Search This Blog

Monday, January 25, 2010

The dog who learned to be brave - Sherif du Bellerstein 1981-1995 "Max"

by John Jeanneney © 1995

Max, my principal tracking dog from 1984 to 1994, died on June 24, 1995, after a long and productive life. He was a dog of many misfortunes, and one of these was to work in the shadow of his predecessor Clary von Moosbach. Still he acquitted himself well. He found 51 deer and was a back-up dog on many more. He grew in character throughout his life. Perhaps, his greatest strength was to never stop growing. He taught me how much I did not know about dogs. When dogs are concerned, there is no rule that does not have its exception. The greatest tribute I can give Max is to tell the story of his life.

* * * * * *

Max was born in Alsace, an eastern province of France that has a strong Germanic tradition, particularly when it comes to hunting and hunting dogs. His breeder, Hubert Stoquert, who was a leading blood tracker in France, took one of his good bitches, Pensee du Bellerstein, across the Rhine and bred her to Gebrauchsieger Cyrus von den Breitenbacher-Alpen, a stud who had been awarded the title of best working dachshund in the Deutscher Teckelklub for 1980. Max, or Sherif du Bellerstein as he was registered, was a big puppy who threatened to grow oversize by Deutscher Teckelklub standards. I like big dogs for blood tracking in the United States, which is one reason why M. Stoquert sent the puppy to me.

Max came off the plane from France in fine shape, a good-looking, friendly pup, five months old, with a gray, salt and pepper coat that would just get him by in the stern judging ring of the cocklebur patch. Max looked like he would make a good working dog, and that was what I wanted him for. It turned out to be a long wait for that working dog, but finally he became a true "Gebrauchshund", literally a useful dog. If anyone had told me how it would happen, I would not have believed them.

I drove Max home from the Kennedy Airport, and then had to leave almost immediately again for Long Island to teach my classes. Max seemed so much at ease and at home that my wife of the time, Mary Lou, opened the back door and let him out for a stroll up the hill and into the woods with Eda, another of our dachshunds. After about twenty minutes Eda returned -- without Max. Darkness came and puppy Max was still out. By this time I was roaring back up the parkway to Dutchess County. I spent the whole night in the woods, checking every hole and every thicket for a mile in every direction. There were several old farm dumps in the area with massive foundations, which contained everything from tractor tires and truck carcasses to bed springs and broken toilet bowls. I heard only one little sound which might have been Max. There was really nothing to go on, nothing to justify bringing in heavy equipment to dig or move tons of heavy junk.

Max should have shown up somewhere, but he didn't. Forty-eight hours after losing this puppy, I was eating a very solemn breakfast after a second night of listening in the silent woods. There was a whimper on the back porch; I opened the door and Max tumbled in, beside himself with fear and confusion. He rolled on his back peeing a cascade of humiliation all over himself and the floor. From then on Max's puppy good cheer was gone. When approached, he cowered and urinated in abject submission. Puppy Max would go for a walk, but he stayed closely at my side. Later he began to trail cottontails, but at the first heavy cover or possibility of getting lost, he would quit and come back to me. Any experienced dog person would have said that something was wrong, genetically wrong. There was basis for such a judgment. The whole situation should have been avoided, but a psychologically strong young dog should have been able to survive the experience without being emotionally shattered. As I worked with Max I hoped for the best, but hoping did not help very much.

At 12 months we tried blood tracking training. Max wanted to follow me on the tracking leash instead of taking the lead. Later, when he had made some faltering progress, he still found it overwhelmingly difficult to make a decision, to take responsibility. At a check on a training bloodline, a right angle or a fork in the trail, Max would turn and come back to me. Placing his paws on my knee, he would ask with his eyes, “Now what do I do?" Max was not the confident, take charge dog that I wanted for blood tracking. Fortunately, during those years I had such a dog in Clary who was winding up her career in a blaze of glory.

But when Clary was gradually disabled by mini-strokes in 1985, it was Max who somehow had to be moved up from a distant number two spot to take deer calls. He was the best dog that I had, and he had a very good nose, but I knew that he lacked the concentration and strength of will to handle the tough ones. I propped him up emotionally and we did the best we could. On two occasions I had to call in a better dog to find the deer. We did find some deer; we got lucky with easy calls, and we lost other deer that I knew a top dog would have found. We survived, but it was not until Max was seven that the breakthroughs began to come, and Max began to succeed on the tough ones in spite of himself.

Success, arising from our sheer dumb persistence more than anything else, began to transform this dog. At the age of eight, long, long after most unsuccessful dogs are "culled off" to pet homes, Max began to take pride in himself and the deer that he found. His submission wetting finally stopped. For a half hour he would hammer away at a check, a difficult gap in a wounded deer's trail, never gambling, never moving out until he was absolutely sure of where the deer in question had gone. He seldom looked brilliant; he tended to made hard work out of whatever he did, but he got the job done. His confidence now permitted him to use his intelligence. He began to pick dead-end backtracks where the deer doubles back and then leaves the trail. Capability on this sort of check is one of the distinctions between the good and the very good blood tracker.

Strangely, progress in blood tracking did not make him a better field trial dog. Max evolved into a good field champion who won two Best in Trials in 1984, but he did this before he "arrived" as a blood tracker. I have no good explanation for why his field trial performance declined as he reached his blood tracking prime. Generally, a very good blood tracker will be a very good field trial dog, but Max's whole career seemed the exception to sound generalizations.

Max did become lost again in December of 1991. He survived for eleven days outdoors in bitter cold temperatures before we found him in good physical and emotional condition. That is another long story, but he probably lived on the carcass of the deer that he was tracking.

What reflected even more clearly the rise of Max's self-esteem was the belated rise of his courage. Max came out of his puppyhood trauma a cowardly dog. When he was two years old and weighed twenty-five pounds he confronted a ten pound possum in a brush pile. Possums growl and gape, displaying a mouth full of fearsome teeth, but possums are all hollow bluff and collapse like a chilled soufflé if stressed. Max barked and bluffed back at the possum, but he was the one to lose the bluffing contest and withdraw.

Now any informed dog person knows that canine courage is largely innate and genetically programmed. It can be modified to some degree by environment, but once a dog is an adult, his character and personality are pretty well fixed. However, Max did not know anything about these well established rules of canine psychology. In a sense, Max learned to be brave. He was able to learn to be brave because pride in his work swallowed up his fear.

His first challenge occurred when tracking dog Max found himself alone in an oil drum with a raccoon almost as large as he was. The oil drum, with entrances cut at each end, had once been a rabbit feeder at our beagle club. It had been bulldozed into the middle of a pile of stumps, and there Max, who may have thought he was chasing a rabbit, found himself face to face with a raccoon in a position where I could give him no assistance. In the oil drum it sounded like pure hell, but after five minutes it was the raccoon that fled from the drum and climbed a tree. Max came out of the vet's office with 28 stitches.

The next incident involved a rabid raccoon which Max encountered in the open in broad daylight. The French call rabies "la rage", and this coon was demonic in its fury. He would not tree and kept attacking Max as they fought down a long hedgerow. When I arrived at the scene of the uproar, Max and the coon were fighting head to head and there was blood everywhere. We put the coon away together.

The third challenge means the most to me because it involves our blood tracking. I was three weeks out of the hospital after an operation and not too sure of how I would hold up on a long, tough call. Max was twelve, but certainly in better shape than I was on that warm, sultry November afternoon. After long labors we located the buck, got him out of his bed, and the race was on with the bowhunter and his bow right behind me. It was not a very fast race; everyone was tired, and then the brewing storm broke and the rain lashed down. At last we could drink, but I could not see a thing with the rain driving into my glasses. We were crossing an overgrown field, and suddenly there was the buck. I could not see him down right in front of us until Max grabbed his haunch and the buck gave Max a terrific whack with a hind hoof which rolled him several yards. Then the buck was on his feet, and Max was also right side up and following. There are dogs that would have quit at this point. The deer went down twice more in a half mile and at the third down we ended it.

Max had remained a puppy for a long time, but he made up for it at the other end as he lived to the age of fourteen. He was still a useful dog in the field at thirteen, doing honorable back-up work and finding one deer that was too difficult for the younger dogs. His last years were his finest with the steep decline coming near the very end. This is a dog I admire and will remember. We try to make our brave dogs part of us.

Max's last deer

No comments: