Along Came a Spaniel by Chris Zell
I still recall the day in December of 2001 when I mentioned to my wife, Lisa, that I needed to get a pup. But what breed? I said I wanted one that would do well chasing pheasants as I did not spend that much time in the marsh. She thought about it for a while and a few hours later recommended a field bred English springer spaniel.
The search was on! I couldn't believe that I was getting my first dog. Growing up in South Dakota, I had hunted pheasants with several folks who had nice dogs. But I never had one myself. This was going to be my first pup! After a month or so of searching, we found a little black and white female bred by Jerry and Sue Wotojowicz of Elk River, Minnesota. As described by Jerry, "She was the runt of the litter and was born last, into my hands on our driveway."
As it turns out, this little springer came along at just about the right time in my life. My job, at the time, was on the bubble and a few long-time pursuits were starting to fade. Within a week we named her 'Lucy' and I was hooked into keeping an energetic little pup occupied with walks in the woods and wing-covered bumpers.
The thought of an unschooled pup turned loose into the prairie sloughs was frightening. I had seen high-drive retrievers clear a shooting field in less than a minute - some not returning for hours. Not wanting to suffer the consequences exclusively reserved for covert-cleaners, I began collecting and reading every spaniel training book I could find. It was not long before I noticed that most books were long on philosophy and general advice, but short on specific, skill-building drills.
I am a right-brained fellow so I was relieved when I finally found Hunt'em Up authored by Joe Arnette and George Hickox. Drills, approximate timelines and troubleshooting advice are included within their guide for first-time spaniel trainers. Although I have since found other helpful resources, I believe the section regarding obedience and collar conditioning (optional) is the best I have seen in writing - including contemporary retriever materials. Additional sections dedicated to patterning, retrieving, hunting dead and tracking served Lucy well in preparing for her first meeting with Johnny Ringneck.
At the tender young age of eight months, Lucy abandoned the notion of control that I had established with pen-raised birds and training situations. Her first South Dakota pheasant season was upon us! That first season is filled with many memories. I specifically recall a left to right crossing rooster which my father-in-law and I both hit. The rooster landed about 40 yards into the middle of an over-grazed pasture and ran straight towards a bordering cattail marsh. None of the dogs were able to mark the bird down from behind a shelterbelt of cedars. I called Lucy to my side, lined her to the area of the fall and told her to "find it".
My words were ignored, however, as she was already running on a line toward the cattails. A minute or two later, Lucy emerged about 80 yds away from within the cattails with a protesting rooster. We enjoyed a well-earned limit that day, taking our last bird before a crisp October sunset laid the prairie to rest.
Four plus years into this journey, Lucy and I have hunted pheasants, ruffed grouse, sharptail grouse, dove, quail, woodcock and ducks... plus the occasional rabbit. We have played around with spaniel and retriever hunt tests and even entered a few field trials! Through these adventures, I have been very fortunate to meet some truly genuine and outstanding people. Time after time, folks simply bent over backwards to make us feel welcome and answer our questions. With time, I have come to recognize that it's just the way spaniel enthusiasts are. Sometimes I think that the qualities and personalities of our pups rub off on us.
"Life is funny sometimes. What seemed to be the smallest of choices has yielded enduring rewards."
Apparently, spaniel fever is catchy. Several of us in Missouri began discussing the possibility of establishing a recognized spaniel club and hosting performance events. Following a helpful dose of encouragement from the great folks in Kansas and Oklahoma, the Missouri Hunting Spaniel Club (MHSC) was born! Founded in 2005 by Tim Baker, Jackie O'Guin, Lisa and myself, MHSC has made steady progress towards hosting AKC licensed events. MHSC completed two sanctioned hunt tests in 2006 and we expect to host our inaugural AKC licensed hunt test in late March of 2007. For more information about MHSC events, please contact the author at email@example.com.
Life is funny sometimes. What seemed to be the smallest of choices has yielded enduring rewards. Much of my free time now revolves around our dogs in one way or another. Trips to the training fields, hunting grounds, the vet and performance events are scribbled across our fall and spring calendars. Along came a spaniel into my life and what a ride it has been!
Chris Zell and his wife, Lisa, live near Rocheport, Missouri. They entertain two field bred English springer spaniels, a field bred English cocker spaniel, a Chesapeake Bay retriever, and a German shepherd. Chris is a project manager for a water quality consulting firm in Columbia, Missouri.