Dixie: Chronicles of a Field Bred English Springer Spaniel by Chip Schleider
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI
Dixie watched the man wave his arm, his face increasingly red as he blew on the shrill whistle. "What is he trying to tell me?" she thought to herself. "He just threw a dummy to my right, and he won’t let me get it." Confused, the springer glanced over at Arwen, the little English cocker that was her constant companion. In truth, Dixie viewed Arwen more as a daughter than as a friend. Arwen needed constant grooming and mothering to keep her in line. But she proved no help as she absent mindedly ate grass.
As her mind wandered from the session with the man, Dixie realized that she wanted nothing more than to please him. However, she often had difficulty understanding what he wanted her to do. After all, they did not speak the same language. She tried to comprehend what was coming out of his mouth, but the best she could manage were a few simple words of human - a horrid language without any yelps, sniffs, snorts, barks, whines, or grunts to give it character. Although she could not understand this gibberish, she thought that she responded well to the tones and his body language. She knew when he was happy; she also knew when he was very mad at her.
"She tried repeatedly to tell him the error of his ways by walking on her hind legs with her front paws flailing in the air, but he steadfastly refused to understand what she was trying to say."
Dixie assessed the man as incredibly stupid, but in truth her limited experience with humans gave her no real comparison. This was a point that never escaped her - not that she wanted any other humans in her life outside of the immediate members of her den. Humans not part of the immediate family often evoked barks from a surprised and upset Dixie when they engaged in that distinctly human practice of pounding their paws on the door. Her man never seemed to understand her moods, body language, or her needs. He should have known just by smell that she needed to go outside for her personal business. By the same token, it should have been obvious that she was hungry or just wanted to go outside to play.
Despite his manifest and patently obvious shortcomings, she loved him very much. She also was deeply attached to the woman and the two younger males in the man’s pack as well. Their den was always warm and the food was regular, if not plentiful - she invariably felt that she and Arwen should have more food, and often sought to supplement their meager portions with food from a hidden food bin. The humans had a peculiar habit of hiding food under the counter; it seemed to the springer that they thought it an unwanted by product of the sumptuous meals that the humans consumed. Several times she and Arwen had managed to pull this cache of food out of its hiding place while her human family was out of the den; when they returned, there was much red-faced yelling and gesturing.
The best part was the big stone fountain in the little room that had such cool water. The man would often touch something on the fountain and suddenly the water would disappear. Why would the man want the water to go away?
While she waited for the man to calm down and tell her simply and specifically what he wanted her to do, she let her mind wander back to when she was a puppy. When she had first come to live with the man, she had tried patiently to learn about her new family and the things they expected from her. One of her first lessons, she recalled, was trying to figure out what the man wanted when he said "hup" or blew a single note on that whistle of his. He would repeat that word and push her backside down on the ground and blow the note. She thought that a little strange, but soon she got the hang of it to where he no longer had to push her rump down. Was this a human game?
It was easy to "hup" when in the evenings the man and his family stared at the box that made loud, unintelligible sounds. She watched through half-closed eyes as they stared transfixed at the lights emanating from the box. Dixie would often spend this time gnawing at her paw - a non-existent burr between her pads causing an imagined discomfort. But she found it extremely hard to "hup" when she was in the field running after a bird that was trying to escape. She loved to find the birds.
She particularly enjoyed it when the man would make a bird fall out of the sky when his stick made noise. But it was really tough to let the bird fly off and "hup" when the man told her to do so. When she was younger, she did not understand why the man wanted her to "hup" when the bird was escaping. She figured she could just ignore him. When she did that, the man would run after her yelling, whistling and waving his arms. She really liked it when his face turned red - and it would turn very red. Once they played this game with one of the big birds Dixie had run after spending an interminable period in the small den that took them far away from home to places that held the birds she so dearly love to pursue. This time, the chase went on for a long, long time between rows of nameless tall plants.
The man had run after her, and finally caught up with her as many, many birds flew into the air. After he had grabbed the scruff of her neck as her mother might have done, the man fell down on ground and was breathing so heavily, that Dixie thought he might die. She truly had hoped that he wouldn’t die, as she genuinely liked the way he smelled. As in everything else, however, she finally caught on, because she wanted to make the man happy so he would make soft, pleasant sounds and stroke her fur. She knew that he was happiest when she brought him a large, beautiful, strong smelling bird.
Dixie found that she learned best when the man would do simple things and she could focus on a single sound from him or his whistle. Whenever he used too many sounds, she would get confused as to which of these strange sounds he wanted her to obey. One of the hardest things she had to learn, however, was how to walk next to the man. She was supposed to find the birds, and you cannot find birds while walking next to the man. They are always out in front in the bushes and the grass. He would say very loudly "hhheeeelllllllll", and that meant he wanted her to walk next to his leg. This was very dumb, she thought; so for a long time she tried to tell the man that she belonged out in front. He put a string on her neck, but still she tried to help the man understand where he was going wrong.
She tried repeatedly to tell him the error of his ways by walking on her hind legs with her front paws flailing in the air, but he steadfastly refused to understand what she was trying to say. One day both of them fell down when she ran around the front of the man while she had the string on her. It was great sport. The man made a bunch of loud grunting sounds; he even yelped. She had tried to lick his nose and mouth to tell him how much she enjoyed the game. But his face was a very dark red, and she realized he was not having as much fun as she was. Slowly she got better at the "hhheeeelllllllll" game, but she never really liked it.
Of all that transpired in Dixie’s life, the one thing she loved most was to run after something that the man had thrown, pick it up, and bring it back to him so that he could throw it again. She would - and could - do this all day long, had he let her. Dixie would do almost anything to pick up a dummy that the man had thrown. Soon she learned that when she did something that the man liked, he let her run and pick a dummy that he had thrown. She loved dummies so much that when the man took one out of the bag, she would jump into the air and yelp loudly to signify her joy. Dixie noticed that when she did this, the woman would sometimes run out of the house to share in the joy - her face was also red.
Dixie realized early on that she was truly addicted to birds. Her love of the chase was so great that whenever the woman would open the backdoor to let her out, Dixie would sail over bushes and search painstakingly for the birds she knew hid in the woman’s garden. After all, this is what she knew she was born to do. The woman would yell and wave her arms wildly whenever Dixie hunted the garden. What did the woman not understand about all this? Birds were meant to be hunted, found and retrieved. And Dixie was meant to find them.
Snapping back to reality, Dixie sought the man’s eyes. She always looked him dead in the eyes in the hope that they could convey his intent. In fact, the springer sought to connect as if by a séance might to this non-canine animal. She routinely would seek to stare him into understanding - alas, she failed singularly to connect with the inner core of the man. He held her gaze, and said slowly, "Oooooovvvvvvvrrrrrr", and gestured with one of his paws slowly to the left. Dixie now understood. "He wants me to go the first dummy he threw," she thought. "Well, why did he make it so hard?"
Author's note: this is the twelfth 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.
Part VII | Part VIII | Part IX | Part X | Part XI
Editor's note: the mark of a true dog trainer is an ability to understand the mind of their dog. It is hoped that Chip's article might stimulate other spaniel owners to consider their dog's thought process, develop a better understanding of their dog and ultimately, a better relationship.
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.