September 23, 2010
Good dogs, given a chance, usually come into their own, but not always when we expect them to get there.
Low clouds scudded over the man and his young spaniel, and scattered raindrops tap-danced on the earth around them. On the eastern horizon, thin blades of sun sliced through the breaking clouds and shimmered on the wet grass. A rooster pheasant cackled defiantly in the distance.
"What's it going to be?" the man asked the pup fidgeting at his knee. "Are you going to do your job?" The springer's half-tail swept arcs in the grass, while his eyes angled up to watch the man. The dog had a brainy look, but the man wondered if he would ever discover what was really behind those bright, captivating eyes.
He touched the dog's finely cut muzzle before releasing him with a finger-snap. Then he slid shells into his shotgun's tubes and whispered, more to the running clouds than to the sprinting dog, "Let's see where your head is today." He had trained for excellence, but now he was prepared for much less.
From the moment the pup poked his nose out of the airline crate and licked the man's hand, he had been a trainer's delight, an ideal blend of independence and spirited cooperation. The man took it slow with the pup and tried not to repeat mistakes made on other dogs. He had a clear picture of what he wanted from this springer, and he didn't intend to risk it by pushing too hard, too fast. He did not have to teach the youngster the meaning of game--desire for birds was hardwired into the pup's brain, and for months the man fueled that drive with pen-raised quail, then pigeons, and finally wild birds. The pup dealt with them all like they were old friends.
Then the pup's learning curve had frozen. He had absorbed training drills with ease but, suddenly, seemed to hit a mental wall. For several days, he would run solid patterns, then during a simple exercise he'd ricochet over a quarter section. He would be steady to flush but break at the shot on one bird, while on the next he'd reverse himself.
On identical retrieves, he would make a clean pick-up, then completely miss the next mark. The springer had yet to link the elements of a bird hunt--find, flush, and fetch--together into a chain without losing it at some point. The man's dream of excellence had become a reality of frustration.
"A dog will come into his own on his own schedule," was a bit of wisdom an old trainer had shared with him years before. "None of them are the same, and you shouldn't force what isn't there yet. If you've trained a good pup properly, he'll put it together, though maybe not when you think he should and usually when you don't expect it."
A breeze flowed down out of the shredding clouds and rumpled the grassland. The quartering dog caught the wind and angled to work it head-on. Within 50 yards he made game and took off on a pheasant's twisting track toward a drainage ditch thick with swampy growth.
When the dog hit the edge of gun range, the man blew a sharp whistle-note to stop him; the springer slid into a sit and waited. A finger snap sent him off. The pup lost the trail, made a sweep back into the grass, found it again, and followed it into the cattail-choked ditch.
The rooster flushed, with the spaniel grabbing for feathers, and hooked to the side, away from the man. He crumpled the bird into the waving grass, then turned to look for the springer, prepared to see him anywhere but where he was--half-hidden by cattails, hupped at the point of the flush. The man let him sit for a moment, focused on the bird's flight line. At his name, the pup rocketed out of the ditch and a minute later delivered the pheasant to hand.
The man stroked the dog's shoulder. "Not the best bird work I've seen," he said, smiling, "but I'll take it." Reality was that the pup had done well, and the man knew it but would not allow himself the luxury of seeing it as the defining breakthrough.
During the days ahead, he would ponder the details of what happened; of his role and the springer's, of how expectation and reality can be so far apart, of how he had hoped for everything and gotten little, then--as the old trainer had predicted--expected little and received a gift.
For now, though, it was enough to kneel under the building sun and tell the springer that he was the best thing since canned peaches. It was enough to look into the dog's exquisite eyes and think, once again, in terms of excellence.