“Whoa”, I say almost inaudibly as Rupert stands on the tailgate of my pickup truck with a few too many miles and a growing rust spot. Rupert freezes, familiar with the pre-hunt routine of wrapping the GPS collar around his neck and coating his feet in paw wax. As we prepare, Rupert seems calm with a stern demeanor. This is new, Rupert a born clown, has learned that finding ruffed grouse takes a cool determination.
As I finish my part, Rupert surveys the nearby cover and then looks me directly in the eyes. “OK,” I mumble. Rupert dives off the tailgate and immediately heads into the background painted white, not by snow, but birch. As we begin our wandering, I try to settle into a pace that I can maintain for the 10 or so miles we will cover.
Time spent in the woods lends itself to reflection. A year ago I didn’t know that NAVHDA existed. Seven months ago, when I commanded “whoa”, Rupert tilted his head and, if his face was a book, inside there would be a single question mark followed by a hundred blank pages. That seems like a lifetime ago but it passed in the blink of an eye . A sure sign that we have traveled far and worked hard.
It started when Rupert and I were on one of our daily walks around town. A truck stopped and as I removed the ear bud from my ear I hear “...good looking Griff.” The man inside, Paul, asked me “Are you going to hunt him?”. Still surprised that Paul knew what a Griff was, I reply “I would like to”. Paul then casually says if I needed help training him to look into NAVHDA. Paul, with all the salesmanship of a corner dealer has just given me the first taste of an addiction. Or maybe obsession?
Our first training day we were introduced to all the basic commands - whoa, come, stay and fetch. Rupert fell in love with these training days. He loved socializing with the other puppies and enjoyed the structured attention of training. Rupert learned quick and his ability soon outgrew my knowledge.
As the weather warmed we progressed to our first outdoor training. Rupert was introduced to birds and I to the tools of the trade. Within a couple months Rupert was pointing, retrieving and tracking. During the same time I had built a training table, pigeon coop and was the proud owner of a box of training contraptions. I was also introduced to the best kind of people, bird dog people. Including my friend and training partner Jonathan.
Meeting Jonathan was like throwing gas on the fire. When I jump into a project I tend to do it with both feet and without hesitation. This enthusiasm can be borderline pathological and it tends to scare most people away. Not Jonathan. He recognized the symptoms and saw that this could be advantageous to his training goals. We began training every chance that we had and before I knew it, Rupert and I were entered in our first test.
The nerves of test day had me awake at 3:30 a.m. drinking coffee with that familiar, but unsettling, feeling in my gut. Rupert and I have worked so hard but in a few hours that work had to be proven. Rupert did his part with all the enthusiasm and drive of a professional athlete and passed his Natural Ability Test
We didn't stop there, we kept working and training. Toward the end of our first training season, I asked Jonathan “Think we are ready?”. Jonathan replied “don’t worry about it and have fun”. There I was up early again, this time traveling with my grandfather for our second test.
The hour and 30-minute drive in the darkness seemed to be shorter than the last time. I tried to look out over the field but it was covered in a thick gray layer of fog. Periodically, the blast of an over under would cut the fog. The sounds and smells drove Rupert wild. When it was finally his turn to test, Rupert fed up with waiting, decided to catch almost every bird in the field. The day did not go as planned but we managed to eek out a pass.
Shwak… I am brought back to reality as a thin branch bounces off my ear. It burns and I imagine that my ear is bright red. This is only a temporary distraction from my forearms that look like a house cat’s scratching post. Rupert isn’t fairing much better. The front of his legs are nearly worn bald and his underside looks like he took a bad slide into home plate. I keep pushing through the bramble as Rupert glides left to right about 15 yards in front of me.
It has taken Rupert nearly 25 flushes but he is slowly learning that catching a ruffed grouse is nearly impossible. As he navigates through the tangle he moves with a fast, but cautious, gate. I follow behind listening to the now familiar high pitched note of his brass bell. Then a sudden silence and the forest narrows. It is as if I am looking through a tunnel with Rupert at the end docked tail high and quivering.
The sound of thunder without the flash of lightning, the bird is up fast from left to right on an angle towards me. I squeeze the first trigger and the right barrel of my side by side explodes into action. Then the second trigger and the left barrel counters with it’s own effort. The bird keeps flying out of sight. I say to Rupert already looking for the next bird “Sorry bud we’ll get ‘em next time”.
I have traveled countless miles and passed countless hours in my first year as a bird dog owner. If I thought about the money spent I might faint. You might ask, “and to what end,” you might even point out that, even in success, you have a bird smaller than a chicken. I would agree, but bird dog addiction is a funny thing. It makes you look past the time and money and toward friends, family, a good dog and time spent in the woods.
So, if it happens to be fall you can find me in the Northern Midwest. I’ll be chasing some feathered quarry through the toughest cover I can find. In the off season I’ll be training, looking for any advantage over the wild birds that flush early and never fly straight. If I have my choice I’ll be with a good dog and great friends. Maybe you can join me… the first taste is free.