Dixie: Chronicles of a Field Bred English Springer Spaniel
The Last Chapter by Chip Schleider
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII | Part VIII
"Great shot, man!" I exclaimed as Tony Roettger connected with a cock pheasant that was rocketing away from Dixie’s flush. At my command, the little springer shot forward to retrieve the fallen bird and delivered it, as always somewhat reluctantly, to my outstretched hand. We were hunting in South Dakota in some of the worst November weather we had ever seen. The wind was gusting up to 40 miles per hour with horizontal driving sleet mixed with rain. We had already been out for almost four hours and the conditions were such that the dogs could not hear the whistles. Jessica, Tony’s superb English cocker bitch, became separated from the group in the chin-high corn stalks and we spent an hour looking for her.
Tony, my brother Pete, and I hunted for another couple of hours finally calling it quits one bird shy of our combined nine bird limit.
While Tony departed Presho, South Dakota for his home in North Branch, Minnesota, Pete and I retired to our quarters to warm ourselves with the obligatory post hunt libation. Seated in comfortable easy chairs, Dixie and Arwen, now thoroughly dry, dozed on the floor at our feet. Dixie had performed superbly notwithstanding the extreme conditions of the day and I recall that I never had been more pleased with the efforts of Arwen, my diminutive six year old English cocker. Little eight year old Dixie was at the height of her game - as dynamic, hard charging, and loving an English springer spaniel as there ever was. Stroking the springer’s soft head as we sat, I could only hope that these days would last forever.
Six weeks after the South Dakota hunt - and the Friday before Christmas - I answered the phone in our Northern Virginia home. "Oh yes, doctor, thank you for getting back to us so quickly with the test results... uh... oh, yes of course... I understand, good bye." The call had come from a veterinarian internist who had performed a biopsy on Dixie earlier that week. The test results confirmed that she had malignant tumor in her colon, and the prognosis was not good. She faced surgery the next week. Two days before Christmas she underwent a colonoscopy and subsequent surgery to remove the polyp. We took Dixie home on the day before Christmas. On the day after Christmas, she began to fail and by that evening, she was dead from complications arising from surgery and the effects of the cancer. The shock of her loss is still with the family to this day.
"That day, Dixie hunted better than I had ever seen her before. She nosed up reluctant birds, planted her rump on the ground with each flush, and retrieved birds better than she ever had in her life."
Over the years, Dixie taught me much about the trials and tribulations of training gun dogs. She was talented to be certain, but that talent had to harnessed and put to good use. Over the years, you all have been witnesses to the humorous mistakes I made in seeking to channel Dixie’s raw talent. In truth, our progress was due less to the trainer training the dog than it was about the dog trainer training himself - this is a theme that I strove mightily to weave in throughout these chronicles. Although this series of articles must now by necessity come to an end, I hope that you, gentle readers, have benefited by my failures as much as by my successes. For often it is in adversity and failure that we learn the toughest of all lessons. I am eternally grateful to Dixie for the lessons she taught me about myself.
Two weekends prior to Dixie’s death, I had the little girl out with friends at a hunting preserve not far from our home, and she was in fine form. Sometimes, as my wife will attest, I exhibit less than sound judgment. Let me see... hmmm... what descriptor does she ascribe to my behavior during these departures from good reasoning? Ah yes... stupid is the word I believe that I was seeking, and in this case the word is appropriate to describe my complete lapse of good sense.
I had elected to hunt Arwen initially, and placed Dixie in a canvas kennel that we use for primarily for extended trips in the back of the Explorer. The tailgate was closed, and there was only about eight inches of clearance between the tailgate and the mesh door that I had carefully zippered closed. As the day was mild, I left the driver’s side window cracked about a foot to allow for ventilation. We were perhaps two hundred yards from the car. I had just hupped Arwen in front of me and was preparing to give her the "get out" command when Dixie bounded into the field in front of Arwen and me - to the abject amazement of all of us - and began to hunt. I recalled the springer, got a lead on her, handed Arwen over to the tender care of my hunting companions, and led Dixie back to the car convinced that somehow I had failed to close the kennel properly.
When I opened the tailgate, I found that she had completely shredded the kennel door, and squeezed out of window to catch up with us in the field. She just refused to be left out of the hunt.
That day, Dixie hunted better than I had ever seen her before. She nosed up reluctant birds, planted her rump on the ground with each flush, and retrieved birds better than she ever had in her life. Dixie flushed the final pheasant of the day in softly waning sunlight. I made the shot - she made the retrieve. This is how I will always remember her.
Author’s note: this is the seventeenth 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 IX | Part X | Part XI | Part XII | Part XIII | Part XIV | Part XV | Part XVI
Chip Schleider is an avid amateur spaniel trainer and upland game hunter. 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 in Great Falls, Virginia. His oldest son, Christian, is an Army Captain who undergoing Army pilot training for AH-64 (Apache) helicopters after two combat tours in Iraq. Alexander, his youngest son and a senior at the University of South Carolina, will be commissioned an Army field artillery Second Lieutenant in May 2009.
Chip is the co-author with Tony Roettger of Urban Gun Dogs: Training Flushing Dogs for Home and Field and their new book, A Field Guide to Retriever Drills, - copies of which can be purchased through the Spaniel Journal Bookstore. He also writes frequently for journals catering to gun dog training.