The Magic of a Great Bird Dog

80f0f9c3-a775-4a83-9f95-8e46c8230dab Story By Bridget Nielsen, Photos By Isabella Rozendaal

Dogs change our lives in profound ways. My first bird dog taught me how profound the relationship between the dog and hunter becomes and how we grieve their loss so deeply when they depart. They teach us compassion, true love, dedication, and mostly how to communicate without words. My first chukar hunting dog had set the bar high for hunting and companion dogs, but when he reached old age, I set out looking for my next chukar hunter extraordinaire. I was recommended to a field trial breeder in Illinois and the first questions I asked were about temperament and range, as I needed a dog that would cover huge country. I needed a Vizsla who was comfortable hunting at 800 yards.
Finding chukar in the sagebrush sea requires tenacity and drive so, eight weeks later, I found myself driving with Sheryle Tepp to Illinois to pick out my puppy from this high-powered field litter. We chose Mojo because of his solid, adaptable temperament paired with his amazing skills to point and locate birds. I still remember that seven-week-old puppy using what little air flow there was to locate and pin a pen-raised quail. He blew into my life like a big wind but when he was 11 weeks old, my mother passed away, and his young days were a blur for me. One of the memorable moments was when he was six months old and we were taking a weekend off in the high Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. I discovered that he LOVED water, and I realized I was back in the NAVHDA game. I purchased him to be a desert upland bird dog and potential field trial dog, but that day changed my mind. He could swim like a fish and loved even the coldest mountain lakes.

I set my sights on getting this young dog on wild birds, so we planned a trip to eastern Montana in the fall of 2010. We found a CRP field somewhere around Glendive and saw sharptail grouse dining on waste grain in every direction of the adjacent grain bins. So, we deployed Jake and Mojo. He was seven-and-a-half months old, smelled the birds, busted a couple and the chase was on. We only knew where he was by the birds coming up from the tall CRP grass and hearing the soft “bup bup bup bup” chuckle that only sharptail make when they fly away. When he wore himself out, he rejoined the hunt with Loren, Jake and me. However, that first hunt of wild sharptail grouse and the occasional bonus pheasant created a bird dog who learned how to honor, point his own birds, and retrieve all in one day. Our trip to Montana made a bird dog out of this lil’ unruly, untrained baby Vizsla.  

When the hunting seasons closed, I invested myself into training Mojo for field trials and the NA test. He took the field trial world by storm with his 600-yard range and by winning all four stakes he was entered in on his debut weekend. As I reflected about what I wanted, I decided to remove him from his NA test because I knew that he would be tough to reign in, and I wanted him to figure out his comfortable hunting range. We began training for finished dog trials but in a stunning and sudden development, I discovered that he was positive for heartworm disease not long after his Field Trial debut. To say I was crushed is an understatement. We dealt with the long, drawn-out treatment and recovery to eventually get him back on his feet to hunt. We hunted hard and I remember the day when I realized that this dog who faced a long and arduous medical challenge was back out doing what we both loved.

As he improved, I redirected my goals to the NAVHDA Utility test as I realized he was a tremendous duck dog and I should show him off. After a spring goose season in Oregon, our reputations with waterfowl hunters became noted. We were the girl and the red dog in the marsh. Eventually, we were asked to be the subjects of a hunting life article for a magazine in Denmark. We took two photographers duck hunting with us on a nice November evening in 2012 and Isabella Rozendaal captured postcard images of us on that hunt. Images that I have printed for my wall and we ended up being on the cover of a Denmark Lifestyle magazine. An article was written about hunting in America and how women and their dogs were leading the change in demographics. This was a big moment for me and for Mojo.
But then life changes happened again, and we found ourselves selling our house in Oregon and moving to Eastern Montana. Jobs took us to the most remote recesses of the short grass prairie. I became one of the managers of the 1.1 million acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and Loren became a private landowner habitat restoration specialist. And we were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wildlife and open landscapes. We found ourselves driving to the nearest NAVHDA chapter, which was seven hours west. So, it wasn’t until 2014 when I finally finished his training to test him in his Utility test. He was four-and-a-half years old by then, had hunted hard for two seasons in Montana on ducks, sharptail grouse, Hungarian partridge, and pheasants. 

We drove countless miles back and forth to training weekends. When I say countless, imagine six to seven hours one way just to train your dog and turning around the next day to head home. But I wanted him to be a Utility dog and eventually test day arrived in August of 2014. We hit the field like an earthquake. He covered every square inch of that field, finding 10 birds in 30 minutes. He handled nine of them without fault but on number 10, he left before being told to fetch. He tore the duck search pond apart and searched every recess and corner of available habitat until the judges asked me to call him back. He retrieved the dragged duck with joy and was flawless. And then we got to the marked retrieve and steady by blind sequence. Several malfunctions with the zinger winger, a distraction gun malfunction and handler’s gun malfunction and Mojo and I were off kilter. He launched to retrieve the duck before being sent. I remember the judges gasping and one of them (you know who you are) putting her hands on her head! But at the end of the day, we heard the scores being read and were ELATED! A Prize I! A Prize I!!! I was beyond excited! My Mojo, who had endured the painful and extensive heartworm disease treatment that I thought would nearly kill him, was still hunting and now a Prize I Utility dog. What a day. 

We ended up hunting relentlessly that next season. Doves, geese, ducks, sharptail grouse, Hungarian partridge in Montana and Saskatchewan. Chukar in Idaho and Nevada and ducks in California. His skills in the water never went unnoticed, especially with our Labrador retriever owning friends. They were amazed that a Vizsla could keep up with their Labs.

We became known by several Ducks Unlimited biologists and were invited to be in an episode of DUTV with Champion Canada Goose caller, Field Hudnall. The episode showcased Eastern Montana habitat restoration and duck hunting. Mojo retrieved 36 mallards that day, all on video and never lost a bird and even used his duck search skills to locate two crippled birds. This was a wonderful moment for me where training and real life intersected. He was showcased as a versatile Vizsla and epic hunting dog that day. People still see that episode and message me to let me know how much they enjoyed seeing a versatile dog out there doing the job. A memory that will forever live on in DUTV episodes.

We continued hunting upland birds after the show, and it was those quiet days afield that I loved the most. Just me and Mo… I always searched for new covers to put Mojo on the ground in… we loved the art of discovery. I began to relish each moment afield with him as I started to notice the wear of time and disease take its toll. He would cut downwind to surf the prairie and scan for potential bird scent.  As he aged, his nose became more acute and precise, but his legs slower with arthritic pain. Nothing got by him, even running roosters. He would push through pain and cold to find birds for us. He learned hens were off limits and would run right past them to find the rooster scent. We were a lethal team for upland birds. He showed his amazing talents every fall hunting season to a whole new group of friends. 

When you live in Montana, lots of people want to visit, and Mojo was my showboat dog. The dog who I always selected to impress our friends. I was always assured of his relentless bird finding and gentlemanly manners. His face grizzled with white hairs each season until he was nearly white. Until one day we were hunting a CRP loaded with pheasants. He pushed so hard, we shot many birds and he retrieved all of them, but, when we got back to the truck, he wasn’t using his rear right leg. If you guessed an ACL rupture, you are correct. He was 9.5 when this happened, and it ended his wild bird hunting career.
He still had some gas left in the tank to teach puppies how to find birds and to retrieve doves for us in the season of 2019, but, as we embarked on 2020, his age really showed. I took him out in October and shot some barn pigeons for him. He was so happy with himself but hobbled back to the truck. Mojo’s heart was huge and his desire to produce birds for the gun unparalleled. 

Unfortunately, Mojo lost his battle with pancreatitis in December. His loss is profound, but I know my female Vizslas are working their way to his legendary status. His spirit to hunt will live on in my memory. I’m constantly pushing myself to produce dogs that possess the complete package of desire, talent, point, natural retrieve, love of water, and his wonderful, pleasing, adaptable temperament.  Mojo has set my breeding standard for performance hunting Vizslas. Vizslas like Mojo don’t come along very often and as I continue to pursue the ultimate versatile hunting Vizsla, he will always be my benchmark dog. I credit the NAVHDA testing system with helping me to identify these traits. Training and testing at the Utility level is my chosen route to identifying those traits to improving the Vizsla and to produce the right combinations of traits in my breeding programs. It has helped make my dogs better, but helped me achieve my goal of breeding vizslas that are truly versatile hunting dogs. Mojo was special, my superstar, and will forever be remembered and missed.

Bridget Nielsen is a NAVHDA judge, izsla breeder, performance dog trainer, and dedicated hunter. This article first appeared in Versatile Hunting Dog Magazine.