The Day my Dog walked behind me…

Cattle At Syon Park, Brentford, London.

There once was a young bull and an old bull atop a hill overlooking a meadow full of lovely young cows….

“Come on, Scout!”  Marty was pleading with his geriatric Golden Retriever again.  A day together usually entailed a fast (for an aging golden retriever) start, totally ignoring Marty, or anyone else for that matter, busting the brush willy nilly.  This stage typically consisted of Marty yelling and scolding like a football coach to persuade Scout to stay within 100 yards of us and the other dogs.  Thankfully, Scout’s stamina was what one would expect for an ancient and overweight dog, so this didn’t last long.  This was followed by a “hanging out” stage, closely followed by the stage where Scout would trudge along behind Marty.  At this point, Marty’s football coach scolding would start to transition to more of a pleading father tone.

I often chuckled at the sight of Scout trudging along behind Marty, tongue hanging out and Marty cajoling Scout to at least act like he might be a bird dog.  At that time, I was chasing pheasants behind Jim’s pair of sleek muscular black labs.  Jim was the coordinator who put all these expeditions together back in the day.  He had two, beautiful, well trained labs.  No quit in those two, and they knew how to ferret out the birds, the question was whether you could keep up with them for a full day!

When Sam, our Springer Spaniel, joined the family, he was a 42 pound ball of energy.  He would cover the fields for 3 or 4 days consecutively as a pup without a day’s rest.   Fast forward to the current day.  Sam is not really overweight, but certainly gone are the days where I could go for a 15 mile run and Sam would trot along beside me.  A full day afield is out of the question, 2 or 3 hours at his age is really all he can handle.  In fact I have contemplated whether I should take him at all, since he doesn’t really know when to stop.

“I ain’t as good as I once was.  But I’m as good once as I ever was.”     (Toby Keith, I believe)

I took Sam out this past week.  It started a little warm, around 50 degrees F, and while it was dry, the air had that heavy, oppressive, humid feel to it.  My faithful little spaniel about took the legs out from under me trying to get out the door once he saw the gear coming out.  He hit the field like a bottle rocket, his mind convinced he was way younger than his body actually is.  Mr. Body won out in the end.

He calmed down a little – tired out may be more like it.  We stopped at a little spring and he sprawled out flat in the cool water.  The temperature was climbing and I figured the best course of action was to just loop around back to the vehicle, for his sake.  We had only been going about 45 minutes, but I could tell he was a lot more tired physically than he believed.  Then, over a short 200 yard stretch, he was as good once as he ever Pheasant Hunt -- Xeon & Arson dancing under a ...was.  He worked and flushed a bird to me out of some heavy cover.  He then got on a scent and followed down to a patch heavy grasses, golden rod, blackberry and thistles in a protected bottom.  I lost sight of him and stopped along the edge.  I could see the weeds and brush moving as he worked through in a big arc.  Finally, a nice flush, a cackle and a bird down.  He continued working and flushed two more roosters past me, then worked his way back over to me with a look like, “well boss, where is it?”  I lined him up, gave him a hand signal and he made a beeline into the cover for a precise retrieve back to hand.  Very nice indeed.

Those of you that have hunted behind him will recall how he was as a youngster.  There was no such thing as sitting down and taking a break.  Not any scratching behind the ears, talking over the morning and surveying the fields.  No, indeed.  You could sit if you wanted, but he certainly wasn’t having any part of it.  But on this particular day, Sam plopped down unceremoniously in front of me, panting hard, tongue out.   Sam drained my water bottle while we were resting, without so much as sitting up.   I rearranged everything and put my vest back on, broke down the over and under and slung it over my shoulder.  Looking back at Sam, I asked, “Well, are you coming old man?”  He looked away for a moment as if considering.  Then looked back at me and heaved himself to his feet as if to say, “Fine, I guess if you are really in a hurry.”

With a full game bag, I set out on the easiest route to the vehicle.  I thought I would just let him work whatever he wanted on the way back, and knowing Sam, I figured he would work right back to the truck…every inch.  To my amusement , he fell into step.  Behind me.  I walked about ten yards and started laughing, thinking of Marty and Scout.

“Well, well, am I going to have to start calling you Scout”, I asked?  I swear he hung his head a little, shuffled a little and didn’t even really look me in the eye.  We walked that way all the way back to the vehicle.  Me in front, Sam two steps behind.  His head was up and he would occasionally lift his nose skyward and test the wind, pause a little, and then resume his position behind me.  Not once wandering off to check a patch of cover.   He knew his days work was done.

We started the day looking out over the mist in the fields, certain we could run down there and get a pheasant.

Ultimately, Sam decided he would just walk down there and get them all…

A tired puppy

Disclaimer:  Any semblance of the Marty in this story to any Marty’s real or imagined is purely incidental.  Really.  I’m sorry Marty.

Sam…now dreams the Hunter

The Common Pheasant, the most important bird f...

The Common Pheasant, the most important bird for many gamekeepers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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:

Me:  “Sam!”
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.

Sam dreams the hunter

Sam dreams the hunter

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.”