It should have been a memory to last a lifetime: a new hunter, a new puppy, and their very first bird together.
After months of training, we could sense that the long-awaited day was finally upon us. A singular, shining moment of victory.
Except that’s not at all how it happened.
The months of our first hunting season were ticking by with alarming speed. Suddenly, the fifteenth of January loomed ahead with an unspoken threat of failure. I began to research game farms and other options for extending our hunting season. I refused to let the season end without the capstone achievement of our first bird.
Weekends were consumed by an almost obsessive quest for a bird. We’d built all the pieces: searching, pointing, tracking. I had no complaints about the young pup’s outstanding performance in the field. Unfortunately, the pieces never came together at the right moment. The birds would flush wild, I’d miss the shot, or some other mistake would prevent us from finishing the job. I was feeling the weight of failure on my shoulders. Would my dog give up on hunting with me?
My husband and I spent the last weekend of the season on our favorite public land in eastern Washington. The expanse of sagebrush was sprinkled with Russian olive thickets that held plenty of quail and the occasional rooster. We’d encountered a decent number of birds and very few hunters in this spot, which made it our top choice for that precious last hunt of the year.
By this point, the pup was learning to focus on the thick olive groves as suitable bird cover. She was smart enough to figure out how to hunt this terrain with very little influence from us – or perhaps in spite of our influence. I was tremendously proud as I watched her work her nose in each of the thickets. Her tail whirled around as she homed in on fresh bird scent.
Suddenly, she was on point. This is it – this is how it is going to happen. I could already smell the roasting bird in a sizzling pan. My heart pounded as I readied my grip on the gun. I touched the safety at least fifteen times just to make sure it hadn’t relocated itself. I took my first steps in toward the trembling, frozen puppy.
The nervous quail exploded from their cover before I could get close. In a stroke of unprecedented luck, one of the birds flew right toward me. I spun around, held my breath, and pulled the trigger. There was a puff of gray feathers followed by the echo of my shot.
“OH MY GOD!” I cried, “OH MY GOD, WE DID IT!”
This is the moment where I’d like to press pause. I’d like to go back to this moment, calm myself down, and think rationally about the next steps. I’d like to consider the fact that my puppy had never held a fresh bird, let alone retrieved one to hand. It was a lot to ask of a young dog. With all the luxury of hindsight, I’d like to return to that moment, snap her on a lead, and set us both up for success.
But I didn’t do any of those things. Elated and coursing with adrenaline, I sprinted toward the feathers and began to search for a tiny blue-gray bird in an endless field of blue-gray shrubs. The puppy stuck her nose in the feather pile and executed a flawless track that led directly to the bird. She grabbed it without hesitation. I beamed. This was our moment.
Then she took off for the distant horizon.
Knowing better than to turn this into a game of chase, my husband and I gritted our teeth and walked in the opposite direction. It nearly worked. The pup sprinted past, looped around, and continued to circle us. After a few tense moments, the wiggling puppy – proud as can be – came and sat in front of me. This time, she was beaming.
The bird was nowhere to be found.
Neither of us were able to form coherent words. I stood there, dumbfounded, as I realized that my perfect pup had just committed the ultimate bird dog sin. She’d swallowed my bird whole. A blur of emotions swirled in my head. Anger. Frustration. Disappointment. I choked my words back, dimly aware it wasn’t the pup’s fault that she hadn’t yet been properly trained in finishing the job. We trudged back to the truck in simmering silence.
It was a full week before the entire quail worked itself out into our backyard. With the kind of devotion that only a dog lover possesses, I painstakingly conducted inspections to ensure the swallowed bird wouldn’t find revenge as a bowel obstruction. What was supposed to be my glorious meal was now a collection of little feather and bone piles scattered throughout the yard, continuing to remind me of how I’d screwed this one up.
It was a full two weeks before I was able to speak of The Incident with anyone else. I was ashamed of my mistake and afraid of hearing what I feared most – that I’d completely ruined my otherwise promising dog. I eventually summoned the courage to seek counsel from the pup’s breeder and my training mentor. As great mentors do, and much to my relief, the feedback was entirely free of judgment. I gratefully accepted the encouragement, some objective advice, and my favorite line: “I would start with pheasants, they are larger.”
As it turns out, humans are the only ones who dwell on the past. My blood pressure still spikes when I think back to that day. But the pup? She’s moved on, progressing nicely through training and showing a keen interest in learning new skills. We’ve focused efforts on retrieving game, which has paid off – for better or worse – in gifts of dead moles, rats, and baby rabbits all delivered elegantly to hand. I’m starting to rethink this plan of training the pup to bring all the “treasures” to me.
Our first bird experience was humbling, but more than anything else, it was a lesson in shaking off mistakes. I’m usually reluctant to share this story with others, but each time I do, I find out that we’ve all been there at one time or another. Even with the best laid plans – and as an engineer, I do love perfect plans – the dog will usually get the last laugh. I’m learning that the important thing is to have fun and learn together since that’s what this crazy dog adventure is all about.
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Last modified: August 12, 2018