t was in late February when I heard the Southern voice call down from upstairs, "Honey what is this VISA charge for? You didn’t by chance buy a new shotgun, did you?" Door was scrutinizing a monthly credit card statement with a quizzical expression on her face as she slowly and deliberately walked down the stairs.
Having never been accused of possessing a quick wit matched with the ability to provide a snappy response, I mumbled, "Ah... duh... hmm... uhhh... ohhhh, I have to... uhhh... umm... take Dixie out. She is really begging to go outside." Hoping to buy a little time before the inevitably painful discussion I knew would ensue following my latest acquisition, I deftly snatched my training bag, a couple of bumpers, Dixie’s slip lead and bolted for the garage door with Dixie hot on my trail. Over the years, I have found that daily life throws up many roadblocks to my training routine with Dixie. Sometimes, however, there are real benefits to sticking to a training schedule.
Dixie and I blew out of the garage pall mall for our neighborhood’s common area - our training ground - and the late winter afternoon light was just sufficient to enable a half hour of work each day with Dixie. Since our debacle in the Pennsylvania countryside the preceding November, I had been working diligently with Dixie on three things: "hup", "here" and turning to two "pips" of the whistle. I initially had started working on her "heeling", but found that my shoulders and wrists were beginning to give out as I tried in vain to keep her from walking ten feet in
front of me on her two back legs with forepaws flailing and eyes popping. I gave it up as I felt my knees begin to go and my arms separate from their sockets. Instead, I began following what has now become one of my cardinal training laws: If you are accomplishing results in one area and not in another, concentrate on where you are making progress; the other will come in time. I strove mightily not to violate the corollary to this law: Whatever you do, do not mess up the thing you are doing right.
"I am a firm believer in obedience as the cornerstone of gun dog training."
From the start, I worked on simple things with an approach that started indoors (well, it was cold as the dickens outside), and then moved outdoors - most of the effort was placed on simple obedience drills. For example, while working with Dixie on "hup" drills, I would "hup" her in the house in a particular place in whichever room I was in, and then walk around the room or sit down. If she moved, I would pick her up and place her back on the spot where I had originally given her the command.
With the "here" drill, I would take her to the basement, my favorite dog training spot in the house, and work initially with a checkcord (yes they do work as well inside as well as outside). With Dixie on the checkcord in the basement, throw a dummy, release her with her name for the retrieve, and then wait until she had the dummy in her mouth. I would give her four "pips" on the whistle and call "here". I would then give her a quick, but gentle, tug on the checkcord, carefully to ensure that I did not yank the cord and cause her to drop the dummy. Slowly but surely Dixie started to respond to my "hup" and recall commands. Only when she had progressed to the point of
consistently responding to my commands did we venture forth outside. As a parenthetical, I have found that the basement in our house is really the only place to use the whistle - if used in the living room, it has the tendency to irritate the heck out of the rest of the family.
When Dixie and I took our canine version of the three "Rs" outdoors, I found that we had to start over. The smells, sights and sounds of the immediate environs of our yard proved an enormous initial distraction. However, it was not long before we were back on track. As February slowly transitioned into March, I felt we were making real progress.
I am a firm believer in obedience as the cornerstone of gun dog training. My conviction in this stems not from any flushing dog training book or seminar, but from my personal observations. When Door and I were first married, I was stationed in Germany with the Army. Although Door had grown up in Georgia, she was born in the Netherlands. Frequently we would travel from our home in Wilhelmsdorf (located near Nuremberg) to the northern provinces of Holland. In the spring of 1978, we were traveling to meet her grandparents and stopped for coffee after crossing the Afsluitsdijk, the massive dike that separates and protects the new provinces of Holland from the vicious waters
of the North Sea. When we entered the small café, we saw a couple sitting at a table with a gigantic Bovier lounging comfortably under the table as the young couple leisurely sipped their coffees - a sight that one will never see in the United States. This scene had a profound impact on me. The Europeans work incessantly on obedience training with their dogs, and as a consequence can take them into restaurants where they bask in the glow of baking croissants and frying schnitzels.
In early April, there was a hunt test near Tyrone, an absolutely beautiful part of western Pennsylvania nestled in the mountains. Spring was in its earliest stages, and the buds were just beginning to appear on the trees. The crocuses were in full bloom, and contrasted sharply with the grey, heavy skies. The wind was blowing fiercely; the temperatures were just below freezing, and very light snow flurries added a winter character to the weather that seemed out of place this far into spring. It was a bone penetrating, humidity laden cold that caused me to wonder why I found myself outdoors instead of before a blazing fire luxuriating over a cup of hot coffee.
It was now our turn in the running order and Dixie would once again strive for the coveted first leg of her Junior Hunter title. Cindy Rock, a highly experienced judge and owner of one of first Welsh springer spaniels to obtain the Master Hunter title, was explaining the rules of the land portion of the test to me. Shivering with the cold I nodded that I understood, and Cindy gave me the signal to begin. I "hupped" Dixie to my front, and removed her slip lead while maintaining eye contact with her. I had found during my training sessions that Dixie had a fair chance of listening to me as long as I held eye contact with her. I gave the young springer the "get out" command,
and she rocketed off the line with a "yip". The wind was blowing diagonally across the course, and Dixie’s pattern took on more of a downwind style than one she would run directly into the wind. I was moving fast to keep up with her.
Suddenly, I felt the wind shift and blow almost directly from my back. Almost at the same moment, the young springer made scent and simultaneously put a bird up. The wind hit the chukar’s back and it flew to the left as if shot out of cannon. The left gunner made a magnificent shot, but the bird, propelled by the wind, sailed on for a hundred yards or more with the springer hot on its heels. Dixie disappeared over a rise. I had no idea if she had marked the bird or if the bird was even down. I stood on that windy course for several anxious moments shivering my tail off awaiting the outcome. Suddenly, Dixie appeared at the top of the rise, running flat out toward me with
the chukar in her mouth. As she approached me she veered slightly to my left, but moved back toward me as I lowered my knee to the ground. She slowly came toward me and put the bird on the ground about two feet from me. I picked it up and handed to the judge.
Cindy said, "Thank you handler, I’ve seen enough."
We had only had one bird, and I was deeply worried as to whether I had made a major misstep. As I passed the judges, Cindy said, "nice job," and I felt much relieved. Later on when the judges, announced call backs to the water, Dixie’s number was on the list.
When it was our turn at the water, Cindy instructed me, "Your dog does not have to be steady to shot. You may restrain her loosely with the lead. She does not have to retrieve to hand, but must bring the bird to within two steps of you."
The bird throwers were positioned some forty plus yards away on a bank of this oval-shaped pond about half way to the far end of the pond. With them was an Adirondack basket filled to the brim with recently shot chukars; the throwers awaited the signal from the judge. With a nod of Cindy’s head, one man threw the bird approximately thirty yards in front of the Dixie as his companion fired a shotgun to simulate the downing of a bird in flight. The judge tapped me on the shoulder and I said "Dixie" to release her.
She exploded off the bank and hit the icy cold waters of the pond. The intense cold of the water took the young dog’s breath away and she began to flail her front paws instantly in reaction to the frigid water temperature. Her bottom down, puppy style of swimming kicked up sufficient water in front of her that she was not able to keep a firm visual or scent fix on the location of the floating bird. Dixie began to veer away from the bird and return to me. My heart in my throat, I sought to recall her, but she ignored me, returning to shore and climbing out of the water. She looked briefly at me, sniffed indifferently at several decoys, and then trotted thirty yards around
the bank of the pond toward the bird throwers and the big basket of birds. In a unique moment of clarity (or perhaps indecision), I ceased my efforts to control her, and feared that all was lost.
Dixie greeted the bird throwers enthusiastically, sniffed at the bird basket with a distinct lack of interest, turned toward the water and spotted her bird floating twenty yards away in middle of the pond. To the amazement of me, the judges, the gallery and the bird throwers, the springer launched herself at the floating bird, this time quickly covering the distance separating her from her prize, seized the bird in her mouth, turned left and briskly swam the thirty yards separating her from me. She scrambled out of the water onto the bank a yard or so away from me, put the bird down and shook herself vigorously. At this point I was beside myself with tension, but I gave
her no commands. In what seemed to me to be an eternity, Dixie calmly picked the bird back up and delivered it to my hand. Cindy looked me dead in the eye as I handed her the bird, saying evenly, "... a most unusual retrieve." I thanked the judges, but made no further comment. Kipling perhaps said it best, "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you……"
As I looped the English-style slip lead over Dixie’s head and made my way to back the gallery, a seasoned veteran of the field trial and hunt test circuit who was waiting to run a young dog said, "Chip, that dog really saved your ass." As we have seen, I am not usually known for quick comebacks, but I did manage to sputter, "There is nothing like training." But I knew the comment had nailed me dead to rights. I was still musing on that exchange when the judges called out the qualifying dogs for that day and presented me with Dixie’s first hunt test ribbon. I was now decidedly hooked on the hunt test game.
Author’s note: this is the third 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.