The NAVHDA Invitational Test is a great teacher. Going through the process of training and running my dog for that test has brought me to a new level of both appreciating and understanding the training of a versatile hunting dog; and at the same time it has brought our dog, ZhaZha to a level of performance that goes beyond any that she had previously attained.
The whole atmosphere of the Invitational is more that of a national championship than anything seen elsewhere in the NAVHDA process. The superb level and objectivity of the judges combined with the unstinting dedication of those putting organizing the test and preparing the test sites were an inspiration. I was also greatly impressed by the responsible commitment I saw at this level of the NAVHDA hierarchy to game conservation: There is an assigned position on the staff responsible for cleaning shot birds and making sure they get utilized!
Even though there were two days with severe thunderstorms, the tests went on; only the presence of dangerous lightning on Sunday morning caused any delays in the test. We also saw lots of great dogs before and during the Invitational; one adage that has often occurred to me this summer is, “There are no great breeds, only great dogs.”
This part of the posting starts with the afternoon’s field trial part of the test:
In the afternoon ZhaZha was paired with the better of Sid Rhode’s two German Shorthairs, Hunters Edge Dottie Mae, who eventually would receive a 200 point passing score. As I mentioned, it was the final brace of both the day and the whole test. It was run in 85 degree heat on a field that had already seen over 50 chukars planted (in addition to the 12 put out for our brace). There was false scent everywhere. Both dogs soon established steady to wing, shot and fall as well as honoring, and, remarkably, neither dog gave a false point during the entire hour.
We had Bob West, Jim Stearns and Joe Dolejsi as the judges. ZhaZha matched the Sid’s Shorthair in almost all aspects (in deference to Shorthair aficionados, I'll note the difference in pointing form--not intensity). ZhaZha ran so wide that the judges at one point said, "Handler watch your dog". A simple triple blast of the whistle brought her in from 150 yards at which time she searched the area near me assuming that I was calling her for a bird; then she would take off on a track in a different direction.
ZhaZha disappeared over a hill and after I laboriously clambered over the top, there she was part way down the other side locked on point. At another time she pointed a bird and I couldn't find it, so the judges ordered a reposition. She moved forward only a couple of feet and stopped again. I searched more, but no bird. Finally, I got down on my hands and knees and started searching through the grass. When I put my hand into one small clump of grass, the bird exploded out; I still don't know how it was hidden there. I was so surprised, I fell over.
At another point she was running about 8 feet behind the shorthair, both apparently on the same scent, when a chukar flushed in front of them. They both froze on the spot. Two judges called out at the same time, “Steady to flush”—it was quite surprising. ZhaZha remained locked for several minutes while the Shorthair searched for the bird, which had run while we were walking over to the area. Finally, my accompanying judge, Jim Stearns, told me to heel ZhaZha away and give her some water. While I was watering her, the Shorthair found the bird and they shot it. Jim was worried that ZhaZha might "chase" it, so he told me to hold her collar. No problem, though; I didn't hold her collar, I just finished watering her while she watched the action. Incidentally, when a dog is honoring, the judges always tell the handler to go to his dog. Perhaps this is because some dogs require this proximity to honor staunchly during the whole process of wing, shot, fall and retrieve; I, personally, have never had that issue with ZhaZha.
The end of the brace is all about endurance. The judges are watching the time and the dogs to see how well they hold up as they walk back towards the starting point. In our case the Shorthair went on point in the last minutes of the test, and it appeared that ZhaZha was honoring her from about 80 yards away. However, after the chukar had been shot and retrieved for the Shorthair, ZhaZha was still locked in position. We cautiously approached the pointing dog, and as I did so, I saw a chukar about 8 feet in front of ZhaZha stick up his head to see what was going on. That made a fitting climax to the brace, which now had less than a minute to completion.
After the brace was over, one of the gunners came over and shook my hand. He said it was the best brace he had shot during the test and he admired ZhaZha, who beautifully represented the Small Munsterlander look at that Invitational.
Speaking of the Munsterlander look, we had taken ZhaZha and Zephyr to Petco on Friday for "baby sitting", and we got ZhaZha's belly shaved at the same time (up to the rib cage), to help deal with possible heat effects. We told them that if anyone could detect the shave while she was standing, we wouldn't pay them. They did a great job. There was a professional photographer, Phillipe "somebody" at the site, and he came up and started shooting photo after photo of the two dogs on Saturday while they were sitting with me on the grass. He told me that he had taken the picture of Jim Lemmenes' Bridgette that had appeared on the Versatile Hunting Dog cover some years before, and he said he wanted to shoot some shots the next afternoon. I could tell that he was taken with the contrast of the two dogs; Zephyr is getting more beautiful as she matures. However, when we were standing in the lineup, ZhaZha was next to the imported Large Munsterlander, Odin (the first VC LM). That dog is gorgeous with a truly dramatic flowing coat. When Phillipe saw that dog, he apparently forgot about shots of our dogs, which, although fine examples of the SM breed, are not going to compete in a romantic photo with a magnificent male LM.
Finally, I can't help but wonder what would have happened at the field trial brace if it had been 10 degrees cooler so that ZhaZha could have kept her mouth more shut to allow better use of her nose. For two days before the Invitational started, ZhaZha practiced on cool windy days with one of Lynn Ericksen's Shorthairs and with Art Trujillo's Wirehair, Gin. At one point when she was running with Lynn's dog, the GS swept over an area and ZhaZha followed, but ZhaZha went on point. Lynn smiled and said it was obviously false, since ZhaZha was pointing upwind. Sorry, Lynn, there was a bird four feet away.
The next day ZhaZha ran with Art's dog. When we had arrived in Utah to practice with Art on his native territory in 90 degree plus weather, Gin had made ZhaZha look like a lap dog, but my follow up training and the 75 degree weather with a good breeze on "neutral territory" evened matters up. A Small Munsterlander generally runs with a lower head position than most pointers, but a good breeze nullifies that advantage. ZhaZha found so many more birds than Gin that at one point I showed Art a spot I had flagged when I planted a bird so that I could get some practice with ZhaZha honoring Gin. He took Gin over there and she searched a good five minutes, but no bird. He said they would try again on their way back at the end of the hour's session, which he did, but again no bird. I then brought ZhaZha over, and within 15 seconds she switched course and locked on point about 5 feet from the flag in the grass (the grass was about 1 foot high). I called to Art, but either he didn't believe me or he thought that Gin had already had plenty of practice honoring ZhaZha, so he told me to go ahead and shoot the bird (if it was there). Of course it was. Apparently it had weaseled itself down and froze in place.