TAUNTON AND RAYNHAM ACADEMY GRANT, Maine — As he trotted through the leaf-littered forest floor, Teddy — an English cocker spaniel — put his nose to the ground, weaved around blowdowns, hopped over branches, and did exactly what we hoped he’d do.
The bell attached to his collar tracked his progress and provided the classic soundtrack of the autumn woods, chiming methodically as he worked. “Ding. Dingading. Ding-ding-ding-ding.”
Not far away, I watched as Teddy — alternatively known as Baby Bird Dog, or Tedward, or just plain Ted — followed his nose, performing the task that generations of genetics have programmed him to do.
Find the bird. Find the bird.
I watched, smiling. Twenty yards away, on a grass-and-gravel woods road, Chris Lander waited, also hoping for the best.
And finally, Teddy succeeded.
A woodcock rocketed out of the grass in front of Teddy’s snout and headed skyward, then downrange.
“Mark!” I yelled, letting Chris know a bird was up.
I shouldered my shotgun. So did Chris.
More on that later.
Bird dog in progress
A year ago, while visiting Grand Lake Stream for an interview, I met Teddy’s mother, a painfully pregnant English cocker with — as it turned out — one yet-to-be-born pup unclaimed.
That pup was Teddy. And though I wasn’t exactly sure how to train a baby bird dog, I read quite a bit, got some helpful hints from knowledgeable dog handlers, and over the summer, began introducing Teddy to the tools of the trade.
Live birds. Frozen birds. Guns. Whistles.
A co-worker, Julie Harris, was an invaluable resource, helping us train, and offering consolation when it was needed.
When Teddy — who had no problem at all with the sound of blanks being fired from a pistol — slunk away from a live bird that she’d planted for him to sniff out, Julie smiled and said the words that became my creed for the rest of the process.
“He’s young. He’ll get it,” she said, more than once. “You just need time.”
Alas, hunting season waits for no dog, and as Oct. 1 loomed, I decided to take Teddy on his first excursion in the big woods. On opening day of bird season, Chris and I packed up his truck, attached Teddy’s bell, and headed out Stud Mill Road.
Was it an enjoyable day? Absolutely. Did we bump any birds? Sure. Did Teddy ever really get into the covert and start sniffing like he meant it? Well, not exactly.
That, of course, is my fault (as are any of Teddy’s other shortcomings). It didn’t take long before I realized that a steady regimen of walking on paved roads, on a leash, may not be the best way to get a bird dog ready for off-leash, bramble-busting bird-hunting.
He’d been off leash. He’d run through fields. He’d walked down a path in our woods.
But he was still, I feared, a city dog. (Cue the theme to “Green Acres.”)
During our morning afield, Teddy had great fun romping down the gravel roads, trying to find birds that might have landed there recently. He ran ahead, nose to the ground. He knew there were birds there, somewhere.
At least, I hoped he did.
But hopping into the coverts and mucking about? He didn’t seem interested … even when I barged through the bushes first.
On the drive home, after a bit of conversation, Chris and I decided that Teddy was ready, more or less, to take the next step:.
“Do you think we should take him?” I asked, referring to our group’s annual bird-hunting and moose-watching adventure.
“I don’t know why we wouldn’t,” Chris said. “He’ll do fine. All he needs is a bit more experience. We might be surprised how quickly he catches on.”
Four days later — ready or not — we were on the road, headed for Brassua Lake. Chris. Me. And a smiling Baby Bird Dog.
Back at camp
For the past several years, I’ve been fortunate to be invited to hunt from a camp that Chris’s father-in-law, Earle Hannigan, used to own with his brother. In recent years, that camp has been sold to Rob Hannigan III, who’s also graciously allowed us to visit each fall.
Perched overlooking Brassua Lake, the spot is a special one to all of those who’ve visited. Documentation of those trips is easy to find, and exists in the pages of camp logs dating back decades. Moose seen, grouse shot, deer tagged are all included in those yellowing pages.
And over three days last week, my group called it “home” again.
Over that three days, during which we ate like kings, hunted from sunrise to sunset, and enjoyed the camaraderie that keeps bringing us back, year after year, an amazing thing happened.
Teddy shed his city-slicker veneer and started acting like a country dog.
On the first day of hunting, he was still a bit tentative about barging into prickly bushes and covers.
The next morning, he began to follow me into coverts more eagerly, and began ranging ahead a bit more, looking for scent.
He hopped over logs. He plowed through prickle bushes. He emerged with dozens of burrs in his fur. He drank out of mud puddles … just like a country dog would.
“I can’t believe how much he improved in one day,” Chris told me.
“It’s unbelievable,” I agreed.
And finally, Teddy succeeded in flushing his first bird.
I might have mentioned it earlier in this tale.
I shouldered my shotgun. So did Chris.
Both of us saw the woodcock. Both of us thought we’d have hit the bird.
And in the excitement, neither of us had disengaged the safeties on our guns.
Nearby, Teddy took it all in stride. He didn’t frown. He didn’t shake his head. He didn’t even call us “city hunters.”
Instead, in a perfect teaching moment, he put his nose back to the ground. The bell started chiming again, our sins forgiven.
We were back on the hunt, with years of coverts ahead of us.
John Holyoke can be reached at 990-8214 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter:@JohnHolyoke