Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Dog Named Blitz - Chapter Four, "Dog Training, Sir" Part 5

For background on this serial, please click here. You can also start at the previous section 

The day couldn't have been more perfect for a first hunt.  The temperature was in the mid 40's with prospects to not go much higher.  The sky was overcast, but with zero chance of precipitation, and we had a good 10 mile per hour wind to aid the dogs' scenting.  Our crew of eight hunters and five dogs stretched out along our first field of switchgrass and began our first push.   

The grass was a direct result of the Conservation Reserve Program; a government program that compensates landowners for keeping their land in vegetative cover instead of farming it.  The benefits to the ecosystem by this program have been vast, with positive impacts to soil erosion, water quality, and wildlife.  The Ring-necked Pheasant, in particular, thrives in such environs.  Hence, our prospects were good for seeing birds, and perhaps giving Blitz a shot at her first retrieve.   

Immediately our four veteran dogs went to work with noses down, quartering the field quickly, and taking commands.  And trailing these workers was one young yellow dog, whose release from confinement combined with four new playmates, combined for a situation that can best be described as "jacking around."  My hunting companions were sympathetic with the situation, and a number had already addressed it with me in pre-hunting conversations.  "Listen, she's a pup and this is her first hunt.  This is not about you.  This is about her.  The only thing you need to do is let her be a dog and have fun.  We don't care what she does, so you shouldn't either," was said multiple times to me.  Despite these conversations, I found myself getting frustrated.  Why wouldn't she concentrate and work like she did at Terry's?  Are the guys going to get frustrated with her interference with their dogs?  My  worry manifested itself into commands for the dog, who in her exuberance was paying very little attention.  My frustrations were growing, as were the volume of my commands, until one in our group barked, "Mikey!  She's doing fine!  Just let her be!"  That helped to snap me out of it and was effective in taking my frustration down a couple of levels.  I was appreciative for the feedback.   

The huge swath of CRP we were pushing was eventually ending at a gravel road.  Given the pheasant's proclivity to run from danger instead of flushing, the road represented the end of their running.  They'd not expose themselves in the open road and would have to fly to escape.  We slowed our pace, moved one of our party around us an onto the road to act as a "blocker" and began our final push forward.  The way the dogs had been acting - tails active and moving at a much more deliberate pace - we were sure that we were pushing birds in front of us, and with them pinched in against the road, it was only a matter of time until they were airborne.   

At about 75 yards to the road, the first rooster flushed.  As is common with pheasants, a flushing bird in proximity of other birds often instigate those birds to flush as well, and that was the case in this situation as well.  That first rooster evoked a mass flush, soon the air was filled with multiple birds.  Only the male of the species can be harvested, so when pheasant hunting it is important for hunters to identify birds to the group upon a flush.  Hence, you'll often her shouts of either "Rooster!" or "Hen!"  Unfortunately for us, with so many birds in the air at the same time, there were multiple shouts of both going on simultaneously.  All of the activity was an overload for Blitz - with men shouting, birds flying, guns shooting, and dogs running.  About the time she was focused on something, another distraction came up and her focus would change.  Hence when our final tally for the field was gathered - five beautiful roosters - Blitz had a hand in none of their flushes or retrieves.   

While I was disappointed that we had missed on a great opportunity to get her a bird, I was heartened to see so many birds in the area.  I knew we would have more chances before this trip ended.   

We gathered up and moved to a hillside to our right which would meander back about a mile to the place where we had parked.  Once back at the vehicles we could get the dogs watered, drop off the birds, and plan our next push.  The cover on the hill was sparse, but it did hold its share of birds, and we ended up flushing multiple hens and added a couple of roosters to the bag as well.  Again, Blitz played no role in any of these birds, but the activity of the field prior seemed to trigger something in her, as she was tracking birds in the air, using her nose, and for the first time today, actually hunting.   

Our slow pace eventually wound around to the trucks, where tailgates dropped, water bowls filled, birds emptied from game vests, and the post-game conversation had begun.  Each hunter had a slightly different experience of what had just happened (or didn't happen), and these times at the tailgate were where the insults, compliments, tall tales, and laughs all began. For me, it is the best part of the hunt, and it is what gets me outside.   

I had this made very clear to me from an industrial psychologist, of all people.  As part of a pre-hire situation at my pervious employer, I was put through a full day of an intensive battery of tests (intelligence, logic, ethics, etc.) and interviews with a shrink.  The process was intense, as one of things that was being tested was my ability to handle pressure.  It ended up being a very enlightening process for me, and I was glad that I went through it.  I learned a lot about myself because of it.   

During one of the interviews, the psychologist asked me, "Mike, it you could be any place right now, this morning, where would it be?"  It just so happened that it was a blustery October day, and I knew that the ducks had to migrating, so my reply was obvious.  "That's easy," I answered, "I'd like to be at my duck camp hunting right now."  The psychologist furrowed his brow.  "Mike, I'm going to be completely honest with you.  I don't believe you.  There's nothing in any of the test results that shows you have a proclivity for outdoor pursuits, at least not to justify the answer you gave me to the specific question that I couched to you."  I was totally taken aback - I answered completely honestly.  In justifying my answer, I stammered an explanation of why being up there meant so much to me, and why my answer was indeed truthful.  Upon completion of my explanation, the psychologist stared silently at me for what seemed like an eternity.  He then thumbed through a stack of papers on his lap, which appeared to be his notes, and my test results.  Quickly his disappointed face lightened, and he said, "Ah, I get it."  Whew!  "You see," he explained "you truly don't test for anything outdoor related.  By you test extremely high for social interaction and connectedness.  Very high.  What you just explained to me about wanting to be at your farm with the guys hunting now makes total sense.  It's not the hunting for you.  It's that the hunting provides a conduit to this social connection that is so important to you."   

While I passed the test in the psychologist's eyes (and I landed the job), I've often felt that his diagnosis was wrong.  I hunted alone lots of times.  Then I thought about it.  When I hunted, I was not alone.  I was with my dog.  For me, the social connection didn't need to be a human one.  A canine connection worked just fine.             

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