Elsa’s Journey to Versatile Champion

1 - Sara and Elsa at Invitational 2019By Sara Heesacker, RMC NAVHDA Training Director

Life is made up of moments. “200 VC Pass” was one for the record books. A true dream-worthy moment, just as you would imagine: a pavilion filled with applause and cheer, hugs and pats on the back from people I’ve known for a long time and others I just met. It was a great moment, but it was just that: a moment. A moment that was preceded by 90 moments of spectacular honest work throughout that day. A moment that was the culmination of four-and-a-half years of moments, some incredibly important, others small and of little consequence. That build up, our journey, is the real story.

Everyone wants to hear about the moments that stop you in your tracks and leave you shaking your head thinking ‘Wow!’ The hard-hitting back, 60-yards out, not a blink of an eye after our brace mate goes on point. The cripple recovery that was handled flawlessly. 1 - Sara and Elsa at Invitational 2019The water retrieve in which the unimaginable happens while scrambling over rocks to get to shore, and the duck’s head catches between a foot and the rocks underwater, but she somehow still retrieves to hand. A successful blind retrieve even when her handler sent her with the wrong command. Those moments will always be etched into Elsa’s story, but they aren’t our defining moments. The defining moments came with a little more dirt, a little more sweat and a lot more tears.

Our story isn’t a short one. Things didn’t just fall into place the first time out. I didn’t have a magical formula that got us to the end with a snap of my fingers. It sure would have been simpler and that’s what everyone wants to hear. Tales of “the secret”, “the touch”, the wowing highlight reel. Unfortunately, I am going to disappoint a lot of folks. Our secret was the work. Day in and day out. We laid our foundation, slow and steady, building on it day after day. There isn’t much glamour to the work done in the backyard or the living room after the kids go to bed. Moments where a little here and a little there eventually over time became a lot. They eventually became something special and a dog that is really fun to watch work. We couldn’t have achieved any of it without those ugly, dirty, and difficult moments.

There are so many moments I wish I could go back and have a do-over. The moments that “if I would have done things right, everything would have been so much easier.” Moments where Elsa was put on the back burner because life threw us for a loop. Those moments that resulted in her not receiving all of my attention for a span of time and a missed hunting season. Places where we had to grow and fight as a team and the goal that we were trying to accomplish looked so big and daunting. Now looking back, I wouldn’t change any of it for a single second. Those moments made her the incredible dog that she is. They made me the dog handler that I am. The fight to reach the finish line created one heck of a dog in the process.

Hunting was Jake’s hobby. He would go hunting, and I showed horses. I still remember the first training day we went to. I was the only female in the parking lot. We didn’t know much about good dog work at the time, and, within 5 minutes, we realized we knew even less than we thought we did. Nonetheless, we started walking fields. Late in the day, I watched in awe as someone who would become a dear mentor and friend work his dogs in the parking lot. 1 - Sara and Elsa at Invitational 2019It was like watching Red Light, Green Light between a man and his two dogs. But that moment held so much more. The love, respect, and the willingness to be a team that exuded from the eyes of those two dogs was breathtaking. Not until much later did I know the titles and accolades those three had achieved.

We kept going to training days leaving our dog at home so we could focus on learning. We stayed all day. We walked fields. We watched and asked questions. Then another big moment came: sitting in the grass overlooking the steady at the blind, I met a woman who later introduced me to Elsa’s breeder. Little did I know that her dog would be one of Elsa’s grandparents. Little did I know the titles possessed or the bloodlines that made up that dog. All I saw was a handsome German Shorthaired Pointer sit calmly with his person soaking in the action that was unfolding before him. Every now and then, he was called to the water’s edge to make a retrieve. Then, without a word, he would come back and take root in the same place he held just moments before.

It was that day, that very moment, when I told Jake that I wanted a dog of my own. 1 - Sara and Elsa at Invitational 2019To join his excitement and his hobby. I hoped my ability to read horses would transfer to training dogs as well. I learned that body language, consistency, and voice are read by both species more than we realize or give them credit for. Everything is black and white…there is no gray. We create the gray. However, the difference between prey animal and predator brought forth a desire in me to more deeply understand how a dog thinks and reacts. The chemical and structural differences in the brain change the playing field. The types of motivations and a different type of progressional work was where my guidance took on a different role as a teammate.

When we first started NAVHDA with Elsa, I had a dream of owning a VC. I didn’t know what that vision meant. I didn’t have a training plan or progression. I didn’t know how our daily, weekly, and monthly work would look. All I knew was I had a well-bred dog that had the ability and the capacity to do all of the work. It was bred into her because of generations of handlers and dogs that had proven the work. I also knew that I tend to be slightly stubborn with a desire to excel at the highest possible level. I didn’t know what terms like “elite hunting dog” meant. My only plan was to not give up. To uphold my end of the bargain by motivating her to find success because of the obedience and cooperation that we built through daily teamwork. Time was going to pass, so we just kept working on things hoping we would accomplish something good. Looking back, the work ethic and honest attitude that was encouraged and instilled in all those small moments began to fit together and build the foundation; the framework of the elite hunter that has now taken shape in the form of a stylish liver dog.

When the work started, our defining moments started to take shape as well. Our first Natural Ability test didn’t end with my ideal score, but something special happened because of that moment. 1 - Sara and Elsa at Invitational 2019Three of my mentors shared with me their first NA test story: each dog had a hiccup that resulted in their less-than-desired result, yet every single one of those dogs went on to be a Versatile Champion. The impact was in the conclusion that followed each story: “I wouldn’t be the dog trainer I am today if it weren’t for that test going the way it did.” I understand now, on this side of the VC title, exactly what they meant. Every defeat was a lesson, and, trust me, we had some doozies, but we kept trying. Elsa kept giving me her all, and I kept taking her back out into the field. Every lesson, every failure, every step in the right direction taught us how to succeed the next time. A lot of hours were spent challenging Elsa and the rest of the team we train with to reach their full potential. We work together to make our handling skills better. It’s exciting to watch good dogs get better in small moments and see good teams walk one step forward towards their greatness. Because that is how our moments were created and other teams are finding their moments the same way.

I am eternally grateful for the people who shared their knowledge and experience with us. Mentors who saw my foundation work was solid and showed me how to match Elsa’s intensity to get the level of steadiness we desired. Mentors who exposed the missing piece in my Trained Retrieve yet knew they had given me the tools to fix my problem if I desired to put in the work. Mentors who wouldn’t give me the answers but would say in each of their own ways, “That’s a problem; you probably should fix that.” At other moments, sharing wisdom that only comes from putting in the work time and time again, like: “Your dog needs to have a little fun right now,” would leave me scratching my head. That advice I would come to understand later on. Judges who were bold enough to tell it to me straight. Things like: “You have an obedience problem, and you need to get that under control.” I’m thankful that they were genuinely willing to share an honest assessment of where I was in that moment yet gave me the freedom to find my path. They let me struggle but supported me through it. They let me grow and achieve knowing I needed the freedom to have moments of failure. I needed moments that came down to me and the dog searching for our own answer. One of the greatest moments of the Invitational was sharing that day with the Sara Craig Elsamentors who have walked with us over the last four years. We were so fortunate to have many of them either judging or volunteering in one component or another throughout the day. I hope they saw that I was always listening. I hope we made them proud.

Over the last four years, my understanding of the why’s have expanded beyond what I could have imagined. This incredible dog has created a fire and passion that I never anticipated. She took me beyond checking off a list of skills that I could ask my dog to accomplish in preparation for another test and another title. She showed me how to look for real moments in the hunting fields. Moments that put you on cloud nine. Moments that drive you to wake up before dawn to drive hundreds of miles so you can walk all day watching that dog put birds in front of your gun. Being able to watch a dog produce wild birds on public land, track and successfully recover any game that they are sent on and retrieve any bird regardless of the conditions because of the moments spent preparing and coaching.1 - Sara and Elsa at Invitational 2019 Every facet of the testing process has seen real moments in the hunting fields. Not one skill has been deemed unnecessary or unused. The honest, hardworking, focused approach that she hits the field with make every moment spent teaching and training worth it.

Elsa and I haven’t achieved all that I envision of an “elite hunting dog.” We still have work to do. There is still more I must learn and teach. More skills that I want to instill in her. She is too young, too talented, and too driven to be put on a shelf. There are still big goals to check off her list. I am so proud of how far we have come as a team, but the big key to the idea of an elite hunting dog is having the faith in knowing how far we can still go.

2020 NAVHDA Annual Meeting

The 2020 NAVHDA (national) Annual Meeting will be held in Portland, Maine on January 24-26 next year, hosted by the Sebasticook chapter. See details here.

The NAVHDA Youth Committee would like to formally invite all families with youth to come and join us for the 2020 NAVHDA International Annual Meeting in Portland, Maine. The “Youth – Full Registration – All Access Pass” during the ticket purchase process for youth attendees allows them to listen in on all the speakers, presentations and be part of the entire meeting including Saturday’s banquet meal cost. Saturday afternoon there will be a youth meet and greet at the youth booth following the delegate meeting from 4:30 – 6:00 where NAVHDA youth from all across the country can meet, make survival bracelets and share stories.

Please encourage your members to come visit the future of NAVHDA as I know they would enjoy sharing their stories. Be sure to select the “Youth – Full Registration – All Access Pass” when purchasing tickets through the Eventbrite ticketing page.

We hope to see you there!
NAVHDA Youth Committee

Two proposals will be voted upon at that meeting:

1. Implement a review process by which the chapter Test Director can rate performance of judges during tests.

2. Add a fourth judge to the field portion of the Invitational Test.

If you wish to read more about the proposals, click on the number preceding the description above. The Rocky Mountain Chapter will discuss these proposals and vote our position at our own January meeting. Watch this page for the announcement of date and location of the meeting.

August 2019 Test Results

Thank you to all of the handlers, judges, and volunteers that made the August 23-25 tests another success! The three days of tests featured 15 Natural Ability and 8 Utility tests. Hot temperatures and low, weedy water presented some difficult conditions for the dogs and humans, but they all adjusted well.

Unofficial results are the listed here.

Days 1 and 3 photos are here. Day 2 images will be included shortly. You may download images for digital devices, but if you want to order prints, contact Mark@riverlightimages.com. All proceeds benefit the Rocky Mountain Chapter.

That concludes the events for 2019. The annual kickoff meeting for 2020 will likely be scheduled for late December or January. A post will be made here as soon as that date and location are known.

Happy hunting everyone!

August Training and Test

The last training day of the year will be August 10 at Cobb Lake. You can sign up here. The focus will be on test preparation. Any problems you are having with your training program can be addressed, so be sure to mention them in the comments section when you sign up. If you need birds, you can order them from Black Hollow Game Birds on the sign up form.

Two weeks later will be the last test of the year on August 23, 24, and 25. Expect a call for volunteers soon. If you need information about the test, please contact the Director of Testing here. Results will be posted here soon after the test.

One week after that, hunting season begins! Your best friend will be a better hunter for all of the work you have put into training this year.

May Test, June Training, Steadiness Clinic.

May’s training day was good mix of formal training sessions and lots of free time for trainers to practice their own training programs. Now the busiest part of the training season starts with the May test on the 17-19th, June 15 training day, and the Steadiness clinic on June 29-20.

May Test

Three days of tests will put both natural ability and utility dogs through their paces. The test is full but there may still be some changes to running orders filled from the waiting list. Contact Test Director Allen Kidd for questions about the test.

Volunteers are the fuel that make the tests run smoothly and are a great way for trainers to learn more about testing, training, and hunting dogs. Contact Vice President Tim Griffin to sign up for a volunteer position.

June 15 Training Day

Much of the focus of this training day will be on the water, as the weather will likely be getting summertime hot. Bring your training problems to get help working through them. Get the birds you need for summer training. Signup here.

Steadiness Clinic

June 29-30 will feature Kyle Hough teaching clinic participants how to train bird dogs to be steady to wing, shot, and fall. This clinic is generating a lot of interest in the eastern parts of the country where Kyle is well known. If you haven’t signed up yet, don’t wait, spaces are limited. Signup for the Steadiness clinic soon.

May 4 Training Day

We are switching things up for the May Training Day!  The schedule is being adjusted slightly to accommodate more individual training for handlers preparing for the Spring RMC NAVHDA Test Weekend. Register here.

6:30-7:00             Sign In

Bird Purchases for Utility Handlers, Set Up Training Equipment for Utility Dogs

7:00-10:00           Utility Field Work (Back Field)

After the first two groups, we will split the Utility handlers. Half of the handlers will continue working Utility Field work while the other handlers return to the Upper Fields to work with the Natural Ability Handlers.

When all Utility Field Groups have finished working, Utility handlers can head over to the Duck Search water to work on training for that component with Live ducks.  Handlers would need to help set up for the Group Retrieving Drill at 11 am

8:30-10:00           Natural Ability Clinic

We will work the Natural Ability dogs as one large group working on each of the different segments (Field, Obedience, Table, Track, Water) and continue the progressions in preparation for the May Natural Ability Tests

10:00-11:30        First Year Utility Clinic

We will continue to expand on the drills that were outlined in April.  Advanced heeling, steadiness foundation in the presence of birds, duck chases in water, improve recall and retrieve to hand.

11:00-11:30         Youth Handlers

We are going to have a new drill challenge using everything we have learned so far this year (Looks, Sit, Down, Fast, Slow) and a new fun relay race.  We will also add to our skill arsenal with some new skill assignments for the month of May.

11:30-12:30         Utility Group Retrieving Drill

We will be bringing some more new challenges to the drill while continuing to provide a distracting and stimulating environment for heeling, steady and remain by blind, retrieving and multiple marking in the water.

LUNCH BREAK

1:00 – End of Day Individual Training and Bird Purchases for Natural Ability Handlers

Cobb SWA will be available for individual training to prepare for the May NAVHDA Test.  Find some training partners and enjoy the rest of the day!

Sara Heesacker, Training Director

Handler’s Clinic April 27, 28

This year’s Handler’s Clinic with Phil Swain is almost upon us. There is one spot left and still time to reserve it. A Handler’s Clinic will take you through each testing event and give you a judge’s-eye view of what they look for in every aspect. If you want to really understand what they want dogs doing in Natural Ability and Utility tests, this is your opportunity.

April 6 Training Day

The next training day is approaching. We have requested spring weather, but be prepared for anything. Please register here if you have not already done so.

Also, note a couple of changes to the registration form. First, only 2 chukar will be needed for the field training portion of the Utility program. If you already registered, you can still login and change your bird order accordingly.

Second, a third training level has been added. ‘First-year Utility’ is for trainers that tested Natural Ability last year, and are just starting their Utility training. Additional sessions will be added to introduce these trainers to more advanced yard-work drills.

Training Season Underway

The next training day is March 9th. If you haven’t registered yet, please do so before March 7. The sign up page is under the Events tab on the home page. Click HERE to go directly to the signup page. Be prepared for any kind of weather, training day will happen whatever the weather brings.

Remember, if you are a Utility trainer and want to participate in the field excercises, you will have to purchase at least 3 chukar. If you want to buy more for your own use, add them to the 3 you will be buying for the formal field training. Be sure to bring your own bird bag and transport cage for birds you buy for your own use.

Annual Meeting 2019

Each year, the Rocky Mountain Chapter of NAVHDA holds an annual meeting to select its board, establish test dates, set chapter dues and identify special training clinics for the coming year.
This year, we are holding our meeting at the Johnstown Scheels on Sunday Jan. 13 from 1:30 to 3:30 pm. After, we’ll gather at a nearby restaurant (TBD- suggestions welcome) for a social hour. Please save the date and look for a Signup Genius link shortly.

Each annual meeting is important for the Chapter, but this year more so than most because there will be significant turnover on the board of directors. While all positions are elected every year, the chapter needs to select a new slate of these key positions: president, vice president, training director, test secretary and treasurer

We are fortunate to have had core chapter members step forward to put their names up for nomination for three of these roles: president, vice president and training director. We are reaching out to you to help us fill two others: treasurer and test secretary. 

The chapter has never had a lot of money, so we work hard to be fiscally responsible. For treasurer, we’re looking for someone with experience managing books who will maintain a sharp eye on our accounts. The treasurer receives all incoming funds (including membership, test fees, and training clinic fees), pays all bills (our insurance, judge’s bills, permits, etc), maintains the chapter checking account and CD, and provides a treasurer’s report at all meetings. Scott Waggy has done a  superb job filling that role for us. Scott and his wife recently welcomed their first child and he is understandably looking to focus on his family this year. Scott has lined out a system for managing the accounts and said he will be happy to work with the new treasurer. This year we will be able to accept membership and clinic fees through our website, which will reduce the workload somewhat.

Sara Heesacker has been tremendous as our Test Secretary this year, taking over for Phil Goodwin seamlessly as we expanded to two three-day tests. With Craig McLaughlin stepping back after many years as Training Director, Sara has expressed interest in running for that role. Test Secretary is a critical and essential role for the chapter. It entails a fairly clear-cut set of pre-test prep and post-test reporting responsibilities and requires a detail-oriented person who hits deadlines. Sara has created a Test Secretary manual that lines out all responsibilities and timelines for this important position and has said she’s happy to work with a new secretary to make sure there’s a smooth transition.   

The strength of any organization is in the next generation, and we are very fortunate to have a deep pool to draw from. It has been a great privilege to lead the chapter this past four years, to watch it grow and see a new core of experienced handlers and leaders emerge. 

In addition to the board roles, the chapter is always in need of volunteers to help staff tests, training clinics and especially training days. 

If you and your dog have benefited from our chapter programs and would like to give back to the community which has helped you progress in your training program, please consider volunteering this year in preparation for stepping into a leadership role in 2020.Hope you’re still out there enjoying your hunting season, and we look forward to seeing you on Jan 13. 

Thanks! 

Theo Stein 
President