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Life with Liz: An emotional performance by Duncan

Last week’s update on the dogs was the first of a two-part tale. All the hard work and training that we’d been doing was leading up to the Hunting Working Airedale National event that takes place every September. This group sponsors two events annually, one in the spring and one in the fall. The fall event usually features some sort of training workshop, in addition to hunting opportunities.

Two years ago, Steve and I attended our first one. Duncan earned his junior fur tracking title from the Airedale Terrier Club of America and we brought home puppy Henson. Last year, I attended the event, hoping to try to start to learn how to start working the dogs the way they were meant to be worked. This year, when the invitation arrived for the fall event, a plan started to form in my head.

At the spring event last year, Dunc had happened onto a short track that had been laid for dogs to practice fur tracking. He immediately picked up the trail and ran joyfully to the end where he started barking at the startled raccoon up in the tree. Surprised, I took him back to the beginning of the track and purposefully watched him run it again, which he did, including a minor modification for the slight breeze that had picked up. The track monitor noticed his adjustment and complimented him on it.

When we got home, I started reading a little more about how to train dogs to track and I started picking G’s brain. He had helped Steve run some tracks and had usually overseen animating whatever “bait” Steve had rigged up to simulate the raccoon that was supposed to be waiting for Duncan at the end of the track. While G alternately told me he didn’t remember anything about what Dad had done and pointed out everything I was doing wrong that wasn’t like anything Dad had done, the one thing he kept coming back to was that Duncan wasn’t going to forget what he’d been taught.

Going for the senior level title meant that there would be several other “creature’s” scents crossing the track. A good dog would stay on the right scent. G again found the humor in my elaborate attempts to confuse the dog, and I suspect Duncan did, too. “Mom, he knows what he’s doing. He’ll be fine,” I heard over and over again.

Finally, a few days before we were set to leave, I accidentally hung the bait (an old raccoon pelt) too low and Duncan easily got a hold of it. Instead of tearing into it, like he normally did, he turned around and took off for home. He had clearly had enough. It was time to trust him to remember everything. Truly, we hadn’t done one single run that was completely flawless, mainly because I was not very good at setting up the course. He was either going to draw on his reserves, or he wasn’t. I suspected that the die had been cast long before we started our work this summer.

I read the requirements for the test a thousand times, and I still really didn’t understand what would happen or what the exact criteria were for passing the test. I tried to make sure that I wouldn’t do something dumb to disqualify us, and I hoped he’d carry the rest. I tried to tell myself that just getting us signed up for this was a big step and could be considered a success, but I wasn’t buying it. I knew if Steve were here, he’d have had that ribbon long ago, and probably a slew of other ones. I also knew the hours they would have spent together working toward them would have meant more to them than any piece of fabric.

Dunc was the only dog going for the senior title that day, so that meant we ran last, and we had to wait for the junior field to finish. Dunc was already wired. As soon as we arrived at the farm, he could tell something was going to happen, because he’d hunted there several times before. We were able to take a few practice barks at the raccoon before it was sent out to the field, and he was literally salivating to get started.

I wish I could tell you every detail of his run, but it was nothing but a blur. The next thing I knew, we were standing at the tree, Dunc was barking his head off at the raccoon he’d found, and the examiner passed me a starter’s pistol and said “fire this!” Apparently, the last part of the test is for him not to be startled by the gunfire and continue barking at his prey. Well, of course, I misfired the first shot, and when I finally fired it, Dunc stopped barking and turned to look at me. The examiner joked that he was waiting for the raccoon to fall out of the sky, but Dunc and I both know what he really said was “what the heck are you doing shooting a gun, lady?” And then he went back to barking.

Not only did he earn his senior title, but he brought home the high score of the day trophy. I had forgotten completely about the award, but when it was announced, I immediately flashed back to Steve vowing to come back the next year and win it. Steve was always the most competitive person in the room and if there was a trophy or special award to be won, he would stop at nothing until he’d earned it. Dunc did in fact remember everything that Steve taught him, and between that and his natural instincts, he did finally bring home that trophy for Steve.

It had taken him a long time to stop waiting by the door for Steve to come home every afternoon. He’d slept with Steve’s shirt for months. He disappeared on more than one occasion, spotted miles from home, looking for Steve I believe. Gradually, those things stopped. He and I have come a long way, and I frequently wondered if it was at the expense of him forgetting Steve. After watching him work this weekend, I know he hasn’t forgotten him one bit, and Steve is as much a part of his hunt as he ever was.

Liz Pinkey is a contributing columnist who appears weekly in the Times News