Wednesday, September 16, 2020

A Swan Song

7 weeks old-Ruby

It was 92 degrees. 
Once again, I was in the middle of a CRP field, just off the end of the International Airport runway in Great Falls, MT.  Joined by 40-50 of my NSTRA (National Shoot to Retrieve Field Trial Assoc.) friends,  I was there to compete with my bird dogs before I headed out for a week to ten days of bird hunting  on the Montana prairie.  It was the end of August.  August!  And, it was 92 degrees.  Somehow, spending most of the long summer in Georgia, I  missed the part about it being real hot in the heartland.  In my parochial, shortsighted vision, I think I assumed anything north would be cooler.  (The background laughter is distracting.)  The heat was all that more penetrating, because the sun was beating mercilessly on anything crazy, ignorant, or trusting enough to be outside the shade. That included handlers, judges, dogs, field marshals and spectators.  Shade was sought and hoarded.  Cold water was trading across the board for fizzy drinks.  A cool breeze was heavenly.  Wet heat, dry heat. It's all hot. The difference is the shade.  In low humidity, when you are in the shade, if you stay calm and collected, it may even feel comfortable for a few minutes. Shade and a breeze made life possible.  

Of the five bird dogs I carried with me, two were already NSTRA Champions, Cap a three-time Champion (3XCH-derived by points and placements), and Ruby a two-time Champion (2XCH). Cap was retired from NSTRA, he had nothing to prove or gain by running more field trials.  At ten and a half years old, he would be my top hunting dog as long as he wanted.  Ruby was even a little older than Cap, by just a few months, but she needed three more points (3 pts.-first, 2 pts- second, 1 pt.- third) for her third championship.  She was healthy and running, and she was, far and away, the smartest dog I ever owned. At least twice in the past, I saw her run straight to a spot she worked for a bird earlier, but didn’t produce it. Then, she would point and I would get the bird up. Both times were in the last few minutes of the brace. Both times, it was a bird that enabled us to advance to the next round. 

 I thought she deserved another championship.  One more championship would also qualify her for another award, when coupled with her two victories in the 2016 and 2019 Georgia Region NSTRA Championships.  She was the only Brittany to ever win that trial- and she did it twice.  At seven and nine years old.
As we walked to the line, Ruby bounced around and pulled on the lead. With some dogs, I would insist on them walking at heel.  It was a safety issue.  They are big, strong dogs, and they could trip me up or cause me to slip on muddy ground.  So, I took a few days, and added "Heel" to the list of commands they know.  But Ruby, at 34# soaking wet, wasn't a problem.  I always figured her antics were like a Sumo wrestler banging his chest and psyching himself up for the contest.  Ruby was excited.  I let her get more excited.  

We were in the 15th brace, out of 16 total braces for the day.   Ruby had a good run on the other field, and was currently in second place over there.  I knew second would gain her two points, and we'd need to wait for another trial.  I was hoping her second would hold up though, and I could get at least a third with her on this field, then I'd have all the necessary points for her third championship.  And her retirement.  
The dog who currently held first place did good work earlier in the day.  He had four finds and retrieves, good ground coverage and obedience scores.  I noticed he lacked a score for his back, most likely because he never had the opportunity, since he found four of the five birds planted before the brace began. 

At the line, Ruby steadied.  I unsnapped her lead, but held onto her collar.  We both waited for the lead judge to tell us, "Turn 'em loose!" The other dog, and handler, were to our left.  The wind was right to left, coming out of the greater portion of the field. The command was given, and I let go of her collar.  She shot out, full speed in a few strides, straight ahead, then turned sharply to the right, into the wind. I took a few steps, loaded my gun, stowed my lead, and started my watch, all the while watching Ruby.  She went out about 100 yards and began a long, looping turn to the left right back at me.  I knew to walk slowly, because she was now looking for the "gallery bird", as she passed me and made another loop to the right, having swept the area off the line in a "figure 8" pattern,  I felt confident, at that point, we hadn't left any behind.  I learned to trust her nose.  Of all my dogs, she is the one I trust the most.  
(Photo by Nancy Whitehead)
3XCh Flyboy's Ruby Deux

I named her Ruby Deux, or Ruby #2.  My first Ruby was an English Setter from years gone by.  Ruby Deux was fast.  Lean and long-legged, and she was always fast. At 8 weeks old, after I picked her up in North Carolina, the week before, I took her on a walk to the barn to meet the big dogs and start her awareness of the world around her.  We sniffed the big dogs, and, without saying a word, I started walking out of the barn and along a tree line down to the creek about a third of a mile away. I glanced back and smiled as she noticed me missing, sighted me, and came flying along my track.  She passed me up and ran out about 20-30 feet in front. moving from right to left.  Still not saying a word, I waited until she moved out a little farther, then I stepped into the treeline and hid.  Usually, the pup will notice I'm gone, start to panic, and I'll magically reappear to "save" them.  They learn to know where I am at all times.  That little game reaps huge rewards later on when they are running a ridge line 300 yards out, and I see them glance over towards me.  Or, I can't see them glance at all, but they will swing by 50-100 yards away, keeping me "in sight".  

Ruby, however, played the game a bit differently.  She turned, noticed I was nowhere to be found, whimpered once, reversed course and took off at full speed back up the trail.  She went by me like an orange blur. I called to her, but she didn't even blink.  All I saw was the tail end of an 8 week old Brit pup, hauling her fuzzy butt back to the barn! I took off running, trying to catch her, but she was going away by the time she reached the barn.  She ran right to the pen with the big dogs, grabbed some water from the bucket, and laid down.  By the time I arrived, she was panting, but not hard.  At least she was glad to see me.  He little stub tail was going a mile a minute.  I could only think it was the horseback breeding of her mom coming out.  Ruby was a runner.  She liked it.  Later, she lived for the wide open stretches of the grasslands.  Her dad was Nolan's Last Bullet, a 33X NSTRA Champion, and a multi-National Champion and in the Hall of Fame, a master at the game of NSTRA, but her mom was a horseback trial bird dog, a runner. 
Ruby and me

After cleaning the field in front of the start line, Ruby took off again to the right, into the wind.  She swept back and forth, cleaning huge chunks of grass of any birds.  Five minutes went by, then ten, and I was beginning to get concerned.  We had 20 minutes left. We covered a good portion of the field, and had zero birds on the card!  Approaching the boundary, I didn't need to say a thing to her.  She hit the mowed strip and turned to the left to work the corner of the field.  I thought perhaps she needed some water, so I raised my whistle and started walking to the flag indicating a water barrel.  Right then the judge yelled, "Point!"  I snapped my head around, and smiled as I saw her 50 yards away, still as a statue.  I flushed the Chukar, shot it, and she retrieved it to my hand.  I told her, "Good girl!  Get in, Ruby!", my command to get into the water barrel nearby.  I pointed the direction, and she headed that way until she saw the barrel and jumped in. She didn't stay long, only a few seconds.  Energized, she took off, down the back boundary, breeze at her back.  She worked back and forth, fast, full strides, until we got to the very back corner. It was 20 minutes into the brace now- ten minutes left on the clock.  I could tell she was tiring in the heat, she slowed and looked at me, as if to say, "Boss, I've done everything I can think of, and I'm not having any luck.  You got any ideas?" Yes, I did. "C'mon, girl," I said.  I turned back into the wind, and headed back across the field, on a different line now, one that crossed close to another water barrel. She passed me by, tongue out, slowing, but still game.  "She's about out of gas," the judge said. "Yeah, she is, judge.  She might have given me all she has today.  POINT," I yelled!  The instant before, Ruby spun around and pointed, about 30 yards ahead.  I moved as quickly as I legally could to her, scanning for the bird.  Her back legs were shaking, but that nose was steady, eyes locked on a shrub not far off, and she was "eating scent", mouth slowly opening and closing.  The bird was there, and tried to escape by flushing behind me.  I heard the wings, turned and dropped the bird.  Ruby was on it in a flash and dropped it in my hand.  Five minutes left in the brace, I looked toward the water barrel, back towards the gallery, and decided she needed water more than anything.  I whistled her back to me.  She turned reluctantly, slowly, and started back.  POINT!  "Move!" I thought to myself.  The bird popped up, and flew directly at the judge.  "Safety," I yelled!  The bird flew out of bounds (we get an average score for that retrieve.).  
Three birds on the card now and four minutes left.  "Ruby, get in, girl!", and I pointed to the water barrel.  It was important to make sure she was cool for the last few minutes.  A very successful trialer once told me, "Randy, don't let her run out the clock if she's hot and not smelling anything!  Make her get in the barrel and hold her there.  Put water on her belly, chest, and head.  Make sure she's soaked!  Then, let her finish out the run with a working nose, and a strong stride!"   She jumped in the barrel, and I put my gun down, and wet her underside, head, and face.  After 30 seconds, I sensed a renewed energy in her.  "Let's go, Rubes!"  She jumped out of the barrel, and immediately became birdy!  POINT!  I only had a minute or two left, so I move quickly to the bird.  I saw it running on the ground!  It saw me and changed direction- "Flushed bird, Judge!"   "You got it," he said!  The bird took off right then, and I dropped it.  Ruby was on it, and slowly brought it to me, and placed it in my hand.  I knelt down, and stroked her head.  "I am so proud of you, Ruby Deux!  You've got all the grit a dog can have," I told her.
The last ones standing.  You know you won.

We had four birds on the card, with only seconds left in the brace.  So little time was left, I didn't even check my watch.  I expected to hear the judge call "Time!" any second.  I stood to get my bearings, and heard someone say Point!  It wasn't us, so I looked left, and there was my bracemate on point 40 feet away!  "Ruby! Here," I yelled!  She started to me, then past me, saw the other dog, and froze.  "Back," I shouted!  "You got it, Randy.  It wasn't pretty, but it was a back."  "Time," said the judge.
Laughing, I walked to Ruby and knelt beside her.   I pulled her to me.  Her scoring was over.  Four finds, four retrieves (one a safety), and a back.  In 92+ degree heat, at ten and a half years old.  I took her head and breathed in her nostrils, and tucked her under my chin.  She let me catch her this time, and sank into me.  I'll never forget that time we spent in that open field, me kneeling down, holding my dog, Ruby submitting and letting me love on her.  "That dog has a lot of heart, Randy.  I was proud to see her work.  Good job!" said the judge as he rode by.
Ruby won  the trial by 11 points.  Her other field's standing did not hold up, and she was fourth.  Her win gave her the three points needed for her third Championship.  She is now retired from trialing, and concentrates entirely on bird hunting, with the occasional growling roll-over of the new pup, Blue, from her last litter.  "Don't give me any lip, Junior! When you get two Region wins and three championships behind your name, I might listen.  Until then, shut up and learn!" 

That's my girl.