He's not a bad guy, her former owner. In fact, he's a friend whom I admire. A bright, highly successful professional and a driven angler and hunter, he would tell you that he loves his bird dogs, and in his way, I believe him.
But at that time, he was also a zealot with a hard-edged, cookie cutter way of training forged in a perfectionist's bent. That didn't work for Katie.
He should have known better. It didn't work for her mother either, a beautiful dog with the most soulful and troubled eyes I had ever seen. She worshipped her Man, but struggled figuring out how to please him.
So when he found tremendous success with a completely different sort of dog, Katie, whom I'd long admired, came to my place for a reboot of sorts.
Understand that, if you took inventory on this tattered old farm, seems like everybody here, two-legged and four, came in for a reboot of one kind or another...and stayed. But not Katie. She would have a different calling.
Her former owner's complaint was that she was "tentative" in the field. So for the first several weeks, Katie got back to just being a dog. She played with the others. She swam in the pond. She rolled in horse manure, barked at the UPS man, and stalked the pigeon lofts. Although she is not of the Firelight strain of English setter, she is more like my boys in temperament than not. She eagerly responded to the things we do that have built their initiative and furthered our companionship.
Her confidence level buoyed, I contacted my long-time friend Bob DeMott. I knew he'd been considering an understudy for his girl Maddie, was not interested in starting a puppy, and I felt certain that he and Katie would hit it off.
He came to the farm the next Saturday. After a get-acquainted session in the barnyard, I suggested we go up on the hill where we go to learn with our dogs. I was eager for him to see the beautiful, collected reach of her run, her high-headed, tail cracking way of going.
We were nearly ready to make hay on the hill field and the grass was quite high. Almost as an afterthought, I strapped a bell collar on her before she made the first cast. I gave her two taps on the head to send her on.
The bell clattered, and Katie froze. Then she panicked, running in quick bursts of ten or fifteen yards before racing back in. Ten yards out, ten yards back in. Stopping. Checking. Tail tucked. Ten yards out and back, bell banging the whole time.
I hung my head. This was not the Katie I had described to my friend over the phone. Yes, I had depicted her as "sensitive." The expression "basket case" had not entered the conversation.
For my motley crew, the bell collar is a signal for "Game on!" It excites them. They dance and beg for it to be their turn to ring that bell. To see beautiful Katie cowed by that same bell was gut-wrenching.
Williedog wore the clapper out of one bell in his insatiable drive to find birds.
I put Katie at heel and unbuckled the bell collar. Up came her head. Her tail began to wag. It was as if by taking all that neck clamor and stuffing it into my vest pocket, I'd lifted a sort of spell cast by The Baddog Sorcerer.
That's when we knew. In the team sports vernacular, we sometimes refer to harsh, regimented, fit-the-mold-or-else leadership and teaching as "hard coaching." Quite obviously, Katie had been "coached hard" whenever she had a bell or beeper or (gulp!) inappropriately applied eCollar strapped 'round her neck.
In sports, not every athlete thrives under hard coaching. Hard coaching didn't make Katie "tentative." It positively wilted her.
Katie was sweet, beautiful, and a wonderful house dog. Bob was taken with her affectionate manners and intrigued by her potential; just coming two, she was also six years younger than his older setter, the perfect age gap for his purposes. Bob agreed to take her on trial when he came back from a fishing trip to Montana.
It's important to note that Bob DeMott is no stranger to "project" dogs. He's good with them because he's the most ardent woodcock hunter I know and keeps an ever-changing inventory of coverts in several counties. He gets out every day in the fall hunting season and the spring migration and finds birds.
The crowning piece is that Bob is an experienced, thoughtful guy who knows how to read a dog. We agreed that he would just take her hunting. He would not to speak to her when she went on point. He would simply let Katie be Katie, rebuilding her confidence as much with what he didn't do as what he did.
So when the woodcock season came in, Bob covered Katie wild bird contacts, letting woodcock be, with apologies to The Big Liebowski, the rug that held the room together. Our fair lady's makeover began to take hold.
Bob keeps a detailed hunting diary that, one day, will make the perfect companion to his excellent book, Angling Days: A Fly Fisher's Journals. Then we'll all have a chance to read about Maddie and Meadow and a quirky little grouse savant named Babe. In that first autumn that Katie went to live with Bob and his partner Kate Fox, moved from a mincing, recovering neurotic to a bird-busting, bit-in-her-teeth bumbler. All the while Bob stayed the course, and by and by, Katie showed signs of becoming what she was meant to be all along - a smart, steady companion gun dog that became more keen, more decisive, with each bird contact.
Katie and Bob DeMott, spring woodcock. (Photo: Kate Fox)
This past March, to a world already wracked by heartache and loss, came an email from Bob I had been dreading. Sometime earlier, Bob's older dog Maddie had had a section of her beautiful setter tail amputated when cancer had been found there. The concern at the time was that the disease had spread.
"We had to have Maddie put down today by our vet. She had been struggling with a cancerous tumor around her heart and was no longer able to breathe right. She leaves a hole in my heart - she was the best woodcock dog I ever had and pretty much a dear in all other categories as well. I am so glad I took Katie on because we will have a lovable dog in the house."
A second email arrived later that same day.
"Kate and I took Katie out...this pm," Bob wrote, "We had a nice walk and watched her point three different woodcock, all in honor of her sister Maddie."
Could there be a more fitting requiem for a grand bird dog, a tribute from understudy to star?
In an earlier draft of this blog, I'd described Katie as "special needs." She'd climbed out of the hole that had been dug for her with an approach tailored especially to her temperament. That's when it occurred to me: What dog isn't "special needs," especially among the more intuitive and responsive setters that we love best?
In Kate Fox and Bob DeMott, Katie found partners more interested in reassuring than correcting her. Bob's is a patient, respectful, woodsman's approach to hunting that lends itself to both the dog's rhythms and the game's. From the beginning, he stubbornly kept far more faith in Katie than she had in herself. He had made an outline of how to help her and adjusted it to fit Katie's progress as the beautiful orange belton struggled just to get out of her own way.
Through round after round of grouse and woodcock coverts, in rotation with the superb Maddie, Katie had become more and more eager to step into the ring, duck into whatever noisemaker her Man chose for her collar, and push cover with more tenacity, more savvy, more joy.
At the same time, DeMott and Fox brought the big dog fully into their lives (including a good-natured working around the inevitable Kate/Katie name issues). They endured Katie's rogue bouts of kitchen counter surfing while supporting her with a solid foundation of dependable routine, behavior boundaries, and acceptance.
The message (though maybe sometimes through gritted teeth) was clear: "We don't dwell on mistakes. Screwing up doesn't mean you're a screw-up. We're all just better than that, and we'll roll on...together. Always together."
Katie at home with Bob DeMott (Photo: Kate Fox)
If that sounds like something out of a pop psychology cliche fest, think about how your own setter looks to you for cues. If you've any kind of relationship beyond water bowl and food dish with that dog, she looks to you for reassurance when she's uncertain, for correction/redirection when she knows she's strayed off the reservation, and the "attagirls" she lives for, proof that she's gotten it right.
We owe it to these dogs (and to our own pleasure in bird hunting) to patiently set them up for success. We do that by being proactive, thoughtful and consistent in our communication, realistic in our expectations, mindful of our dogs' individual schedule of progress, forgiving of our own mistakes and theirs, and flexible, always flexible, in our approach.
With her family circle closed more tightly, Katie is no longer a backup. She is the starter, taking all the reps. Smart money says she will continue to flourish under the program she and Bob and Kate have put together, another intelligent, biddable, confident birdfinder to fill pages of Bob's journal.
"Confidence" is an interesting word, isn't it? One definition is "a sense of self-assurance or faith in competency". Another, of course, is "to hold an intimate trust". The photo below would be the perfect illustration for both sides of "confidence" in The Bird Hunter's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary.
Attagirl, Katie. Attagirl.
Katie, belled, beepered and well pleased with herself and Her Guy. (Photo: Bob DeMott)