I always enjoyed the pressure of individual sports.
I was a wrestler in high school, albeit not a very good one. I was on the golf team as well, which was a little more my speed. They seem like polar opposites on the surface, but both sports are filled with the same kind of lonely adrenaline. It’s you on an island with everyone watching, and nobody is coming to rescue you.
I did well in that kind of environment, but since my official entry into adulthood I haven’t found a source to replace that kind of adrenaline.
There’s certainly a feeling of adrenaline that comes with hunting and fishing, but it’s a different version altogether and is balanced out by the solemn tranquility of the task at hand. The other options for grown men seem to be relegated to gambling and getting into fights at the bar, both of which I’m terrible at. I make fun of left over jocks that hang on to their high school glory days relentlessly, but I have to admit there is a small part of me that misses the atmosphere of pressure associated with sports. Actually I should say there “was” a part of me that missed the pressure, because last weekend I discovered a replacement for all of my adrenaline needs.
The North American Hunting Retriever Association (NAHRA) runs “hunt tests” for retrieving breeds. There are four levels of test — started, hunter, intermediate and senior. Last weekend Bruly and I ran our first started test at a NAHRA event outside St. Cloud, Minn.
I came to NAHRA tests through the Four Points Retriever Club that holds weekly training nights every Thursday near Marine on St. Croix. The club is run by dogman extraordinaire Ray Esboldt, and is filled to the brim with other great trainers like Troy Callanan, Steve Silk and Pat Gysbers, all of whom also happen to be some of the most kind and generous teachers a schmuck like myself could ever hope to learn from.
Dogs will routinely make a liar out of their owner. I’m sure all of you who own dogs, whether they’re shorthairs or Shih Tzus, can vouch for the mind-bending frustration of telling your buddy “Hey check out this cute trick I taught Froofie,” then watching the dog sit on the living room floor and lick his privates while you scream “roll over!” 17 times. I’ll again draw a comparison to the golf team.
Leaning to play golf, and learning to play golf with 40 people standing there watching you are two completely different things. Same is true with dog training.
Froofie can sit and stay and fetch and roll over all he wants when it’s you and him in the yard, but it doesn’t really mean jack unless he can do it when the pressure is on. Therein lies the intoxicating excitement of hunt tests.
The basic premise of a started level test is pretty straightforward. It consists of two set ups — a water series and a land series. The land series features three marked retrieves (a “mark” is a retrieve a dog sees hit the ground and thus knows the general location of). The water series follows the same premise, but with two marks instead of three. Seems simple, but there’s a slew of complicating factors.
First of all, the marks can be quite difficult, and as more and more dogs run them, more and more scent gets spread all over the field. Second, the marks aren’t tennis balls or retrieving dummies, they’re real ducks. And in one case on the land series, the mark is a live duck that’s thrown in the air and shot, which adds an entirely new layer of excitement. Bruly is an old hat at picking up dead ducks, but just like in golf, doing it with other dogs barking, guns going off in the background, people and trucks everywhere and a general sense of excitement in the air is a lot to ask.
The atmosphere puts the dogs in a headspace similar to that of an Adderall-riddled college freshman at his first frat party, so Bruly’s wide-eyed daze matched mine as we walked to the line for the first time on Saturday morning.
Releasing her on her that first mark was the culmination of almost three years work for the two of us. The hours upon hours spent in the yard trying to figure it out together. All the peaks and valleys, and finally both our abilities were officially being put to the test — It was gloriously nerve-racking.
For all my trepidation, Bruly flew through the test with ease. The only mistakes made were mine to bear alone, and by the end of the day we had our first pass at a NAHRA hunt test. When I walked her back to the truck after the water series I got a thumbs up from club president Ray Esboldt. Now I won’t say that I know Ray well, after all I’ve only been training the dog with Four Points for a couple of months. But I know him well enough to recognize his talent as a trainer, a teacher and a leader. He’s not bashful with praise or criticism of dogs and handlers alike, which really makes you want to earn his approval — Earning a piece of it on Saturday only furthered my desire to keep progressing as a trainer.
Bruly repeated her success on Sunday, and we drove home that evening with two shiny new ribbons displayed on the dash of the truck.
Man and dog have been working together to accomplish a task for thousands of years, and tapping into that ancient resource in such a quantifiable way is a thing of beauty.
Don’t mistake my excitement for arrogance though, after all it was only a started test. The difference between that level and the senior test is like the difference between building a tree house and building the space shuttle. The real talent lies in those levels — and there’s only one way to get there.