Everyone was a beginner once
By Leah Hofer
The story of how I came to be the owner of a beautiful, energetic, amazingly frustrating vizsla puppy is one that I will never forget. After inquiring about a litter of puppies that a neighbor was breeding (out of mere curiosity), I found myself following the pups on social media as they grew. I knew in my heart that this time in my life is so incredibly full; I am a high school teacher, I have two small kids and a farmer husband, and I’m working on a master’s degree. The last thing I needed (or so I thought) was a puppy. But as I looked at videos and pictures of the puppies throughout the weeks, I couldn’t help but wonder: could I make it work?
When the pups were about seven weeks old, I told myself that I could not have one. My husband agreed and tried to encourage me that I could get a pup in the next couple of years when the kids were older. I pondered it for a few days, and ultimately let the idea of getting a puppy go. Although I had that nagging feeling of “maybe… just maybe” in the back of my mind, I had to be rational. When I learned that the entire litter was spoken for, I had mixed feelings of relief and sorrow. “There will be more litters,” my husband told me. And I resigned my hunting dreams for another year. That’s when Tom called.
“Leah, we have one male left. The previous buyer backed out at the last minute, and I think you guys need this puppy. If you want to come check them out, we will be at home today.” A ten-minute drive took me and my two kids over to see six bounding babies and their beautiful mother. When they placed a chunky red puppy in my son’s lap, I had to hold back the tears. For Barrett, who has autism, connections aren’t easy; but man, did he love that little pup. When we got back home, my husband looked at me with a knowing eye and said, “I knew you shouldn’t have gone over there.” And as the story goes, the rest is history.
That puppy, named “Link,” or “Lee-ers” by my daughter, is now six months old. As I reflect on the few short months he has lived with us, I would like to share a few lessons I’ve learned, mistakes I’ve made, and “pointers” I can give from the viewpoint of someone totally new to the gun dog world.
KNOW YOUR BREED
I know, this seems obvious. But, like many people, I had more of an “idealized” image of what my breed would be like in my mind. Link’s dam is a wonderful dog - calm in the house and a machine in the field. What I wasn’t mentally prepared for with Link was the constant chewing (and eating) of everything he could get his mouth on, the incessant need for human contact, his intense sensitivity, and the energy of a marathoner on cocaine. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had many puppies before, but never a vizsla. Talk to everyone you can before you select your breed, and, like so many have said before, DO YOUR RESEARCH. Know that many dog books out there won’t give you as accurate a description as someone who has had the breed for many years will give you.
KNOW YOUR GOALS… AND YOUR LIMITS
Expert trainers and handlers will tell you about the amount of time, energy, and money it takes to get a dog to the illustrious Versatile Champion title. Would I love to have my own dog get that title? Absolutely. Is it feasible at this point in my life? Probably not. Instead, my main goal is to help create a versatile hunting dog that will find birds, point, and retrieve to hand. That’s a pretty big goal for someone who has never trained a bird dog before. Start with where you are in life, and don’t be discouraged when someone says, “That’s going to be too hard.” No great dog and handler ever got all those titles easily.
YOU’RE GOING TO MAKE MISTAKES
Everyone was a beginner once. Even the most senior trainers and handlers had their first puppy years and years ago. If you don’t think they made mistakes in training, you’re absolutely wrong. As I look back at my training so far, I know for a fact that I’ve had a firmer hand than I should have had at certain points in training. I’ve lost my patience when Link ran away from me in the field, I’ve scolded him for things that were my own fault, and I’ve praised him for behaviors that I’m now trying to get him to stop - like pointing bugs instead of birds… The most important thing to do is reflect, analyze, and make a change when possible. Don’t get in the habit of letting things go - be proactive, and you’ll spend less time fixing the problems later in life.
LEARN ALL THE TIME
Read. Research. Connect. Watch. Soak in all the knowledge you can about your breed, training, and the style of hunting you’re going to do. YouTube has been a great source of information for a visual learner like myself. I’ve also found a second-hand copy of the Perfection Kennels training videos for pointers. It’s been very helpful in my own understanding of how pointing dogs work. Also, don’t be afraid to connect with people in the gun dog world. Join your local gun dog club or chapter, go to training days, and stay in touch with experts on social media. I’ll admit this isn’t my strong point - I tend to think I’ll just figure it out on my own, but the truth is that there are many people out there willing to help a newbie like you or me.
Don’t get me wrong, I want to get my limit each day - three cock pheasants here in South Dakota. But I’ve been sorely disappointed on many occasions when I’ve missed my shot or Link couldn’t find the downed bird. I’ve moped around after a long hunt because we couldn’t find a single bird after walking several miles. Each time you take your dog out, they get more experience. Each time you take your dog out, your bond grows stronger. If you’re like me and hunting is one of your favorite pastimes, don’t let the pressure of training get in the way of your love of the sport. There will always be more birds, and there will always be another day for training. One day, your dog will find a bird you thought was lost for good, or they’ll retrieve directly to hand when they hadn’t before. Look for the positives and have some fun.
I’m still learning every day with my red dog, and I’m seeing the value in my experiences of being a rookie. Some days I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into, and other days I’m so thankful that I get the opportunity to work with such a wonderful creature. If you’re a rookie in the sport of hunting dogs like me, keep working and learning. Someday, you’ll look back at your experiences with your dog and be thankful for those lessons you’ve learned. I’m sure I will.