“Whoa.” Rupert stops at the edge of a field located in George W. Mead Wildlife Area (Wisconsin). I remove his lead and and watch his body quiver with excitement. He looks up at me with eyes that seem twice as big as they were just minutes ago. I try to calm him by stroking my hand down his back... it has no effect. Wind is nonexistent as a fog prevents me from seeing the far side of the field. I take a deep breath, reach down and break the silence with a stern “hunt ‘em up”. Rupert and I’s first Utility Preparatory Test has begun.
Rupert, my 14-month-old Wirehaired Pointing Griffon, usually hunts at a medium range and medium speed. Usually. Today, he is ranging barely in sight and running at full tilt. Rupert is now 100-plus yards out and I see his tail move right and left, at first slow but it’s pace increasing with each stride. Rupert moves through the field like a snake, checking left then right then left again. Suddenly, he stops - tail high, head low.
I announce “point” but I am immediately worried. I have watched Rupert on point countless times. His head and tail are always high as if he is trying to look over the cover and spot the bird. The lack of wind, Rupert’s speed and his low head leave no doubt. He can see the bird and it’s likely just under his nose. I know if the bird buckles to the pressure Rupert likely will too.
I have often heard the military adage that “no plan survives first contact”. Little did I know that this applied to testing hunting dogs as well. The plan coming into this test was to give Rupert a sharp “whoa” on his first bird. In days past he has been steady to shot as long as his first point was reinforced. I am too far away from him to give the command so I do the only thing I can - move toward him as quickly as possible.
Without warning, I hear the familiar sounds of a game bird taking flight. Rupert cannot stand it and breaks into a full chase. Within 20 strides he catches the bird and turns returning to me. In my mind I hear the sound of a train derailing and my head lowers in deference. I know we are in trouble, I’m just not sure what to do about it. We continue to cover ground and I watch in disgust as Rupert catches the next three birds.
The judges direct me back toward the starting point. I know that if we cannot get a clean sequence we won’t prize. With each step back the feeling of dread rises and I began to mentally prepare myself for failure. I notice Rupert’s body language changing again as he makes game. “Point” I announce hopefully. I move around Rupert in a wide arc so he can see me. Moving in front, Rupert does not flinch. I stomp behind the chukar and it takes flight, the boom of a gunner follows and the bird falls. “Fetch!” I yell to Rupert already on a run. He retrieves the bird to within a step. The wheels might be off but we finished the field work with one OK sequence.
“Rupert sit... stay!” I command has Rupert looks out over a pond thick with lily pads. I raise the shotgun and fire a blank round. As Rupert stares out over the water I yell “Fetch”. Rupert turns his head and runs to my right down the bank. Seconds later I can hear him run to my left still on the shoreline. I lean, my body almost off balance, into the pond and look across as if I can see the downed duck Rupert is to search for.
I can feel my heart rate rising as he runs behind me again. I glance at my watch to see how much time as passed wondering if I should re-send Rupert. Rupert runs past, this time in front of me dashing chest-deep into the water. As he moves in front I can see him glance up at me. He goes another 25 yards to my left and then moves straight out into the pond. Every inch he moves through the water is a struggle as the lily pads tangle and snare his legs. Undeterred he makes larger and larger circles until the judges ask me to call him in to end the duck search.
“Scott the primary feathers are just up there,” states one of the judge’s gesturing to where the next phase of the test is to begin. “The duck was drug straight toward the woodline.” I grab Rupert’s collar palm up and direct him towards the start of the drag. “Fetch. Fetch. Fetch” I whisper to Rupert as I release him. He takes the track straight towards the woodline. Then decides to make a left turn. I watch as he tracks the two previous dogs’ drags. Eventually, bored, he returns to his track, enters the woods and finds the duck.
He heads straight toward me, duck securely in his mouth. When Rupert gets within 10 feet he stops and drops the duck. He does all of this without breaking eye contact. I almost can't believe this act of defiance. We have worked so hard on retrieving and he always, or so I thought, retrieves to hand. I scream “Fetch!” Rupert looks at me slowly picks up the bird and drops it again, this time within a step from me.
I am relieved to start our final test as Rupert walks in a heel to the side of a clear pond. I raise the shotgun as Rupert sits beside me. A duck flies through the air as I fire a blank. “Rupert, fetch”. Rupert enters the water and makes it halfway to the duck and turns around. He looks at me looking toward the duck and reenters the water. He again swims half the distance and turns around. As he enters the water for the third time the splash of large rocks, thrown in his direction, entices him to swim the distance to the duck. He retrieves within a step and the test is over.
A short while later, I listen to senior judge Eric Abraham as he explains that one failed test does not indicate a dog's future. I can’t help but feel that he is not speaking to the crowd but me directly. After what seems like an eternity, he reads Rupert and I’s score. I try to scribble down the numbers while at the same time trying to remember the minimum passing score of each category. Until, finally, I hear “...for a Prize 3, 121”. As the crowd claps I breathe a deep breath of satisfaction and relief.
I've heard that some modern day NAVHDA members may not to be satisfied with anything other than a Prize 1. I can appreciate striving for perfection and appreciate the skill level demonstrated in a Prize 1 day. On the flip side, I also understand that teamwork is not tested until you and your dog have faced adversity. Rupert and I started the test in the worst possible way a figurative train wreck. We pulled it together and I learned that we can work through catastrophe and salvage any wreck. I learned that the best laid plans of mice… err dogs… and men often go awry. At the end I know what needs to be done.. stay tuned for a future Utility Test.