Dixie: Chronicles of a Field Bred English Springer Spaniel by Chip Schleider
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII | Part VIII | Part IX
"Damnit, Dixie," I yelled at the errant springer, "get over here!" I was mightily frustrated, and more than a little put out. Dixie had performed superbly in South Dakota, but when we moved on to Kansas it was if she had completely fallen apart. In one run of a woodland section, she had hunted completely out of control, chased a cottontail half way to kingdom come and completely blown off my commands.
After the unbelievable pheasant hunt in South Dakota I wrote about in the last edition of the Spaniel Journal, I had driven to Dodge City, Kansas to meet up with Randy Jahnke and Dan Jones, two Lutheran pastors who share my passion for upland game hunting over spaniels. It was two days after the opening of quail and pheasant seasons, and toward the latter days of dove season, when Dixie, Arwen and I pulled into Randy’s driveway. The bird hunting forecasts for Kansas looked extremely good last year. And with three different species of upland game birds in season at one time, I was thrilled with the prospect of hunting quail with the two spaniels.
Although I had shot quail over Dixie at a local game preserve in Virginia years ago, it had been a long time - several years in fact - and I was not certain that she would remember that quail were actually part of the upland game bird family.
On a beautiful November Monday morning we backed out of Randy’s driveway, our caffeine levels registering full on our internal meters. With the cold western Kansas wind at our backs, we drove toward the Arkansas River. In this part of the world, the Arkansas River (in Dodge City it is pronounced r-Kansas as a reflection of state pride) actually dips underground and follows the course of the dried surface river bed. Only during extreme weather conditions does the surface bed contain running water. The river borders some of the most fertile farm land in Kansas and the result is that this incredible habitat holds prodigious quantities of quail, pheasants and doves.
"Her eyes had that glazed look of a treasure hunter who just discovered a previously un-plundered tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh. It was bird lust - pure and simple bird lust."
About a mile or so from the river Randy pulled his pick up over into the circular drive of a long abandoned farmhouse centered in a heavily wooded parcel of land. Randy had suggested that we warm up on the farmstead before hunting a large strip of the Arkansas dried river bed. In years past, the farmhouse environs had held a goodly number of quail and pheasants who would feed in the adjacent fields then retire to pick their beaks and lounge satiated in the sheltering undergrowth of the wooded areas.
I elected to hunt Dixie initially and it was a mistake of the first order. Randy, who along with wonderful wife Barbara owns Kerygma Kennels, was hunting one of his excellent and well-seasoned English cockers on the left flank of the wooded area. Dan occupied the middle position while Dixie and I covered the right flank. Almost in unison we snapped breeches shut, both Randy and Dan hunting side-by-side 28 gauges while I carried my redoubtable 16 gauge. We gave the "get out" command to our spaniels. Dixie was wound tighter than new barbed wire on a spool and after the first couple of turns rapidly expanded her quartering range.
I hustled after her seeking to hold the springer in close. It was, unfortunately, to no avail. Not only did she increase her speed, but further widened her quarter as I frantically alternated between whistling and shouting at her to stay in close.
Barely visible, the springer ran into a group of about ten pheasants, flushing them well out of shotgun range. She "hupped" only momentarily, and then put up another couple of birds. I moved outside of the narrow wooded strip and ran along the edge of the field to catch up with Dixie before she could flush every bird in the wooded area. I called her to me, barely managing to get her under control. Her eyes had that glazed look of a treasure hunter who just discovered a previously un-plundered tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh. It was bird lust - pure and simple bird lust.
Realizing that I needed to regain some control over the deteriorating situation, I "hupped" the little springer, gave her some water, tried to calm her down and once again gave her the "get out" command. As before, she exploded off her "hup" and drove back into the woods. Whistling her to turn back toward me, she once again completely ignored my commands and hunted on her own. This was not looking good. Not looking good at all. In South Dakota she was a paragon of discipline. Despite challenging terrain and fields, Dixie had hunted in control, remained steady to flush and shot in the face of hundreds of flushing pheasants and made spectacular retrieves of downed birds.
In one day of hunting, she actually had trapped three live unshot and unhurt cock pheasants, reaching her legal limit - if such restrictions can be applied to canines. But in the wilds of Kansas, her bubble had burst.
The final straw was piled on the groaning camel’s back when she flushed her first covey of quail, broke briefly then flushed a cock pheasant just as we reached the end of the woodland strip. Although she remained steady when the rooster flushed, I was so busy trying to rein her in that I missed the quail with both barrels. The escaping cock pheasant added insult to injury. I was just reloading my shotgun when a cottontail flushed wild from the same cover that had contained the pheasant... and Dixie took off like a shot. Driving hard into the adjacent field, she flushed a couple of hen pheasants to the tune of my blowing whistle and rapidly reddening face.
Breaking off her pursuit of the rabbit, she turned and was smugly prancing back to me when I caught up with her. Lifting her off the ground, I marched her back to the spot from which she broke from the “hup” and deposited her derrière not too gently on ground, seeking to reinforce belatedly my "hup" whistle.
Recognizing that she was completely undone by the birds and the rabbit, I put the English slip lead on her and heeled her unceremoniously back to the thankfully not-to-distant Explorer. I lifted the back hatch, popped her back into her kennel and closed the door. I left her in the kennel to contemplate the nature and extent of her transgressions while I gleefully hunted Arwen. The diminutive and sometimes quirky cocker performed beyond my wildest expectations. She put up covey after covey of quail and quantities of pheasants. Our game bags began to swell.
In retrospect, I blame myself for the debacle. Dixie had been hunting the wide open spaces of South Dakota for almost a week, and I had allowed her to run a little too wide while she was quartering in the cornfields. My laxness in handling her had created the impression in Dixie’s mind that I was merely along for the ride; the springer wrongfully assumed that she could pursue game at will with little reference to my position in the grand scheme of the hunt. This was something that I would have to correct in our spring training sessions back in Virginia.
Later that afternoon after Arwen began to tire, I once again turned to Dixie for help. This time we were hunting in open ground along the edges of the deep, but bone dry, river bed. The springer had reflected heavily upon her sins and, with the contrition born of the truly repentant, settled once again into a hunting pattern that produced game for the table. The day was saved. That evening, after we had cleaned mourning doves, pheasants and quail, we toasted our success with an excellent single malt Scotch. Sometimes, a genuinely good dog will try our very souls. Maybe that’s the way it should be.
Author’s note: this is the tenth 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 deployed for his second combat tour 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.