By Jacquine Shippy
August 24, 2019. I had just ran my 8 month-old, not yet hunted Brittany pup, Tango, in my first Natural Ability test with the Treasure Valley NAVHDA chapter. I was trying very hard to listen respectfully as the dogs' scores ahead of mine were read, but I was on pins and needles waiting to hear how my boy did and struggled to pay attention.
Tango was my third hunting dog, but the first one I had trained myself. Our two older Brittanys were the same age and had been sent to a professional for their training when they were young, but we made a lot of rookie mistakes with those dogs and I wanted to try my hand at it all with Brittany #3. I read some books, joined the local NAVHDA chapter, and started working with Tango from the first day I brought him home. He went to his first Training Day at 10 weeks old and I took him to every single one, held every 2 weeks, until his test. It was 6 months of intense learning, but more of it was on my part than Tango's.
I learned patience and to let instincts do their magic when Tango didn't point until he was 6 months old. I learned that you need birds to make a bird dog and spent way too much time scrolling Craigslist looking for pigeons for sale. Conversely, I learned that there are a surprising number of skills you can train without birds if you are resourceful. I learned that not all training methods will work with every dog when one trainer decided that cracking a flushing whip in front of my pup's nose was an appropriate method to "encourage" him to point and I had to figure out how to reverse that negative experience. But also conversely, I learned how many wonderful people there are in the bird dog world that will step up and help train you how to train your dog. I had several long phone conversations, extra training sessions, and plain ol' talks with individuals that took the time to share their time and knowledge with me that I'm still grateful for to this day.
Tango was the fourth dog to run on the day of his test so I didn't have to wait too terribly long even though it felt like forever. I had a copy of the score sheet so I could mark his scores as they were being read. My hand was shaking so badly I could barely write. I kept telling myself that this was just a test and that my dog was so much more than just a test score, but I still wanted something tangible to show for all that hard work.
The highest score you can get in any category on this test is a four. The judges started reading down the score list and I kept seeing my shaking hand circling fours. When they got to the last category, I dropped my pen and started crying when he got a four in that one, too. The first bird dog that I had trained myself, my Tango, got a perfect score on his Natural Ability test.
As rewarding as that moment was, the real rewards were to follow in the field. All the work I did with him for that test made him a better bird dog in his first season than my two older, experienced Brittanys were. Watching him work and grow in the three seasons I've had him gives me the same kind of pride as that of a parent watching their child grow and learn. I've cried happy tears over that dog several times now.
Now we're gearing up for the next level. Tango is signed up for the Utility Test this fall, and training days are getting ready to start up again. I'm also going to be doing the NA thing all over again - Tango's little sister, Penny, just joined our family and will be running her NA test that same weekend, and she'll also be running as an 8 month-old unhunted puppy. I've learned a lot but still have heaps more to go.
Here's to hoping that I not only get to add a couple more score plaques to the wall, but also get lots more birds in the bag, experiences, and most of all, memories with our bird dogs!