After 2 years of wondering whether my dog actually has “it” in him, usually with diminishing optimism, we had that moment this weekend: breakthrough!
It was a day we barely managed to get out. Kid’s soccer games, the rain, and my knee were conspiring to keep me in the city. But we got a window of weather, I got the green light from the boss, and Teddy and I were off for an afternoon hunt after slapping on my leg brace.
I brought the gun but didn’t know if I was going to fire it. Last week in “my” valley we had seen some birds but he shut down after I took a single shot (and failed to hit a bird). This time I was going to play it by feel.
Instead of working the draws I decided to climb into the hills a bit. The wind was strong and steady from the south, so I figured if we gained some elevation in the north he’d get scent blown to him and I could possibly glass down into the draws.
On a whim I decided to push even higher, to the top of the hill, where a fire a year ago burned through the manzanita and gray pines. The effect meant this year there are a lot of skeletal branches, cleared underbrush, charred soil, and new growth sprouting from the ground, boosted by last year’s El Nino. We were able to walk through this area with good sightlines in a way we previously wouldn’t have been able to without a burn.
It was clear the quail liked this habitat. The first bunch of manzanita locked Teddy into that strange combination of antagonistic behaviors– the slow, robotic trance with steady head and hyperfocused eyes, while the tail explodes into a wild blurring dervish.
As I approached several birds flushed, and the next 20 minutes were a complete revelation.
This dog that rarely moves more than 15 yards away from me became an unrecognizable demon covering the hill up, down, left, and right, weaving through the brush like a defensive end turning the corner on a blindside quarterback. He was pointing and chasing quail everywhere, time after time relocating and finding new birds by scent. Even if I hadn’t been in a knee brace I couldn’t have dreamed of keeping up, but I kept shouting out encouraging words in the hopes he could hear them.
Had I been in the mind of killing birds I could of limited in 5 minutes, even with my poor shooting. Teddy had been possessed by a insatiable bird-finding beast, and it had been released.
Given his previous timidness I didn’t dare pull the gun off my shoulder– yet. I just sat back and enjoyed the spell while it lasted.
Eventually he started orbiting closer and recognized me again. Teddy came up close and stopped directly in front of me, panting happily with lathering jaws. His grin seemed to say, “Holy s–t. Did you see that?”
I gave him as much praise and rubbing as he’s ever had. He understood this was good thing he’d done.
After watering him we continued walking to the south through the brush, the wind charging on. And then… bing! Another point. Burst. Chase. Bing! Burst. Chase. Bing!
Eventually it got to the point where I felt like, dammint, I should try a shot. He was entirely consumed with bird-finding. He locked up on a large brushy manzanita. He crept to one side of the stand, and I walked along the other. I could see some birds on the leading edge of the bush.
When they burst I took two shots and downed a bird, who tumbled down the ravine side. Teddy hadn’t seen me shoot and hit the bird (mistake?)
I called to Teddy who poked his head out the other side of the bush. He looked surprised. I ran down to the bird, calling him down to where the juvenile male quail was flapping in his last throes. He found the bird and chomped.
I walked back up the hill and let him carry it along the way, loudly praising the entire time. His tail was whipping. I damn near wept.
He gave me the bird willingly, but followed behind me in jumps sniffing at the bird bag.
After we found a couple more birds I figured we had pushed this huge covey around enough. When I started walking away from the brush he stopped. He didn’t want to leave the hill.
We didn’t get into any more birds the rest of the day. Some of his hesitancy reared up again, particularly in the area where I had shot last week. I had to nudge him forward in that area a little bit. After that I took him back to the truck and we called it a day.
I analyzed the hunt on the way back– I really enjoy those 90 minute drives when I’m tired, but calm and clear of mind after a hunt– and several elements emerged for me to process going forward:
- It was just me and Teddy. No other people or dogs for him to to be distracted or influenced by. No other outlets for his ADHD.
- There were birds. We hit a hive of quail and it made his nose very happy. Those burned areas just made my list.
- He was more comfortable in the brush than the open grassy areas. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps he likes having cover too?
- I’ve been playing gunshot sounds from a CD the past month. I can’t say the noise seemed to register with him, even when very loud. But perhaps it’s helped?
- He’s still in the woods. I need to continue to think of this as a training year. I need to stay “zen” about my knee and be very strategic in when/how/where I fire the gun around him.
But success. About fing time. And I let him eat the bird.