The Reluctant Gun Dog: The Beginning by Chip Schleider
"The strawberry grows underneath the nettle
And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best
Neighbour'd by fruit of baser quality..."
--Shakespeare’s Henry V
There is no question that God gave man to dogs. I question, however, whether the reverse holds true. I will likely survive Arwen, but I fear not by much. As the years have passed, this spunky little field bred English cocker now hunts with a style and grace all her own. A superb bird finder, she has helped to add significantly to my game bag over the years. I have hunted this 30 pound wonder on pheasants in the big country of the west. She has single handedly worked a five man front in a half mile long field of shoulder high corn. I handled her sight unseen with her position betrayed only by the motion of corn stalks. She turned instantly to each whistle command and found such quantities of pheasants, that within an hour we had our limits for the day.
Arwen has handily worked chukars on our far too infrequent visits to game preserves, and she has proved such a joy to work that my shooting buddies always ask for me to run her. She has demurely retrieved the largest of pheasants and green heads, and delivered diminutive bob whites and doves to my hand with the gentlest of mouths.
Arwen (pronounced "R-win") is as loving as any dog I have ever owned (or seen for that matter). When you are most piqued with her, she has the maddening habit of jumping into your lap and putting her head affectionately on your chest as a gesture of both love and defiance. Quiet, personable, intelligent, inquisitive, and downright sweet, she is also tough, hard-headed, obstinate, impetuous, and above all else, curious. In short, this little bundle of white and liver fur has all of the wonderful attributes and shortcomings we have come to associate with field bred (or non field bred for that matter) English cockers. But of course, it did not start out that way. No, it did not... not by a long shot.
"However, I was beaming with pride, and it is undoubtedly due to my hubris, that my life with Arwen began. Pride to be sure is one of the "seven deadly sins", and pride was the catalyst."
This journey began innocently enough in late September 2002. It was following a sumptuous meal that Door, my long-suffering and patient wife of almost 30 years, had elegantly prepared. My parents were visiting from Houston, and we had partaken perhaps a little too freely in retrospect of a particularly vibrant Merlot. Flushed with the wine and the afterglow of convivial post-meal conversation, my thoughts turned to Tony Roettger, my dear friend, hunting partner, professional dog trainer and field trailer, and co-author of Urban Gun Dogs who at that time was working with Dixie, a talented, but head strong, old female English springer (those of you who followed the Dixie Chronicle know this story well).
We had acquired Dixie as a started dog from Tony, and I had sent her back to him in early September for a pre-pheasant season dose of birds and to steady her to flush and shot in anticipation of next spring’s series of hunt tests. As this particular night happened to be Saturday, I knew that Tony had spent the day working with dogs and handlers, and at the moment might himself be enjoying a relaxing evening with his fingers curled gently, but firmly, around a frosty libation.
I thoughtfully poured myself yet another glass of the exquisite red wine, and rang him up. After exchanging the usual pleasantries consisting of one of us questioning the other’s parentage and legitimacy seasoned with the piquant of a carefully selected expletive, I asked Tony how the old girl was doing. "Chip, she’s doing great. I think I have steadied her after less than ten birds." Tony said in his inimical Minnesotan manner. "I had her out today with some prospective clients and some of the usual handlers for a little bird work, and they were amazed at how good she is looking. You did great in getting her ready." Little did I suspect that those three fateful words, "you did great", would set the events in motion that led to many a frustrating day in the field and more than a few sleepless night for me.
However, I was beaming with pride, and it is undoubtedly due to my hubris, that my life with Arwen began. Pride to be sure is one of the "seven deadly sins", and pride was the catalyst. Dixie was my first field-bred spaniel, and she was a handful. I had struggled mightily to get her through her American Kennel Club Junior Hunter title, a story that is both entertaining and amusing in its own right, and it was no mean achievement to get her line steadied in advance of her trip to Minnesota for her séance with Tony. With Dixie’s successes of the day foremost in my thoughts and feeling quite full of myself, I muttered those fateful words, "Well, Tony. If you ever have a dog that needs a little help in this direction, let me know - I would be happy to help, not that we are in the market for another dog."
I could almost hear the gears click in his head. "Hmm... Chip," he said after a momentary pause, "I have this really nice little English cocker spaniel puppy, about seven months old, named Arwen," he said lightly, "and she is a wonderful little dog that could use some help."
"Arwen," I said, "an interesting name for a dog."
So it began. We talked at length about her, and Tony’s shrewd assessment was she was full of promise. Truth be known, Arwen’s breeding is impeccable. Her dam, Nell, is a solid cocker from Paul McGaugh’s "Warreners" line. Arwen’s sire, Willie, is from the highly respected "Outwest" bloodline. No cocker could point to better parentage, and as a result, she has generations of excellent field blood running through her veins. Arwen ably satisfied the golden rule of puppy selection... buy from good stock. Tony had cast the fly on the water floating just beyond the reach of the hungry trout.
Thus satisfied with her genetics, Tony and I made a plan. I was to talk to Door and Alexander (nicknamed Zander), my youngest son, and consider the potential of Arwen coming to stay with us for a while... family buy-in to the proposition was essential. Meanwhile, he would continue her basic training, introduction to birds and gunfire, obedience, and essential field handling. Zander was extremely enthusiastic when I broached the subject that evening, but Door had some legitimate reservations... phrase such as "are you nuts?" come readily to mind. In the end, we all agreed to give Arwen a try. A "try" in our family means that we had acquired a second dog. Door had placed a significant, and not altogether unreasonable, condition that had to be satisfied prior to Arwen finding a home with us.
The two spaniels had to be mutually compatible. Therefore, in order to consummate the agreement, I would have to assess how Dixie and Arwen fared in each other’s company during my stop in North Branch to pick up Dixie on the way to my pheasant hunting expedition to South Dakota. If they clicked, Arwen would travel to Virginia after Christmas.
A little over a month after my Saturday conversation with Tony, I saw Arwen for the first time on a chilly Minnesota morning. I had flown in from Virginia the night before, and had spent that Friday evening with my brother in Minneapolis. I set out eagerly and early the next morning for Tony’s home in North Branch, Minnesota - a tiny hamlet just north of the twin cities. It was a glorious fall morning, cold and crisp under cobalt-blue skies. The ground was covered with a light dusting of snow that had fallen several days earlier, and it crackled and crunched under my field boots as I climbed into my brother’s Ford Explorer. My warm breath caused the interior of the windshield to frost up as I cranked up the heater, and made my way to North Branch.
It was a perfect day to work dogs, and I was anxiously anticipating my reunion with Dixie. I had missed her terribly, but I confess that I was more than a little curious about Arwen. Having misjudged badly the time required to travel from western Minneapolis to North Branch, I arrived a little late and desperate for a cup of coffee.
Tony met me coming out the door with a client in tow who was there for a training session - Saturdays are invariably busy at Roettger Ridge Kennels - but we quickly exchanged handshakes and backslaps. I suppose that perhaps now is the time to make a confession. Years in the military have undoubtedly erased many of the more attractive and gentile aspects of my southern origins, and taken a distinct toll on my language usage. It is now, for want of a better adjective, what one would call "salty". I have, therefore, taken literary license, and toned down many of the recollections of my conversations concerning Arwen so as not to put off those who would be offended by any of my off color expletives.
"Go right on in the house; the girls are inside waiting for you, and the coffee’s hot; the half-and-half’s in the refrigerator," he remarked. "When you have had a cup and spent a little time with Dixie and Arwen, I’ll come get you, and we can try them out." Just what the doctor ordered, I thought... I do love my coffee.
Tony sped off around the corner with the handler, and, anxious with anticipation I bounded up the steps to his porch. Knocking the light snow and ice off my boots, I slipped them off and went in the house. Dixie immediately ran to the front door accompanied by Arwen. Both dogs jumped on me simultaneously, as happy in each other’s company as they were to see me. Immediately I was struck by the manner in which they interacted. The two dogs were a study in contrasts. Dixie, who passed away last December, was the most stunningly beautiful field bred English springer I have ever seen. Weighing in at a little over thirty pounds, she was also one of the most petite of this breed. Her strong lines were accentuated by liver colored saddlebag-like marks that draped across her strong yet supple shoulders.
Dixie’s tail, a field dock, was substantially longer than the bench dock commonly associated with springers, and its lovely wisps of white fur swung furiously back and forth in greeting.
Arwen is diminutive, almost all white, but absolutely adorable. Being from Texas, and having spent the better part of a quarter of century in and out of an Army uniform, "adorable" is a word that does not lightly issue forth from either my lips or my pen. But adorable she is, and adorable she remains. I dropped to one knee and stroked both dogs with an affection that surprised me. They looked and smelled wonderful, and I buried my face in their soft fur as they competed with one another to see which of the two could lick me to death. Arwen cocked her little head at me as if to take the measure of my worth or try to understand my words.
Reluctantly disentangling myself from the dogs, I made my way to the kitchen, poured a cup of the aromatic coffee, stirred in some half-and-half, and labored, Dixie and Arwen still jumping on me, slowly toward the big easy chair in Tony’s living room. Sinking into its cushions, I considered Arwen carefully. I had been impressed with the uniqueness of Arwen’s markings and her coloration in the photos I had seen of her, but in person (if one can truly use that phrase with a canine), she was no doubt, died-in-the-wool, honest to gosh, striking. I sipped my coffee and watched Dixie was busily grooming Arwen’s head, muzzle, and eyes, as the mother in the springer assumed control of her personality. As I sat there sipping the rich dark coffee and contemplating this spectacle, I knew that Door’s remaining condition had been fulfilled.
For not only were Dixie and Arwen compatible, they were deeply attached to one another. "This is really going to work," I thought optimistically.
Author’s note: this is the first installment in a series of articles that chronicle the development of a young, head strong, intelligent, but quirky English cocker spaniel.
Chip Schleider is an avid amateur spaniel trainer and upland game hunter. He owns two English cocker spaniels: Arwen and Jazz. 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, and is soon to be commissioned as an Army Second Lieutenant.
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.