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The First Field Trip Of The Season

by Bill Bennett

          The searing summer heat, along with its' suffocating humidity, for the past three months, is beginning to loose its' grip across the Delta. The only relief from its' torturous blast has been air-conditioning and late evening hours which you reserved for yard training Sam.

          As August slips into September, there is a hint of fall in the air. It's not cool by any measure, but there is a sense of excitement and anticipation as you look forward to getting into the field for Sam's' long awaited field training and Bells' first run of the season.

          Sam's yard training has been a pleasant experience. He proved to be enthusiastic, willing to please, smart and stubborn. He particularly enjoyed earning treats of white bread bits for exceptional performance and readily responded to verbal praise and petting. He quickly learned the proper responses to the commands No, come, Sit, Sit-Stay, In, Down and Up. If there is a question of his readiness for fieldwork it is responding to the command 'Up'. But that's not entirely his fault. He always gives a good effort; it is that he is a bit small. You resign yourself to lifting him up to the truck bed for the first few exploratory trips. You are convinced he will quickly follow Bells lead; and as he grows, he will soon be jumping up on the tailgate without hesitation or risking injury.

          The autumn ritual begins as Labor Day Weekend with its' traditional opening day of Dove season, quickly comes and goes. You participated in a couple of dove shoots with the usual lackluster results. There were plenty of birds but you never laid claim to being an expert wing shot! Besides, there is this deep haunting need to share the out of doors together with your dogs.

          Each day you anxiously watch the weather reports, waiting for the first forecast of nighttime temperatures to fall into the fifty-degree range. This magical temperature will allow the choking heat and humidity to escape the ground, providing the opportunity to run dogs for pleasure.

          Wednesday evening the long awaited news flashes across the television screen as the local weatherman predicts a cold front will drop temperatures into the fifty-degree range on Friday night.

          Thursday evening you call the landowner and ask his permission to enter his property. He tells you the rabbits are plentiful this year and yes, you are welcomed any time.

          Friday night you are as excited as a child on Christmas Eve. The prospect of finally getting into the field with your dogs creates a flurry of nervous activity beginning with a mental checklist of preparations. Both dogs have current vaccinations, including rabies shots and tags. Their annual metal hunting licenses are attached to their collars. Sam is four and one half months old and is physically capable of the initial field training routines.

          Your equipment is ready. You have checked it at least one hundred times. Your 'Possibles Bag' is complete with emergency and first aid items. You have read and packed a copy of the current hunting regulations inside the bag for quick reference.

          Inside the garage, you check the larger of the two fiberglass carrier boxes. It is clean and complete with chain and lock system. A stout length of sapling you use for a walking staff rests easily against the box. A canvas tarp is folded and sits on top the box. Three cut two by four pieces of lumber used to anchor the canvas stand against the wall.

          Before retiring for the night, you pack a blaze orange vest, complete with pockets, a pair of twelve inch rubber boots with extra socks, nylon chaps, gloves and possibles bag into a large waterproofed bag and place it in the dining room. Along side the bag you set your field clothes, flashlight and hunting cap. The only thing left to do is manage the long night, filled with tossing and turning until the four o'clock alarm arouses you out of bed.

          At three thirty a.m., your internal alarm beats the mechanical clock as your feet hit the floor. You are wide-awake. Quietly, you make your way to the dining room in the dark. You dress while the coffee pot churns and gurgles, filling the kitchen with its strong, pleasant aroma.

          You quietly eat breakfast of eggs and toast, drink two cups of coffee and write a note for the sleeping Real Boss, letting her know where you are going and when you expect to return.

          Flashlight and coffee thermos in one hand, waterproof bag filled with equipment in the other, you tiptoe out the front door into the black of the predawn darkness. Throwing the waterproof bag into the cargo bay of your truck, you slip silently to the garage and carry the lightweight carrier box, canvas and walking staff back to the truck. You secure the box with its' attached chain and padlock it to the side holes in the truck bed.

          Quietly, you walk the forty paces behind the house to the dog pen with leashes in your left hand. The flashlight cuts an eerie path through the darkness as you hear Bell whine with anticipation. You hope she doesn't become over excited and bark, resulting in disturbing the neighbors and your sleeping family. "No, Quiet, Bell", you caution her as you fumble the padlock to the pen gate.

          Meanwhile, Sam is scrambling around the pen whining and wagging his tail. You command him to Sit, but he fidgets with anticipation. You slip the leashes over the necks of both dogs and lead them in the direction of the truck. Bell strains at her leash while Sam follows obediently with a smooth leisurely gait.

          As you approach the lowered tailgate of the truck, you give the 'Up' command and Bell responds without hesitation. You quietly give the 'In' command and she enters the opened carrier box door and sits patiently.

          Sam, meanwhile, whines nervously and attempts to jump up on the tailgate. His front paws reach the lowered tail gage but he fails to gain sufficient height to get his back feet underneath himself and slips to the ground. You gently lift him up and give the 'In' command. At first he hesitates, as Bell momentarily blocks the entrance. But soon enough, he pushes past her an sits inside as you close the grated door.

          You test the dark air and decide there is no need to cover the carrier box with the canvas tarp. You place it behind the seat of the truck and back slowly out of the driveway.

          Ten minutes later, you turn off the deserted black topped highway onto a graveled road. The Johnson farm is a scant mile or so to the southwest. The truck headlights softly illuminate the trees and brush covered road ditches, giving them a ghostly appearance. You mentally note there is no wind as the truck bumps down the undgraded road.

          You have known the Johnson family for years and remind yourself how fortunate you are to have this three hundred-acre tract available for dog training and hunting. It is conveniently located fifteen minutes from your home. It has all the necessary features and obstacles for dog training.

          Access to the property is gained by crossing a large Corps of Engineers constructed drainage ditch, spanned by a forty foot wooden bridge. The narrow roadway leads to the Johnson home one hundred yards to the southwest.

          The entire East Side of the property is bordered by this huge ditch which towers thirty feet above the shallow water. It runs roughly in a north and south direction. The high banks are covered with a mixture of honeysuckle vines, briar patches, Johnson grass, swamp weed and thick canebrakes. A field road traverses the top of the West Side bank for nearly one half mile to the north. Near the north end is a fifteen-acre woodlot bordered by a rusty, dilapidated mesh and barbed wire fence. The fence row and floor of the woods are covers with an entanglement of dewberry vines, briars, sumac sprouts, honeysuckle, weeds, and wild oats. The woods floor is nearly impenetrable for a man but a beagle can maneuver easily by tunneling through the thick undergrowth. An added advantage to using this area is that by standing atop the high bank you can watch the dogs while they work the area.

          Fifty yards north of the roadway leading to the Johnson house, is a smaller field ditch, which intersects the larger ditch. The sides are covered with high weeds, grass, and brush. The small ditch runs one eighth of a mile in an east-west direction. The West End leads to a forty-acre woodlot partially surrounded by another old mesh and barbed wire fence. The clearings in the woods are interlaced with briars and honeysuckle patches. The lower openings are mostly damp and contain, watergrass, cattails, swamp weed and blackberry vines.

          The elevated areas of the woods contain numerous brush piles, neatly stacked, resulting from the Johnson's wood cutting chores. The entire woods floor is crisscrossed with a series of small logging trails and openings. Numerous treetops, stumps and old logs dot the area. A covering of leaves from a variety of trees; chokeberry, sweet gum, red and white oak, hickory, sassafras, persimmon sycamore and ash carpet the ground. Several old fence rows, nearly invisible to the unsuspecting eye, add the crowning touch to this beagle owning, rabbit hunter paradise.

          You pull the truck off the side of the road near a solitary, giant white oak tree and shut off the headlights and motor. Predawn darkness swallows everything as you roll down the window of the truck and look up into the black sky. A million stars twinkle back at you as your eyes slowly become accustomed to the darkness.

          It's still another hour before dawn. You pour a cup of coffee from the thermos with trembling hands and listen intensely to the night noises. An owl hoots from a distant roost. A chorus of frogs screech along the waters edge of the giant ditch. You hear a sudden rustling of wings hurrying overhead, but it's to dark to identify the intruders. In the distance a farm dog barks for a minute, possibly at a stray cat. Then all is silent again.

          You hear your dogs whine softly in the carrier box. They seem nearly as anxious as you do for dawn to break. "Patience", you tell yourself as you sip the warm coffee and concentrate on the eastern horizon, watching for the first traces of light to announce the approach of dawn. The minutes drag by.

          As you watch and wait, you sense a kinship with primitive man. This unexplainable feeling transcends the centuries. Although his goals were different--intent on the kill, necessary to feed himself and his clan, he must have looked up at the stars with a feeling of awe and wonder. He heard the hoot of the owl, the screech of the frogs, and the rustle of wings overhead in the pitch-blackness of night.

          Surely he must have experienced the companionship of a dog. Did he feel a bond with the four-legged companion? Or was the relationship one of simple agreement between the two species? Undoubtedly, there were mutual benefits. Man was rewarded with meat for his stomach and skins for clothing. The dog, never complaining, survived on the discarded scraps, earning his keep by standing watch and alerting the man of dangers.

          The relationship has changed much through the centuries. Nevertheless, you sense the deep bond with your dogs must be rooted somewhere in the heart of the distant past. It is wrapped in a mystery, which you do not fully understand. You wonder if anyone really does.

          Finally, a pale tint of light spreads silently across the eastern horizon. You quietly slip out of the truck, put on your boots, nylon chaps, blaze orange vest and hat. You sling your 'possibles bag' over your shoulder and complete a ritual of leg stretching exercises, as the dogs respond to your movements with soft, high pitched whining.

          It's still to dark to safely put the dogs down so you talk to them in a calm, quiet voice. You hear wagging tails hitting the sides of the fiberglass carrier box acknowledging your presence.

          In the predawn light you can vaguely identify the outline of distant trees seventy yards away. A birdcalls, answered by another. You can hear the distant sound of a train whistle, and minutes later the muffled sound of a slamming car door. The farm dog barks again as a rooster crows. A flock of dove's wing past overhead as the ever-increasing light allows you to identify brush, stumps, rocks and tangles. Now it's time to star!

          Your adrenaline rises as you open the carrier box gage. Both dogs move quickly to the cargo bay area. They sniff, whine and wag their tails. Holding their heads above the sides of the truck, they appear to ask if the fun is really going to begin. You pet both of them affectionately as you reach for you're walking staff with one hand and lower the tail gate with the other.

          With leashes attached, both dogs bounce off the tailgate onto the ground. As you lead them to the wooden bridge, Sam balks. A couple of soft-spoken words build his confidence as he reluctantly follows in Bells footsteps.

          Reaching the West Side of the ditch, you turn north on the old farm road. After fifteen steps, you slip the leash from Bells' neck. She runs a few yards ahead, stops, and looks back at you. As you release Sam, Bell trots back to meet him. They engage in a lighthearted game of tag. You watch them play for five minutes in the short, dew covered grass and decide that's enough play time.

          "Bell, Check", you command, pointing to the right with an outstretched arm. She immediately heads half way down the thirty-foot embankment. Sam goes to the edge, peers over it, stops and whines in frustration. "It's O.K., Sam", you tell him. He relaxes and listens to Bell working a thick cover of briars and honeysuckle.

          Bell works the thick stuff thirty steps ahead. You and Sam slowly follow. Sam stops and smells a bare spot on the road, a sassafras sprout, a leaf and a dew covered weed. You know these scents are all new to him so you patiently let him check them out to his own satisfaction. The sun has not yet broken the horizon when a pair of mallards suddenly burst skyward from the water filled ditch, startling you for a moment. A cardinal calls from a distant persimmon sapling. Sam stops, cocks his head and listens. In the distance you can hear the muffled sounds of gun shots. You reassure Sam, the sounds are harmless. It's probably dove hunters getting in some late season shooting.

          Suddenly, Bell strikes a hot scent line twenty feet ahead and off to the right on the steep bank. Her excited chopped mouth-tonguing echoes along the wide ditch bank. Sam scampers to you with a quizzical look on his face as if to say, 'Hey, Boss, What's going on?' Obviously, he has no intention of joining Bell, so you slip a leash around his neck. He squirms and whines while he listens to Bells excited tonguing.

          You slowly walk along the field road for thirty yards and stop. Your eyes strain to see if the rabbit will turn up the steep slope of the bank and cross the clearing of the farm road. Bell is turning up the volume when you catch a glimpse of a brown blur crossing a slight low spot in the road twenty yards ahead. The rabbit quickly disappears down the left side of the bank into a thicket of jack oak sprouts and briars.

          Mentally marking the spot, you quickly lead Sam to the scent line. "Here he is!" you tell him with a touch of excitement in your voice. Sam looks up at you with that 'What's this all about, Boss?' look on his face. You give the command again and he puts his nose to the ground. He sniffs the scent for a brief moment but just as quickly, he is distracted by a black beetle, making tracks in the soft dirt. You command again and he turns back to the rabbit scent line.

          Suddenly, Bell breaks through the weeds on top of the bank, squarely on the scent line. Sam excitedly acknowledges her but she is so intent on following the scent line she completely ignores him. She disappears down the West Bank into the thicket. Moments later, you see the rabbit streaking down the edge of the field toward the small woodlot, Bell in hot pursuit, tonguing at the top of her lungs.

          You slip the leash from Sam's neck and start walking slowly in the direction of the race. Sam follows close by your heels as the first streaks of sunlight cause the dew covered grass and brush to sparkle.

          Without warning, there is an eerie silence, as Bell looses the scentline. The only sound is the calling of a flock of sparrows arguing over some wild oat seeds. A hawk circles lazily overhead, searching for an early breakfast of field mice. You strain to hear, waiting for Bell to complete the check and open again on the line. Minutes pass slowly as you feel your heart pound.

          Finally, she opens on the line as you approach the woodlot. Her loud tonguing echoes against the silent standing trees. You watch the area where you think the rabbit entered the woods. There is a good possibility he will return to the area in an attempt to escape his pursuer. Bells' barking grows louder as she turns the rabbit back in your direction.

          You hear the rustling sound of the rabbit running through the thick dewberry vines and Johnson grass, off to your left. The rabbit streaks toward the bank, enters the field road and disappears down the west embankment. Moments later, Bell plunges through the thick undergrowth. She is soaking wet from the heavy dew. Instead of calling to her, you simply intercept her where the rabbit entered the open field road.

          You pour on the praise as Bell wags her tail, showing her excitement. Sam whines as he licks her face. You decide there is time for another short race before putting Bell back in the carrier.

          You release Sam from his leash and begin walking with both dogs in the direction of the bridge. Two hundred yards away you spot a thin trail of smoke rising from the chimney of the Johnson house. After walking twenty-five yards you point with your right hand and give the 'Check' command to Bell. She bounds off into the thick weeds and honeysuckle. You then give Sam the command to 'Check.' Although he doesn't understand the command, he chases after Bell into the thick stuff. Two minutes later he bounces into the field road and runs to you. You squat and pet him. You pour on the praise and tell him 'That's a good boy!' as he wiggles with obvious excitement.

          In less than five minutes Bell opens on another hot scent line, her loud barking breaks the still quiet morning. The race heads south in the direction of the bridge as you and Sam follow thirty yards behind.

          Approaching the bridge, you see the rabbit speeding across the field road. Moments later Bell plunges up the embankment on the line as you intercept her. "That's enough for the first day. No need to get foot sore and muscle strained." You tell her as she whines her disapproval. She strains at the leash, attempting to get back to the line. A minute of talking to her in a quiet voice calms her. You lead both dogs across the bridge to the truck.

          You give the 'Up' command and both dogs jump up onto the tailgate. You are mildly surprised but pleased that Sam followed the command easily. The yard training is paying off now. You praise him and give him an affectionate pat.

          As you give the 'In' command, Bell quietly slips into the carrier box. Sam attempts to follow but you quickly close and secure the grated door with a chain and padlock. You test the air. The temperature is rising so you leave the box uncovered, allowing plenty of air to circulate through the grated door and side vents.

          You lead Sam to the tailgate and at the command 'Down'; he jumps to the ground without hesitation. Approaching the bridge, you hear Bell whine her disapproval at being left behind. You turn to face her, raise your arm and give the command 'No, Bell, Quiet!' She reluctantly settles down in the box with a quiet whimper.

          Crossing the bridge, you again turn down the field road. You slip the leash from Sam's neck and strike the weeds and grass along side the road with your walking staff. Sam appears curious as you encourage him to follow you.

          Reaching the small ditch line, you turn west. Stomping through the briars, wild oats and weeds, you head toward the woodlot behind the Johnson house. At first, Sam is timid but encouraged by your voice, he follows you through an overgrown boysenberry patch. He stops frequently, testing everything with his nose.

          You cross the small drainage ditch to an open field. The water is only inches deep. Sam abruptly stops and surveys the terrain. You slowly walk away, calling him to 'come'. He sits and stares at you. You walk another five steps away from him and out of frustration he whines loudly and squirms. You ignore these antics and continue to encourage him to follow. He whines again, begging you to help him cross the ditch with its' shallow water. But you know he as to learn to handle the crossing on his own. He is in no apparent danger as the water is only about three inches deep.

          Suddenly, he leaps, misjudging the distance and splashes in the ankle deep water and mud. He finds an open space, scrambles up the small bank and races to you. Squatting, you pet and praise him as he shakes water from his coat.

          You follow the ditch toward the woodlot and cross again. This time Sam crosses without hesitation, having learned the water and mud poses no danger. This time you really pour on the praise as he responds with tail wagging, squirming and a wet lick across your face.

          You follow the edge of a cut milo field in the direction of the woodlot. Sam is ten yards ahead and twenty feet out in the field; his confidence apparently bolstered by the ditch crossing. His nose is on the ground and his tail high in the air as he checks out a new scent. You watch him closely as he suddenly stops and begins chewing on an unidentified object he has found. 'No, Sam!' you command sharply. He totally ignores the command.

          You quickly walk over to him and not with disgust he has a dead black bird in his mouth. 'No, Sam!' you command again. He opens his mouth and the carrion drops to the ground. You slip a leash around his neck and give the command 'Sit-Stay.' He reluctantly sits and looks up at you with a guilty look on his face. He starts to move from his sitting position but you insist on a five-minute penalty time. The minutes pass quickly as you survey the woodlot off to your right.

          You slip the leash from Sam's neck and entered the coolness of the woods canopy. Forty steps brings you to a dilapidated fence row. It is covered with briars, muscadine vines, weeds and honeysuckle. You easily step over the mesh and barbed wire structure and slowly walk away. Sam sticks his nose through a small hole in the mesh wire but cannot get his head and body through the opening. He backs away, runs a few feet to the left; then to the right. He quickly becomes frustrated and begins to whine as you call him to you. He whines louder as you turn to face him. "Up, Sam." you command. He places his front paws on the top of the mesh and below the barbed strands. Again you give the up command but he remains motionless and howls at the top of his lungs. You return to the fence, reach over the top and place the leash around his neck. Feeding the leash between the mesh and barbed wire, you place a pulling pressure on the leash and at the same time command 'Up, Sam!'. He gets his head below the barbed strands and climbs the mesh with his back feet. When he reaches the top, he tumbles to the ground at your feet. It's clumsy but you praise him for his effort, and repeat the routine again. This time Sam gets his head above the mesh and pushes with his back feet, quickly crossing to the opposite side. Eight repetitions later he is crossing the fence with out any help, other than the 'Up' command. Certainly you are proud of him for his accomplishment. And is that a swagger of self-confidence you note in his walk?

          Sam follows you into a tangled mixture of briars, honeysuckle and swamp grass. You command him to 'Check'. He watches you part the brambles and timidly follows. You go slow, encouraging him with your voice. You allow him plenty of time to explore the different scents and get his bearings.

          Thirty minutes later you are perspiring profusely and leave the thick stuff. You give the 'Check' command again and Sam moves slowly into the thicket. He travels only a few feet before he returns to you. Squatting, you pet him and pour on the praise.

          Spotting an old stump, you walk over, sit down and relax. Sam sits beside you for a moment, but his curiosity gets the best of him as he sniffs everything in sight. Satisfied, he wanders over and sits beside you. You reflect on his progress thus far. He has earned high marks indeed! You are extremely pleased with his performance. His potential for developing into a consistent hunter and companion is evident. How many exploratory trips it will take before he opens on a rabbit scent line is any ones guess.

          Sam follows you in the direction of the truck, stopping frequently to explore new scents. Along the edge of the cut milo field you spot rabbit tracks and a scattering of rabbit droppings in the soft dirt. Sam puts his nose to the ground. His tail is high in the air, moving with a slight quiver. He moves a few cautious steps along the scent line. Rabbit scent? You can't be certain. When he gives up the line and comes back to you, you praise him for using his nose.

          Arriving at the truck Sam quickly responds to the 'Up' command and jumps onto the tailgate. Bell is obviously happy to see both of you, evidenced by her furious tail wagging. You place Sam in the carrier box and close the grated door.

          You slip out of your muddy rubber boots and place them in a large brown paper bag. Removing your gloves, chaps, possibles bag and vest, you store everything inside the waterproof bag and climb into the cab of the truck. Finding a pen and note pad in the glove compartment, you scratch out a simple 'Thank You' note, sign it and place it in the Johnson's mail box located at the edge of the graveled road.

          You are tired but relaxed as you drive home. It's always great to get out with your dogs. Bells' performance was acceptable and the prospect of Sam developing into a hunter is certainly satisfying. He will need lots of practice in the coming weeks and you are excited as you think about those up coming trips.

          The mid-morning sun is heating up as you arrive home. You place both dogs in the pen and inspect them thoroughly. You check their feet, coat, ears and yes. Everything appears to be in order as you give them a treat of white bread. Before you leave the pen, you lavish them with petting and praise.

          Returning to the truck, you make short work of putting all the equipment in its' rightful place.

          Tired and relaxed you join the Real Boss in the dining room for a quiet cup of coffee. She listens patiently as you recount the excitement of the first field trip of the year. A slight smile creases her lips. She has heard it all before and undoubtedly will hear it all again.

          You remind yourself how fortunate you are to have the opportunity to share these out door adventures with your dogs. You are grateful you have returned safely. At this very moment, you are planning the next field trip in your mind. It can't come soon enough!

Should you have a concern regarding the health of your Beagle(s), you should contact your veterinarian. All information on this site is presented solely for educational and informational purposes and should not, at any time, be considered a substitute for seeking or receiving veterinary care for your Beagle(s).