Putting the dog before the hunt
ROBESONIA, Berks County -- Usually, it works like this: You get into hunting and then acquire a good bird dog.
For Deirdre Lehman, it was just the opposite. She took up hunting because she bought a spinone Italiano, also known as an Italian wire-haired pointing dog.
She and her husband, Jon, have always had dogs. "The house always feels somewhat empty when a dog is not around," she says.
The couple met its first spinone while traveling in Canterbury, England. "We were smitten with the spinone's looks and demeanor and kept running into the owners and finally wrote down the name of the breed so I could do further research once we returned home," Lehman recalls.
"The idea of hunting hadn't entered my mind at the time."
In 2006, the Lancaster city couple traveled to Bumpass, Va., to pick up their first spinone from the breeder.
"Who is going to hunt with this dog?" the breeder wanted to know.
The next thing Lehman knew, she was putting Monk through regimented hunting training with the help of other hunting dog owners through the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association. NAVHDA is a nonprofit group dedicated to improving hunting dog breeds and conserving game by using well-trained, reliable hunting dogs.
At the same time, Lehman, 56, a state Department of Environmental Protection worker in Lancaster, began learning to become a hunter.
Darrell Howe, of York County, a friend of her husband, became her mentor, teaching her to clean and safely handle a gun, and how to shoot. She honed her aim with an Italian-made Franchi shotgun first by shooting at the trap range, then busting sporting clays.
She took the Pennsylvania Game Commission's hunter-trapper safety course so she could legally begin hunting with a dog that has been bred for just such a purpose since before Christ.
Monk had a pop-up blind for Canada goose hunts.
Putting in her time with Monk, the dog reached NAVHDA's Master Hunter class based on its ability to point, honor other dogs on point, remain steady after the shot, retrieve downed birds to the hunter's hand with only minor voice commands and other qualities.
"I'm more of a trainer than a hunter," Lehman says. "If you want a good hunting dog, you never stop training. They will regress if you don't keep training."
Through the American Kennel Club, Monk also became a show dog.
Then it all ended. When he was 4½ years old, Monk died of an autoimmune disorder in 2011.
Undeterred, Lehman bought another spinone. She loved the dog's reputation as a hard-working, obedient and slow-working hunting dog, one of the oldest gun dogs in existence.
Also, the dogs with the long head and human-like eyes have a friendly demeanor and are valued as a family dog.
The only possible downside Lehman has found? "They fling spit everywhere," Lehman says. That's why the Lehman home on State Street has tile floors, washable painted walls and a bathroom in the kitchen.
The couple has a tradition of naming their dogs on inspirations from vacations.
One of their previous dogs, a Rottweiler, was named Paddington after Paddington Station, a well-known subway station in London. Another Rottweiler was called Taug, after Peter Taugwalter, a Swiss guide on the Matterhorn.
Since the breeder requires his dogs to have Italian names, the new spinone was named Cima Del Poggio, translated to top of a knoll in Poggio, a town they frequented in Tuscany.
The dog was named Poggi for short.
Lehman began the training all over again. In addition to the hunting and obedience training, master and dog have undergone agility training with Rocky Creek Dog Agility in Ephrata.
"It connects you to your dog and it's a good physical outlet for your dog," Lehman says.
On a cold early March afternoon with dagger winds, Lehman drives to the Pheasant Valley Farm hunting preserve in Berks County to work her young dog.
She and hunting companions Chuck Ferree, 60, of Middletown, and his cousin, Doug Meads, 67, of York County, pay to have the owner hide five ring-necked pheasants in the fields planted with strips of corn, sorghum and switch grass.
Knowing what's in store, Poggi leaps out of his crate in the back of the Volvo station wagon with the bumper sticker that reads, "Want birds? Hunt with an ugly dog."
Within minutes, Poggi freezes on point. The hunters swing into position as Poggi holds dutifully even though the bird is concealed in a tuft of grass only a few feet away. The dog's nostrils are surely burning with the heady scent of game.
The male pheasant flushes, the hunters swing and shoot almost simultaneously. The bird drops. Lehman barks at the still motionless dog to retrieve.
Poggi, who has intently watched the bird's arc, makes a beeline to the downed bird, places it firmly in its mouth and scampers back to Lehman, who removes it and offers words of encouragement before putting the bird in her vest.
The rest of the afternoon does not go so well. Only one other bird is flushed. The others must have run away. Plus the wind is playing havoc with the birds' scent, giving Poggi false points.
Lehman is not happy with her dog's wagging tail or, after he gets winded, his lolling tongue.
"They can't scent so well when their tongues are out,'' she says.
But by the time the group calls it quits, everyone has had a fine day afield.
"They get so excited before they go," she says of Poggi. "The instinctive thing of pointing gets me every time. Then to finish the job with style, it's very rewarding.''
Ad Crable is a Sunday News outdoors writer. Email him at email@example.com. Read his outdoors blog at adcrable.wordpress.com.