies, and periodic indigestion.
On this particular Sunday, I had committed the unpardonable sin of closing the bedroom door with Dixie downstairs in Door's company, thus separating the springer from her well-earned nap on the bed. Unbeknownst to me, I would soon pay a terrible price for that indiscretion. Reclining on the bed, I fell instantly asleep and was virtually comatose for almost two hours. Door, out of fear for my person she would later profess, but I suspect more out of concern that I had prematurely expired leaving her with a hefty mortgage, astronomical car payments, a son in a private college and no visible means of support, came to check up on me with Dixie in tow. She quietly cracked the bedroom door open as I groggily placed my feet on the floor.
Dixie bulldozed her way into the room through the partially opened door and ran toward me just as I reached a sitting position on the bed. Virtually somnambulant and not thinking clearly, I bent down to pet her head as she simultaneously launched herself in my direction while at a dead run.
The top of the now airborne dog's cranium impacted my right eyebrow with a crack and my head snapped back as if I had received a left hook from a youthful George Foreman. Close to blacking out and falling back on the bed, I am certain that I saw stars; I am equally certain that I do not remember seeing them. Dixie, now up on the bed, seized the opportunity to begin licking my face as I sought to recover from my daze. Door, insensitively out of step with my wounded state, was bent over in hysterical laughter - so this is what almost three decades of marriage does to spousal compassion. My right eye was throbbing and I was well on the way toward the most magnificent black, blue, and purple shiner of my life.
I was scheduled to give a presentation the next day to a particularly gregarious and rowdy group of retired fighter pilots, submariners and special operations forces "snake eaters" - many of whom I had known for years. With my black eye, I knew that this would be a significant challenge. Despite my fervent hopes that it would remain Sunday for a couple of weeks until my eye cleared up, Monday morning dawned as usual and I wended my way toward the inevitable show down with "the crew".
My slides were loaded, the computer was running and the overhead projector was humming as I stepped to the podium. As soon as one of the fighter jocks saw my eye, the roasting began. "Hey Schleider. What happened, man, your wife beating you up again?"
A former Army helicopter pilot, with one too many combat missions at tree top level under his belt, joined in the fray. "No, dude, I have it on the best authority that the spaniels are kicking his butt... they must be really tough... of course, how tough do you really have to be to whip Schleider’s ass?"
Chaos ensued and the ribbing was brutal.
My thoughts returned to the here and now. I sipped a little more pinot noir and again stroked Dixie's head. She stirred, stretched and fell back asleep with her head nuzzled into my side. I again looked into the hearth and watched a nice log burn through then collapse in a shower of sparks. I studied the spaniel sprawled on the couch next to me. We had made much progress with Dixie in obedience, retrieving, hunting, line steadying in addition to handling for blind retrieves and hunt deads. Two areas in which I had failed miserably were in teaching Dixie to heel and keeping her steady to flush and shot. In the latter category, I was back to square one following our experiences four weeks earlier in the South Dakota cornfields in pursuit of wild pheasants.
During the year and a half, I had learned much with respect to dog training - but I still had very far to go to become a competent handler and trainer. For every hour I spent working with Dixie in the yard and the field, I estimated that I had spent two hours reading up on the techniques I needed to master in order to train her successfully.
The trials and tribulations we experienced as we sought to impart to Dixie the fundamentals of "heeling" is the stuff from which legends are born. Door and I are avid walkers. We generally rise around 5:30 AM or so each weekday morning and three days a week we will take a four to six mile walk before I head off to work. We very much wanted Dixie to walk with us in the morning. Even before Dixie came to live with us, I had envisioned us walking in the crisp air of a cloudless Virginia spring morning with a perfectly trained spaniel at my side (off lead of course). With a quiet, barely audible command of "heel", Dixie would spring to my side and match our gait. As we walked, she would pause when we did to exchange early morning greetings with a neighbor with a wag of her tail,
to admire a blue bird building a nest with ears cocked or to enjoy the herd of deer that graze in our common area with an appreciative glint in her eye. This idyllic vision was shattered from the outset; the reality was "dogzilla" on an English slip lead.
"For every hour I spent working with Dixie in the yard and the field, I estimated that I had spent two hours reading up on the techniques I needed to master in order to train her successfully."
Dixie has always viewed the "heel" command as synonymous with the "get out" or "hunt 'em up" commands. In early October, not long after Dixie became part of our family, we rose early, downed a quick cup of coffee, got the slip lead and let Dixie out of her kennel. Some pre-dawn presence of mind caused me to put the lead on her prior to going out the front door. I opened the door with Dixie straining at the bit to get out. The young spaniel bolted through the front door dragging me with her. My right shoulder bounced painfully off of the door jam, while my left hand smashed into the storm door bruising heavily the fingers of that hand. For a full two minutes, expletives that would have caused a battle hardened Marine Corps Drill Instructor to blush issued forth from my lips with amazing fluency and precious little repetition.
As we got underway, Dixie nearly pulled my right arm out its socket as she lunged forward. Her front paws in the air flailing as she drove with her back legs in the pose I have dubbed the classic "spaniel strangle".
We attempted to walk two miles that morning. It was clear from the beginning that Dixie and I had divergent views of what constituted "heeling". Mine I have already discussed. Hers entailed quartering a foot or two in front of me, restrained mightily by the lead, seeking to trip me at every turn. On the way home from our soirée, she was finally successful. I went down hard on the sidewalk, narrowly missing a particularly thorny rose bush and hopelessly tangled up with the lead and the dog. Door was laughing so hard that she had to sit down on a nearby bench to regain her composure. I was mightily afraid that her laughter might have caused her internal injuries. Over the next year, we tried virtually ever gimmick, lead, leash, cord, collar, strap and halter ever conceived to help train a dog to heel properly -
the detritus of these unsuccessful experiments virtually fills one of our closets. For eighteen months nothing worked until I hit upon a solution that trained Dixie to heel, and heel very well, in three days... but that is the stuff of future stories.
I drained the last of the wine in my glass, rose from the sofa and tended to the fire. Dixie stretched again, hopped down and joined me next to the hearth. I sat down on the floor and she flopped over on her back patiently waiting for the obligatory tummy rub and ear scratch. While I was indulging the young spaniel who was now licking my nose, Door entered the den and in her soft, melodious southern voice asked, "Honey, would you like a little more wine?"
I glanced down at Dixie who was looking questioningly with those warm, liquid spaniel eyes directly into mine. Smiling to myself, I replied, "Sweetheart, that would be just great."
Author’s note: this is the sixth in a series of articles that chronicle both the development of a talented young spaniel and the rights of passage of an inexperienced trainer and handler.
Chip Schleider is an avid amateur spaniel trainer and upland game hunter. He owns four dogs - one English springer spaniel and three English cocker spaniels. His English springer, Dixie, holds an AKC Master Hunter title, a UKC Started Hunting Retriever title and a NAHRA Started Retriever title. Chip is a marketing executive for a large aerospace company, and retired Army Lieutenant Colonel with a doctorate in international studies from the University of South Carolina. He lives with his wife Door and two of his gun dogs, Dixie and Arwen, in Great Falls, Virginia. His oldest son, Christian, is an Army Captain who has just returned from combat duty in Iraq. His youngest son, Alexander, attends the University of South Carolina.
Chip is the co-author with Tony Roettger of Urban Gun Dogs: Training Flushing Dogs for Home and Field - copies of which can be purchased through the Spaniel Journal Bookstore. He also writes frequently for journals catering to gun dog training.