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.

Sadie’s Story

9 - Nap Time Before the Blind RetrieveBy 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!