By Dave Shickle, RMC NAVHDA Vice President
My journey with VC Amber Vom Felsigen-Berg began a little over eight and a half years ago when I fell in love with a shaggy, little, bright-eyed pup I later named Sadie. She was the last pup to be taken in her litter, she was my first hunting dog, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Yet, despite all my training and handling mistakes, she became a fantastic hunting dog with incredible drive and desire. But, more importantly, a bond developed between the two of us that is like nothing I have ever known. She is truly my canine soul mate. But, how I ended up with this particular dog and all the wonderful experiences we’ve shared and frustrations we have endured over the years are stories for another day.
This story begins the summer of 2012, when Sadie and I managed to get enough things right to earn a NAVHDA UT Prize I and a trip to the 2013 NAVHDA Invitational. Unfortunately, the trip to the Invitational was jeopardized when I noticed that Sadie was increasingly sore (and sometimes limping) at the end of the day during the following hunting season.
I took her to my vet and his diagnosis was arthritis. He prescribed pain and anti-inflammatory meds, but the problems persisted. I took her to a canine chiropractor in the hope that he could help. His diagnosis was also arthritis. Two more months of acupuncture, injections, and supplements passed with no significant improvement. Members of my NAVHDA Chapter kept asking me if I was going to take her to the Invitational. I figured that this would probably be her one and only chance because of her age, and I wanted to take her. But, I wasn’t sure she could complete the necessary training or the test. I finally signed her up, mostly as a contingency, figuring I could always withdraw if it looked like she would not up to it physically.
I had her hips x-rayed and those compared to ones that were taken when she was two years old. There was very little change and nothing to indicate that significant arthritic issues were causing her symptoms. My vet referred me to a colleague whose diagnosis was a possible chronic muscle tear. He put her on a continuous regime of medications that finally seemed to help. The limping stopped, and we were able to train hard throughout the summer with no apparent after affects. (She even earned another UT Prize I, this time with a perfect score of 204.)
Our training for the Invitational went well throughout most of the summer, and I was optimistic. But, right before the test, her performance became inconsistent. I feared we had peaked too early or over-trained, and my optimism gradually turned to skepticism. When we left for the Invitational, I suspected our chances of passing were probably 50/50 at best.
At the Invitational, we drew the very first brace in the field work. I was prepared for the worse but, while her performance was not perfect, it was not bad either. As we left the field, one of the gunners commented that it had been a pleasure to work behind my dog. I was cautiously optimistic that we had gotten through the first major hurdle and might still have a chance depending upon what the judges saw. I put Sadie in her kennel in the back of my truck and drove to the location for the Heeling and Double Mark tests.
When we arrived, there was a queue and a wait. After a while, I got Sadie out of her kennel for a potty break. To my alarm, she was limping and would not put weight on her right rear leg. Our nemesis from the spring was back with a vengeance and my heart sunk. Still thinking that the problem was arthritis, I decided to walk her to see if she would loosen up. After about twenty minutes (or so) of slow walking, she started putting weight on her leg again. By the time we were called, the limp was barely noticeable and she went on to complete both the Heeling and Double Mark tests. Again, while she was not perfect, I thought she did okay. Once more, I felt like we might still have a chance. I put her back into her kennel and proceeded to the location for the Blind Retrieve and Honoring at the Blind.
When we arrived at the last location, there was yet another queue and another wait. My first thought was to use the same tactic and keep her loose by slowly walking her. But, we kept getting pushed further and further down in the running order. It became apparent that we could not keep walking, so we just sat down on the tail gate of my truck and waited – and waited. Sadie decided to take a nap in my arms (apparently, she wasn’t feeling the same pucker factor that I was).
When we were finally called for the tests, we had been waiting for nearly four hours. Sadie had been in the first brace of the morning in the field test, and now she one of the last dogs to do the Honoring at the Blind and the Blind Retrieve. She was cold, stiff, and sore as she limped up the hill from the truck; I really did not know if she would be able to swim across the lake and back again. To my surprise, there were three dogs and their handlers waiting at stations ahead of us at the top of the hill not counting the one testing, which meant still more waiting. As we progressed through these last wait stations, I could tell that it bothered Sadie to sit. So, whenever we stopped walking, we just stood.
At the final station before proceeding down the hill to commence the tests, I knelt down and told her that if she got into the water and it hurt too much, she could just come on back and I would not send her again. And, I meant it. I was fully prepared to pull her from the test even though she had come so far. I know that dogs cannot talk, but they do communicate (or at least mine does), and I’m pretty sure that she understood me. She went on to complete those final two tests flawlessly (though I think the judges were somewhat surprised by her signature barking all the way across the lake on the blind retrieve).
Sadie was the oldest dog at the 2013 Invitational, and I knew then that she would not be coming back regardless of the outcome even though she had already re-qualified. Regardless of whether she passed or failed, I was proud of her. Though in obviously pain, she had obeyed my every command and completed all the NAVHDA Invitational tests. I was anticipating the Judge to step though her scores in each of the tests but, to my surprise, he simply said her score was “200 and a pass.” It was a good thing that I was holding on to a chair because my knees nearly buckled, and it was all I could do not to cry. I was so very proud of her. While she may not have been perfect, she was good enough to earn a perfect score on that day, and she did it on heart and guts.
As Paul Harvey used to say: “And now for the rest of the story.” When we returned home, Sadie continued to limp and favor her right rear leg. An increase in her meds dosage didn’t help. Then, about a week or so after we returned home, I was reading an article in Versatile Hunting Dog magazine on ACL (CCL) injuries. The symptoms were exactly the same as Sadie’s. I immediately called my vet and told him I need to know for sure whether this was arthritis or some kind of soft tissue injury. He examined her again and took more x-rays of her hips and back. Both looked great for a dog of her age. He could not figure it out, so he referred me to an orthopedic specialist and surgeon. The surgeon’s diagnosis was a partially torn ACL.
The months since then have been an emotional roller coaster with two second opinions, scheduled then canceled surgical appointments, weeks of physical therapy, and a whole lot of soul searching. During this time, I reached out to the NAVHDA family for advice and for their experiences with this type of injury and surgery. I received many responses, some from individuals that I have never actually met other than electronically. I cannot describe how heartwarming it was to have people who I have never laid eyes on express a genuine concern about the well-being of member of my family – in this case, my canine soul mate. This was when I came to realize what the term “NAVHDA family” really means; it’s not just a cliché.
While I believe that surgery is inevitable, I have decided to delay it until Sadie either completely tears her ACL or this hunting season ends, whichever comes first. There are a couple of reasons for that decision that I won’t go into except to say that, after weighing all the factors, I firmly believe that this is what Sadie wants. We’ll continue to hunt together this season as long as she is able. If we can make it to February, she will hopefully have nine months to recuperate before the next hunting season without having to worry about any training. After all, she has proven her mettle; she is a VERSATILE CHAMPION!