This is a story of a very special friend, somebody who gave me courage and inspiration, who showed me that it is not perfection that makes perfection, but tenacity and more importantly the want to succeed, is a strength that lies deep with in us all...we just have to find it.
This is a story about my first real success. It allowed me to look at myself and say, "Well done, girl". This is a story about a Draathaar Pointer named Benjamin Francolin.
It started long ago...My father is the well-known PH Tony Tomkinson and I often wonder if I'd been born a boy and wanted to dance like my prima ballerina mother, how different life would have been for me. Would I have been expected to follow my father's footsteps? Or would I have been left alone to make my own choice as I have been born a girl? My younger sister and I did the "hunting, shooting, fishing" thing but without the pressure to excel. As long as we did our best, Dad was really proud of us, took our picture and put it into the family photo album.
The wonderful thing is we had all the experience we would have had if we'd been boys...all the wonders of life's adventures. We grew up with the back-drop of wildlife in its truest form, we learnt all the same values, we spoke Zulu and ate putu with the labour and game guards' kids in the compounds. We were cocooned from the pressure and handed the beauty of an amazing childhood on a plate. My memories far out do the that of the average person my age, something I took for granted for so long, but something I now thank my parents for allowing me to experience. A childhood wild and free...the cry of a fish eagle or the beating of Zulu drums still takes me back to a little blonde girl sitting on daddy's shoulders.
I left this life for a while and moved to the city after the bright lights. However, I always felt that there was something missing, a yearning to be in open spaces. So when my father had decided that I had finally finished paying my "school fees" and offered me a job in his business, I jumped at the opportunity. We have now been working together for eleven years. It started with me going along on the marketing trips to the USA. I think dad was one of the first to introduce his daughter to the safari and hunting world. Now when I look around, more PH's seem to have had daughters, and in some way, at least one of them is involved in the industry into which they were born.
One of my roles in our family company, which started purely by accident, was to train the ten gun dogs. Jason and I chose two dogs to start with from a local trainer and breeder for our new wingshooting lodge and hunting concessions in the Eastern Free State. Without any life line or pressure to succeed, I took to training like a fish to water, and what's more, I loved it. I had finally found my talent. We'd always had dogs when I was kid, but they were family pets and there was never really one which stood apart from the others for me, as I never had one of my own. Anshka was my first. He was a 40kg, big, black, wiry draathaar with yellow-orange eyes who challenged me constantly. He chased every duiker and every rabbit on every ridge, up every mountain...with me hot on his trail, because after all you can't discipline a dog if you don't catch him in the act and it's a total no no for a bird dog to chase game. I'm not a very big person, so picking up a 40kg dog to ruffle him was somewhat difficult, especially when I was out of breath. The turning point came when on one warm honeylike afternoon after a training session, we were sitting on the lawn enjoying a crisp glass of wine and watching the sun go down over the mountain behind our lodge with our dogs at our side, I gently lent over towards Anshka, and he growled at me. Unfortunately for him he still had his training collar on and to this day I have no idea where the strength came from. Needless to say Anshka and I have been inseparable ever since. He lies at my side now as I write...old, grey and riddled with aches and pains but always within 5 steps of me. Anshka hunted for me in his younger days and me alone. The only thing he would still do is eat the birds while retrieving...oops, another no, no. All our clients are international, so following wingshooting ethics was rather important. We never made our bird dogs into field trial champs, because finding the birds for our clients was more important. This wasn't a competition, it was real life, still there were rules we had to follow.
We took Anshka back to training while we were on a safari and from the moment we collected him, he refused to retrieve for the next two years. It took a lot of gentle coaxing to get him to pick up a bird, even for me, and we had a season ahead without a retriever. The trainer gave me Ben to make up for what ever had happened while Anshka was at school. He was a year and a half, had basic training, but was, there is no other way to put it, MAD! He was hyperactive, jumped all over you, then would shy away in the space of 10 seconds, his tongue constantly hanging out and his eyes constantly darted around as though he was scared he would miss something if he relaxed.
The trainer told me that I could have him if I wanted him, he would retrieve anything, but if I hadn't "got him right within 6 months, we would have to shoot him". I grew up roller-skating in skinning sheds amongst the carcases (because it was the only place with cement), going with dad on culling trips, eating mopami worms...the whole nine yards, but this was even a bit harsh for me. It was the beginning of October and dad popped in to the lodge on his way back to KZN, to see the new dog. His advice was to shoot it now, I'd never get it right, I'd be wasting my time and only get attached...to which Jason agreed. Benjamin was not only hyper, retrieving was all he could do; he bumped birds, stole points because he bumped birds, he was simply a menace and totally and utterly useless.
From October when I brought him home, Ben and I trained all day every day, maximum time on and minimum time off. I tried everything I could, I ran him with older dogs who were natural teachers, read every book I could lay my hands on, spoke to anybody who had even an ounce more experience than I did...but give up. I wouldn't.
Three months down the line my parents came up to the Free State for Christmas. The wonderful thing about owning a bird hunting lodge is that when the season is closed, there is lots of space for a full family Christmas. It was two days before Christmas, the 23rd of December, my father's birthday. I snuck into his room early in the morning to wish him Happy Birthday and get him up and going. For his birthday I would take him hunting. The joy and excitement was short lived when he asked which dog we would be taking, and I answered, "Ben" and walked out to get ready myself not waiting for any rebuff or argument.
We went out onto our farm, walked from the lodge to a 'koppie' where I knew birds would be in the area and I could give Ben time to warm up. Ben and I had only been working together for three months and I needed this to be perfect. We had just walked onto a stretch of land where old fields had been harvested...the perfect place for Swainson's, when suddenly Ben froze, his overly cropped tail dead straight. My father's eyebrows lifted as I slowly walked ahead, constantly reassuring Ben until I got to his side. He stood there for a few seconds, then stepped forward to flush the birds, I ducked, dad shot, and Ben sat at my side until I gave him the command to bring the limp bird back to me and delivering it to the palm of my hand. Needless to say, dad was as any father would be, proud...of both of us. He still says that, that morning was the most memorable birthday of his life.
Ben went from strength to strength and became the best hunter out of our kennel of fourteen dogs. If we needed reliability, we took Ben. He was still hyper and his tongue would still hang out giving him a look of Ed the hyena from the Lion King, but he was a magical hunter and would stop at nothing to succeed. I remember him going right over a cliff face (thankfully, not very steep) after a retrieve. We climbed many a mountain together and Ben was always there, when times were tough and when times were good. During one training season, I got caught in a freak thunderstorm on an iron rock mountain and Ben wouldn't leave my side, lightning flashed around us and even though I gave him the command to run to the safely of the truck, he trotted besides me. When I fell pregnant with our son Gordon, Ben was as gentle with me as any human could have been. When Gordon was born, he'd stand next to me and stare at the little bundle, gently nuzzling him. I'd never heard of a Draathhaar Pointer or German Wirehair Pointer until I first saw Anshka, now I will own no other dog, especially in our industry. I've had four and don't know anybody who has ever owned one who would disagreed with me. They are versatile, hunt both game and birds and are the most fantastic watch dogs which, because Jason is away so much, is something I really look for in a dog. They are fantastic family dogs and allow my four year old to climb all over them. The only con about owning a Draathhaar, is they don't live forever.
I was lucky to share some of my life with a dog like Ben, we worked together for eight years, and there wasn't a hunt I never enjoyed. We eventually got to the point where I would think and he would react and we would hunt in virtual silence. There was just no need for command, he would look back every now and again for a hand signal and to check that I was still there, but that was it.
Two years ago, the season had just started when I noticed Ben had a limp in his front paw. I couldn't see anything, so left it for a few days. It went away so I figured it was a thorn which had worked itself out. He was fit and well for the second hunt of the season, but the same happened. This time I decided to take him to the vet as arthritis is common in working dogs and if you can catch it quickly you can at least slow the process down. My vet phoned me later that afternoon to give me the bad news...Benjamin had cancer of the bone. We had options - we could amputate his limb and give him chemo which would painfully prolong his life for approximately a year, we could wait it out to have him with me for perhaps another month or two, or we could end it all now.
People often ask the same question about training bird dogs...How do you do it? How do you teach a dog to hunt? And my response is always the same...You don't teach a dog to hunt, just as we are born hunters, so are they. You can refine the talent, but you can't teach it, and to live a life in pain, or with limbs missing is no way for hunting dog to be. They live for the hunt...it's what makes them happy.
When I walked into the surgery, his little tail wagged with the joy of seeing me, and that tongue slobbered all over me. This was my Ben, who unconditionally loved me. I held him and told him everything was going to be fine and although with all my heart I didn't want to do this, I had to, for him. I couldn't bear to think of the other options. He flinched slightly as the vet inserted the needle, his body relaxed...and I held him until he fell.