Mist is sitting on the hills, and the light is still weak, as I drive to meet Bob Grill and Calla.
It is early morning, five a.m. to be exact, on a cold and dreary July morning, and yet Calla is already jumping and running around with anticipation when I arrive.
I shouldn’t be surprised, the morning training is a routine Calla does six days a week with her owner Grill, a self-described “morning person.”
Calla is a Labrador retriever, a purebred pedigreed dog, and she has been training since she was just a pup, with her first hunting trip when she was only eight months old.
On her first hunting experience, she went after a wounded pheasant, swimming across a river where Grill couldn’t reach her, and disappearing on the other side.
After much calling, with the dog out of sight, Grill was afraid he had lost her, but she reappeared and attempted to swim back across to the hunters. But then she was swept downstream in the current.
As Grill followed the young dog down the river, he came around the corner where he’d lost visual contact with Calla, and realized there was a log jam, a dangerous obstacle for anything swimming the river.
He stayed and called for the dog, and looked around from the banks, but feared the worst, as he had never worked the pup in water before.
His fellow hunters gave up and went back to the vehicles, parked about a mile away, while Grill stayed to search and call for his lost dog.
When the other hunters got to the vehicles, they found the eight-month-old Calla, who had come out further downstream apparently. She had then backtracked to the start point at the trucks.
“And then I knew I had a good dog,” said Grill.
She has since become a “master hunter,” a title awarded to dogs who qualify through competitions which test their ability to follow signals precisely to locate and retrieve birds.
And four years after her first hunting trip, he is preparing Calla for her biggest competition yet, the Canadian National Masters, in the hopes of attaining the ultimate title of “national master hunter.”
Grill and Calla left to travel down to Crawford, B.C., on August 8, where the pair will train for three days with a professional dog trainer and a group of other competitors to prepare for the competition.
Bob’s wife Monica will come along as well.
Partnering with Bob in training dogs is something Monica has always done, and she compares it to other couples who might play golf with each other.
“It’s something that Bob and I do together,” explained Monica. “The dog is ‘us’ too.”
When the couple moved to the Fort in 1974, emigrating from Denver, Colorado, they brought three pure-bred dogs with them, and dogs have always been a part of their lives.
When the couple met, Bob had already been involved in training dogs for many years, having bought his first dog when he was 16, mowing lawns to save up the $250 the purebred cost him.
He has had dogs ever since, even working for a few years as a professional trainer, taking other peoples’ dogs down to Mexico for the winters to train, along with Monica and their two young children.
Now all of those years of training will hopefully put Grill and Calla in good stead for one of the ultimates in bird dog competitions.
The nationals will begin on August 15 and continue for five days, during which the dogs will have to go through multiple tests using dead birds to test both the dogs and their handlers.
There are gun shots, cars, crowds of people, flushing birds and other dogs, all of which test the control of the dogs, because if a dog “breaks” from sitting by their handler when it is not their turn to retrieve, they are eliminated.
This seems like a lot to ask of dogs which are clearly geared towards birds and retrieval with every fiber of their being, and of the 75 dogs at the trials, Grill says the majority will be eliminated before the five days are over.
They’re just “quivering” with excitement and anticipation when a bird is flushed in front of them, but they are trying to resist the urge to leave their master’s side.
This is not the only tough part, and when I spoke to Grill again just before he left for the nationals, he had downgraded Calla’s odds of finishing from about 50 per cent to 10.
He had heard rumours of tougher judging, requiring dogs to run in straight lines towards the birds, and being eliminated if they don’t.
This is a stricter take on things than has been used in the past, and will eliminate quite a number of competitors.
While it will affect all the dogs equally, the end goal is simply to finish the competition, which allows the dog to take on the title, and is one of those elusive goals which trainers strive for.
While Grill comes across as a very laid back man, his passion for this pastime is readily apparent.
“This is the dog,” said Grill. “I want that title.”
Whether they get the title or not, Calla and Grill will likely enjoy many more early morning training sessions, with the light coming up and the mist rising, enjoying one another’s company.
Because when it comes to her husband’s relationship with his dogs: “They’re partners in fun and partners in sport,” said Monica.