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A Spaniel's Heart by Paul Dorsey

After becoming married, my bride and I acquired a six month old English springer spaniel. Of course since we were newly-wed this would be our "baby". I had prior experience with springers in childhood and viewed them as good all-around gun dogs. My wife, Karen, only knew we had our first baby, Sugar.

Sugar was neither a field or bench bred specimen. She epitomized "back-yard breeding", her sire and dame resided on the respective sides of their ownerís fences. The dame really was his girl next door. As fate would have it, Sugar and another pup were left behind at six weeks to have congenital defects surgically corrected. Hence she was given to us with the stipulation that she be spayed and not bred. Not a problem! While we were eager to be parents we were much too young and good looking to be grandparents (then).

A six month old spaniel, even with such a dubious beginning as Sugarís is about as adorable as mere mortals can stand. Friends, neighbors and family quickly embraced the friendly, wiggly little pup with her silky liver and white coat sporting freckles and long feathering to boot. While she later came to bark ferociously at the mail man, even he held her in high regard - insisted on calling her "Tiger".

"When the season opened on September 15th, our little bundle of joy flushed and retrieved a couple of woodcock and flushed a ruffed grouse multiple times, which I cleanly missed even more times than that."

In the field, I was disappointed with Sugar early on. She didnít seem to show much interest in game but retrieved a training dummy with wanton abandon. I shared this with Karen but my concern had no affect on her. It was about the same as telling a new bornís mother that her child had no hope in becoming a rocket scientist. So I resolved that I would have to train Sugar to hunt. First, I modeled the desired behavior; when we jumped a cottontail rabbit on our walk, I eagerly pursued it in an enthusiastic footrace to the hedgerow. Then I purchased a pair of ducks and penned them in the backyard. Their job was to hang-out in socks while Sugar sought them out and fetched them. Fortunately, she was a soft-mouthed spaniel. Later, with wings shackled, they ran through the field while Sugarís latent tracking instincts were aroused and brought to the surface. A month later a friendís German shorthair was pointing woodcock so I could handle my still young pup in for the flush. When the season opened on September 15th, our little bundle of joy flushed and retrieved a couple of woodcock and flushed a ruffed grouse multiple times, which I cleanly missed even more times than that.

The fear that my dog was destined to become a couch potato was laid to rest. She was alas, a gundog! Despite the training breakthroughs, I was inexperienced when it came time to start water-work for ducks. The springer I had as a child thought he was one notch above a Chesapeake when it came time to take a dip in Lake Michigan. Sugar was a bit more reluctant to hit the cold water. This reluctance evolved into pure aversion one day. I was shoveling snow in late winter-early spring while Sugar frolicked nearby. Then, I heard a panicked flight of waterfowl out on the bay. Ducks, geese and swans were winging their way off the ice in the cove headed for open water. I knew in an instant that my now absent side-kick had run down to the beach. I hot footed it around the house and gasped as I saw Sugar climbing out of the water onto the ice shelf only to break through again... I stalled my rescue to tell my wife about the crisis and instructed her to call the Coast Guard if I got into the same situation. To this day she hasnít forgiven me for such "selfishness", our baby was at stake. As I looked lamely for rescue equipment feeling helpless and overwhelmed, I saw Sugar pull herself out again for the... nth time. I sensed the spanielís heart and knew what to do... I called her and shouted words of encouragement, I promised her a cookie!! She plowed through to solid ice, pulled herself up, shook-off and beat feet for the beach.

Sugar never really overcame her fear of the water after that. She wanted to pick up mallards adrift in the decoys but couldnít bring herself to take the plunge. One day I tried to coax her into fetching a cripple splashing in the decoys to no avail. My father and I pushed my skiff into the water and she jumped into the front of the boat. "Oh well, sheís good companionship," I thought. The moment my dad swung that drake into the boat with a landing net Sugar claimed immediate possession. Then when the bow touched the beach she jumped out and sped excitedly to the back porch with her prize. Once Karen and my mom showed the proper recognition Sugar returned to her vigil next to our blind.

"All I knew was I had birds in my bag and the best dog in the county."

The next greenhead fell stone dead mere inches out in the water, ah ha, hereís one for you Sugar! She ran to the boat and took up a position in the bow, tail furiously beating against the aluminum. She wouldnít hear of it when I ordered her to come over and fetch the duck but she seemed slighted when I bent over and picked it up. What did she do? She came over, took the duck, and ran up to the porch with it. Those cookies mom hands out sure seem to be powerful reinforcement!

With Sugarís aversion to water clearly demonstrated, we were fairly amazed one summer day. Karen and I were swimming twenty or so yards out in the bay. Horsing around we dunked one another and Sugar, on the beach, began barking and pacing in a worried way. Karen spontaneously yelled, "Help! Sugar!" (You wonder whose dog Sugar really was?). Sugar, to our surprise, began strongly swimming out to us. She seemed so capable, determined and confident in the water. Once at our sides she realized what had happened and where she was. The fear in her eyes was real and she headed for shore. Commitment and dedication had over rode fear only for a time.

While Sugar left something to be desired when waterfowling, she was excellent in the uplands. On more than one occasion she would run a fish hook pattern out in the hip high bracken fern, stop and pop her head up through it to see where I was and then adjust course so that she pushed a hard running woodcock right into me. Hunting partners would comment on how I was afforded much higher percentage shooting opportunities than they were. All I knew was I had birds in my bag and the best dog in the county.

All of this was many years ago and my current springer is a true field bred. He had desire and fire for game right from the start. His potential is most likely limited only by me and my shortcomings but he has the same heart that Sugar had. The spanielís heart is abstract and hard to put into words.

When Sugar was fading fast in renal failure, I took to hunting squirrels but shot a grouse one afternoon when the opportunity availed itself. Sugar had come to the point where she sometimes needed to be carried outside in the evening to relieve herself and our hearts were breaking. When I headed down the basement stairs with that freshly harvested grouse in hand, Sugar ran after me, tail wagging madly, sniffing the air, then the bird, miserly vacuuming every scent molecule. I jumped for joy convinced Sugar had holistically recovered - she only needed to know that it was hunting season again - she is back! Karen, a medic, was much more pragmatic... she knew we were only seeing a spanielís heart.

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