Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Dog Named Blitz - Chapter Four, "Dog Training, Sir!" Part 2

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

Three things quickly became evident to me. 1) I had one hard-headed dog. Between the subtle episodes where commands needed to be repeated thirteen times before being accepted to the outright defiance of the "screw you" look, she had a mind of her own. 2) I was not cut out for this dog training business. The trauma at the dock was a crisis that was narrowly averted, and I couldn't take additional chances. 3) My wife needed a break. From skinned knees from walkies incidents, incessant barking for dinner upon arriving home, and random jailbreaks with their wake of destruction, my wife was at a point where returning to being a non-dog home, even if for a short while, had significant appeal. Hence, shipping Blitz out for training seemed like a good solution on multiple fronts.

In preparation I did the necessary research to find an appropriate spot to mold my little blond hellion to a disciplined and methodical hunting machine. My research quickly pointed me to Holzinger Kennels, which ran its shop out of the Minnesota Horse and Hunt Club; a shooting preserve located in nearby Prior Lake. I had been to MHHC on numerous occasions as a good buddy of mine was a member there, likewise, I had been in a sporting clays league for a couple of years out there as well. The facility is among the finest in the nation, and Terry Holzinger, the owner of the kennel, came quite highly regarded on his own. He had previously worked with Tom Dokken, one of the best dog trainers in Minnesota, and had brought much of that successful and proven philosophy and approach to his own business.

Terry and I agreed on a plan for some basic obedience along with gun and bird exposure, shook hands and I handed my handful of a pup over. Blitz was sad at my departure, but was quickly distracted by all of the new smells of all the other dogs, gunpowder, and birds. I knew she was in good hands.

I admit that I was sad to not have her around at home during this period, especially at night. It was just too darn quiet and uneventful. Ultimately, though, I found the time without Blitz to be relaxing – not having to get pulled down the street by a dog that desperately had to poop at 4:00AM in the morning can really change one’s perspective for the better. Despite these changes, the biggest one, to my surprise, was that my wife appeared to miss the dog. A mere week into an 8 week training session, she was bugging me to call Terry to “find out how doggy is doing.” We debated this, with me explaining that the dog is just fine, it is a lot like camp for Labradors, and we don’t need to check in.

Vera was adamant and eventually wore me down, which resulted in my first call at week two. I remember it distinctly: “Hi Terry, its Mike ,” I said, “I’m just calling to see how Blitz is getting along.” Long silence. “Uh, I don’t know…She really has a mind of her own…We’re working though things, uh, I don’t know…” stammered Terry. I figured this was dog trainer-speak for either “Buddy, your dog sucks!” or “I’m setting the expectations bar low here so the guy doesn’t demand his money back.” Either way, I knew it wasn’t good. But Terry closed with an optimistic sign off and my hopes were at least slightly buoyed. That’s when Vera chimed in, “How’s the dog doing?” “Not real good,” I correctly replied. “WHAT? What’s the matter? Do we need to pick her up?” my wife frantically quizzed. “No,” I muttered, “the dog is fine, it is just the training that is not going good.” Vera pressed, “I don’t care about the training, how is Blitzy doing? Is she getting along with the other dogs? Does she get enough attention? Does she like it there? That’s what I want to know.” “Uh,” I replied, “we really didn’t talk about that stuff.” “WHAT? How could you not ask about how the dog is doing? Call back and find out!”

l assured my wife that the dog was doing fine and that doggy camp was definitely the place to be, but soon found that the questions of “Did you talk to Terry today? When are you going to call him?” would be a new part of my daily life. I tried not to be a thorn in my trainer's side, and limited my contacts to about once a week. Unfortunately, subsequent updates from Terry weren’t that dissimilar from our first, until one day at about week six in which he called me to come out and see how Blitz did in the field. “Perfect,” I responded to his request, “what do I need to bring?” “Just some boots and an open mind,” he ominously replied. This was going to be interesting.

I arrived at the appointed time with the requisite boots and attitude, and was giddy to be seeing Blitz again. Step one was to get us reunited, and we had ourselves quite the dog party getting reacquainted. I'm not sure who was happier to see who, but it didn't matter, as there were smiles all around. Blitz had the same mannerisms, but I could tell she'd gown some, and that made me realize just how long she'd been gone, which did make me a touch sad.

Ultimately it was time to work, and Terry loaded Blitz into the trailer and we headed off for some field work. The game plan was to plant four bobwhite quail in the field to show off Blitz's hunting - including flushing the bird and retrieving it. Given all of the dummies I'd thrown for her in her life, I knew retrieving wouldn't be an issue, but I was worried how she'd hunt. I was excited to see her perform in this first test. Terry and his apprentice set the four birds in a two acre switch grass field, then loaded up an old pump gun and released Blitz from her crate. Immediately I noticed that my crazy little pup had transformed into a hunting dog. She dashed at full speed across the field, using her nose in a frantic search to find the birds. At about 20 yards out and to our left, she caught a whiff mid-dash, spun hard to her left, and a quail exploded from the cover. A quick shot by Terry dispatched the quarry, with Blitz following the flight and fall of the bird the whole way. She found it immediately, and brought the bird back to us like she'd done so for years.

I was ecstatic! Look at my big dog hunting those birds up! Once the bird was dropped off, Blitz dove back into hunting and continued her pace like a retriever possessed - back and forth, nose down, tail twitching, and feet moving in basically a dead sprint. Given the cover and her size, she sometimes got lost out view, but while one might not have been able to see her, the wake she made through the switch grass was unmistakable. She burst out of one such clump, took a hard right, and froze in a dead stop in front of a small weed patch. Immediately Terry yelled, "Point!" I couldn't believe it. My Labrador, a breed that was bred for their flushing abilities, appeared to be on point. Pointing as a trait has been attempted to be bred into Labs for years now, and a number of kennels have launched that specialize in Labs that are predisposed to point. Given this unique ability, these dogs command huge prices, and to think that I might have a pointing Lab for what I had paid Randy Bartz seemed too good to be true. "She points?" I asked aloud, still dumbfounded. "Yeah, she's doing it right now," replied Terry in a "well, duh" tone.

We both crept in behind Blitz, who was still statue still, and sure enough were able to see the quail about four feet in front of her nose. Finally the additional company got to be too much for the nervous quail, and it burst from its hide into the sky. Terry's first shot was true, and soon Blitz was headed back to us with another bird. The final two birds were taken in similar fashion, with Blitz moving like a mad-dog, ultimately locking up like somebody hit her pause button, Terry shooting, and Blitz returning with the bird.

Upon completion, we kenneled Blitz back up in the truck and recapped what we just witnessed. "What did you think?" inquired Terry. "I can't believe it!" I exclaimed. "I didn't think I'd ever see a performance like that our of her. Never" "You ain't seen nothin'," chimed in the apprentice with a grin. "Usually she cleans that field in about half the time." "He's not jokin'," Terry said, shaking his head.

There were still a couple of weeks of training that Blitz needed to do before she'd come home, and I had an upcoming trip down to Iowa for their pheasant opener coming up. I asked Terry if he thought Blitz would be ready to go our for her first hunt. He replied in the affirmative, reminding me that it was critical that she have fun, was able to screw up without consequence, and ultimately to have no expectations put upon her. Seemed fair enough to me, so I agreed to pick her up next weekend for the trip. I did have one last question: we had been working with small quail - how would she react to the much bigger pheasant? "Oh, don't worry" Terry said knowingly. "I think she'll probably figure it out just fine."

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