The Dog, The Duck, and The Handler: Insights on Mastery

When I was about 13 my Boy Scout Troop volunteered to help with a field trial for dogs. For those not familiar with a field trial, it is a competition for hunting dogs. A couple of my troop mates wound up with what seemed a rather fun job. They sat behind a large dirt pile, grabbed quail from their cages, tucked their heads under their wing, and threw them out over the water. As the discombobulated birds began to fly, they were suddenly felled by a shotgun blast and plummeted into a pond below so that the dogs could retrieve them. I’m fairly certain that there was nothing safe about being the bird thrower in such circumstances, but to a younger me it certainly seemed like a fine way to spend an afternoon.

The job I was assigned was far less glamorous. Rather than spend my day idling by the pond in the line of fire, I wound up working on the field side of the competition. Basically I was a gofer for the dead birds which the dogs were unleashed to retrieve. I spent the whole day riding shotgun in a beater pickup truck with a somewhat humorless man. We drove back and forth all afternoon. On one end of the circuit, he would stop the truck and I would get out to retrieve a dead duck from the pickup’s bed and place it in the field. At the other end of the end of the journey, I would get out to pick up the dead ducks that the dogs had retrieved. Carrying dead birds is a rather disgusting task. That the dead birds were mangled and covered in dog slobber only added to the day’s misery.

One thing that stands out in my mind about that day is that we were promised lunch. By the time it was lunchtime I was good and hungry. What I did not count on was lack of hand washing facilities. I don’t know what I expected to get for lunch, but I was disappointed my rations consisted of a dry bologna sandwich and potato chips. It is hard to imagine anything sounding less appetizing than eating finger foods with my dead bird and dog slobber covered hands.

The whole day wasn’t entirely wasted as I managed to learn a few useful things that I have carried with me for the rest of my life like the meaning of the term “trucker’s tan.” Since I was riding in the passenger seat, my wicked trucker’s tan was backwards, but for a week or so afterward it served as a reminder that I never again would be suckered into a field trial.

I cannot say that I learned much about field trials other than that they seem like a miserable way to spend one’s day. I do remember that there was one particular dog handler who trained probably a quarter of the dogs in the competition. I mostly remember him because none of his dogs seemed particularly adept at retrieving. After releasing the dog from its lead, he would blow his whistle and point in the direction of the target. Frequently the dogs would run a few yards forward at the sound of the whistle before turning around and looking at the hapless trainer with a confused lost expression.

Another thing that I noticed was that sometimes the various trainers would point one way even though the target was located in a completely different area of the field. Not knowing anything about how one would score a field trial, I don’t know whether the dog that follows the misguided instructions of his handler is better or worse than the dog that ignores the handler and retrieves the dead duck in short order. I think that the obedient dog is certainly the better one.

There are a lot of reasons that one might send the dog on a path that isn’t direct. Perhaps the straight line is hard for a dog to navigate or has other obstacles, or perhaps the straight path puts the dog out of the handler’s line of sight. Sometimes the handler simply does not know where the fallen bird is. In any case it is not for the dog to decide which direction he should go; the dog should simply follow.

Telling this story to my slave, she remarked that she was not surprised that I would think the obedient dog the superior one because it is also how I expect my slave to behave. I hadn’t really made that connection, but her simple observation was correct. I expect my slave to follow my direction and not decide which way to go. Much like the dog sent on a circuitous route, sometimes the directions I give her may seem to have no reason to them. Sometimes, I am leading her down a path towards a destination that is not apparent. On other occasions, it is the journey itself that pleases me. Sometimes, I simply want to take enjoyment in watching her follow my directions obediently. In my frailties, sometimes I may not know the right way to the destination. But in any case, it is not for her to decide that. Her path is to follow.

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