The panorama produced a déjà vu effect out of Henry David Thoreau book “On Walden’s Pond.” The grass was so green that never a March 17th celebration was ever greener. The sky’s radiant hue of blue imprisoned the gaze and battled the chill of any soul. The surface of the water partnered with the sun in a production of shimmering light to invite only the hardiest of souls to take a dare. The breeze was delegated to a minor participant in the cornucopia of sights, sounds, and smells.
The idyllic image was only momentarily interrupted by the throng of people dressed in the latest from Moss Oak and their blacks, yellows, and chocolates. They’d come to match hundreds of hours of sit, stay, and mark against natures sense of humor of shadows, water and tall grass.
Each pair of dog and handler dealt with the stress of the moment in their own way. Some would watch each task with the concentration of a brass statue of General Lee on some court house square. Others would use the excuse of airing the dog to pace back and forth until each was out of breath. Still others would use both watching and pacing to calm the savage beast, I fell into the later.
I’d come to be in this place by means of watching my little chocolate Labrador Bailey finish her starter title in this hunt test. She’d worked hard and was all but finished with her first title, which was both exciting and a relief. Bailey was going to be handled, total misnomer, by a very good friend Dr. Faith Rothermel that loves the excitement and challenge that’s emanates from any hunt test. Bailey had been staying with Faith for a couple of months and was ready for the rigors of the contest.
On Saturday I watched Bailey and Faith work the marks skillfully as any dog entered in the test. Bailey’s concentration was unsurpassed as she watched the bird land either in the cold deep water or in weeds tall enough to hide my duck boat.
By the simple command “Bailey” given by Faith, she was off to parts unknown to retrieve the mark. They performed with skill unmatched even by a Grand Champion in my unbiased opinion. I could be, shall we say, a little prone to give my dogs a little more ability verbally than their Sire and Dam had genetically. In my eyes they’re the best thing since sliced bread. At the end of the day Bailey had her third leg of the title finished and a huge blue and orange ribbon to prove she was flawless.
All Saturday evening during the glad handing and back slapping I was building up my courage to see if my ten and half year old rescued Labrador Jack could equal Bailey’s feat. Sunday morning early I decided to let Jack match his skill against dogs nine or more years younger than himself. I’d hunted Jack the previous fall for dove and duck and knew he knew his way around a duck blind.
I got to the hunt test early with a sheepish look and my wallet to enter Jack.
Things went well until the hunt secretary asked.
“Who’s going to handle Jack?”
When this simple straight forward question hit my brain out came the USS Enterprise’s Claxton playing a funeral dreg.
Through all the noise produced by the imaginary Claxton in my head I heard a cracking voice whimper.
I looked around to see who was bold enough to work Jack. I was about to look behind me when it hit me, I’d said those two fear inspiring words. The next few minutes were a complete blur. The next thing I heard was the secretary saying.
“Jack’s number 16 and the test is about to start. Here’s a map, go and have fun.”
I gave her a look that said me and running a dog in a hunt test seldom collided in the same sentence. Now the dreg was blasting in my ears so loud I would never be able to hear the judge fail me and my dog.
I had to find Faith the reason being I had no equipment to run the test. I needed a duck call and a slip lead. All the time during the search for Faith I was trying to stop the 300 decibel clanging in my head.
I drove to the site marked on the map only to discover my anxiety now had a playmate, nausea. As I got out I could see many other handlers and their dogs pacing back and forth waiting for their turn to impress two judges sitting very quietly on the bank of the lake. I’d been there only a minute or two when someone said handlers meeting.
I stood there being old enough to remember when most of these people were in pampers. I listened to the judges polite speech knowing full well if Jack or I made a mistake I’d come away with an, “he also ran his dog.”
Oh well, damn the torpedoes full speed ahead, is my motto. I was hoping it was Jack’s as well. We walked back to our vehicle to prepare for the upcoming “fun.”
A young girl stood behind a large camo sheet staked to the ground to make a wall behind which each handler and dog would wait until his number was called. An interesting thing about a hunt test is that they don’t go in any order. So you could be just standing there and the girl would walk up to you and say.
I started watching the girl. After the fourth dog ran, she looked at me. She smiled and said those infamous words, back came the dreg.
I looked at Jack and we walked down the bank to the bucket. The bucket is a hunting bucket with a lid that you sit on in a dove field or duck blind and it’s not at all comfortable. Behind us were the judges. They asked if there were any questions. I felt like asking if it was too late to just donate my entry fee but I said no question here. Jack gave me a look.
After I sat down on the bucket the male judge said.
“You can start any time you’re ready.”
In my mind I was saying ok next month but what came out of my mouth sounded a bit more like.
The drama played out in slow motion when from a distant little sheet just like the one Jack and I hide behind came a few faint quick burst from a small cylindrical wooden tube produced a soft sounds meant to signal the melodrama was about to begin.
Twenty three pairs of eyes instantly began searching the heavens like World War II search lights probing the sky for the tell tale signs of anything flying. The scene was silent save heart beats so loud and fast their owners were convinced the pounding would be picked up by civil defense stations all across the county.
The boy behind the sheet pulled a cord and the winger launched a duck into the air. Another kid about the age of the shoes I was wearing brought an 870 Remington pump gun to bear firing what’s called a popper.
For my part in this little drama was very simple even I could do it, just give him the commands. Tell him to mark, tell him to wait, and then say his name.
On hearing his name he would launch into the water and retrieve the duck that was just unceremoniously shot out of a winger.
Jack was obviously way more prepared for this maneuver than I. He launched into the water like a pro swam straight for the duck retrieving it and swimming back to me. When he reached dry land he went around my right side and ended up sitting on my left while looking up to me. The look on his face spoke volumes about my dog handler’s abilities.
“Take it stupid.”
Which, of course I did.
This procedure was performed three more times, two on land and one more on the water. Jack performed flawlessly save once on land and once again on the water when half way back he felt compelled to relieve himself. I wanted to ask him why he didn’t relieve himself in the water but I knew his response.
“You don’t pee in your pool do you?”
It was a great day, Bailey got her title and I have one extra ribbon to hang on my wall.