Buddy – A Series of Adventures – The Natural

There you go, off on a tangent sniff-oh-rama into the weeds again.  Buddy, there is nothing there on the boulevard.  We can barely go three blocks walking, and you are tired, breathing hard, and stopping every 4 steps to sniff imaginary things in the grass.  I know you want to find something to point.  I know you want to find something for me to shoot so you can chase it.  It’s how you’re wired. You’re a natural, after all.

Buddy Boy, I’ll never forget those early days after you came into my life mid-July, at 11months old, with no previous training whatsoever.  A strong willed dog, coupled with a novice owner.  From the beginning I knew it would be interesting to see who was training who.  We had a challenging first couple of weeks, introducing you to the rest of the 4 legged family, just in time to experience the beginnings of an explosive divorce, and finding your place in our new and fragile pack, as the only male.  Once we sustained our injuries, well, the house was quite the circus for a while.  You took it all in stride.

One of the responsibilities of owning a pedigreed hunting dog is following through with their training and official paperwork that carries the line. You and I were under the gun to comply with the first sequence of your documented training–the Natural Ability Test. You had no previous training, I’d only owned you a very short time, you were close to a year old and there were only a few test dates left before it would be too late for you to register as a NAVHDA qualified dog. That meant the two of us needed to buck up, work hard to catch up, and drive to the only location still available–South Dakota–for the test, with our injuries and all.

We got to South Dakota by 6:30 Saturday evening, and stayed over in a lovely dog friendly hotel, so we’d be well rested and ready to test Sunday morning. We pull into a parking lot on that hot windy August morning, where 50 or more guys are milling around with dogs and guns and top of the line Orvis field gear outfits, and I’m not able to locate more than one female in the crowd. It never stops being daunting. As we pull up at the end of the row, the girls mop heads pop up to see out the truck windows, eager to get out and go pee after the long drive to South Dakota. I’m sure when we first got out of our truck the NAVHDA judges were thinking ‘what the hell?’

With a cone around you head, and leg bandaged up, and me with a big green polar fleece cast cover from fingertips up to my elbow—we were loud and clumsy and totally pathetic looking.   They probably thought we were lost.

One thing for certain–it sure is easy to turn a guy’s head with a fine dog at my side. We quickly learned we had to stay quiet, stay by our vehicle and not look in certain directions, not ask questions, and not engage with other dogs and ohhhh it was so hard to behave! But we waited our turn as patiently as possible.   Everyone there was so competitive. Everyone was checking you out. Sure, they probably made their assessments of what they thought we were all about. But they didn’t know our story or where we came from. They didn’t know about our shaky start, my crying sleepless nights with you and the girls curled up around me, your lack of training, my lack of training or how isolated our family was. Their dogs all had been exposed to hundreds of live pheasants from the time they were babies. At 11 months old, you had yet to even see a pheasant, except on TV.

They all thought you were a nice looking dog.  I think the guys were impressed that we showed up at all, both being gimped out. But the cone came off and soon, your “natural ability” kicked in.  It was our turn. We forgot all about our injuries once we got out into the fields.

We walked up to the judges circle to be given an explanation and instructions about the test elements. I was so dreadfully ignorant and nervous.  It didn’t help that you peed on the head judges leg the instant that he identified himself as the guy in charge. Way to start things out.

Test one, field phase—dog is sent into cover where presence of game has been arranged. Tested on use of nose, search, pointing, desire, cooperation, and gun shyness.

It was time to take you off leash and without any control mechanism other than voice or hand control. Oh my we haven’t had time to work on either of those things with confidence.SONY DSC

But I set you loose and you immediately started ranging the field. We hadn’t had time to get to any gun ranges to see how you would react when guns were being shot. I’m the only one who flinched when they shot the gun. How embarrassing THAT was!  But, it was good for a laugh. One judge said “I think he’s livin large”, getting to run a wide open field with his nose in the wind, smelling birds and pointing them. Another pointed out you seemed to not notice your injury at all. You brought tears to my eyes, I was so proud! You pointed a bunch of game birds planted in the grass. You seemed to be struggling on the last point, darting this way and that. We determined that bird was on the run and you were not about to give up on it when suddenly, the bird rose up and flew off right under your nose—you chasing full bore behind it. The bird gained altitude and distance quickly with you in hot pursuit.

“Um, excuse me? Umm…”

“Shhhhhh”. One judge responded. I began to feel faint as I saw your lean body disappear over the horizon line over 200 yards away—gone out of sight.

“Oh my God, what do we do?” I gasped to the judges. They casually looked at each other, then one said “Oh, give him a few minutes, he’ll come back.”

That’s when I broke my silence and admitted I’ve only owned you 30 days. You’ve never been completely off leash before. Now you were several hundred yards out of sight—maybe in the next county. I was so close to tears.  Minutes felt like hours.

“Where is the nearest road from here?” I timidly asked. Then, suddenly, we spotted a flicker of movement on the horizon line. And then another flicker. And then a bigger flicker, and then, there it was—what appeared to be a head. A head and shoulders. A head and shoulders, with something else, getting closer. It was you, barreling back towards me, with something in your mouth. THE BIRD! My good boy successfully retrieved that bird over 200 yards away and brought it right to me (which you didn’t have to do!).

You know you made an impression on the judges with that little exhibition as they all started writing on their notepads with smiles on their faces.

Test 2, tracking phase—dog is sent to track a live, flightless pheasant. Tested on use of nose, tracking, desire to work, cooperation

Unfortunately, you didn’t execute this test element very well.   It was super windy, and the judges even had you restart once.  Most NAVDA dogs have been on about 1,500 birds by the time they reach your age. In our short time together, you’d never seen or smelled a pheasant, and only even tried seriously tracking a goose wing bumper one time.   You were clearly at a disadvantage and would need to rely completely on the literal interpretation of “natural ability”. Well, you were all over the place except where the pheasant actually went. Between the wind and your inexperience, you just didn’t find a scent. Even still, as far as I’m concerned that 200 yard retrieve made up for anything else that could ever happen!  You were a winner in my eyes, and frankly that’s what really mattered. You are my good boy!

Test 3, water phase—dog is expected to enter water and swim. Tested on water entry, desire to work, and cooperation.

Of course, the water portion of the test was a snap. You knew what we were about to do. You were alert, anxious, and ready to jump into the water. The judge gave the signal, the bumper was tossed into the water and you bolted after it like blazed lightening. You dove into the pond and power-stroked across to the floating bumper, grabbed it and spun around back to me. Onlookers cheered and clapped, the judges were nodding and smiling. After your two required times swimming after the bumper, you kept sneaking around and stealing the judges bumpers out of the tub, and bringing them to me for more water fetching.  Everyone enjoyed that as well, you were so cute.  I hated telling you “no more” with the bumpers.  We were done, it was lunchtime, and a couple South Dakota NAVHDA club members helped me remove your wet bandage and put on a new one.  They were amazed to see the extent of the gash, considering how effortlessly you worked the tests.

Natural1We were told the judges would call me over when they were ready to tell me how he did. So we waited.

I expected that we failed the Natural Ability test because of the live track, but, to my surprise, you came away with a Prize III 93 points.  The judges all praised you, said you were a hunter with lots of natural ability, a loving, cooperative boy. I immediately pulled out a bottle of Pink Champaign!  Unfortunately, the rest of the whole group had to go back out after lunch to finish the UT test.  They invited us to stick around until the end and celebrate, but that would have been too late, so, we headed out, vowing that next time, we’ll plan to stay and visit longer with our new friends!

I was so proud I could hardly stand it!  Not bad for a 13 month old untrained dog that I’ve only owned since July 18th, and was only able to work with for about 30 days, not to mention around all the home drama and injury trauma and crap….

I was exhausted.

You were ready to go again.

Your wound had reopened, but it was obvious it happened before we started the testing, as the skin was dried up and trying to heal.  The South Dakota guys that helped me change your dressings said I should leave it wrapped for another day, then let you do what dogs do–and start cleaning it yourself–because it was far too late for new stitches, and the location off the wound was like mine, a place easy to reopen.

It was long drive back, full of reliving the fun and proud moments of the day. Of course by the time we got home, you had managed to reach your leg around the cone and chew off most of the new bandage, so I had to wrestle you down by myself to apply a new one again—one handed.  Yes, you were a real handful, but I did it alone! The girls were thrilled to be home, they were jumping and barking, and showing us they can fetch too. But everything pales in comparison to you and your natural ability.

We celebrated as a family with our Pink Champaign that day. One day next week we can go down south for the afternoon, and I’ll walk with you out in a field for a few minutes. Let you channel your Natural Ability on the real deal one more time….and we’ll celebrate in style once again.

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