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The Reluctant Gun Dog: Part II by Chip Schleider

Author and his dogs

The author with Dixie and Arwen

I sat comfortably in one of Tony's easy chairs sipping coffee on a cold Minnesota autumn morning alternatively ruffling Dixie's and Arwen's fur with my unoccupied hand when Tony burst through the door exclaiming "Get your backside out that chair, man! Let's go run some dogs."

Donning my jacket and boots, I placed an English-style slip lead on Dixie, while Tony did the same for Arwen. He grabbed his 20-gauge Browning Citori, its dull blued barrels and nicked stock emphasizing its years in the field, and we made for the door. As we walked the dogs through the kitchen, Tony hit the button on the automatic icemaker on the refrigerator, and a cube of ice dropped on the floor; Arwen immediately pounced on it, picked up, and chewed it quickly. "I know it looks weird," he said, "but she really likes them." In retrospect, I consciously thought nothing of this at the time, but in the back of my mind quite ominously, a very, very small little quizzical thought bubbled up. Arwen and ice cubes, hmmm...

The light snow cover crunched under our boots in the few places where it still remained. As we took the dogs to the training field behind Tony's home, the incredible blueness of the sky contrasting sharply with the golden hues of the switch grass. As we approached the training ground, I said, "Let me see what Dixie can do... I want to see how steady this bitch really is. Then what d'ya say we give Arwen a try." I wondered how the little cocker would perform on birds.

With the two dogs secure in holding crates, Tony and I planted a couple of chukars for Dixie. She has always been fussy when transitioning from one handler to the next, but we elected to let me handle her right off the bat. Tony had steadied her in one afternoon with less than ten birds, and was anxious for me to see the results of Dixie's month-long stay at Roettger Ridge Kennels (Door calls it "Camp Roettger"). Retrieving her from the holding crate, I hupped her, slipped the lead off of her neck, and gave her the "get out" command after Tony nodded that he was in position. With the exceptional scenting conditions, Dixie was wound tighter than a fifty-cent watch. She exploded off the hup position with a loud "yip", and quartered at high speed. Sluggish to respond to the two "pip" turn command, Dixie was so jacked up that she almost blew past the bird. When she winded the bird, she jerked her head to right and nosed deep into the snow encrusted switch grass. She rooted around the grass clump like a prize pig after truffles, intoxicated with the smell of the chukar. Suddenly, the partridge exploded out of the grass and Dixie braked hard when I gave her the single "pip" on the whistle. Nostrils pulsating, she began to creep as the bird flew off. I thought she might break. I hit the whistle again with a second "pip" and she regained her composure. Tony, in perhaps one of the best exhibitions of field gunning I have witnessed, connected with a long sixty-yard shot and dropped the bird.

As the chukar augured beak-first into the ground, I called "Dixie" to release the young springer. Driving off her hupped position, she retrieved the bird. With more than a little playing with the bird in her mouth, she dropped it at my feet. It was decidedly not poetry in motion. The delivery was more than a little rough, but all-in-all not too bad. "OK. That was alright," I thought to myself. Slipping the lead over her head, I heeled her back to the holding crates that arrayed at the edge of the training field. With a solid performance the first time I had handled her in month, it was time to rest on Dixie's laurels.

Tony was up beat. "Man, squeaky brakes," he said. "I thought she was headed to the next county until you hit the whistle the second time. But she did just fine. Dixie is just gonna need a little transition time to get used to your handling style again especially on the delivery. Why don't we give Arwen a try? We still have a bird out there, and I have been working hard with her. She's been retrieving fairly well. I've conditioned her to gunfire, but I haven't shot over her yet; today will be the first time." Quickly, I put Dixie back into a kennel, and knelt in front of Arwen's crate. Blocking the crate door with my knee to keep her from pushing past me, I opened the door slightly and got the slip lead on her. Arwen led the way back to Tony with a classic "spaniel strangle" style of heeling - her paws alternately digging in and flailing in front, eyeballs popping and nostrils flaring. "Hmmm... we need more than a little work on heeling," I thought.

Holding Arwen to keep her from running immediately down the field, I slipped the lead off, and maneuvered her into the starting position directly in front of me. I was very curious to see how the little cocker would quarter. She almost bolted downfield a couple of times, but I was able to keep her under control until Tony was in place on my left. He gave me the thumbs up sign to indicate that he was ready, and I gave the little cocker the "get out" command and released her. She started quartering beautifully, moving fluidly from me toward Tony as we moved down the field into the wind. I gave her two "pips" on the whistle to turn her just as she passed Tony's legs, and she turned on a dime. With her uniquely colored ears flying behind her, I let Arwen pass in front of me and travel perhaps five yards beyond my position to the right. Giving another two "pips" on the whistle, she turned immediately. My eyebrows went up in surprise. The little girl was both covering the ground well and extremely responsive.

"Nice drive," I recall thinking as Arwen zeroed in on the downed bird. After a little inspection and poking with her nose and paws at the fallen partridge, she finally picked up the dead chukar, and started back toward me. "Pretty good retrieve," I congratulated myself very prematurely, "...damn nice."

As we closed in on the patch of cover holding the dizzied chukar, she began to pick up the scent of the bird. I closely watched her as she got very birdy, and then she made a solid find of the well-hidden partridge. "A really nice nose," I thought to myself. The bird hopped a couple of times, and I was worried it might be a runner. But all of a sudden, the cocker nudged the reluctant chukar into the air, and pursued it hotly on the ground as the bird gained altitude. At about forty yards when the bird was safely beyond the dog, Tony, with a smoothness born of many years of practice, mounted the shotgun, pulled ahead of the bird and snapped the trigger. The partridge fell stone dead about fifteen yards in front of the madly charging Arwen. "Nice drive," I recall thinking as Arwen zeroed in on the downed bird. After a little inspection and poking with her nose and paws at the fallen partridge, she finally picked up the dead chukar, and started back toward me. "Pretty good retrieve," I congratulated myself very prematurely, "...damn nice."

No sooner had those thoughts of a natural field champion crossed my mind, than Arwen stopped in mid-retrieve, about twenty yards from me, put the bird down and began once again to hunt. "Well," Tony intoned, "not all that bad for a first bird." Despite Arwen's lackluster retrieve, we were both pleased with the potential the little cocker had shown. The eight month old had demonstrated solid drive, showed good bird finding skills, hunted more or less in control, displayed no fear of gunfire, and in the main had acquitted herself fairly well for her first time out. When I led her back to the kennel, the little cocker grinned at me with her head cocked in that uniquely Arwen manner as if to say "See boss, I can do it, too."

Later that afternoon, we hunted grouse. It was too early in the season. The red and gold foliage clung tenaciously to the trees, blocking our vision and our shots at the elusive partridge. I worked Dixie, and Tony handled Yaz, his superb cocker bitch. We hunted the dogs in a brace, taking great pains to hold them in close. It was tough going in the covert, but the dogs did their part and found us birds. Just before quitting time, Dixie moved toward a swampy area carpeted with small stumps and bog. Suddenly she flushed a solitary woodcock and hupped without me hitting the whistle. Much to my chagrin, I was so stunned I missed with both barrels, and denied her a richly deserved retrieve.

Later that evening over cold beers and Tony's exquisite creamed pheasant, we mused over the young cocker's performance. We both agreed that Arwen had the makings of solid field trial dog, and we planned accordingly. She would fly shortly after the New Year to her new home in Virginia. Arwen would spend spring and early summer with in Virginia working on retrieving skills, basic handling, and obedience drills. The little cocker would fly back to Minnesota in late summer to prepare for the fall field trial season. The plan made, the pheasant consumed, the dishes cleaned and little Arwen safely sleeping in my lap, we turned our attention to far more important concerns - the after dinner liqueur.

Author's note: this is the second installment in a series of articles that chronicle the development of a young, head strong, intelligent, but quirky English cocker spaniel.

Part 1

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Chip Schleider

Chip Schleider is an avid amateur spaniel trainer and upland game hunter. He owns two English cocker spaniels. 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, Jazz and Arwen, in Great Falls, Virginia. His oldest son, Christian, is an Army Captain who is completing pilot training at Ft. Rucker. His youngest son, Alexander, is an Army Second Lieutenant stationed at Ft. Lewis.

Chip is the co-author with Tony Roettger of Urban Gun Dogs: Training Flushing Dogs for Home and Field and their new book, A Field Guide to Retriever Drills, which was published in March 2008. Copies of both 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