|Many thanks to Willette for this great report from Trackfest.|
As I waited for my turn to run my UBT II test track, I reflected on the last few days… The three of us had driven with five dogs from Maine and New Hampshire, a twenty plus hour drive. My friends, Joanne and Susanne, are experienced trackers with all the stories to prove it. I am a neophyte with a handful of tracks, (a few "finds" I might add), and lots of mixed emotions. I complain about my ankle, I worry about bears, I'm not really fond of blood or you know, the other stuff, and having been a Bambi lover in my early youth, I struggle a bit to find the unequivocal "go ahead". I guess my prey drive is a bit on the weak side. But I have this totally awesome dog, and when I watch her work my pride is bigger than all of my misgivings or fears and all I want is to understand her more deeply and help her become the best she can be.
So... I loaded up my gear and chimed in a story or two as the miles fell behind us.
The testing morning was cool and sunny, the fields were heavy with dew (good scenting), and the view from the hill was spectacular. Green fields rolled away to deep woods for 360 degrees. The first dog was down and working beautifully. He was slowly and deliberately crossing the field and approaching the second check. The hay gently swayed as he moved and all I could see was the white tip of his tail above the timothy. My confidence wavered. Would I find the two beds? Would I see the blood spots after 20 hours overnight? Would we make at least two checks? Would I even be able to read her, or for that matter, believe her? "Trust your dog" I keep repeating to myself, we have learned that over and over all weekend.
For two days we have shared more information than I think I can possibly absorb about training and tracking. I am awed by the collective experience that I am in the company of. John Jeanneney, who is a walking encyclopedia, would probably pop up first if I were to google "tracking wounded deer". He is so generous with his knowledge and has so much depth of experience that I find myself hoping new questions will pop in my head so I can get as much out of him as possible. I am certain that there is no question he can't answer. Andy Bensing, a tornado of a person, is intuitive and confident. He truly "knows" how to read dogs and train their handlers. This is a gift that he has maximized in every way. He tries to stuff as much information as he can into our heads as the weekend unfolds. I briefly worried that he may use that e-collar on me if I'm not careful, but as it turned out, Andy was a steady, supportive guide for me and my dogs.
Other speakers were equally informative. Larry Gohlke, whose stories of how to jump on a deer made us laugh (and mentally weigh ourselves), demonstrated a wealth of knowledge and experience hunting, tracking, and training. He is the "go to" guy for anyone looking for encouragement and an extra pair of hands. Alan Wade led the talk for tracking equipment. Lights, GPS, and other essential tools for trackers to use… it is also worth mentioning that he did a demonstration with a spear (a spear, who knew?) that would be coveted by a Masai warrior. And, channeling Martha Stewart, Cheri Faust showed us how to process, store, and use blood for training. I was relieved to learn that she kept a special blender just for that…I suspect that the handouts, the schedule, the food, and the speakers were all organized by her as well. No detail was missing.
Each day was well balanced with lots of hands on work. We practiced pacing 100 yards, then laying 300 yard lines, and then after a couple of hours ( and a good lunch) we put our dogs down on the lines. My young dog needed a lot of encouragement to stay focused on the line. I think he was looking for rabbits at first, but Alan, our instructor, patiently helped him find his way around the track. My older, more experienced dog went the next day and Andy picked an exercise for her to help her focus on the task at hand. I have never felt her pull on the end of the line with such confidence and certainty. And a big thank you to Chris who sat in the brush and waited for her to find him and a particularly stinky lure. We learned our weaknesses (many) and our strengths (a few) and we learned what to do to make our partnership better. It was obvious that the trainers had all shared what they observed from the first day and worked to make the second day really productive.
My friend, Susanne Hamilton, was also judging and teaching. She has endless energy for sharing her time and knowledge about tracking, and she has a "No Deer Left Behind" policy that makes many hunters here in Maine tip their hats in admiration. She was either roaring off in a Gator to teach, laying lines, or most importantly, posing for pictures with her legendary tracking dog, Buster. (Truth: Buster was a bit bored with all the paparazzi and genealogical connections. He simply wanted to get out there and track SOMETHING). Chuck Collier, also a judge/trainer, and Susanne took a bunch of pics of their dogs together. Chuck's dog, Moose, is a famous tracker himself, and a son of Buster. I think they were comparing conquests… or at least their owners were.
Now it was day three, testing day. I watched Kirk, "Hound on a Rope" Vaughan, working his dog, and I knew that he was a handler whose heart beat straight down the rope and into his dog. I felt humble and awed, and not a little out of my league. I listened as Cheri gave Kirk a wonderful recap of his test. It was clear to me that she had truly observed their working relationship and was able to offer a constructive, thoughtful critique. His pride in his dog was evident. And his smile was as wide as the field we stood in when she said he passed with flying colors.
After a truck ride to a remote field, it was time to run my dog, Quilla. I brought her up to the start, listening carefully as my judge described the point of loss. As I put her down and directed her to "find it," there was barely a split second before she leaned into the leash and began to work. No time for me to be insecure. "At YOUR pace", Andy's words, were in my head. She took me forward, past the last flag and on to the unmarked track. "Look for confirmation," I thought, and there it was! I noted it to the judges following me and kept going. I glued my eyes to the line that Quilla was working. She yipped quietly every so often and I knew ( I knew!) to look more carefully there because she was telling me "there's a spot!" Down the road we went and eventually after some looping at the first check (including her climbing up a bank that I was pretty certain no one would have laid a line on) we went down into the field. Then the first bed appeared, YAY!
My confidence began to grow. More blood, here and there, then the second bed emerged in the tall grass. Wow, what a thrill! What an awesome dog! My heart rate increased as I realized that she was dead on, still certain, and still moving with that perfect pull on the line. Before I knew it, we had arrived at the end, and I was surprised to feel a bit disappointed...finished already? I leaned over and lavished praise on Quilla. When we got back to the truck, Andy said, " If that test had been in Germany your dog would have gotten a 100. It was a picture perfect track." Now it was my turn to grin from ear to ear.
After the testing was finished we sat down to a late lunch and I asked Kirk, who had driven 17 hours from North Carolina to be at Trackfest, what he thought about his experience. He said, " I feel like I have a whole new family!"
I couldn't have put it better myself.
|This picture of Quilla was taken at a field trial a couple of years ago.|