"Yes, Heidi," I said into the receiver as my Wisconsin-born administrative assistant buzzed me on the intercom.
"Uh...Chip...Door is on the phone, and heads up," Heidi said conspiratorially, "she does not sound like a happy camper."
Immediately picking up the phone, I intoned smoothly, "Hi honey, whatís going on?"
"Your dogs!" she began in an exasperated southern drawl riddled with emotion, "your... your... dogs have completely destroyed my house." My bride of over thirty years has never accused me of being the sharpest arrow in the quiver, but even a plodding Southern boy such as myself could not mistake the tone - mama didnít raise no fool here; no siree. I knew I was in for a rough ride when she used the phrase "your dogs". It was the same with our sons when they did something spectacularly naughty, as they became my boys in the retelling.
Seeking to smooth things over, I quietly said, "Well, dear, why donít tell me all about it."
Calming herself, Door began, "Well, you know we put the child safety latches on the cabinet underneath sink to keep Dixie and Arwen from getting at the trash?"
"Uh-huh," I answered patiently.
"Well," she continued, "It doesnít work anymore."
"Thatís a simple fix," I responded, "Iíll pick a new one up from the hardware store on the way home, install it tonight, and weíll be done with that problem."
"You donít understand," she exclaimed in an exasperated voice, "It still works."
Puzzled, I asked, "Well then, how the heck did the girls get into the trash?"
"We now had a fully trained, Master Hunter, dumpster diving, garbage eating Houdini in lieu of the modest and proper six and a half year old spaniel I had trained."
Agitated, she continued, "Well, while I was at the store Dixie crawled in sideways from the cabinet on the other side, wormed here way under the kitchen sink drain pipe, grabbed the plastic liner bag in the trash basket, pulled it out of the basket and backed out of the cabinet with the liner in her teeth. She and Arwen then went on to spread cat food cans, coffee grounds and gunk all through the house. The girls rolled in the coffee grounds, then ran upstairs and rolled on our bed. When I came home, Dixie greeted me at the front door with a cat food can in her mouth."
A rich expletive designed to make a drill sergeant blush escaped my lips. This was more serious than I thought... far more serious. We now had a fully trained, Master Hunter, dumpster diving, garbage eating Houdini in lieu of the modest and proper six and a half year old spaniel I had trained.
My thoughts drifted back in time to when Dixie first entered our lives - but especially that of my wife Door. Zander and I had just returned from North Branch, where we had picked up the young Dixie from Tony and Bethann Roettger. I detailed our experiences learning to handle Dixie in this little Minnesota hamlet north of the twin cities in my first article in this series for the Spaniel Journal. Zander and I arrived at Dulles airport late one balmy September evening from the trip to pick up the little springer at Dulles Airport and Door had met as the baggage claim area. When Dixieís kennel slid through the outsize cargo door, Door rushed to Dixieís crate to get a look at the young dog. Instantly she was struck by Dixieís beauty and Doorís natural love of all animals immediately took over.
When Door was younger, her giant of a father, an incredibly talented Dutch research scientist who had uprooted his family from the city of Leeuwarden in northern Holland and moved them to the sleepy southern town of Augusta in the late 1950s, had limited her to five animals at any one time. Pouting, she reluctantly acquiesced to her fatherís rule, but never gave up trying to up the limit.
When Dixie came to live with us, we were down to only two animals: Annabelle, the guinea pig who beeped incessantly when we opened the refrigerator door, and Lucy, our venerable and much loved fourteen year old black American cocker who had survived two bouts of cancer, two adolescent boys and multiple moves. Lucy, tragically, was suffering from Cushing's disease, and would not survive the year. One of the reasons for bringing Dixie into our home when we did was that we really were not sure how long Lucy would be with us, and we wanted to have a dog at home for the boys.
Dixie and Door got off to a rocky start. The young springer was, after all, still a puppy and it taxed Lucy to be around her. This canine version of sibling rivalry grated on Door (and me too). But even after Lucy passed from this world, Door and Dixie did not arrive at a balance in their relationship for sometime. Dixie, a hard charging field bred dog, was a handful for anyone, and Door found her almost too difficult to control. In truth, in her youth Dixie was very much a "single" handler dog and the fact that she responded primarily to me was not easy on Door. Initially, Dixie proved to be a horrific heeler and often would nearly pull Doorís arm off when she spied a squirrel or bird close to the sidewalk. Try as I might, I could not get Dixie to heel properly so that Door could take
her on morning walks around the neighborhood until I resorted, in desperation as some may recall, to the e-collar to correct this issue.
Dixie also had a bad habit of ignoring Doorís recall commands in her early years with us. More than once I have watched Door run off hell bent for leather after Dixie had escaped to a neighborís yard in pursuit of this or that scent. On these occasions, Door would invariably have Dixie by the scruff of her neck with her left index finger in the "scold" position. Dixie has an annoying habit of flopping on her side submissively during these "coaching" sessions which further aggravated Door. "Chip," she would exclaim, "Dixie makes me feel so guilty when she does that flopping thing on the ground. Itís as if I beat her." I know full well that she would not and could not ever raise her hand in anger to an animal. Itís the principle of the thing in Doorís mind.
Over the years, however, Door and Dixie have bonded in the extreme. Inside, Dixie is Doorís dog. She follows my wife throughout the house. When Door retires to our bed for a half hour of reading before turning the light out, Dixie is invariably next to her on my pillow - drooling no doubt. The springer always positions herself next to Door in our den so as to receive an obligatory back scratch. When she needs to go outside, Dixie will gaze longingly with warm, wet spaniel eyes into Doorís to signal that it is time for her to attend to necessities. But outside Dixie is my dog. The years of training, hunting, and playing have forged us into a team. She finds the birds, I shoot them, and she brings them back - hunting 101.
"OK honey, I will stop by the hardware store and pick up another child safety latch for the cabinet on the other side on my way home. Iíll install it tonight."
Several days later, I again received an agitated call from my bride. "Honey, Dixie did it again," she almost shouted into the phone, this time with a hint of humor in her voice.
"Sweetheart, what exactly did she do again," I asked patiently.
"Despite the child safety latch, she managed to get her muzzle through the three inches between the cabinet door and the jam, and pull the trash bag out through the crack. Itís your turn to clean up the coffee grounds and cat food cans," she exclaimed.
"Damn," I thought to myself, "whatís up with that?"
Authorís note: this is the eleventh in a series of articles that chronicle both the development of a talented young spaniel and the rights of passage of an inexperienced trainer and handler.