Zapping Pete

Pistol Pete '94Everybody loved Pete, but he was not what you would call a reliable teammate. Sometimes he would win games for you with amazingly brilliant performances, and sometimes he would lose games for you with amazingly stupid performances.

Zapping Pete

Pistol Pete was the most lovable and most frustrating bird dog of the dozen or more that I have trained and hunted over these past three decades.  An English springer spaniel, he was the progeny of an outstanding field trials dog and possessed immense talent, strength, stamina and drive.  But his potential was unfortunately hampered by his limited mental capacity.

We have all known a “Pete.” He may have played defensive tackle on your high school football team, a position that did not require great mental acumen.

“Pete” did not have the analytic and interpretive skills to recognize the opposing team’s offensive formations, or to read and react to the moves of the guard across the line of scrimmage.  But he had incredible athletic ability, so he won his place in the starting line-up by single-mindedly carrying out the coach’s instructions: Find the ball, and then go get it. Which he frequently did, in his own wild and undisciplined way, because he was big and strong and played with unbounded enthusiasm.

On Saturday night, “Pete” was the guy who came late to the unofficial “victory party” in the city park, a six-pack of beer hanging on his belt, a fat cigar jutting from his mouth, a white X of athletic tape holding his broken nose in place, and a huge smile on his face that told you he was happy just being there. Unintentionally and obliviously he would block the driveway with his car, knock the cassette player off the picnic table, sit in the pizza on the park bench, blow cigar smoke in your girlfriend’s face, tell locker room jokes, belch and fart and holler “We kicked their ass!” and fall into the duck pond about the time the police drove by on “minor in possession” beer patrol.

Everybody loved “Pete,” but he was not what you would call a reliable teammate. Sometimes he would win games for you with amazingly brilliant performances, and sometimes he would lose games for you with amazingly stupid performances. A physically gifted but intellectually deprived fellow with a happy-go-lucky zest for life, he was decidedly not the consummate team player. No one ever said, “Someday, Pete and I are going into business together.” Not even furniture moving.

That was the character of Pistol Pete, my springer spaniel, in a nutshell. Short-legged, barrel-bodied, thickly muscled, broad-headed, he was huge for a springer, probably forty-five pounds. To this day I believe he was part Labrador retriever, a suspicion confirmed by his love of water, manic retrieving desire, body conformation, raven black markings, square head, thick tail, and especially his tendency to go brain dead the moment bird scent entered his nose.

If I had had the wisdom to train him and hunt him as a non-slip retriever, his autumn days spent only in the duck blind, he could have been a star. The defensive tackle hunkered down in four-point stance, waiting and watching as the gun is fired and the duck or goose falls, then exploding from the blind with frenzied purpose to find and catch and bring it to hand. That could have been Pete’s forte.

But upland hunting, for a flushing breed dog, is more like playing free safety. You must recognize the formation, analyze and predict the action, read the keys, react to the ebb and flow of the play, instantly discern false direction from true, fill the gap to stop the run, position yourself to intercept the flight of the pass, anticipate and outsmart your opponent … Pistol Pete was capable of none of this. “Find the ball, and then go get it.” That was Pete.

He made three or four of the greatest retrieves I have ever witnessed, including one Herculean, thirty-minute, mile-long, run-and-swim chase across a huge marsh wildlife area. Those great moments were offset, however, by the dozens of times he put to wing flocks of pheasants, coveys of quail, or pods of sharptail grouse, all a hundred yards or more distant from the gun while I violently screamed “HUP!” and blew blasts on the whistle that would drown out a calliope. Once bird scent entered Pete’s olfactory nerve, he was impervious to all other stimuli.

My days with Pete were in the early era of the electronic training collar. A more nuanced training tool now, and one that I use carefully at times, that little black box with electrodes that press against the dog’s neck allows the handler to press a button on a transmitter to administer an electric shock to the dog. The training collar I now own has fifteen levels of stimulation, ranging from a tingle that I can barely feel on the palm of my hand to a jolt that is quite painful.

But it was a much more primitive training collar that I borrowed twenty-five years ago to use as a last resort to stop Pete from bolting out of control when he hit bird scent. The transmitter had one control button, and the level of stimulation was regulated by choosing one of three “chips” to insert into the black box: green, yellow, red. A tyro at using this thing, I inserted the green chip (lowest level) one November morning, strapped the collar on Pete, and took him pheasant hunting.

We found a clutch of hen pheasants on the edge of an unharvested cornfield, and they ran to escape.  Pete chased after them, out of control, and after giving him fair warning with two whistle blasts I pressed the transmitter button. He showed no sign that he felt any shock from the collar and flushed the hens at the far end of the field a few hundred yards away. He came bounding back, as always, happy to have done so well.

I took off the collar, exchanged the green chip for the yellow chip, and fastened it back around Pete’s neck. It was more than twenty minutes before we found another pheasant, this one a rooster that was a veteran of the hunt.  He ran out of the bean field, ducked through the fence, and scuttled along the bottom of a roadside ditch with Pete in hot pursuit. I blew one blast on the whistle, Pete ignored it, and I punched the button. The results were dramatic.

Pete went airborne about five feet, he yelped in pain, his eyes bulged, his ears shot out horizontal from his head, he leaked a stream of pee, and I believe I saw a puff of steam shoot out his nose. He immediately ceased pursuit of the rooster and came staggering back to me. I checked the chip. Yes, it was yellow, the “medium” level of stimulation. My assumption was that the red “high” level chip must knock the dog unconscious, if it was a large breed, or kill it outright if it was a smaller breed. I chose not to try it.

That one lesson was all it took to train Pete. Thereafter, whenever I put the collar on him, he walked at heal and refused to hunt. When I took the collar off, he hunted with all his former enthusiasm, ignored the whistle as he always had, and flushed birds out of range with even greater abandon.

Except for doves and ducks, Pete seldom hunted with me after that. He had out-dumbed me, and I threw in the towel.

Pete is long gone, but I still keep a memento on the shelf to remind me of days spent afield with him: a small plastic football helmet with a bent whistle jammed into the face guard.


About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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