I hope when I am 70 I can have the same enthusiasm my dog does.
I planned to take Sam out pheasant hunting one bright fall morning. Unfortunately for him, I am not so big on getting up at 5:00 AM to hunt eastern pheasants. Surely there are some pheasants out there that don’t want to wake up so early either, so maybe by the time they get up and start moving around, I will be there. And heck, that would be even better anyway. I would rather chase some late rising, lazy birds than bright-eyed, up and at ’em, type A personality birds. As far as Sam goes, he has no preference. They all stink, and that makes him happy.
So it was after 7:30 and a couple of cups of coffee later by the time I got around to leaving. It was cloudy and cold, so I was sort of dragging my feet. Sam was doing happy, tap dance steps. That sort of high-stepping half bounce, half prance that even 10 year old dogs do when they know something is up. He knew last night when I got the gear together that something was up. Usually, I have to coax him up into the truck when we go running in the morning – just too high for his old legs to carry him. Not this morning. He shot up in the truck so fast I thought he was going to go out the back side of the kennel.
He was ready to go, right from the start. We worked through a fairly open field in the beginning. I figured it would let him blow off some steam. He looked like a 2 year old dog…for about 10 minutes. Then I took him down into the high, dense grass in a brushy bottom that is a favorite late day spot for us. It’s really tough going, and a better afternoon spot, so it was unlikely that there would be any birds in there. But what the heck, we were already late, and I thought it would “soften him up” a little further. After that, he was perfect. The best I have seen him hunt in a long, long time. Like back in the days when I would actually spend time working with him. Since I don’t anymore, I had pretty low expectations today. But he was masterful.
It is hard to explain, I guess, to someone who doesn’t hunt with dogs. There is truly something beautiful in watching a good dog work. The way they play the wind, work the scent, unravel the puzzle. But when you take that good dog and watch him (or her) work with someone….that is poetry. The dog is an extension of the hunter, and the hunter is perhaps an extension of the dog as well. Sam had it all going today. I watched him puzzle a scent, then swing out wide ahead to cut it off and work back toward me. He made frequent eye contact. His quartering was impeccable. When I would think to myself, “hmm, that clump was over there looks promising”, Sam would cut out across the open ground, change direction and work over to the cover like some sort of canine Kreskin. Checking back with me, making eye contact, watching my body language. It was lovely, and reminded how in awe of him I was back in the days we hunted Iowa and the west. I bet I maybe blew my whistle for an audible signal 2 or 3 times tops all morning.
Another hour into it, and while I was watching poetry, we had nothing to show for it. No flushes, no birds. I wondered how long he would keep it up. I had been keeping my eye on a nice brushy hedgerow below us. I had a feeling there might be birds in it, and Sam had headed over to it more than once, then reading my body language headed back up towards me. We finally got around to that last hedgerow and Sam did get “birdy” and finally flushed out a nice, cackling, rooster. Unfortunately, it flushed out the opposite side of the hedgerow. By the time it swung back over to my side, the bird was out of range. Safe. But I felt better that at least Sam got a nice nose full of pheasant. However, he wasn’t done. He continued working the heavy brush in the hedgerow and a bit later he flushed a cock bird out right to me. I was surprised that when the bird hit the ground I still didn’t see Sam. The dog kept working, so like a well-trained ‘master’, I moved up a little and waited. A minute or two later he flushed a second bird out. Another shot, another bird down. Sam returned it to me.
Dogs are able to do some fairly complex things when retrieving. I don’t think they can really count, but they definitely know the difference between one and “more than one”. I have put out over a half-dozen “dummies” before, and then threw two or three others while the dog watched. Then I send him after one of the ones I planted. He will fetch them all, but always has somewhere in the back of that doggie mind the memory that he saw me throw a couple, and he won’t relax until he feels they have all been retrieved. So I was little surprised when I “sent” Sam after the first bird and he took a step or two, then looked back at me. I imagine the mental dialogue went something like this:
Sam: “Huh? I just gave you the bird”
Me: “Sam, fetch it up!”
Sam: ” Fetch what up? I already gave it to you. Maybe the cat is right.”
Me: “Sam? Sam. Come.
Sam: “For cryin’ out loud make up your mind. Fetch or come, which is it?”
Me (after lining him up with my hand in preparation for a blind retrieve): “Sam, fetch it up!”
Sam: “uh. Ok”
Sam goes about 12 feet. There is the bird. He stops. Looks at it. Looks at me. Slow tail wag. Looks back at the bird.
Sam: “Really? Are you kidding me? You couldn’t have taken 4 more steps and just picked it up? And now you are standing there with your hand out?”
Me: “Lets go, fetch it up”
Sam, picking up the bird: “This beloved Master shit is over rated”
Sam stops and sits just out of reach.
Me, leaning forward a little more: “Come”
Sam, thinking of how the cat said I am going to stuff the dog just like all those other dead animals, turns his head away. “Come on, you can take a step you lazy bastard”
Me: Sam Come!”
Sam, leaning forward to push the bird in my hand but refusing to take another step: ‘”There”
Me, taking the bird and kneeling down to pet him and scratch behind the ear: “Good boy, Sam. Nice work, what a good buddy. Want to find more?”
Sam, forgetting all about the deceitful cat, wags his tail furiously, “You are my master and I love you”.
He still doesn’t know how old he is, and was trying hard to keep the motor running, high-stepping and prancing (with a limp) all the way back to the truck. People are surprised that he is 10+ and usually think he is in pretty good condition. I remember when he was 3 and 4 years old though, and I can see the difference. Heck the poor dog is lucky if he gets to run 50 feet a day. I think his nose is a little blocked on the inside, and he had 3 or 4 good size lumps showing up on his ribs. I had to get him out of the truck when we arrived at the house, and he is walking pretty slow right now. He is stiff and sore and tired. But, typical Sam, he is keeping an eye on me. If I get up, he gets up. You know, since we went out this morning, it could be we are going to do something good together. And all stiff and gimped up, he would try to make it back out to go again if I would take him.
So the evening ended nicely. A tired dog, a fire, gun leaning on the fireplace, the smell of gun oil and leather, and a nice tumbler of Irish Whiskey. Life really doesn’t get much better than that. Sam, by the way agrees.
Anna captures the real essence of the day far better. “Tonight”, she wrote, “I imagine Sam sleeping, nose twitching, paws outstretched, as he re-works scent and re-covers the ground. Even in his sleep, he fixes upon his master’s eye and discerns the intent behind the eye. He knows in the same way that he breathes without hesitation. Sam, master of his dreams, now dreams the hunter.”