Of course the setter sits in the middle. That way she doesn’t have to drive and she doesn’t have to open the gate…
Of course the setter sits in the middle. That way she doesn’t have to drive and she doesn’t have to open the gate…
In my stronger moments, I tell myself it’s going to be okay. That it has been a good run and she has been loved. That she’s been my bird dog and I’d like to think, somehow, that this life I lead is a kind of version of canine heaven. Especially for gun dogs.
But I have weaker moments. Sometimes, they come in daylight while she lies in her dog bed beside my desk. Sometimes they come in darkness when I lie awake and listen to the sound of her breathing, a sound not unlike the crackling of plastic wrap in a fist.
I’m home this week early, a trip to Oregon’s coastal rivers of steelhead cut short. I don’t mind. I want to be here, not there.
It started a month or so ago, the huffing cough like a throat-tickle that can’t be cleared, and in a thirteen year old dog, I didn’t think much of it. But the kennel where I boarded her when we went on holiday vacation is owned by my veterinarian, and she, being an alert practitioner of the medical arts, asked. Have you noticed a cough?
So we shot a film and drew some blood and tried a dose of antibiotics, thinking, perhaps, that the shadow in her chest was an abscess from an inhaled grass seed, a common affliction of dogs who drink the wind that brushes bird. A month later, the coughing still there—sounding wetter—and another film. This time a gloom in her lungs like boiled smoke from a slash pile that had jumped the dozer line, metastasized and blown up into a wild fire. Even before a layman’s eyes.
There will be no chemotherapy. I will not make her final months any sicker than an old bird dog at thirteen can stand.
Six months. In six months, it will be bird season again. Another September.
There have been other old dogs. But this one has owned my heart more than any other. This is the one that inspired my friends to buy their own pointing dogs. She has been a spectacular finder of wild birds, a retriever whose retrieves are as memorable as the vision of the Comet Hale Bopp (and only slightly less rare), and never-fail backer of other dogs’ points. She has made so many stunning bird finds that they are lost to my memory just like living at the base of the Tetons makes one forget about the staggering scenery on the horizon.
The other old dogs went out of my life without a clock ticking. One day they were old and I could see the dwindle in them and then they were gone. There was no egg timer to the whole thing. So we have six months until bird season. Maybe longer, maybe shorter. Six months of riding in the pickup cab with me, six months of jerky treats, six months of canned dog food and pretty much any damned thing she wants. Six months when I will try to be here rather than somewhere else.
Six months and one day, perhaps with September painting the grouse woods and grasshoppers rattling along North Willow Creek where I will do the sad work with sharp spade, I will know.
I will know that the countdown to the end of the dog has ended.
I will never get used to it. The suddenness of it. In human, it is difficult enough. Wake up one morning and you’re having to use one point five readers for the newspaper. The tromp through the cattails seems to go a little slower, the truck’s warmth a little more welcome. The fire for another push needs more stoking. It’s more of an erosion, a slow spin.
But in canine, the slap of years is stunning. One day you look down at her and she’s an old lady, her joints swollen by arthritis, various bumps and warts in her hide, a once-stunning feathered tail now something a rat might sport. She totters where once she used to float. She huffs and coughs at the fountain she once drank.
We drive east, across the roll of Montana, past coulee and pine, pump-jack and silo. Past corn and scrubland to the Dakotas. It has been a long span for me and for her, this leave from the Dakotas and now it is late in this season and late in her life and I wonder how it all happened.
She gets the princess perch, behind the driver, the other dogs in back in the camper shell. She rides in the warmth of the cab for after a dozen years of bringing me to all of those different birds, the least I can do is bring her into the truck where she can curl in a tight ball against that rat tail and snore.
There have been other trips. Many. I view her mostly backward. Pups are forward, what lies ahead. Old dogs are what you have been and what they were and what it once was. Over the shoulder, behind, when she was young and the truck had one hundred thousand miles instead of twice that and she had ten thousand miles instead of twice or thrice that. I will make one trip to the Dakotas this year, one visit to the river of scent that is hundreds of pheasants in one section of CRP. This journey, I tell myself, is for the young pup who is fire and burst, an uncontrollable effervescence of puppy joy. But really it is for grandma, kinked with time, crippled by the uplands of the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico. Knotted and rusted by roosters and blues, sharpies, ruffs, sprucers and sage chickens, chukar, Huns, Mearns, cottontops, Californias, mountain and Gambel. It has been one hell of a run.
So she sits behind me as the diesel growls east, through Baker and Hettinger and Lemmon and Mobridge. East. Toward. One last trip, one last bird, one last point. Please, God, just one more.
We had completed a fairly thorough loop for one guy and one big running dog to do through the field, and were on our way back to the truck. Downwind. The dog absolutely hates hunting downwind, and will do everything he can to veer from it, since for him, hunting downwind is dumb, and because for him, the hunting doesn’t end when you’ve made the decision to head back to the truck and are returning via ground that you already covered on the way out. No, it doesn’t end for him until we’re at the tailgate. He’s taught me the value of this lesson many times before, but my hard-headed human brain tends to forget.
So when he veers off at a 90 degree angle to the wind, and the direction to the truck, I don’t think much of it, but then I forget how quickly he can cover ground when he wants to. I let him range because I tell myself that we’ve already covered this, and the day is done and truth be told, I’m fantasizing about dinner. I probably should have noted that he wasn’t just meandering, but heading in a pretty specific direction.
There is a common adage in the bird dog world that, “you must teach the dog to hunt for you.” I used to firmly believe this was the case, with no room for interpretation. After all, the only other option is an out-of-control dog, right? In some cases, that’s certainly true. But I’d like to think I’m growing and learning as a bird hunter (and hopefully always will be), and have come to realize that too much stubborn control over everything your dog does can betray a lack of trust in your dogs’ inherent, amazing abilities, not to mention impacting what ends up in the game bag.
The reality of the relationship – if it’s a good one – is a far more nuanced, “give and take” than that; an interdependent push-and-pull across the landscape. At least in the situations I most often find myself hunting in. This isn’t a quaint, 2-acre patch of errant apple orchard, but a wide open, hilly field 20 times that in size, and it wouldn’t even be considered “big” country by our western standards. I need a dog that has no shortage of initiative, not one that is going to be plodding along dutifully right in front of me. And in these scenarios, the reality is that we have learned to hunt for each other. Just as he is obliged to find birds for me in a vast and sometimes daunting landscape, I’m obliged to trust that he knows what he’s doing; that his desire to find birds is unwavering (the occasional rabbit or deer scent aside…) and at least as great as mine. Trusting this arrangement means that in general, he needs to go where I want him to, but it also means that it’s a good idea for me to pay attention when he clearly wants to head in a certain direction. Knowing a good bird dog well means trusting that he probably has his reasons.
I watch a couple skittish sharpies bust wild a hundred and some yards away, as he is quartering toward them, nose held high, before he has a chance to lock them down and point them. His sudden, 90 deg. detour now becomes clear – he somehow knew they were over there, even from that distance. I mark where they go down on the hillside, not far away. It could be tempting to raise my blood pressure regarding my “out of control dog” upon seeing this, but the truth is that he’s doing exactly what he should be doing, and the mistakes are honestly mine. Instead, I call him in, and as a team, we double back and move in together and get them. Birds we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, if it had been left up to me. Another lesson has been reinforced. Luckily, my dog is a forgiving and patient teacher.
Postscript: The following day, the little bastard ran all over hell and back, ignoring commands, whistles and every setting on the e-collar. I accidentally left the laptop open the previous night, and I’m now convinced he must have read this post.
He was fully immersed in his second favorite thing to do in this world – chasing a tennis ball.
Without warning, he abandoned his second favorite thing to do in this world, which could only mean one thing. He hooked a hard left and headed toward the houses, nose to the ground, inhaling scent at a full run.
From a distance, it was obvious he was on point.
A standoff had ensued. The fowl held its ground briefly, before making a fatal mistake.
As the yardbird turned and ran, the shorthair was on it in seconds, shaking the life out of it.
We’ve been politely invited to help our neighbor build a new fence.
There’s half an hour of shooting light left but with the snow blowing in it might as well be midnight. A handful of chukar call from across the canyon to the half-dozen a hundred feet above me.
A few minutes ago, my young setter got an honest-to-goodness point on this covey of 15 or so birds before they broke and flushed wild.
I was above her, looking down when I saw her go on point.
I’m still out of breath from the hillside sprint toward her.
It was like being the weakest link on the seventh-grade mile-relay team all over again, pushing as hard as I could and still watching it slip away.
It wasn’t her fault though. These are tough birds, tricky in the best of conditions and difficult for even seasoned dogs to pin down.
I got close enough to see them flush at least. And we saw some light halfway up the slope where we now repose.
It was pure adrenaline that got us up here and as it starts to darken, I wonder how I’m going to get back down the snowy slope without sliding on my ass through the mud and the muck.
I can see the road at the bottom and on the other side I can just make out the hillside where we started a few minutes before.
My legs are burning from the climbing, my feet are soaking wet, the truck is parked a mile down the road and I haven’t fired a shot.
But the young dog got a point on chukar and I’ll call that a win.
So when the birds above me answer the call of their covey mates across canyon and fly directly over my head, silhouetted against the billowing white snow clouds, I don’t even raise my gun.
I didn’t come to pass shoot them.
I came to see them pointed and for now, it’s enough.
This post comes to us from Steven Brutger, a good friend and bird hunting buddy of MOF. We can’t tell if he’s making fun of himself, of a certain type of hunter, or of us specifically. Regardless, it’s funny.
Mouthful of Shit
By Steven Brutger
Scent fills her nostrils. Her tail cracks back and forth like a windshield wiper. She quarters into the wind. My finger creeps near the safety.
Her ancestors, training, years of experience all lead to this moment. Muscles ripple down her sides as she hones in on the target. A lone, compact turd of cow shit.
Without missing a stride she scoops it up, swallows and quarters.