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Dixie: Chronicles of a Field Bred English Springer Spaniel by Chip Schleider

It was uncharacteristically cold for early December in Georgia; it was a wet cold that penetrated deep down to your bones and made your body ache. Dixie, Arwen, Jazz and I had driven down from Virginia the day before, and the sleet had fallen heavily outside of Greenville, South Carolina. On a wing and a prayer we made it to our hotel outside of the small north Georgia hamlet of Lavonia - skidding into the parking lot of the Sleep Inn (the Schleiders only travel first class) before the roads got really bad. I had embarked on the pilgrimage, at Richard Beaton’s request, to the Cocker Spaniel Specialty Club of Georgia for an Urban Gun Dog book signing, to run Arwen and Jazz in a hunt test, and to run Dixie in her first ever Master Hunting Dog Excellent (MHDX) test the Friday afternoon prior to the hunt test.

"My eyes bored into hers with a subliminal message that said "let go of this damn thing or else you and I will have some serious issues later on." She got the message - one down and one to go."

My good friends Jim and Deb Brueggemann, witnesses to Dixie’s achievement of her Master Hunter title the year before, were planning to run Piper, their talented young English springer, in the Friday afternoon MHDX test. Ron and Bev Haag, two highly experienced judges, had flown into Atlanta that morning from Wisconsin, the weather there not much different than in Georgia. They had hurried to the test grounds racing against the waning sunlight and increasingly threatening weather. Heavily overcast skies, brisk temperatures, and a steady northeast wind set the stage for the test, as we stamped our feet, rubbed our gloved hands together, and moved around to stay warm.

I was somewhat apprehensive. Dixie and Arwen were fresh off our annual South Dakota trip, and had performed well. However, I had foolishly neglected their hunt test training - neither dog had been in the water for a month. Jazz, running his first Master Hunter series, was fresh off the field trial circuit having just returned from the Cocker Nationals. He had made it through the entire field trial without placing, a distinct achievement in itself. Jazz’s water work similarly had taken a back seat to preparations for the Nationals. The dogs were ill prepared for the rigors of the tests they would face.

The English springer MHDX test is a tough one consisting of four separate test scenarios, to which are applied standards more demanding than those for the AKC Master Hunter test. In the upland hunt scenario, two dogs run in a brace, much like one encounters in field trial scenarios, and are required to find, flush, and retrieve to hand two shot birds (usually pheasants). The dogs must be rock steady to flush and shot, stay in their respective lanes, and honor the flush and shot for the dog in the next lane. The land blind requires a dog to take directions to a downed bird not marked by the dog at a distance of approximately 50 yards. The standard here is tougher than the Master Hunter hunt dead, and requires a dog to take line to the bird whose position is unknown to the dog but is known to the handler, and a accomplish the retrieve by taking specific directions from the handler (alas Virginia, there is no Santa Claus on this one). The penalty for a dog refusing to take a command from the handler is steep indeed.

The water portion of the test consists of two scenarios. The first, the water blind retrieve, requires a dog to accomplish a blind retrieve of approximately 40 to 60 yards in length while swimming through or over muck, goo, fallen logs, algae blooms, and other terrible things all the time taking arm and whistle signals from the nervous handler. As in the land blind retrieve, the standards are stricter than those for Master Hunter. No free hunting is allowed here, and the dog must be handled to directly the bird. The final test scenario is the double marked water retrieve again at distances of 40 to 60 yards. The standard requires the dog to be line steady, remember both marks, and be capable of accomplishing the retrieves through decoy diversions. All in all, this is a serious test of dog and handler, and my palms sweated as I anticipated the challenges we would face.

We started the upland test as the shadows began to lengthen markedly. The overcast skies were breaking, affording us some relief from the cold, and rays of sunshine struggled to find their way to earth. Bev briefed me while Ron gave Deb the rules of the road for the upland test. I licked my lips nervously, and, upon a nod from both judges, we gave our dogs the "get out" command. Dixie made scent almost immediately, and pushed a fat rooster out of thick cover. I hit the whistle, and she almost drove her rump into the ground. The gunner on the right made a very nice thirty yarder, and Bev tapped me on the back to release Dixie. The little springer made the retrieve and bounded back to me with bird in mouth. With a delivery that underscored her lack of enthusiasm to really relinquish the bird, she plopped it in my hand, her front teeth still grasping the bird's tail feathers. My eyes bored into hers with a subliminal message that said "let go of this damn thing or else you and I will have some serious issues later on." She got the message - one down and one to go.

Handing the pheasant to Bev, I positioned Dixie for the next round, and again commanded her to hunt. With one eye on the springer, I glanced over to check my position with Deb. It looked as if Piper was about to make scent, but suddenly Dixie dove into a small hedge, and another nice rooster exploded from the cover. Rocketing into the air and catching a stiff breeze, the middle gunner connected with a solid head shot dropping the bird some 40 yards away. Dixie had "hupped" of her own accord, as yours truly had forgotten to blow his whistle. Bev again slapped my shoulder, and I launched the furry rocket toward the downed bird. Dixie made a solid find, picked up the cock bird, and bounded back to me with her ears flapping in the wind. Reluctantly, but professionally, she made the delivery. Two down and an honor to go... or so I thought.

Deb and I got Piper and Dixie into position, received the go-ahead from the judges, and released the hounds who bounded with unbridled enthusiasm through the relatively light cover. Piper suddenly got birdy and dove nose first into a thick patch of grass. Out scooted a cock pheasant; instead of taking flight, the bird ran directly in front of Dixie and disappeared over a slight rise. Deb reigned in Piper at Ron’s behest, but Bev told me to let Dixie take the runner. Moving fast up the hill, the little springer disappeared quickly over the rise; I lost both bird and dog. I raced to the top of the hill, frantically looking for the dog. She had completely disappeared. Suddenly I saw her about 50 yards away in a hidden gully that doubled back the way we had come. The cock suddenly exploded into the air and Dixie put her butt down even before I could blow a "pip" on the whistle. Bev nodded with satisfaction, and instructed me to recall her. Dixie had not broken. We got through the remainder of the upland test, with Dixie honoring two shot birds that Piper expertly retrieved. Both dogs were still in the game, and now we were on to the land blind. I know that both Deb and I breathed a huge sigh of relief as we made our way to the next test station.

""This is looking good," I prematurely thought to myself just as a car drove up the dirt road, parked about 10 yards from where the Haags had planted the pheasant, continued to idle his car, and proceeded to observe the test from this vantage point."

Piper was up first, and made it look as easy as it gets. Deb gave the springer a line directly to the downed pheasant which was stashed just inside a tree line under a fallen log across a dirt road about 60 yards from our location. Piper made a beautiful delivery, and it was Dixie’s turn at bat. I set the old girl up and gave her a line directly to the target area. "Dixie," I called softly to release her. The little springer exploded of the line and made a beeline toward the bird. "This is looking good," I prematurely thought to myself just as a car drove up the dirt road, parked about 10 yards from where the Haags had planted the pheasant, continued to idle his car, and proceeded to observe the test from this vantage point. His sudden appearance almost directly in her line caused Dixie to veer from the line, and move away. I managed to "hup" her, and settle her down from a distance while Ron and Bev furiously waived their arms at the car’s driver, a curious on-looker who had never seen a working dog or hunt test, and had no idea that he was impacting the test. I was, hmmm, what is the word I want to use...ah... yes... "nonplussed" by his absence of foresight.

After our interloper moved his auto out of the test area (the miscreant narrowly missed a steadfastly "hupped" Dixie in the process), I maneuvered her back into position and gave her a "back" command. She had been somewhat undone by the events with the auto, but she took the command. Painstakingly, I moved her closer and closer to the bird, and suddenly she scented it, grasped the bird in mouth, and bounded back to me for one of her somewhat reserved deliveries to hand. Ron remarked ironically in typical understated fashion, "Well, we could have made that a little harder." Both dogs were on to the water blind.

A relentless wind had cracked the hard shell of the overcast, and the sun was now blazing low in the sky in all of its glory. Ron and Bev had chosen the site of the water blind when the clouds had completely obscured the sun. Now, however, when I lined up Dixie for the water blind, I found that we were all facing directly into blazing sun whose blinding affect was compounded by an intense reflection off of the surface of the water. I could not see the area of the planted bird or Dixie to handle her. Dixie could not see the opposite shore. The judges conferred, and elected to change the set up of the test given the obvious impediments to a fair test scenario - thank goodness for experienced judges. Dogs and handlers took a quick break while the bird planters went to work.

"Dixie," I said, and the springer launched herself into the cold water of the pond. She veered off the line I had given her almost immediately. I "hupped" in the water with a "pip" of my whistle, and gave her a "back" command. She took it, swam another 20 yards. I gave her another "pip" with the whistle, and yet another "back" command. She took this the final 20 yards to the opposite shore, climbed out of the water, and I "hupped" her. I gave a short right "over", and she nailed the bird. Dixie was on to the next event.

Deb and Piper, who shined so brilliantly during the land blind, had a problem with the water blind that I am sure Deb still scratches her head over. She maneuvered Piper expertly to the bird and the talented young springer made a beautiful retrieve. However, during her return swim, Deb momentarily took her eyes off of Piper and the young springer dropped the bird in the water as she fought the cold to get back to Deb. No matter how hard Deb tried, Piper would not return to the water to pick up the bird. The water truly was extremely cold that day (I would not have gone back in had I been Piper), and we conjectured that the chilling water likely was the cause.

Dixie and I were not set up for the final series - the double marked water retrieve. I positioned her so that she could see the first mark. Jim Brueggemann, enlisted as a thrower, made a superb toss of one of the roosters about 50 yards to the left of our position with an accompanying dry shot from a 12 gauge and a resounding splash - Dixie was motionless. To my right front, about 40 yards out, a shotgun fired and a pheasant launched high into the air from a nicely disguised blind. Bev tapped my shoulder. "Dixie" I said as the springer exploded from the bank and swam briskly to the diversion bird (second bird thrown). She swiftly retrieved the floating rooster, and returned for her customary less than stellar delivery. I lined her up for the memory bird (first bird thrown). Again I released her. She entered the water like one of those cliff divers you see in the movies. Paddling furiously she spied the pheasant with its wing slightly in the air (nice job Jim), seized the bird in her mouth, and returned to me. As I handed the bird to Bev, she congratulated me on Dixie earning her first MHDX leg. That evening, gathered around a warm glowing stove enjoying delicious barbeque beef and cold beer, we relieved the events of the day. All agreed, it was a truly test to remember.

Author's note: this is the thirteenth 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.

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI
Part VII | Part VIII | Part IX | Part X | Part XI | Part XII

Chip Schleider

Chip Schleider is an avid amateur spaniel trainer and upland game hunter. He owns four dogs - one English springer spaniel and three English cocker spaniels. His English springer, Dixie, holds an AKC Master Hunter title, a UKC Started Hunting Retriever title and a NAHRA Started Retriever title. Chip is a marketing executive for a large aerospace company, and retired Army Lieutenant Colonel with a doctorate in international studies from the University of South Carolina. He lives with his wife Door and two of his gun dogs, Dixie and Arwen, in Great Falls, Virginia. His oldest son, Christian, is an Army Captain who has deployed for his second combat tour in Iraq. His youngest son, Alexander, attends the University of South Carolina

Chip is the co-author with Tony Roettger of Urban Gun Dogs: Training Flushing Dogs for Home and Field - copies of which can be purchased through the Spaniel Journal Bookstore. He also writes frequently for journals catering to gun dog training.

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Spaniel Journal - your source for flushing spaniel training, hunt test, field trial & hunting information