Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Thoughts on Taking The Dog

I've written a couple emails to friends explaining why, for Pete's sake, I'm not taking Rina to Texas.

My answers are many and are all over the map, which suggests to me that none of them are exactly what I mean to say. The bottom line is that I am afraid for her safety on the one hand, and she is more trouble than she's worth, on the other.

Don't misunderstand. Rina is indispensable to me---here. She flushes birds daily for my hawks, points, chases, catches, and generally provides extra fun and good company in the field. The hawks like her and trust her judgment. She rarely lets us down, and never on purpose.

But up on the high plains, her services are less in need and the inherent dangers of a fast, highly reactionary dog begin to outweigh the benefits. Amarillo, Texas is a blasted land of hard ground, exposed rebar, piles of concrete, irrigation pipes, cholla cactus, rattlesnakes, coyotes, eighteen wheelers, bone-numbing cold and great distances. Into this mix place a fast dog with thin skin and no brakes, and you have a disaster in the oven.

Last year, when Rina was new and (frankly) still proving herself, the dangers were the same but the perceived liabilities smaller. I had the benefit of ignorance, both of how good she is for what I do---here--and how quickly she could be hurt or killed doing what she does up there.

This is not to say that she could not be killed here by a snake (we have plenty) or a car or any number of other things. But her job here is to flush birds in fenced pastures in moderate weather. She is slowed down by the tall grass and soft earth, and we are unlikely to flush anything that will take her far away; there are no black tailed jacks in Louisiana. All else equal, she's much safer at home. The dangers natural to a hunting dog here are the same ones I face and the hawk faces, and we accept that or else need to quit.

I can no longer claim ignorance about the situation up there. It's a harsh land best weathered by natives. One week a year is not enough time to teach a dog how to operate within such tight margins; in fact, you can't teach that. They learn it by living it. Perhaps a big dog, tough skinned and slower afoot would do better, and of course many hunters' dogs do fine. But Rina is herself: a nutcase whirlwind and unstoppable when in high pursuit.

As for being more trouble than she's worth, in Texas last year she spent more time in the truck than on the ground. We hawked too many places too dangerous to use her. Yet, we had to bring her along in case a good opportunity presented itself. On a hawking trip far from base camp, you take with you everything you might need.

On several occasions I noted to myself that my hawking and coursing trips ought to be kept separate. To use Rina with justice, I should concentrate on her and let the day follow her schedule. Last year she had to follow our schedule, and it was hard on her. She's accustomed to working with the hawks, and could not understand why we left her behind; so she watched, barking mad, as we walked off in plain sight and hundreds of yards away. It was nearly as tough on me as on her. When rabbits flushed she could see them clearly, and we could hear her wailing rise to fever pitch.

Why do that to my good dog?

Finally, there was no relief to worrying at the end of the day. That's a joy killer. Rina wanted to be with us as the day wound down, but even romping in Jimmy's fenced acres with the other dogs left me wondering from minute to minute where she was. Rabbits were everywhere, and Rina hit fences full speed several times just chasing bunnies in the backyard. Thinking of her crumpled at the base of a fencepost, broken in some awful way out there in the dark, sucks all the fun out of sipping beer on the back porch.

Trust me, that's true.


paul said...

You don't have to explain it to me, it's been a wild trip bringing my lurcher and Tazi (and Brittany) out to work with my goshawk. The fields good for coursing suck for hawking - not enough slips to keep a gos focused - so we fly in tighter quarters where there are small herds of jacks. The result is the dogs are usually going 90mph in one direction while the gos and I are going 90 in the other. There are rare moments when we're all on the same page chasing the same rabbit and the kinetic poetry is awesome. Overall the stress level of these hunts makes me double dose on the meds - I wouldn't try it in unfamilar territory.

Is NM in your travel plans?


Rebecca K. O'Connor said...

Boy don't I know how that feels. I'm still trying to overcome turning into a pool of jello every time I run the new Britt.

How's Texas looking this year?

Matt Mullenix said...

Paul my trip out with you was a great example of how one field good for the hounds is no good for a hawk. And vice versa: that little canyon area we hunted was incredible for rabbits (I remember the "herds!"), but I've often thought how Rina would simply have leaped off a 20-foot ledge after a rabbit had we run her there. No question in my mind she would have done that, and at speed.

Funny how in one place I can happily run her under a hawk and in another, no way. But the truth is that here I don't actually use her as a sighthound, but as a spaniel, and that makes all the difference.

I'm trying to figure out how to get to NM next week. I've been in touch with Brian and Steve, and there a few options. But I'll have my dad along and am not sure I want to put him thorugh a marathon road trip just for a few hours of chasing rabbits. For me, of course. But dad chose another career. :-) I will call you from Jimmy's.

Rebecca, we will be out there again. Can you come? I'll make you another "elk" sandwich.

Rebecca K. O'Connor said...

Hmmmn. I do have Weds-Mon off...and I could do the trip via NM. And that elk sandwich was yum!. How's the duck hawking?

Matt Mullenix said...

I think Brian has already taken a few ducks up there this month. Usually it is still good this time of year; doesn't freeze hard until late in the month or the next. But I don't have a good line on the duck ponds, as I usually look closer to my feet for game. :-)

Rebecca K. O'Connor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rebecca K. O'Connor said...

That's okay. What you are lacking in "far sight" you make up for in flushing drive.

Matt Mullenix said...

Thank you---that's a very nice compliment!

But still, I'd rather not work that hard again (ever), so please make sure the P kills his duck over the FIRST pond.

Scott said...

Matt, sounds like it's time for you to write another book--one on your love and understanding of dogs. This post is as eloquent as a poem and pragmatic as a Karen Pryor how-to! Maybe a colaboration with Steve? Whippets and Tazis?
Scott in MN (whose real-life is still on hold while he lives in an apartment sans hawk and dog!)

Matt Mullenix said...

Hi Scott,

Many thanks for your kind post. I do have a year's worth of material about training and hunting with Rina. I hoped to work it into a book-length piece but in the mean time took on a new position at work and have not had a chance to touch it since. However, knowing I might have one potential sale now, maybe I shouldget back to it. :-)