Joining a community, building a better bird dog
By Terry Ann Fernando
Zara and I attended our first training day as official NAVHDA members in September 2017. I wish I had better photos from the day, but I already felt like the weird new girl. I didn’t want to be the weird new girl who was also constantly taking photos of her dog.
Zara’s eyes were green and there’s hardly a touch of white on her muzzle. Her e-collar is loose, because I had never used the stimulation with her, only the tone.
She tried duck search for the first time at this training day, and even though she had never hunted waterfowl before, she did go out and search for the duck. She even got into a short chase. I was encouraged by this, although at the time I didn’t understand the intricacies of how duck search is judged. It didn’t matter, though, because I was not going to enter Zara into any of NAVHDA’s tests. We were solely there to train for field trials. I didn’t know what the Invitational was, and frankly, I didn’t care.
I did not get Zara with the intention of hunting with her. In fact, she didn’t show any strong instincts toward birds as a puppy, and that suited me just fine.
When I first found out about NAVHDA in 2016, I did not want to join. I had been searching for a place to train Zara and I met a guy at the dog park who told me about NAVHDA. I looked at the website and saw that NAVHDA’s tests involved water work, ducks, and seemed quite complicated. Even though there were two chapters in my home state of North Carolina, I concluded that NAVHDA was not for me. I was only interested in field work, after all.
I did not get Zara with the intention of hunting with her. In fact, she didn’t show any strong instincts toward birds as a puppy, and that suited me just fine. I had no interest in hunting. But when her breeder encouraged me to enter an American Kennel Club (AKC) Junior Hunter test when she was two years old, I was amazed at how well she did after minimal exposure to quail.
After she earned her Junior Hunter title, I decided I wanted to train her to compete in AKC field trial Gun Dog stakes, which are for broke dogs. Why field trials? Because the only people I knew who competed with their vizslas did field trials, which was really only Zara’s breeder, the owner of her sire, and a few others. I knew that there were walking field trials, so that seemed like a good next step. I also liked the fact that field trials did not involve shooting birds, even though I didn’t realize at the time that many field trials do involve retrieving and in order to earn a Field Champion title, vizslas need a certain number of retrieving credits.
After spending close to 18 months trying to find a place to train her without any luck, I finally relented and decided to give NAVHDA another shot. When I attended our first training day, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the members of the Tarheel Chapter were welcoming and encouraging. I joined right away, excited about the possibility of having access to live birds once a month. But I was not going to enter Zara into the Utility Test, I decided. She was nearly four years old at that point, so she was too old for Natural Ability. I would solely use NAVHDA to get Zara steady for field trials.
Five years have passed. Zara and I spent the entire summer training for the Invitational. There’s a lot more white on her face now, and her eyes have darkened, per the vizsla standard, to match her coat. Her e-collar is positioned appropriately, because I understand how to use it to bring out the best in her.
I don’t care if people see me take photos or videos now. Those members who were so welcoming in the beginning have become my friends, and they don’t judge. I feel immensely grateful that I gave NAVHDA a chance. It has been the proving ground for Zara’s transformation into a finished gun dog, although it was certainly not a quick process. It took five years of NAVHDA, five years of watching, learning, and training.
She bears little resemblance to the unsteady dog who refused to retrieve. And I to the timid novice handler. The one thing that remains the same, however, is her desire to hunt, and my desire to help her be the best she can.
Outsiders don’t appreciate the significance of participating in the Invitational. They see a video of Zara retrieving a shot bird to hand and think, That looks easy enough. They don’t understand the hours that went into that perfect retrieve. The literal blood, sweat and tears that led to the “4” duck search. The months of foundation work that resulted in a reliable blind retrieve. But that’s okay. I have my NAVHDA community, and our members understand.
The one thing that remains the same, however, is her desire to hunt, and my desire to help her be the best she can.
In September, she ran in her last NAVHDA test. In 2021, my chapter had nine members participating in the Invitational. This year, Zara and I were the only ones. Representing the Tarheel Chapter on NAVHDA’s biggest stage was the greatest honor. They say that training for the Invitational takes a village, and my village showed up this summer. All I had to do was ask, and there were people there to help, to run a brace, to set up a blind retrieve, to offer advice.
NAVHDA has been everything for me. Without NAVHDA, Zara and I would have never gotten to where we are today. I think about all the people we’ve met, the things we’ve learned, the experiences we’ve had, and it all traces back to that first training day in 2017.
Five years of NAVHDA gone by, how many more are ahead?
I can’t wait to find out.
To see more of Terry Ann and Zara’s adventures, follow them on Instagram at @accidentalbirddog and visit Terry Ann’s blog at AccidentalBirdDog.com.
This story originally appeared in Versatile Hunting Dog Magazine, October 2022.