You can’t always out-stubborn a bird dog.
My 12-year-old dog Sassy is a good example. Sassy, a Brittany, has great bird instincts, ranges well in the woods, has beautiful hunting patterns and in her younger years, showed true promise when we competed in pointing dog field trials — hunting dog competitions in which dogs’ skills and training are assessed, and placements and points toward titles are awarded to the best performing dogs.
Judges loved her.
But Sassy demonstrated very well the dark side of what it means to have a highly intelligent bird dog. She would start out well on the field trial course but soon would write her own map. Deciding she would rather do what she wanted to do instead of heeding my voice and whistle commands, she would broaden her range until I could no longer hear the bell on her collar. It seemed like she would be there one minute, then melt away into oblivion in the blink of an eye.
I would then spend the next few hours tromping through the woods, looking for her, getting angrier by the minute.
I may as well have saved my energy.
I quickly learned that I would find Sassy wherever there was water because as much as she loved hunting birds, she also was hooked on finding frogs. I would find her hunting along the banks of a stream or a little pond, and my anger would quickly turn into a smile and a head shake as I would watch her little tail waggle in pure joy as she looked for her amphibian quests.
Just a little misdirected prey drive. That’s all.
I tried different training methods to help Sassy learn to follow my script, but every time, she would humor me for a few minutes and then take off or simply melt into the trees. I could almost hear her giggle.
That got old really fast, so I backed off from the field events with her. It was not worth the knots in my stomach, nor did I want to use any harsh training methods. I didn’t want to break her spirit; I wanted a partnership with her.
In the meantime, I had enrolled Sassy in classes for other types of dog sports and finally signed her up for flyball.
Flyball is dog relay racing in which two teams of four dogs each compete at a time. Each dog jumps a series of four hurdles, then jumps on a spring-loaded box that ejects a ball — usually a tennis ball — the dog catches it, returns over the hurdles to the rest of the team and the next team dog takes a turn. When all four dogs are done on each of the two teams, the team that has completed the task in the quickest time wins that heat. Races have from three to five heats each. Dogs earn points toward titles.
It’s a fun, fast, exhilarating kind of sport, and dogs love it.
It turned out, this was Sassy’s sport and became her passion. She has been competing since she was a year old and recently retired from it after racing for more than 11 years.
Nowadays, I would have put a tracking collar on Sassy for field competition events so that I could find her more easily. Tracking collars have a built-in GPS-type system and are legal to use in most competitions. They are relatively inexpensive now compared to what they were when Sassy was a young dog, and it would have been a simple solution.
Not perfect though. I still would have to find her and collar her, but I wouldn’t have feared losing her forever.
And although I stopped competing in field events with Sassy early on, I didn’t give up hunting with her.
Until this year, I have hunted Sassy in situations where she was not in heavy cover so that I could keep a close eye on her. She has a great nose and is a serious hunter, and when she goes on point, she is just aquiver with her excitement. She has always been graceful and focused in the woods, and I have enjoyed spending time with her there.
As long as she remembered to stay where I could see her.
I also tried hunting her with another one of my dogs. It seemed to help her be more aware of others around her, and she didn’t get as sidetracked. I was less comfortable with that situation though because my attention was divided, and there was a chance Sassy would just slip out of my sight while I was distracted by the other dog.
Sassy has experienced a lot of physical changes associated with aging since last season. This year, she got to “hunt” the edges of fields from the end of a 50-foot training cord and was happy with that. Her hearing isn’t what it used to be, and she’s having some depth perception issues, so I didn’t feel comfortable letting her off lead.
Better to keep her close and safe.
Sassy has been a challenge for me on lots of levels, and even in her older age, she continues to test my rules. But I wouldn’t trade one frustrating, exasperating, astounding or rewarding moment with my now senior girl, who I think is more intelligent than many people I know.
My life lesson from Sassy: Think through every situation, then be yourself and stubbornly do it your own way no matter what those around you are telling you to do.
Julie Murchison Harris is the community editor at Bangor Daily News. She is widowed and currently shares her life with three Brittanys — Sassy, age 12; Bullet, age 10; and Quincy, age 4 — in an old farmhouse in Hermon.