On our family vacation to Yellowstone National Park in August of 2006, my wife, Jennifer, brought up the subject of my Anniversary present. I was sure it was a pair of walking shoes and was preparing myself to feign wild enthusiasm. But fortunately for me Jen is not only a very patient and forgiving woman, she’s perceptive as well. Instead of a new pair of shoes I would be receiving an English Springer Spaniel puppy. Jen had struck a deal with a local breeder, friend, and mentor of mine, Tom Ness. Tom made the puppy part of my pay package for guiding that fall. Although the deal probably cost me 3 times what I would have paid if I’d bought the puppy outright, I was still very excited about the gift.
Jen and I went to pick out the pup. SHE picked what she thought was the cutest puppy in the bunch. What a fun little dog, feisty, playful, energetic, and sweet. We named her “Millie” Oahe One in a Million, And so it would turn out.
I remember taking her out in the field for the first time to let her run and play. It was a wheat stubble field with a little snow cover and Millie was about as tall as the short stubble. I remember zigzagging through the field with her runningas fast as her little legs would move her as she took in all of the new and exciting smells, her ears were floating as she charged through the seemingly tall cover. Wow!
Over the succeeding weeks we worked on obedience around the house with sit, stay, come, let’s go potty, and ‘Hey, don’t chew that!’ She was a quick and eager study. We began taking her for long walks at about 4 months. I’d trained many dogs prior, but this little girl was the easiest one I had ever worked with. By 6 months she was steady to anything that I threw from my hand whether it was frozen pigeons, tennis balls, dummies, or plastic bottles.
Spring rolled around, the snow melted and we made a trip out to the kennel to introduce her to live birds. We planted 2 birds. I cast her off and she went burning back and forth across the CRP field, got a sniff of the pigeon and sat down. I sent her for the bird a few times to flush it, but as you know pointing or popping isn’t the most pleasurable sight to see when hunting with a flushing dog. So about the third bird, she made the scent and sat down. We stood there for about 3 minutes waiting for her to break and flush the bird, which she did, never to point or pop again, which was probably the best thing she’s ever done. Millie was about ten months at this time and since then, she has only chased one time in her life.
At 14 months I ran her in her first open stake field trial in which we finished the third series but got no placement. When I asked one of the judges how I might improve her chances I heard what I believe is the most popular of the judge’s sermons ever, and one that I would hear a number of times throughout the next 12 months. “If there would have been a 5th place, you would have got it”! Remember, at this point I thought that judges were a trustworthy, honest, and un-biased lot(Yes, even Jerry Light!!), not knowing that this open-ended speech is really just a way to make the non-placing participants feel a little better and then hopefully leave the judges alone. Well, it worked, because I made plans to attend a Minnesota field trial in two weeks and I was going to win it!
A year and 14 trials later in the U.S. and Canada we finally got a third place. After that we went wild bird hunting, and trained almost every day in what was one of the coldest and snowiest winters in history in preparation for the following years field trial festivities. At 2 ½ years of age Millie won the Western Washington English Springer Spaniel club fiel trial and her second trial in California a week later to complete her field championship. A few weeks later we won the Missouri Headwaters trial in Montana and then the Northern Minnesota field trial in Brainerd, Minnesota, which put us at 20 points at the midway point of the field trial season.
At a Nebraska field trial, I ran under the late Jason Green, an enthusiastic dog man all of twenty-five years old. After having a super 1st series under his co-judge, we had a little time to talk during the run at which time he commented that he wants a dog to find birds, and work as a team with the handler, and that pinning retrieves isn’t that big of a deal to him. Millie must have been listening, because she flushed a hen that was shot short right on the center line at 25 yards. It was an easy retrieve by most peoples’ standards. She ran right to the fall, hopped a few times and disappeared over a small hill, 15 seconds and 250 yards later a hen flew up. I called her in and sat her down, gave her an over command and she went back to the spot of the fall and picked up the dead bird. I looked at Jason and said, “Boy, am I glad that you’re not picky about retrieves”. He smiled at me and said that there are some retrieves he expects to be quicker than others.
Unfortuneately, that was the last time that I got to run under Jason. However, I did get the chance to shag the next day for most of the trial and now I am grateful to have had the chance to spend a little time with him. Jason died unexpectedly a few weeks later and though I didn’t know him on the same level as many in the sport, I can imagine how special he was to so many people. Our thoughts and prayers go out to him and his family.
The fall field trial season began with some bad luck; with warm conditions and poor scenting in Minnesota and at the North Dakota Sporting Spaniel Club field trial where it the temps were in the mid 90′s. So with the heat and the self-imposed pressure of winning the high point chase already giving me ulcers, things weren’t looking to bright. Isn’t it funny how one’s aspirations are always changing. We enter this game just wanting to finish the field trial, then place, then win, then make a field champion, and then it all starts over with national finishes, placements, and wins, and then the high point, and then whatever shiny piece of hardware that can be accumulated. I love it.
Our next trip took us back to Washington for what turned out to be a very competitive field trial with nine dogs finishing the third and 8 of those nine making a bid for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place behind Millie who won with good production and the good fortune of a couple of long retrieves that were pretty amazing. That was five blue ribbons.
Next, we were on out way to Wisconsin and the Fox Valley field trial. The cover was good and personally, I thought it mirrored the type of cover and ground you could find me in on any given day while hunting wild birds. The entire first and second series had thick grass with tall buck brush patches which made visibility of the dog difficult at times, as well as hills and thick trees bordering the course. This turned out to be another great day for us as we had some very tough retrieves in the first, one tough retrieve in the second as well as great ground coverage and bird production all day, which was good enough for her sixth win and the Guns Award. (The Guns Award comes from the gunners, who vote on which dog they would most like to hunt over in the field on that particular day.) It’s always nice to win, but it was extra special to receive the Guns Award, especially since hunting is what I love to do, And I couldn’t agree with the gunners more!
Then it was off to Colorado, the Rocky Mountain ESSC, and 6-8 inches of snow which is my idea of heaven on earth. I love the snow and I love to watch dogs in the snow, as it brings out the puppy in all of them. Well, unfortunately I didn’t get to watch Millie much that day. She was having what I thought was a great run, covering her course and staying put on a lengthy honor with a bird right underneath her nose. We were released, she flushed the bird and got a quick retrieve. I cast her off for her next bird and she continued to work what I thought was a nice pattern, but then a bird got up right outside the wing gun which was the end of the fun for that day. It’s SO WEIRD! Blue ribbon one day, a passed bird the next! This field trial game will drive you crazy! And keep you coming back for more!
Poudre Valley was wet, drizzly and windy. The course was either up-wind or down-wind, and Millie had down-wind courses in the first and second, which she covered beautifully. We had two good runs, and they decided to run the third series in a down-wind as well. We found our two birds quickly in the third, 25-35 yards out, which is what happens when a dog properly works a down wind course. Poudre Valley afforded us Millie’s seventh blue ribbon in 15 trials.; no fourths, thirds, or seconds; only blue., and as it would turn out, 2009 High Point Springer Spaniel with 35 points.
What a year for the dog that is sitting in my lap as I write this, exhausted from a full day of pheasant hunting the cattail sloughs, CRP fields, and thistle-filled corn fields that late-season roosters dare us to enter and play. Millie gives it her all, all day, sleeps in our bed, wrestles with the kids, rides shotgun most everywhere we go, and more often than not, eats what we eat.
A big thank you to my clients, (especially Don Banducci, probably the most intelligent, funny, and good-looking client a dog-trainer could ever have,(Don’s Take)) who put their trust in me to train and handle their dogs, while helping to pay the expenses of those long road trips to parts east, west, north and south. I can’t forget all of the spaniel clubs for their hard work which allows not only me, but everybody who participates in their field trials, the opportunity to show off our dogs and in the process gives us the ability to evaluate and improve the breed. As well, the judges who are gracious enough and committed enough to leave their homes to travel and to judge the dogs in bright sunshine, a downpour, or a freezing blizzard. Thanks guys and gals.
One last special thanks to Paul McGagh and Vicky Thomas, for the use of their facilities this Spring and Summer and for the invite to train prior to trials. Paul, like it or not, has become my other mentor. He was very open with suggestions as to how to correct issues I hadn’t encountered, and over the years I have learned a number of things from him just by keeping quiet and watching him and his dogs at work and play. However, the one thing about Paul that I admire most is that I have never seen an E-collar strapped around the neck of one of his dogs when visiting or training with him. To my mind Paul is something of an inspiration to me for what can be accomplished through good breeding and traditional training methods.
…..And as always, I’d like to wish everyone the best of luck in their quest for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th places in the Spring of 2010 field trials.