I Asked South Dakota Dog Trainers About Kristi Noem

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Deb Davenport gets it, to a point.

Davenport, the secretary of the Western South Dakota Bird Dog Club, owns seven adult hunting dogs: mostly Spinoni Italiani with whimsical names like Confetti and Partito, and one vizsla. She has been a dog trainer and dog fancier since the mid-1990s, she said.

She knows that some dogs are “wired inappropriately” and that, sometimes, for the safety of humans and other animals, it can be necessary to euthanize. She knows that not everybody turns to a vet for that task.

“Since I live in a very rural agricultural state, there are people that do that themselves with a firearm,” Davenport told me.

What she does not get, though, is the way the governor of her state, Kristi Noem, talked about shooting her dog Cricket, as well as an unnamed billy goat, in her memoir, “No Going Back,” which came out yesterday.

“I don’t know a single person that would brag about it. Most of the time they feel bad,” Davenport, a Republican, said. “I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t at least be sad.”

By now, dear reader, you know about Noem’s shot heard ’round the world. It is a story that just won’t seem to die, unlike Cricket and the goat, partly because the leaks keep coming and partly because Noem herself keeps talking about it. Facing a firestorm of criticism from fellow Republicans — and the formation of a bipartisan Congressional Dog Lovers Caucus apparently intended to troll her — she has defended herself as the victim of unfair attacks from critics who don’t understand the hard choices people have to make on ranches and farms.

“Life is a little different in rural America,” Representative Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, a Republican, told CNN.

This is not, however, how everybody in South Dakota sees it — dog, goat and human alike.

This week, I set out to see if there was something I, the owner of Rhubarb, a mild-mannered rescue dog with bear-hunting blood who lives her life softly curled up on my couch, was missing in all the backlash to Noem’s story. But when I called members of the state’s bustling bird dog community, they were just as mystified as anybody else.

The episode seems to have snuffed out what little chance she had of being named Donald Trump’s vice president (more on that later). But even at home, the story she told to make herself look tough seems to have backfired, at least in some quarters. Dog owners like Davenport were struck less by the death itself than by her spiteful description of a dog that they said she had not set up for success.

And they want to be clear: They really, truly, absolutely do not recommend people shoot their own dogs as a matter of course.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Brian Soehl, 62, of the South Dakota Hunting Dog Club, who called the outcome of Noem’s story “unusual.”

Soehl is an independent voter who has voted for Noem. He has owned hunting dogs for years, although he is down to just one now: a wire-haired vizsla named Gage who, he freely admits, is not the winningest dog in the club. But Soehl still loves going out in the field with him.

“We have some of the best dogs in the world in this area,” Soehl said. “The people that I know, they love their dogs.”

Pheasant hunting in South Dakota, Soehl said, is a major cultural event. Opening day of the season has a festival-like atmosphere, with small towns hosting pancake breakfasts or evening suppers. And it’s fun for the dogs, too — Soehl said his have usually jumped in the car when they see his guns, excited for the good kind of adventure.

So Noem’s story has South Dakota dog trainers abuzz with gossip and technical chatter about where, exactly, she went wrong.

In a section of her book titled “Bad day to be a goat,” Noem writes about how Cricket, the roughly 14-month-old wirehaired pointer, had come to her family from a different home where there had been problems with her “aggressive personality.”

During a particularly “stressful year,” Noem wrote, she took Cricket on a hunt with her older dogs, and Cricket began chasing birds before the hunters were in range to shoot. Noem was “livid.” After the ruined hunt, she wrote, she loaded the dogs in kennels in her truck bed — but she didn’t have one for Cricket, who was allowed to ride unconfined. When Noem stopped at a neighbor’s house, Cricket rocketed out of the back of the truck and began “systematically” chomping the neighbor’s chickens to death before “trying” to bite Noem.

“I hated that dog,” Noem wrote.

Russell Nelson, a Democrat who trains and sells gun dogs at Clover Leaf Pheasant Farms in Estelline, S.D., said he was very careful to make sure the right dogs went to the right families. And, what’s more, it’s important not to let a dog who doesn’t come when called get loose.

“It was certainly her fault for putting the dog in the back of the truck and not being in a kennel,” Nelson said. “I was wondering how it got out of the vehicle and killed the chickens.”

Noem’s account has raised legal questions as well as dog-training questions. Did Noem break the law? When I called the spokesman for South Dakota’s attorney general, Marty Jackley, though, he pointed simply to the state’s seven-year statute of limitations.

“Since it happened about 20 years ago, there’s nothing we can do,” Tony Mangan, the spokesman, said. Asked if Noem might have broken the law at the time, Mangan said any answer would be “pure speculation.”

Davenport, a self-described “common sense” Republican who did not vote for Noem, said she worried her governor’s story would reflect poorly on the state’s thriving world of pheasant hunting.

“We don’t go out shooting our dogs. We don’t shoot our goats, either,” Davenport said. When a dog must be put down, she said, “We actually have a mobile vet out here that can come to your house.”

Confetti doesn’t like loud noises, she said, so she’s not much of a hunting dog, but she’s very social. Her youngest dog, she joked, hasn’t been trained as well as her others.

“I think he’s growing up feral,” she said. “He better hope Kristi Noem doesn’t move in next door.”

Noem’s future on the 2024 national stage is starting to look about as promising as Cricket’s future on the show-dog circuit. I asked my colleague Michael Bender, who is covering Trump’s veep search, to tell us more.

How has the story of Cricket landed in Trump World?

Trump World is looking for solutions to an already-pretty-lengthy list of crises facing the campaign, not more problems. No one around Trump wants to be answering questions about Kristi Noem, let alone questions about Kristi Noem and her puppy and her goat and her gravel pit.

How serious of a contender for vice president has Noem really been? And how has this shaped her odds?

Noem was always a long shot for Trump’s ticket. He has been impressed by Noem — she was an outspoken, young Republican member of Congress who easily won headlines. But in recent years, her star has dimmed a bit. She has alienated a number of Republicans over a long career. And she’s hitched her wagon to Corey Lewandowski, who is an adviser to Trump who is in and out of the former president’s orbit, and has his own list of enemies.

That said, one of the truisms of Trump World is that you’re never completely out unless you want to be out. Trump loves a redemption narrative, loves when people beg him for forgiveness. But it’s hard to see how a presidential candidate already losing an incredible amount of time to four criminal cases would want to give any thought to explaining the untimely end of Cricket.





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