In February of 2023, Hank became the first English Springer Spaniel to come through Slater Kennels, with daring plans to run the first level of the retriever hunt tests. With the results hanging on the wall, I'm proud of Hank and our resulting success, for as much as I must remain objective in training, such that I do not let my emotions rule me and I may be the steady leader the pack needs, the goal of earning Hank his AKC JHR title was born from a semblance of emotion, a promise.
Hank is of one of the last litters of Allenby Kennels, utilizing the Waterybutts line of Springer imports from the United Kingdom. Although Rachel Allenby has passed on to hunt the outskirts of Heaven, from what I understand, she moved to Liberty Hill, TX in 1996 with her gundogs -primarily Springers- to breed and guide. Although her website is no longer operable, I managed to find some archives, getting a glimpse through her own lens. There are also several forums with mention of her and her dogs. That trawl, as well as anecdotes from Hank's owner, showed me how dedicated she was to her craft; you can't find a poor word about her anywhere online (archive, forum, or otherwise). In any case, one of her last wishes to Hank's owner was that he run the dog in spaniel trials, and he said he would. But after being washed out early by one trainer, Hank appeared to have a black mark by his name.
In the world of purebred dogs, especially gundogs, everyone has an opinion. No matter who you are or how you train or breed, there is someone out there who will take issue with it. It makes sense, there is a lot of emotion built into the sport. Over time, I have learned that folks will do what they do, it has no effect on me. And I will do what I do, it has no effect on others unless they let it. This might seem tangential, but I mention it to say that the preamble to Hanks's career says nothing about his previous trainer. When a trainer washes a dog out of their program, it can seem to the owner that that black mark has been placed on the dog. However, the dog may excel under a different trainer -a different leader- which is exactly what happened as Hank joined our ranks. As the new relationship forms, yielding the desired results, the tendency then becomes to transfer that perceived slight from the dog to the previous trainer. After all, the dog achieved more success with the subsequent trainer! However, to put it plainly, the relationship between dog and prior trainer was not ideal, and now under the current trainer, it is. It says nothing about any one individual, the strength of the bond between the two is what is evaluated, not separately.
In any case, before meeting the little dog, despite the knowledge that he had been washed out once before, I was taken with the promise made to the breeder. As we lived close to one another, we made a trip out to the field to take a look at Hank. He lacked some confidence and had a short attention span before determining he couldn't find the downed bird (he would just return to working the field), but he had all the drive and was responsive to the point he had been trained. We loaded up the dogs while making a plan to talk soon, and I felt confident I could direct his behavior into what we wanted.
Evidently, his owner agreed, and Hank joined the crew of four young dogs who would all go on to earn their Junior titles that spring (my Lab puppy, two Boykins, and Hank). He was unsure at the beginning of our time together, always stopping short in grass too tall to easily see the mark as it lay. He would ignore the use of his nose, which I could tell to be superb. He just hadn't unlocked it yet! We began exercises to "hunt dead", beginning with no commands, only blind chance, in an attempt to help him realize that he wasn't utilizing one of his greatest tools. I would hide dead ducks in the high grass, pushing them down so they couldn't be seen. Pairing him with Goose the Boykin for some competition, they were turned loose to weed them out.
I remember the first day we tried it, that first whiff really surprised him. Before bringing the two flushers out of the box, I hid the birds and washed my hands of the scent as best I could. Giving them the "ok", Goose took off with Hank in pursuit. But the breeze pushed a new smell in front of him, ripping his mind away from the opportunity to catch the spirited Boykin, and presenting the opportunity to embark on a new quest. Hank took it, and as he worked his way upwind, I could see his entire demeanor change. He no longer ran through the field with his eyes flashing every which way. He led the charge with his nose pressed forward, instinct coursing through his veins, as he pushed towards the bird his line had been bred for centuries to find.
Even with this newfound skill, his confidence was low. But as we trained, he began finding short marks in tall grass, then longer marks in short grass, and finally... you get the idea. A dog who just wanted to be on someone's team, Hank found his with us and flourished. He passed his first three Junior passes with ease, always giving maximum effort as he launched from my heel. He began to search with vigor, never losing sight of his mission until he found the hidden prize, a far cry from the day I met him.
But our hiccup came when the biggest decoys I'd ever seen were placed in his path on the water series of what would have been his final pass. I didn't think much of it as we stepped up to complete the run, we had trained with decoys in our setups (albeit smaller, older ones). But for Hank, something was different about these, maybe it was the flashing white or their sheer size. He hit the water and pushed off, beginning his swim towards the opposite bank, locked on to the mallard splayed in the reeds. But halfway there, he was confronted with something new, something we hadn't trained for, and he faltered. He spun around and high-tailed it back to me, securing his first failing grade. We drove home with the sole ribbon for him that weekend, the final one still to be desired.
We hit a one-run slump then, missing another pass on the land series after we had ramped up with more complex setups the week of. A hundred-yarder, I wondered about the two ditches between us and the bird, and when he hesitated on the release, my confidence fell with his. He came up out of the second ditch and broke down early, searching the field in his characteristic beautiful grid pattern, just in the wrong area. With his energy low from the outset, he eventually returned to me, and I knew I couldn't handle him that far through the ditches.
But as is the goal with any slump, we broke it the next week with a change in pace. I signed up Hank for two more (he just needed one), with the two-day test being the last in Texas for the season. We spent the week building confidence at distance. We would hunt dead in an area, then back up 110 yards to have him retrieve marks from the wingers out of the same area, forcing him to contend with the old smells and trails. He did beautifully, and my spirits -and his- were high going into the weekend.
He earned his JHR title at the end of May, knocking out both runs with precision. On Saturday to earn the title, he lined the two land marks perfectly, running right over top of each mallard just as his excellent nose told him to whirl mid-stride to snatch the bird from the thick grass. We moved on to the water series and it was never a question that he had come to play. Although Hank will likely never be a dock diver, he made his water entry without reservation, took a quick sip, and pushed off for the far shore. With no hunting required as he shot up the bank to where he knew it lay, he returned to stand at the water's edge for a second, wondering if there was any way to run around. I blew several short blasts on my whistle and he resigned himself to the return swim, turning into heel at my left for removal of the dripping Mallard.
We knocked out another the following day for good measure, and I again witnessed his exceptional lineage in action. As he mismarked the distance by 20 yards or so, he broke down and began searching in his big and beautiful way while incorrectly making his way back towards me. After a few turns however, he came to the realization he hadn't gone far enough, and (with no direction from me) he skirted the outside of the grid he had already searched to rejoin behind. Crossing back and forth moving away from me until he came upon his goal, he proudly seized it and sprinted back to heel, looking me in the eyes for assurance that what he had done was good. It certainly was.
He was through the water with no issues to knock out his bonus pass and we returned to the truck, the newly minted JHR pup happy to be on the team and pleased with his performance. I too was excited with our success, but carried the knowledge he would soon be going home. The season was over.
Any experienced handlers reading this know of the dogs they have to manhandle to the line, paying attention to every little tick to ensure the dog doesn't get off course. As we rolled in to Henderson, TX to finish his title, I sent the dog and just talked with the judges as I wished. I knew Hank would do his job, I could feel it. And he did, bringing each bird back directly to hand, lifting his chin to the sky to better allow me to gather it gently from him.
Hank has always been a team player; he just needed to be shown what team he was on, and I think we accomplished that. He comes back sometimes for boarding, and is a fervent hunter when we go out to the fields while maintaining a calm demeanor in the house. He has one of the best off switches I've seen for how high-powered he is in the field, and I look forward to our next adventure, be it over wild birds or in a holding blind, looking for that next ribbon.
In memory of Rachel Allenby, a woman dedicated to her craft, devoted to her dogs, under the spell of the pursuit of fowl.
Photo courtesy of Josephine (Jophy) Allenby
“Therefore you too have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you" (John 16:22).