It is a long road to Seasoned.
After Just Ducky's First Edition (Edie) earned her Started title in 2004, I set about training for Seasoned. If I had known then what I know now, I am not at all sure I would have embarked on this the journey. In Started, we simply had to complete two single marked retrieves on land at a distance not to exceed 75 yards followed by two single marked retrieves in water at a distance not to exceed 60 yards. Not that my heart wasn't in my throat each time we went to the line, but in hindsight it was a simple test.
Seasoned, however, is a whole different matter. The single marks become doubles on land and water. In doubles, the birds fall one after another so the dog must commit the first to memory, retrieve the second bird and then go back and pick up the first. The distances for these marks also increase to up to 100 yards on land and up to 75 yards on water. Blind retrieves, which I describe as playing Marco-Polo with your dog, are also introduced in Seasoned along with a walk-up and a diversion. Basically, an entirely new skill set is required just to compete at the Seasoned level. A year ago I just didn't know how hard it would be for a complete novice to go about structuring drills, teaching the necessary skills in the right order, finding grounds upon which to train and, most of all, getting birds when you live in the city. Now I do.
Once our handling drills for blinds were completed, I quickly realized that I needed to lengthen our marking exercises beyond the range of my throwing ability. My Lab friends have all the cool equipment: bumper boys and remote wingers that are just the ticket for training for those longer marks. For some time, my husband had been looking askance at the growing inventory of dog-related training aids and, of course, the accessories and apparel for the handler. I realized that buying a winger or bumper boy might not be in the budget this year, but I had another idea. I would become an employer.
Annie Blalock is the eight year old daughter of a dear friend and I've known her since the day she was born. She has been around dogs and horses all of her life and she was the perfect candidate for a Bird Girl. Best of all, she lives near our training field.
With her mother's blessings, I asked Annie if she was interested in the job of helping me train Edie. I explained that being a Bird Girl was a big responsibility and that I could not continue to train Edie without help. After hearing what the job would entail Annie decided to give Bird Girl duties a trial run that weekend.
We sat down to discuss the experience after a chilly afternoon session in which Annie tossed bumpers and marked the pile for me. Not only did she have fun, she especially liked the idea that it was a real job with payment-in-full after each session. We shook hands and "Bird Girl Annie" was born!
The next day I called Annie's mother, Liz, to make sure that the Bird Girl job was truly something that Annie wanted to do and to tell her how happy I was with the arrangement. After overcoming her protestations about the Bird Girl salary we both got tears in our eyes when she told me that Annie had made up a little money box and labeled it "Bird Girl Savings".
Three months later, Annie now has her own duck call on a lanyard and a camouflage shirt embroidered with her name and title. She doesn't think much of dead pigeons and ducks, but the rest of the job suits her just fine. Recently, I sat down with Annie to get her own thoughts on the matter.
Q: What do you think of your job as a Bird Girl?
A: It is very, very, very fun. I like blowing the duck call best.
Q: Is there anything you don't like about being a Bird Girl?
A: I didn't like it when I fell in the water. The mud was yucky. Dead birds are gross, but I guess that is why I am called Bird Girl.
Q: Would you like to go with us and watch a hunt test so you can see what Edie will be able to do when she is trained?
A: Yes, I would like that very much.
Q: Your mom tells me that you are saving your Bird Girl money. What are you going to do with it?
A: I guess I will save it for college.
Q: What do your friends say when you tell them about being a Bird Girl?
A: They say I am lucky to have a real job.
Q: Now that you have been helping me train Edie do you want to train a dog yourself?
A: Yes, I hope my dog Lolly has puppies so I can train one of them.
If Miss Edie has a litter of puppies this summer you just might see Bird Girl Annie make her debut as a handler in a puppy class . Keep your fingers crossed!