Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Dog Named Blitz - Chapter Five, "One Year Old", Part 2

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

The good thing about a dog that needed a bath is that usually what got her dirty in the first place was around something fun. And we did indeed have fun duck hunting her first year. I had attempted hunting her a couple of times the season prior when she was just seven months old, but it just didn’t work. I tried to give ourselves the best chance possible to be successful by not hunting out of a boat, and instead hunting our dry land point. Out there Blitz would not be constrained by the small space of a boat, would not be covered up by camouflage where she couldn’t see very well, and pretty much could just be a dog. Unfortunately for me, I owned about a dog and a half in that little yellow body. Blitz spent the entire time dashing into the water, swimming around the decoys, running back onto the land, shaking, rolling in the cattails, then jumping back into the water to start the cycle all over again. She was so hard on the cattails that she ultimately flattened an area the size of a school bus, leaving us exposed to the wary, but likely entertained waterfowl flying overhead. Hence, between the noise of her thrashing and her swimming out in the very decoys in which I wanted our quarry to land, the hunting just was not going to be good, so her times out with me at this age were limited. And, no, we did not bag any ducks.

The following season I hoped that another year of growth and maturity would help, which it did. But not nearly as much as I thought, or I wanted. For, as I was able to see in multiple interactions with her, Blitz was unable to focus on one thing. It seemed she was always racing between new experiences and adventures; never content to sit and enjoy just one thing. For example, when sitting downstairs with her in the evening, I could give her a nice bone with which she’d curl up for a good ten minutes. After that she’d be up, drinking out of the toilet, grabbing some of my hunting gear out of the utility room, rolling around on the bed in the spare bedroom, putting her paws up on the pool table to pluck off a ball, or investigating the stairway gate for a possible jailbreak opportunity. I’d get off the couch, figure out where she was, corral her back into the living room where she’d work on the bone for another ten minutes when she’d eventually get up and head off for something bigger or better. I’m not sure if dogs can have ADD, but my dog clearly had a deficit in terms of her ability to pay attention. Her trainer Terry would tell me the same thing, but in more polite terms. “Uh, she really has a mind of her own. Yep, she sure does…” was often a piece of feedback I’d receive from him when inquiring about her progress.

But as a one year old, I was able to take her out in the boat, and while often a more active experience than I would have liked, it seemed to work fairly well. Within the blind fixture that sat atop the boat she’d roam around, moving from a specially designed “dog door” which provided a window to the action as well as a doorway for leaving on retrieves, to moving back and investigating what I was doing, then back again. She soon found that that there were things outside of the blind that were really interesting to her – lake water for drinking, cattails for chewing, and breezes for sniffing. This meant that she’s spend a good portion of her time psychically hanging outside of the dog door, inching closer and closer to falling into the lake. Most moments in the boat with her for me were spent looking at her yellow butt, tail waging, while the rest of her stuck out outside of the blind.

Eventually Blitz would get to a point of distraction that would ultimately get her in trouble – that one cattail that was just out of reach was often the culprit – and she’d make a move that would put her into the lake. At this point I’d need to secure my gun, reach outside of the dog door, and aid her reentry into the boat. The really bad part about this was that the dog door was in the middle of the enclosed blind, and I’d have to lie across the boat to pull Blitz back inside the boat. It left little room for maneuvering, and also left me with no place to go when the newly wet dog needed to shake off. Often, the shake would happen right in my face. Fortunately, most duck hunting clothes are waterproof. Unfortunately, I wasn’t wearing anything to cover my face.

Despite multiple dunks due to distractions outside of the boat, Blitz eventually became adept at exiting the dog door without falling into the lake. This was an incredible feat, as the blind sitting atop the boat completely covered it from gunwale to gunwale, with nearly vertical walls that rose directly up from the side of the boat. I’m still not sure how she did it, but Blitz somehow found a toehold on the blind, and would walk around the outside of the boat. I happened to be hunting with my buddy Fuzzy when Blitz pulled the exit stunt once. Blitz had moved out, and you could make out her movements on the outside of the blind based on the movement of the blind material. Fuzzy eventually asked, sarcastically, “Hey, Sid, where’s your dog?” “Defying gravity,” I correctly replied.

While the distractions of the dog’s ADD made things difficult at times, Blitz turned out to be a very good retriever. She quickly put together the correlation between the sound of the duck call and a retrieving opportunity, so once the calling started she would snap to attention, eyes skyward, looking for our quarry. In dog training parlance, having the dog see where a dummy or bird fall is called “marking,” and it makes it easier for the dog, once sent on retrieve, know where to go. Retrieves of birds falling without the dog seeing it are termed “blind,” and are substantively more difficult. Most highly trained dogs are trained for just such an event by used of what are called hand signals. In this training, the dog watches the handler, taking verbal and physical cues to guide their movement, until they get to the point where they can see or smell the downed bird. When executed with an intelligent and highly trained dog and an adept handler, it can be a thing of beauty. I’ve been witness to some of Fuzzy’s dogs making 80-100 blind retrieves, and it is incredibly fun to watch.

For Blitz, I did not extend the training to include hand signals, but I did do a couple of things in her training that aided her ability to find birds. First, I trained her to ignore decoys by throwing dummies through them, then ultimately throwing dummies into them. We initially did this on dry land, then replicated the exercise in the water. I’m fortunate that the training ultimately worked great. Given Blitz’s proclivity for distraction, a spread of a couple of dozen decoys were a disaster waiting to happen, but Blitz was so retrieve-crazy, she would solely focus on the dummy, and learned quickly that decoys are really boring.

The second thing I did was play a ton of fetch with her. Upon launching the dummy or the ball, I’d command “FETCH!” as she’s chase after the objective. She was crazy about fetching, and quickly learned that she couldn’t go out for another one unless she first brought the dummy back. I eventually got to the point where I’d throw dummies in to thick cover with the intention of making her really hunt to find the dummy. And no matter how buried the dummy was or how hard it was to find, I’d encourage her by saying “fetch it up,” until the dummy had been retrieved. Hence, when I uttered the command of “FETCH!” Blitz knew that there was something for her to pick up, and while it may be hard to find, it was out there, somewhere.

Unfortunately for some birds that were shot during hunting, Blitz was completely hidden within the blind, and hence she didn’t even know what side of the boat to start her search for the retrieve. In those instances, I’d throw a shell into the water in the direction of the downed bird, and that would be about as much help as she’d need. She would swim and work until the bird was found, or until I called her back into the boat.

Watching her retrieve was a joy, as she worked so hard and used all her senses. Often she’d be heading in the direction of a downed bird; swimming strong, but still unaware of the exact location. Ultimately, she’d get a glimpse of the bird, would hear it moving through the cover, or would get downwind to point where she could scent it, and her swimming would instantly shift from deliberate to a sprint. Absolutely nothing gave that dog more joy than retrieving, and her enthusiasm was contagious. I wish I enjoyed my life’s work with the same gusto and joy.

I found out the hard way, though, that sometimes that exuberance comes at a price. Blitz and I hunted together, and we had a particularly good weekend of hunting. I bagged a number of nice ducks, and Blitz did her part with a number of excellent retrieves. She made a couple of long ones, and ended up swimming more than she ever had previously. So when we left for home, the little yellow lab in the back of the truck never made a peep the whole ride. Ultimately we arrived at the dog wash in Hutchinson, and I got Blitz ready for requisite post-hunting bath. While washing her, I noticed that her tail, which was usually so active, was hanging uncharacteristically low. It wasn’t tucked in underneath her like she didn’t like the bath as she sometimes did, it just hung there limp like it was dead. I washed her tail, and she let out a little ‘yipe,” so I thought she must have hurt it some way. I finished her bath, carefully dried her, and got her back into the kennel.

We arrived home, and again my wife met us in the garage. She took one look at Blitz, who usually upon seeing my wife would shake her tail so hard that her entire rear end would sway, but now possessed just this limp tail, and immediately inquired what was wrong. I correctly replied that I didn’t know, that she must have hurt it sometime, but I was sure she was fine. We kept close tabs on the dog that night, but knew that something was up when it came time for Blitz to do her business. Blitz was only able to move her tail barely enough to make room for stuff to come out, so things were clearly wrong. I manipulated the tail, and it was clearly sore for the dog, but with it being Sunday night there was not much we could do about it. We ultimately went to the internet where we were quickly and accurately able to diagnose Blitz’s malady as “swimmer's tail.” It seems water dogs will use their tails as rudders to help them swim, and after periods of extended use, especially in cold water, the tail can become overworked and enter into the limp state in which we were seeing.  While it looked pathetic and clearly was painful, it would be temporary and was indeed common.

That mattered not to my wife, and future hunting trip departures were accompanied by the demand of "don't break my dog's tail." 

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