Friday, March 4, 2011

A Dog Named Blitz - Chapter Four, "Dog Training, Sir" Part 6

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

The time at the tailgate is just what both hunters and dogs needed.  While dogs took in much needed water, hunters did the same, but also passed around a thermos of hot coffee, as well as a box of convenience store doughnuts.  Stories immediately started about who did what (and who didn’t do what) over our previous hunt, and already the tales grew large.  Even though we were all just there and lived them, the stories improved with the embellishments and exaggerations. 
A critical part of all of this is giving each other a hard time, and my buddy JT is especially expert in this regard.  This time at the truck was typical, and he quickly moved into a grand story about some recent episode.  As his storytelling grew more animated, so did his gesturing, and in his ranting, none of us noticed that in one of his hands he was waving around a semi-stale but still luscious glazed convenience store doughnut. 
The only one that did notice was Blitz, fresh off her stop to the water bowl. 
As JT waved and continued his story, Blitz came from behind him, timed her jump perfectly to appropriately lead the delicious pasty in all the flapping, and cleanly picked the entire doughnut from the waving hand in one beautifully athletic, orchestrated move. 
This lead to what I can only describe as the “no, no, oh,” moment that occurred any time in which Blitz had acquired some food that she shouldn’t have.  I’d immediately run to her saying “NO,” and hoping to get to her to remove the offending morsel prior to it being devoured.  Blitz, being a speed eater, would note my impending actions and accelerate her pace, which lead to the “uh,” moment as I realized that I was too late and the forbidden food was already down the hatch.  As I moved quickly (but not quickly enough), JT went though the process of counting his digits to ensure that the dog hadn’t taken any extraneous protein in her carbohydrate-based assault.  Indeed her aim was true, and a strong pall of thanks fell over the scene: the hunters thankful for the comedic interruption to JT’s story, JT thankful for having retained all of his fingers, and of course Blitz thankful for the forbidden snack. 
Watered and rested, we moved to begin the next phase to our hunt.  We began pressing across a field of thin cover, on our way to a much more promising stand of switch grass in the adjacent field.  While the cover was thin, the dogs worked it hard, quartering out and back, but never showing any signs of quarry in the area. 
We ultimately arrived at a border area which was demarked by a barbwire fence.  One by one, we handed guns to each other and safely made our way to the other side, while dogs had the good fortune of simply running underneath the obstacle.  Assembled on the other side, we made a quick plan on our point of approach and started spreading out to cover the next field. 
I was taking my place in line, when I noticed that Blitz was no longer messing around with the other dogs.  I quickly looked around, and found her about 20 yards behind me, in an area that I, three other hunters, and two other dogs had just walked past.  She was there; locked completely motionless, staring at a lump of grass no bigger than the size of a backpack.  I immediately wondered if she was on point, but it was a fleeting thought.  Too much activity had passed that spot – both human and canine – for a bird to hold.  Likewise, the area was just too darned small to conceal a pheasant. 
“Blitz, what are you doing?” I exclaimed as I turned and headed back to her.  About two steps into my return a rooster pheasant exploded from that small patch of grass immediately in front of Blitz’s nose. 
At this point, everything went into slow motion for me:  The bird flushed straight up and immediately began banking to take advantage of the wind to put as much space between him us as he could.  I quickly shouldered my gun, consciously thinking the whole time, “OK, this is Blitz’s first bird.  You’re close.  Take your time and don’t mess this up.” 
 I messed it up. 
I executed my three shots about as quickly as my gun could mechanically process them.  I couldn’t have been any quicker on the trigger, and my heart broke as the cock made the most of his altitude and wind and headed for safety. 
His flight path, however, was guarded by my uncle.  The bird was now at about 30,000 feet flying at mach 2, so I wasn’t surprised when the first shot missed, but with the second shot, the bird crumpled into a heap.  With the momentum of the flight, the dead bird sailed across a deep creek to the opposite bank.  The whole time Blitz was on the bird, running on the same line as the bird’s flight, preparing for the fall so she could retrieve it.  Immediately the other guys in the hunting party generously commanded their dogs to return – this was going to be Blitz’s retrieve. 
The bird was a good 80 years away from our party, and with the difficulty of the creek crossing, I felt there was no way that she’d be successful, but I barked out my encouragement as she dove into the think cover on our side of the creek.  Seconds later, up reappears my yellow pup scaling up the steep opposite bank, which elicited immediate cheers and yells of encouragement by the entire group. 
Blitz made it to the top and headed into the cover in the general vicinity of the fallen bird.  I was yelling encouragement to her the whole time, but I still believed that her odds of making what those in the industry call a “blind retrieve” were long.  I was about to be surprised by her hunting performance for the first time, and it would repeat itself many times in our days together, as after about thirty seconds of rustling around, Blitz suddenly appeared on the far bank with her first flushed wild bird in her mouth. 
A huge cheer went up with the guys who were likewise surprised at the performance.  I began to call her into me for the completion of the retrieve, but as I tried to yell “Here, Blitz!” I could only get about half of it out as I was choking up.  Seeing her run at me, bird in her mouth, after executing perfectly, just got to me.  I had a clear revelation that I was a hunting dog owner, and she was a good dog.  That’s pretty much I that I could want at that moment. 
The exuberant pup came right up to me, released the bird without too much of a struggle, and looked up at me as if to say, “OK, boss, what’s next?!” totally obvilious to the huge step that she, I, and we had taken.   
One of the best parts of hunting for me is the time after the hunt, sitting around with the guys and a libation, replaying the day just occurred.  That night we happened to be at a small bar in Atlantic, Iowa, when my buddy Pauly cornered me at the end of the bar.  “Mikey,” he said, “I think you’re going to have a hell of a dog.”  “Thanks, Pauly,” I replied.  “I hope you’re right.” 
But something deep down inside me knew that he was right.  She was going to be a hell of a dog.  

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