Reflections of a First-Time Handler

5551ed81-9040-48eb-b886-1b70913e21f4

The secrets to training your bird dog are simple: Have fun, celebrate the successes

Story By John Harris, Photos By Mark Lance

In 2016, I got my first hunting dog, Ursa, a “pointing” lab. While Ursa is a retriever and therefore unable to test, I had heard so many good things about NAVHDA that I decided to join. I started attending training days in 2017 and took advantage of any seminar that came through the region.

I found that I learned better by not having Ursa with me. When she was there, I worried more about the crazy puppy things she was doing, and thus, I couldn’t listen well. So, I volunteered on training days. I heard how different trainers taught skills. I learned how to set up various exercises. I watched many dogs and how their handlers tackled different problems—most often successfully, sometimes not. I took it all home and learned through Ursa what did and didn’t work for us. And through it all, I fell in love with the art of dog training.

In 2019, we decided to get another dog—a playmate for Ursa and another hunting partner. I wanted to be more involved with NAVHDA. Through many conversations with NAVHDA owners, we decided to get a German Shorthaired Pointer. In 2020, Surefire’s Star in the Sky, Bootes, entered our lives. Attending training days as a participant and future test handler began.
 

MY FIRST NATURAL ABILITY TEST AS A HANDLER

Over the years, as a volunteer, I’ve watched many dogs test. From the puppies doing NA to the older dogs doing UT, I was in awe. I knew the work the handlers and dogs had put in, but it still looked magical when it all came together. Some days, a dog just didn’t perform a particular task. But overall, it was just fun to witness the high levels of success that preparation and trust between handler and dog brought.

After five months of working with Bootes, it was time for our first test. Before the test day, I told myself and others, “I’m not stressed about the test. He’s a good dog. Either it all comes together, or it doesn’t and we’ll know what to work on.” But on the test day, the wheels came off.

The morning started with the Pheasant Track. The judge showed me the feather pile and said, “Once you let go, just stand still looking down the track and don’t say anything.” (he said other things, but that was my key takeaway). Bootes only ate one feather instead of the whole pile (yes!) and started down the track. About 8 yards out, he veered right, ran a little, turned 180°, and ran past me to the left. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him sprinting back behind me. I stood still, taking deep breaths, with my mind racing—“Where is he? What is he doing? How did everything fall off the rails in the first 20 minutes of the day? WHAT is he doing? WHERE IS HE?” It felt like forever before he came up on my left, slowed down with his head down for about 20 yards, and locked up on point. Thankfully, that was over.

Next was the field. This was Bootes’s strength, and I wasn’t worried. We started towards the right, but he kept pulling to the left. Then he was running to the left, ranging further than he’s ever run, and not listening to my “this way.” (Oh boy.) Meanwhile, the gunner did his two shots, and Bootes didn’t flinch. (Ok.) We started working right again, and Bootes noticed the gunner walking back to the gallery. And off he went, running well beyond where he could hear me—or at least he didn’t respond to my recall—all the way back to the gallery. I went running over and found him in a solid point… on the bird crates. (OMG! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?)

We got Bootes back in the field, where he stayed closer, listened better, and had a handful of solid, productive points.

“How’s the day going,” countless volunteers and other handlers inquired. I had no idea, but I wasn’t feeling great about it. And we still had to do the water portion, his worst area.

I figured there was a fifty-fifty chance that Bootes would just go into the water and swim. I threw the first bumper; he was interested but didn’t go in. (Oh no.) I threw the second bumper; he was more interested and nearly in, but not. (Come on, Bootes, you can do this.) Threw the third bumper; he paused but then went in with enthusiasm and swam hard. I threw another not far enough, and Bootes went in without pause to retrieve it without swimming. I threw it again further, and Bootes jumped right in and swam hard. (Ok, that could have been worse.)

Thankfully, the day was over, and I knew I had things to work on: more time on tracks, more time in the water, and a lot more time working on recalls and his range. Bootes is only seven months old, and we’ve got lots of time to shape him into a great hunting partner.
 

RESULTS

It was time to hear our scores. Use of nose 4, Search 4, Water 4, Pointing 4, Tracking 4, Desire to work 4, Cooperation 4, for a total score of 112 and a Prize I. (WHAT? REALLY? THAT’S AWESOME!)
 

THE BIGGEST LESSON OF THE DAY

While I went into the test saying I wasn’t nervous, I became hypercritical of us both once we were under evaluation. I thought about all the times I should have fit in extra training sessions. I saw everything Bootes did “wrong.”
 
The judges saw what Bootes did right.

What felt like forever while Bootes was running behind me at the pheasant track was actually only a handful of seconds, followed by him working a focused and effective track. While he was enthusiastic and running like crazy at the start of the field, it was only a few minutes before he slowed down, hunted well with us, and productively. And Bootes has a beautiful point.

And once he got over the initial hesitation, he swam well (and retrieved the bumper for me to throw it again and again).

My hope for new handlers is that you see the amazing accomplishments of your dog. Remember that your dog is a puppy who will do puppy things; that’s ok. Have fun. Celebrate the successes, however many you get that day. Enjoy the great breeding that brought you a wonderful dog. And, regardless of the final score, be in awe.

This story first appeared in the July 2021 Issue of Versatile Hunting Dog Magazine.