Competing, even if it’s only against a standard and not other people, is nerve-wracking. When I attended my first NAVHDA test in the fall of 2017, I was so excited to be running with my own dog the following year. But as the test slowly approached, my nerves got worse and worse. It’s not like I lacked any faith in my dog; we had trained well and I knew she could ace everything asked of her, but the pressure of desperately wanting her score to reflect how great I think she is was overwhelming.
As the test date approached, I wasn’t feeling any better. The Tuesday before our Sunday test she came into heat for the first time. Talk about timing! Not only did it mean we would be switched from second in the running order to second-to-last, I wasn’t sure how it would affect her in other ways. On the Saturday before the test she woke up with an irritated eye that she couldn’t open, which only increased my concern for her and my nerves for the following day (I had assumed it was just a small scratch from running through tall grass the day before, but the Monday after the test we went to the vet to be diagnosed with an eye ulcer.) So as test day finally arrived, I think I had finally come to terms that things we not going as planned and whatever happens, happens. We had done our homework so there wasn’t anything else to do but show up and do our best.
If you aren’t familiar with the way the NAVHDA Natural Ability test is set up, there are 3 main segments: the field phase, the tracking phase and the water phase. For our test, the field phase was first. Being second to last in the running order, we had quite a long time before we would be up. We spent some time at the main meeting area before heading to the field to prevent Blitz from getting too excited over the gunfire. With each dog getting 20 minutes in the field, we took our time heading over to the field. When it was finally our turn, most of my nerves had turned to excitement: field work, after all, is our most favorite thing. I turned Blitz loose and she went to work!
Within the first few minutes she stopped and pointed her first bird. She was right on top of it, but held the point until I walked over to flush it. As the quail flew off, I called her back and she immediately put on the breaks and came back to me. This successful succession of events really boosted my confidence. She bumped her second bird, but immediately recalled off the chase again. She had a lovely point on a third bird and stayed steady while we hustled up to her from quite a distance away. She was so easy to handle in the field and I was thrilled! Her recall was excellent, she listened to my direction, she had a great search, she found and pointed her birds, and overall did a super job. I was beaming leaving the field phase!
After lunch we moved to the tracking phase. This phase requires the dog to track (not hunt) a live pheasant that is released with its flight feathers pulled. It was hot and dry with little wind, but she had done so well that morning I wasn’t concerned about tracking. When it was our turn, I got a little worried once I saw where our track started. The feather pile, or the start of the track, was in a sandy area with little foliage. Most of our tracks had been in grass, but there was a solid area of sand with only a few clumps of grass around where her pheasant was released. When I walked her up to the track she locked on to the feathers and took off, but only made it 15-20 feet before she lost the scent and circled back around. After multiple failed attempts to follow the track, she got frustrated and gave up. She ended up running around, chasing a butterfly, and even chewed on a pinecone for a second. I was absolutely shocked… these are behaviors I would have never imaged from her when birds were around. She is always so serious about her work, I couldn’t believe what had just happened. We were finally dismissed and I was so disappointed. I could blame it on a million things: her heat, the eye ulcer, the lack of grass, not training enough with live pheasants, my nerves, my lack of experience, and so on. But at the end of the day, we did our best and regardless of how weird and unusual it was, it was over.