Dixie: Chronicles of a Field Bred English Springer Spaniel by Chip Schleider
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI
As I have grown older, my body has conveyed significant messages to me in a language that I truly understand - pain. After a weekend working on the house following a particularly long and hard walk, a day hunting, training dogs in the field or just crawling out of bed, I find that the physical consequences of more than a half-century of extremely hard physical exercise has left me more than a little worse for wear. As preoccupied as we humans are with our own well being, we sometimes forget that our dogs age more quickly... and bear their aches and pains in silence. For me, it is purely a case of sticking my head in the sand.
Last November, as I stumbled out of a warm bed into a cold room during the last days of our annual South Dakota pheasant hunt, I noticed that I was not the only one slow to rise. Dixie too, it seemed, was having a difficult time crawling out of bed. The spaniel had hunted very hard the previous day and I could tell that she was struggling to open her red-rimmed eyes. Her paws still bore the dust of the previous day’s hunt through the cane, corn and milo fields. Slowly, the diminutive springer got to her feet and struggled off the bed. She was definitely moving slower than I had seen her move in years. It was then I realized that Dixie was suffering the same symptoms that I felt. For the first time, I realized that she was growing older, and it came as a real shock.
"I have found that training a flushing dog to hunt under control is more about training oneself than the dog. Each dog a person trains adds to the general body of knowledge the trainer possesses,
but one’s education is never, ever complete."
Dixie and Arwen are in excellent physical condition. Door, my wife of many years, and I rise early and walk between four and six miles each morning with both dogs at a quick pace. I faithfully exercise the two canines in the pond when the weather is warmer - in addition to maintaining the early morning walking schedule. When there is sufficient afternoon light, I will routinely work both dogs on retrieves and quartering in the neighborhood common area after I come home from work. Neither dog has ever experienced problems associated with a lack of physical conditioning while hunting in South Dakota in past years - even when at times our distinct lack of shooting acume necessitated a longer than usual day in the field. No... in this case pure and simple age was the culprit.
Dixie will turn eight years old this September, and is more than half way through her projected life span. This is an unsettling thought for me, as it signifies that she has fewer years in the field ahead of her than in her past. Dixie remains a focused and hard-charging springer to be sure. But there are now distinct limits to her ability to hunt intensely for extremely long periods. Although Dixie is not my first dog, she is my first gun dog. Her upbringing, care and training comprise the essence of my education in the world of gun dog training. I have found that training a flushing dog to hunt under control is more about training oneself than the dog. Each dog a person trains adds to the general body of knowledge the trainer possesses, but one’s education is never, ever complete.
Now as I face her golden years, I wonder what new lessons she has for me.
Although Dixie’s stamina may have waned in the past couple of years, age has brought an elegance and refinement to her hunting style that I scarcely thought possible when she first came to live with us. As a young dog, Dixie was more than a handful. A driven springer from excellent field stock, she lived for birds - birds that I was not always able to provide. And owing to my complete lack of experience in training and handling flushing dogs, she proved a challenge of the first order to handle in the field as a puppy. This puppy stage lasted far longer than I care to remember. I recall with anxious anticipation one hunt test, early in our relationship, where she only barely hunted in control.
One wildly flushing chukar pulled her pall mall into a thick stand of oak trees far off the designated junior hunter upland course, oblivious to my recall command. This was not our finest hour; it was a long drive home.
But as she grew more mature, her youthful exuberance and lone hunting predilections give way reluctantly to a hunting partnership with me. This mellowing of temperament and acceptance of my role in the hunting process was gained through many years of hard training and companionship. Dixie still exhibits a driven approach to bird finding that, left unchecked, might find her in the next county - and this single-mindedness of purpose still requires me to keep a firm hand touch on the tiller. Now that it can be channeled, however, I like the fact that she continues to hunt on the edge; I hope that she always will.
Over the years, she has picked up other habits that I find less attractive. An unabashed and unreconstructed dumpster diver, Dixie has yet to meet a trash can she does not like. Rather than receding with time, this annoying trait has been strengthened by multiple forays into the region that lies just beneath the kitchen sink. She has, through experience, learned to defeat all child anti-tamper devices for the cabinet door. There appears to be no hope for us with this issue.
Another trait made more pronounced with the passage of time is that Dixie is a dog who responds really well to only one handler. Like a fine racing car with a custom bucket seat molded to the contours of the driver, Dixie, for better or for worse, is most comfortable when I drive her. This irritates my spouse to no end. Nothing will cause Door to gnash her teeth more than when she takes Dixie out in the wee hours of the morning (of course, only when I am on business travel) to accomplish her morning toilet... and the springer completely ignores her recall commands. Clad only in fuzzy house slippers and robe, my bride will often chase Dixie across three or four dew-laden yards before catching up to the errant spaniel.
This is doubly problematic, for not only does Dixie receive Door’s ire, but I too am often caught in the fragmentation pattern when the hand grenade goes off.
Age has also brought out an advanced case of narcolepsy in Dixie. Although she took long naps as a puppy, they pale in comparison to the siestas that she now takes. Somnambulant, she often arises from the dead of sleep on a rug to stager woozily to the comforts of her dog bed - ten feet away - only to collapse yet again into a deep slumber. Over the years I've surmised that Dixie must have the canine version of a deviated septum as her snoring has increased almost exponentially since puppyhood. The sound is now so loud and the vibrations are so intense that we fear the atrium door adjacent her dog bed could spontaneously shatter at any moment during the cacophony.
As I reflect on the years we have had with Dixie, I feel indeed fortunate. She has brought our family years of love and enjoyment. She has also tested us virtually non-stop since she arrived in Virginia. A little more than mid-way through our run together, it is nice to step back, reflect upon where we have been and think about those things that we can collectively look forward to experiencing together. Irrespective of whether a spaniel is old or young, one thing remains the same: you never know what they will do next.
Author's note: this is the fourteenth 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 | Part XII | Part XIII
Chip Schleider is an avid amateur spaniel trainer and upland game hunter. He owns three dogs - one English springer spaniel and two 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 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. In addition, their new book, A Field Guide to Retriever Drills, should be available through Wilderness Adventure Press in March 2008. He also writes frequently for journals catering to gun dog training.