Two years ago this month marked the official (and long-awaited) debut of Teddy the baby bird dog, as he headed afield on his first hunt after several months of learning the ropes.
That’s the real question, I suppose: Was the year-old English cocker spaniel actually learning anything from me as we worked on recognizing the scent of a bird, and practiced following that scent to its source? Or was Teddy actually teaching me how to work with a top-notch bird dog, walking me through my paces and humoring me as I blew my whistle and waved my arms back and forth?
The truth was likely a combination of the two. I hope.
As it turned out, Teddy took to the sport pretty naturally for a beginner (with a beginner for a trainer), and seemed to enjoy spending time in the woods, sniffing about and trying to flush birds for me and my friends to miss.
We said, only half-joking, that Teddy was a bit of a city slicker, having spent most of his training time on my lawn in a subdivision, and he was a bit averse to actual bird covers.
He preferred to walk beside hunters on the dirt roads adjacent to those covers, and it took some serious coaxing to keep him in the thick stuff, where the walking was tougher, but where he’d be more apt to actually find a bird.
Most importantly, though, was this: He seemed to have fun. And I immediately began planning for the next time afield, which I was sure would happen early in October of 2017.
Things just don’t work the way we plan, unfortunately.
A month and a half after that bird season ended, I wound up in the hospital after a series of strokes. And though I returned to work soon enough, I remained a bit weaker than I had been. Further complicating matters, in June of 2017 I received good news that would put bird hunting on the back burner for that season: My pals and I were going on a moose hunt during the peak of bird season.
It wasn’t until more recently that I more fully came to recognize now how accommodating my friends were, as I struggled with fatigue and other issues during that memorable hunt.
And when we returned home, I didn’t get to go afield with Teddy.
I was tired. I’d spent a full week hunting. It was time to get back to work.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t regret that fact.
Teddy is a born bird hunter, you see. It’s what he was bred to do. And though I didn’t get a chance to do any field work with him this summer, I vowed to get him back in the woods come bird season to see if he remembered anything, and if he would still have fun spending time at my side as we walked (more slowly, perhaps) through those covers.
On Saturday, my friend Chris Lander and I loaded Teddy up, took him to a favorite piece of woods, and let him loose.
It had been two years since he’d been on a hunt, but that didn’t matter a bit.
Teddy was not just older, you see. He was also noticeably bolder. That tentative city slicker from two years ago was no longer a pup. He was bigger, stronger and more confident.
He bounded through the cover, barged through downed branches, and eagerly sought birds (which, for the record, he never found).
After a couple hours of hunting, I mentioned to Chris that there might not even have been birds in that cover. Perhaps, I said hopefully, Teddy just didn’t have anything to find. The absence of birds flying in front of our shotguns may have had nothing to do with sub-par dog work.
Chris, who’s generally an agreeable guy, once again chose to agree.
It wasn’t Teddy’s fault. No birds were home. It’s that simple.
Still, I recognized that a couple of sessions of training couldn’t hurt, and I really wanted to make sure my little furry buddy understood what we were looking (or sniffing) for.
I “borrowed” a frozen quail from a bird-hunting co-worker, took it home, and planted it upwind from the house, about 150 feet away. Then I went inside, let Teddy sniff the bag the quail had been stored in, and repeatedly urged him to “find the bird.”
With a noticeable spring in his step, he immediately started to work, and did just that.
A year off hadn’t helped Teddy’s bird-hunting acumen, for sure. But he hadn’t forgotten much … and I’m sure he’ll continue to improve.
And most importantly, still: I’m sure he’ll continue to have a great time in the woods.
After a year away, I will, too.
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke