“Rupert, fetch, fetch, fetch.” I command softly as I point to a scattering of primary feathers pulled from the chest of a hen pheasant. Rupert and I didn’t see the bird being released but our current task was to track it down in thick cover. I let go of Rupert’s collar and look forward in the direction that I assume the pheasant went. Rupert circles around behind me in a wide arc, his nose to the ground. As he crosses the path of the pheasant, he slows going past it about 10 feet. He switches directions, crosses the path again and went past it 10 feet to the opposite side.
Rupert turns again but, this time, when he hits the path he makes an abrupt turn. With his nose to the ground he is on a dead sprint covering 75 yards impossibly fast. As he comes to a creek, he leaps into the air and lands in the water with a loud splash. As he crowns the opposite bank I can hear the sounds of wings beating the air, then silence. I catch a glimpse of Rupert crossing the creek back in my direction. I ask out loud “is that the bird?” Rupert comes closer. He has brought back the hen uninjured.
Jonathan, my friend and accomplished dog trainer, says “if you’re not happy with that, then I don’t know what to tell you.”. The rush of success and potential combined into elation. But, as in most things in life, victories are short lived. There is always another battle. Rupert and I were on to our next task and success was not going to come as effortlessly.
“Rupert! Are you ready? Fetch!” My voice rings through the morning air as I stand on the edge of a small pond with gradual grade. The type of pond that is perfect for puppies just learning to swim. Rupert’s favorite bumper is 10 feet in front of him at barely a swimming depth. I watch as Rupert carefully enters the water and slowly makes his way to chest depth and refuses to go any further. As I offer encouragement he whines in protest and laps at the pond displaying his aversion.
At this point Rupert’s Natural Ability test is just over 30 days away. I flashed back to the first day of NAVHDA outdoor training. I vividly recall one of the more experienced handler’s warning “dog training is a humbling experience, so prepare yourself”. As the anxiety washed over me, I had an inner dialog. I told myself that I wasn’t qualified to fix this problem and that I didn’t need a duck dog anyway. With each breath my usual determination returned. Until I settled on the fact that I would not be able to forgive myself if I didn't do everything possible to get Rupert swimming before the test. It was time to get to work.
One of the things I love about Rupert is how attached he has become to his family. He is driven to be with us and would probably walk through fire… or possibly swim through water to do so. On our next outing I found a narrow part of the pond where I could cross using hip waders. when I made it to the other side I began to call Rupert. He entered the water up to his chest and turned around. I emphatically called, “Rupert Here!” Rupert slowly entered the water and looked terrified as his feet left the bottom and he began to swim. He made it across and I gave him a wet hug. I didn’t even mind getting soaking wet as he shook the water from his fur.
Once Rupert was crossing with confidence, I reintroduced the bumper into the mix. I tossed the bumper smack dab in the middle of the narrow crossing. Rupert looked, then looked back at me knowing what was coming. “Rupert Fetch!” He entered the water slowly and, when he got chest deep, he looked back and I encouraged - “Good boy”. Rupert responded by pushing forward and grabbing the bumper. He swam to the opposite side bank and dropped the bumper. It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but it was progress.
I now had Rupert entering the water and grabbing the bumper. But he would only do so if the opposite shore was close and he didn’t have to turn around. I switched tactics. I entered the water calling Rupert to me. Once he reached swimming depth I tossed the bumper into the middle of the pond. To my amazement Rupert swam out to the bumper and grabbed and turned around heading back toward me. Rupert and I practiced this for several days, gradually increasing the length of the retrieve.
Rupert and I were gaining confidence and it was now time to test our progress. I went to the edge of the pond and threw the bumper. Rupert went out chest deep and started whining. This time, I acted quickly. I went to his side and offered my encouragement and, slowly, Rupert moved forward toward the bumper. As the days progressed, we continued this dance and I moved just a little closer to the shore each time. Eventually the day came when I was no longer standing in water and Rupert was entering the pond and retrieving the bumper. His entry was cautious, but without hesitation.
Pushing the envelope, I decided to check out our progress at the bigger pond. This pond is much larger and features islands and depths that vary throughout. “Rupert, fetch!” I watched carefully as Rupert waded into the pond and stopped at chest depth looking back. “Oh good boy” I reaffirmed. Rupert looked toward the bumper. I could tell, by his body language, that he would rather not go. I was already steadying myself for failure and strategizing how to end the day on a positive. As a million ideas ran through my head, Rupert crept forward and started to swim. Thinking back, I really hope that we were the only ones around that day because, when Rupert returned, we celebrated as if we scored the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl… dance and all.
That brings us to today. Just before writing this, Rupert and I took our now daily trek out to the training grounds to run and swim. When we arrived at the big pond I threw the bumper, straining my shoulder with the effort. “Rupert, fetch!”. Rupert looked at me with the intensity only a bird dog doing his job could have. He took off on a sprint and dove straight into swimming depth. Rupert covered the 30 yards with an efficiency that would give any lab a run for his money.
As we celebrated again, I thought back to the feelings I had after watching Rupert track. To the bystander, our current achievement probably looks unimpressive. To Rupert and I, it was unimaginable a couple weeks ago. Dog training is humbling. Humbling because the challenges seem insurmountable. That is until you witness the guts, determination and sheer will of a good dog. Then you remind yourself of why dogs have earned the title “man’s best friend” and you are humbled by your new understanding. Now, it’s onto my best hunting buddy's Natural Ability test. Wish us luck!