Last year, I went on a hare hunt with a friend on an estate, where the grounds were filled with pheasants. So, we take our dogs and our shotguns, and, in a happy mood, we walk right into the fields. I am full of expectation, even more than usual, because I am there with Tassla’s breeder, Anne, and she hasn’t seen Tassla since she was a puppy, and I really want to show her how amazing Tassla is.
Tassla is fiery and she runs in too big circles, but she can be like that in the beginning of a hunt, so I don’t think that much about it. When I walk with the shotgun she usually hunts very well, so I really look forward to this.
Suddenly, she sees a pheasant 30 yards away and runs off and starts to chase it (!) – and she almost catches it. I was SO surprised! And angry. What was this about? She is used to seeing lots of pheasants and that doesn’t mean that she can run after them like crazy – she can, of course, do that if I ask her to, to retrieve an injured bird..
I recall her and then we continue, but somewhere on the way across the Baltic Sea (I am in Finland) someone must have replaced my dog; this one is totally out of control. She runs around like crazy, can’t sit at one single flush, doesn’t listen to my signals at all, and she isn’t at all like herself. We are, of course, not like a team every second. But this! I am SO angry. I give her a good scolding and scream rudely after her when she runs off. Not because it helps, and it only makes me feel terrible afterwards.
I put away the shotgun and start to train my dog instead. It works out quite alright, but I can’t get rid of that feeling of disappointment. I really wanted to show Anne how great Tassla usually is. Instead, she was terrible, and so was I.
Afterwards I thought about it a lot and wondered what actually happened, why it was like that. That’s the only way to change things, to think about what went wrong and see what you can do differently next time.
The first thing I thought about was our last hunt, how did that go? The only thing I could think of was that during our last really big hunt, Tassla was overexcited while we walked around and clapped our hands (she was by my side while we pushed the pheasants in front of us) and she whined and barked. But after that time, we had been to smaller hunts and we had also been hunting by ourselves, and it had been just fine. Could it be that big hunt, when she was overexcited, that had started this behavior? Hm, not many things were the same at these two different occasions, there were many pheasants both times, but otherwise nothing else was the same. The first one was a huge hunt with lots and lots of people, gunshots and shouts, but this time we were only two persons and two dogs in a silent forest.
But then I began to think about her life during the last couple of days. We had been traveling for several days, we lived with Tassla’s breeder, who has many dogs, and although Tassla didn’t meet all of them there were always dogs nearby, she could hear them bark, there were a lot of dogs on our walks etc. Tassla has a history that makes her different from many other dogs. Apart from the fact that she was severely bitten when she was only four weeks old (her mouth is lopsided because of the scar which is still there since the wound was sutured), she has also been attacked a couple of times. She felt extremely bad after those attacks and was in shock for several days. I usually protect her from having to be with other dogs and introduce them very slowly to her. Then it usually works out pretty well. When we hunt there are usually no problems at all.
During the first couple of days in Anne’s home she lay in exactly the same place in “my” room all the time and didn’t want to go out of there. She was very stingy and seemed suspicious.
When we went out for this hunt it was New Year’s Day, and I, who very seldom drink alcohol because I don’t endure it, had drunk a couple glasses of sparkling wine the night before, and the night before that I also drank a couple glasses of wine, so I wasn’t in a very good shape at all. I even had a headache …
I don’t think that Tassla managed the journey as well as I had hoped that she would, and she didn’t like the environment where we lived either. She had probably built up a lot of stress, so therefore she almost exploded at the hunt. The fact that I couldn’t manage the situation as well as I should have, had two reasons: one was that I shouldn’t train my dog the day after I drink wine, and the second reason was that I was (exaggeratedly) disappointed not having been able to show Anne how fantastic Tassla is.
That the training suddenly didn’t work was probably not so very strange. Dogs are different. One of my most important tasks is to listen to my dogs and find out what they are saying to me, and then make wise decisions about what we should do and how we should do it.
When I think about it, I remember lots of examples of this, when the dog hasn’t performed very well, because it was a stressful environment or the situation before the training had been stressful. When I was a member of the obedience group in The Swedish Working Dog Association the instructors talked about the importance of being able to travel with the dog, if you want to be a part of the Swedish national team. Even if the national team is not the goal it does say something about the difficulty to travel. These dogs are, strictly speaking, athletes on elite level in their field, and they will of course be affected by their environment and various circumstances and, of course, also the handler’s mood. Some dogs can adjust to it in a better way than others. But Tassla is very sensitive, even if she handles most things when she gets do what she likes the most (hunt).
As a conclusion, I am not very proud of this moment as a dog handler (I’m still actually a little ashamed) but at least I learned something from it. My only task as a dog handler is to sweep in front of my dog, as if it were curling. I have to sweep so that she can perform her very best, the curling-stone must be given the best conditions. It also means that I have to be able to interpret her and understand that today we have to make some small (and sometimes large) adjustments in order for her to be able to perform at her best.
Knowing that, we should have done something easy in an easy environment, not something very challenging, maybe I should have been lying on the couch all day and eating chocolates.