Ask a man why he hunts with a dog, and you’ll get a hundred different answers. Heck, you may as well ask the cowboy who still works from horseback why he doesn’t just use an ATV instead. If you even have to ask the question, you won’t understand the answer.
A sturdy fellow wearing blaze orange nylon and Cordura, wielding a Benelli Black Eagle, follows a brace of pointers through a Georgia cutover. Is he so different in spirit than an earlier visage wearing leather and waxed cotton, bearing a vintage Parker double? The dogs certainly look the same.
Same goes for the man whose memories of the perfect coon hunt are inextricably tied to the music of bluetick hounds in moonlit hardwood bottoms. The music is the same as his grandfather loved, even though the lantern he uses these days is powered by batteries rather than kerosene.
A pair of old men crunch snow underfoot as a Springer spaniel quarters the Iowa cornfield before them. Nowadays, the sky above is hatched with far more jet contrails than the sky of their youth, but the hot scent of pheasant in the Springer’s nose drives him onward, just as it did his distant grandsires, so many years ago.
A man stands in flooded Arkansas timber, warm in his neoprene waders, blowing an acrylic call over a spread of molded plastic decoys, and you might ask him how he honors the spirit of his grandfather, who leaned against the same pin oak, infinitely colder yet nonetheless just as content, blowing a wooden call and hunting over hand-carved cypress blocks.
The common thread that links them all through the generations is the dog; more companion than servant, more trusted friend than conservation tool. I suppose the best definition is familiar, an attendant spirit that treasures the hunt as we do, unencumbered by the need to cheapen the experience with speech. A single whine from your dog can fill a heart with fonder memories than an hour’s worth of idle chitchat.
And now I’ve got a new dog, one whose mutual memory vault is still empty save for one spectacular retrieve. And that one was a retrieve I shouldn’t have even let her attempt, expecting too much because I was measuring her by another dog’s yardstick.
Still, she handled it with aplomb. Better even, if I am to be honest, than Jazz. I have to remind myself that the biggest fault of my new dog is simply that she isn’t my old dog.
On her first day, Sprite made a spectacular retrieve I had no business even letting her attempt. I let her try because I was remembering another retrieve, on another day years before, with another dog.
I was hunting with my buddy Mike, and we’d cut three mallards from a group of about twenty. The fourth bird, a heart-shot drake, locked his wings and sailed for an eternity, finally crashing into a layout field over four hundred yards away. Neither dog had marked the fall, and Mike’s dog couldn’t do blind retrieves. For him, Mike carried a bag of marbles to throw in case Gunner ever failed to mark a fall.
It was with Mike egging me on that I stepped out of the blind and called Jazz to me. I lined her up, cast her, and watched as she swam straight as an arrow and disappeared over the levee. I watched the tall grass for a few more moments, shrugged, and stepped back down into the blind.
“Aren’t you gonna handle your dog?” Mike asked.
“Can’t handle a dog you can’t see,” I shrugged nonchalantly. “I got her close enough. The rest is up to her,” I smiled with more bravado than I felt.
Five minutes later, Jazz reappeared over the levee, two hundred yards east of where she went in. She had a duck in her mouth, and I smiled benignly at Mike as she swam back to the blind as if to say, “How could you ever doubt?”
As she approached the blind, we both realized that the duck Jazz carried wasn’t a mallard drake, but a hen. Mike chuckled appreciatively, “Found another cripple. Well, you gotta give her credit for coming back with something, even if it’s not the bird you sent her for.”
Only, the hen wasn’t crippled. Other than a few ruffled feathers and a generous helping of dog slobber, she was unmarked. I wrung the hen’s neck and tossed her to Mike.
“Not crippled,” I smirked. “Pluck her if you want to, but there’s not a pellet in that bird. Some hunters, like yourself, hunt with a blind pig that occasionally finds an acorn. Others, like moi, are lucky enough to hunt with a dog like Jazz, who will not only retrieve every bird I shoot, but also the occasional bird that I didn’t shoot.”
It’s been a slow morning so far, and unseasonably warm. Rather than go back to camp, I instead choose an early lunch followed by a brief nap in the blind. Sprite, apparently resigned to the fact that no birds are flying, abandons her “all business” attitude and pokes her head over the interior wall of the blind, staring longingly at my lunch. She follows every single Vienna sausage from can to mouth, every crunching bite of cracker, every chunk of sharp cheddar cheese on its path from the wrapper to my lips, following the food like a tennis fan watching a volley, interspersed with dramatic sighs and staring at me with pitiful, put-upon puppy dog eyes.
Okay, that’s at least worth a Vienna sausage. Maybe a cracker, too.
As usual, she regards the proffered sausage impassively for a moment, and then snaps it neatly from my fingers in a blindingly fast move. Scarcely a gulp, and it’s as if the sausage had never existed. She licks her chops briefly, and then shifts fully into Mooch Mode.
Chuckling, I carve her several inches of salami and a large chunk of cheese, and toss them into her dog box. Much slurping and smacking ensues as I remove my jacket and roll it up for a pillow. I stretch out on the bench seat, pull my cap down over my eyes, and close my eyes…
… only to be gripped with a feeling of unerring certainty that something is watching me. I crack one eye and turn my head to see Sprite regarding me sleepily, eyes at half-mast and muzzle propped on the interior wall of the blind.
Oh, what the hell. Won’t be the first time I smelled like wet dog.
I open the door between the dog box and the blind. Sprite jumps down readily, noses around a bit, and until she is stopped with a sharp rebuke, tries to mouth the single duck we’ve killed this morning – an unlucky drake widgeon who dive-bombed us just after daybreak.
Guiltily, she drops the duck and hops onto the bench seat, rudely burrowing between me and the back wall of the blind. She roots around a bit, unconcerned that I was already comfortable just where I was. After a bit of rooting, she yawns contentedly, rests her muzzle on my thigh, and drifts off to dream of slow mailmen and fraidy cats.
With her ass parked directly under my arm, and her tail draped across my face, natch.
Grumbling good-naturedly, I reposition my pillow, tuck Sprite’s tail alongside her body, and pull my cap back over my face. I sigh in satisfaction, close my eyes and drift off to my own dreams of skies filled with birds and black dogs with perfect water entries.
The teal break over the blind without warning, the rush of air over a hundred pair of wings roaring like a jet engine, startling us both from our slumber. I sit up quickly, just in time to catch the entire flocking wheeling out front, fifty birds turning in unison as if controlled by one mind. They sweep back over the blind as I throw the flaps, and I pick up an approaching drake, put the bead on his chest as I pull the trigger and…
… hit absolutely nothing. The entire flock rockets skyward at the bark of my shotgun, and I rush my second shot, once again peppering an empty section of sky with #4 steel shot. Willing myself to take my time, I pick out a climbing drake, swing through until my barrel blots out the bird, pull…
… and tumble the drake cleanly, along with the hen right next to him. The drake plummets back to earth like a dead thing, while the hen spirals down more slowly, one wing broken. Both birds land barely twenty feet in front of the blind.
Came out of that one smelling like a rose. That was some piss-poor shooting, Kelly.
I turn to see Sprite standing on the bench seat, front feet planted on the front lip of the blind, craning her neck to see. I send her for the retrieve, and she effortlessly launches herself from the blind. Three splashing lunges later, she turns back to the blind with the drake. As she steps out of the water, she looks longingly back over her shoulder at the hen, floating on her back just a few steps away.
Marked ‘em both, I muse approvingly.
“Sit,” I command firmly before I take the drake, mainly because I know that as soon as I do, she’ll go for the hen. I’d like her to wait, calm down a little bit before she does. As I predicted, as soon as she spits out the drake, her head turns and locks onto the hen, ears cocked expectantly. She whines softly.
“Siiiiiit,” I remind her softly, running a gentle hand down her back. When I feel the tension drain from her frame, I send her. She hits the water in a long, graceful leap, landing nearly atop the hen.
Without being told, she climbs back down into the dog box, sits and faces front, waiting for me to take the bird. I chuckle appreciatively and try to scratch her behind the ears, but she pulls away, ignoring me as she scans the sky out front.
Apparently, nap time is over.
Just before eleven o’clock, I am alerted by the distinctive trill of pintails overheard. I sit up and scan the sky carefully, finally picking out a group of four, behind the blind and quartering northeast to southwest. I take a deep breath, and cut loose with a long, windy hail call. It’s not quite up to contest calling standards, but contest callers rarely sound like real ducks, either.
My long and loud hello manages to accomplish what I wanted, however, which is to get their attention. They don’t drop altitude, but they do change course, turning directly over the blind. I let them swing past, and as they turn downwind, I hit them again, this time with short, staccato notes interspersed with pintail-like trills on my dog whistle.
They lock their wings and turn back, as surely as if I had them on a string.
I remain silent as they approach, watching them as they cup their wings and glide, slipping from side to side to lose altitude. They’re going to be a bit high on the first pass, but I’m not making the same mistake I made opening morning. The first pass might be the best one I get.
They’re still looking things over, crossing left to right as I stand up, shoulder my 870 and pick up the rearmost bird of the four, a drake. I swing well ahead of him and pull, and he crumples. I run the slide and pick up the second bird in the stack, now belly-on to me and flapping madly for altitude. I shoot again, see the bird hesitate, and shoot a third time.
She – a hen, dammit! – hits the water a full second after the first bird, on the far right side of the decoy spread. I steal a glance at Sprite, and she’s locked on the second bird. I send her, and as she swims an unerring track straight for it, I climb out of the blind and stand there on the levee, reloading my shotgun.
When Sprite emerges from the water, I call her to heel, make her sit, and take the hen pintail from her. I toss the bird onto the roof of the blind behind me, and turn my attention back to my dog, intending to give her a line to the first bird.
I needn’t have bothered. Sprite is leaning forward eagerly, trembling as she eyes the drake flapping spasmodically in the middle of the decoys. I don’t even bother to put my hand down.
“Sprite!” I bark, and she launches herself in a graceful leap. She emerges from the splash swimming strongly, closing on the drake pintail rapidly. When she gets within ten feet, the bird flips over and dives beneath the surface.
Heh. Let’s see if she learned anything from the first diver she went after.
Sprite pulls up and treads water briefly, and the bird pops up again, ten feet further away. Sprite surges forward, her shoulders rising out of the water as she kicks her swimming into high gear. The bird dives again when she is barely three feet away.
And Sprite follows it down.
Huh? Did she just dive underwater after that bird?
Dumfounded, I scan the surface of the flooded rice field. For ten seconds, perhaps fifteen, there is no sign of duck nor dog, then finally Sprite pops up a full thirty feet from where I saw her last, holding the pintail by the feet.
I shout happily and blow the comeback whistle, clapping my hands encouragingly and heaping praise on her as she swims back with the wounded duck. I confess that, in between exhortations of “Good dog!” there may have been a few variations of “HolyfuckingshitIcan’tbelieveyoudidthat!”as well.
But hey, the tone was praising, and that’s what counts.
Sprite comes to heel and sits beside me, just as she should, but hasn’t been trained to do. I take the bird from her and cuff her gently on the head, growling playfully, “Thassa helluva dog there, baby!”
Her walk back to the blind after that can only be described as a strut. A proud, cocky, I-am-all-that-and-a-bowl-of kibble strut.
And deservedly so.
After staring at a sky empty of anything save a few scattered clouds, I sigh and check my watch.
One thirty. Time to shut it down and go earn a living.
I pack my gear, put the birds on the strap, and toss them onto the roof of the blind. I toss my blind bag onto the roof as well, and lay my 870 there behind it. I have one foot on the ground and one foot still on the top rung of the ladder when I hear the whistle of wings overheard, very close.
I freeze, doing my best to imitate a very large and non-threatening clump of grass, as I cast my eyes this way and that, searching for the bird. I find him out front, a lone mallard drake, and he’s looking hard at the decoys. I needn’t even call.
I slowly stretch out my hand for my shotgun and drag it to me, check the chamber, and wait for the drake to commit. At twenty yards, he cups his wings and whiffles in, and I stand and shoulder my 870. He’s right there in front of me, feet out and committed to land; fat, dumb and happy. An easy shot.
Naturally, I miss him with all three shells.
As I watch him wing out of range, I sigh and pick up my duck strap, still one bird shy of a limit. Sprite stares at me reproachfully.
“Don’t say a word,” I say warningly. “Not one fucking word.”
Back home that afternoon, I can hear Jazz whining on the other side of the door before I even turn the knob. As I open the door, she rushes past me, already dribbling urine as she squats in the grass just past the doorstep. I unload my truck as she and Sprite romp in the yard for a few minutes, and then open the door and call them back inside. Just inside the door, there are several small puddles of urine, and half a dozen little piles of poop, all clustered right in front of the door.
Damn, she crapped the floor. How long has it been since she did that?
Jazz skulks past me guiltily, ears plastered to her skull, and huddles in the corner in shame.
“It’s okay, Jazz,” I say softly, reassuringly, as I kneel next to her and scratch beneath her muzzle. “That one was all my fault.”
We’re well into the second half of the season, and Sprite’s hunting savvy is increasing by leaps and bounds. I polished her obedience commands and completed her force-fetching during the two-week split, and I’ve started her on multiple marked retrieves.
There are some trainers who won’t start a dog on multiple marks until the dog first learns hand signals and can perform a rudimentary blind retrieve; the reasoning being that, if a dog gets into trouble on a mark, knowing hand signals gives the trainer some measure of control in guiding the dog to the bird. I used to be one of those trainers.
But Sprite has changed my frame of reference. This dog unerringly marks every fall, no matter how far, and even more amazingly can remember multiples. She can do hand-thrown triples and quads until my arm gives out. She can do a three-hundred-yard double across multiple terrain features in her sleep, and she’s still a few weeks shy of six months old. When it comes to training Sprite, I throw the training book out the window. This dog operates by her own set of rules. She sets her own standards of what is and isn’t possible.
For that matter, Jazz isn’t doing too shabby herself. I take it easy on her these days, taking care not to tax her physically. I make her honor Sprite as she works, in hopes of improving her line manners. The results are mixed; Jazz remains steady, but still twitches and yips and whines like a dog with Tourette’s.
Every day, after I put the last dog up, I run Jazz on one good test. I’ll set up a challenging double or triple, maybe a blind retrieve up the middle between birds, with a good crosswind blowing scent from an old fall. I blow my duck call, shoot blank poppers at the training dummies as they arc into the sky, generally try to give the old girl as close a facsimile of hunting as possible. Every now and then, I shoot a live pigeon for her to close out the day.
Okay, maybe a little more often than every now and then. In the past month, I’ve shot my entire winter’s budget of live pigeons. I’ll have to start baiting my traps again soon, maybe fire off my cannon net at the rail yard, if I can get enough birds on the bait.
But still, Jazz seems more like her old self again. She aces most of the scenarios I can cook up, and if I could ignore her withered hips and that ugly hitch in her stride, I can almost convince myself that she’s as good as she was in her competition days.
Good enough, in fact, that I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps I retired her too soon. The old girl still has some gas left in the tank, obviously. Maybe I’ll take her along this week, let her alternate retrieves with Sprite. Who knows, Jazz might teach the new pup a thing or two.
An arctic cold front is due to arrive this evening, and the weather shaman is predicting daytime high temperatures in the teens for the next week. This morning dawned clear and 38 degrees – cold by Louisiana standards – but barely hinting at the bitter temperatures to come.
Better yet, the brisk wind out of the northeast has brought plenty of new birds with it; fat and lazy mallards, pintails and widgeon willing only to fly just far enough to stay ahead of the freeze line – a line which, with the coming cold front, has already crept down into central Arkansas.
Three of those new birds are already hanging on the strap pegged on the back wall of the blind; three sleek mallard drakes, all cut from the first volley of the morning, all with the brilliant orange bill and legs of newly arrived flight ducks, and all retrieved with panache by Jazz. The clock hasn’t even touched seven o’clock, and I’m already halfway to a limit.
The group of widgeon I’m working suddenly flares over the far end of the field, startled by a group of ATVs motoring down the farm road. The lead ATV slows, then stops next to mine. I watch with growing annoyance as two more Hondas stop, disgorging riders and gear. Six hunters and an unruly chocolate Lab begin trekking down the levee toward the blind.
Damn, looks like I’ll have company this morning.
I wait until they’re close enough to identify, then call out, “There’s plenty of room in the blind, Corey, but I ain’t hunting with that uncontrollable hammerhead of yours. Get someone to go lock him up at the camp.”
Corey’s head snaps up. “Hell, there’s two dog boxes!” he protests.
“And I’ve got a dog – a real dog – in each one of them,” I retort. “I’m serious, I won’t have him ruining my hunt. Get Jed to take that shiteater back to camp.”
The shiteater in question hikes his leg and pees on the roof of the blind, as if to prove my point. Grudgingly, Corey tosses his ATV key to his little brother and orders him to take Magnum back to camp.
“Magnum.” What a fucking name. Why does every male Lab in Louisiana have to be named Drake, Sprig, Gunner, Shooter or Magnum? Might as well name that one Blank, for all the noise he makes without producing any birds.
I scoot to the far left end of the blind to make room as the hunting party piles in. When you hunt as a guest of the man who leases the field, occasionally being forced to endure the owner’s kids and nephews is part of the bargain. Not that I mind much. Of the six regular training clients I have, three of them just stepped into the blind with me. All of them are four years younger than I, all of them with rich, indulgent fathers willing to buy them things like four-wheelers and new pickup trucks and duck leases and the services of a professional retriever trainer.
“They’re tearing ‘em up on Highway 15,” Corey explains. “All the blinds are full, so we came out here.”
“The more, the merrier,” I chuckle. “It’ll give my dogs some extra work, anyway.”
“So this is the new one, huh?” Corey asks, scratching Sprite’s ears. “She any good?”
“Good enough,” I allow. “She’s no Jazz, not yet.”
“So why is she ready to hunt when mine isn’t? They’re littermates, after all.”
“Don’t know what to tell you, Corey. Bess just isn’t as far along as her sister, and probably never will be. Your pup is gonna be a good one, but Sprite’s on another level entirely.”
“Sooooo… since you’re handling her, can I work Jazz today?” Corey asks with a grin.
“Might as well,” I chuckle. “The sooner you get your ass to the other end of the blind, the sooner we can get to killing some birds.”
What the hell. Jazz is experienced enough, she practically handles herself.
Perversely, it only gets colder as the sun climbs higher into the sky. The temperature is plummeting ahead of the cold front, the northern horizon dark with clouds, but the sky overhead is a cloudless blue. The wind is increasingly bitter, and what birds are in the air are looking for a place to land. I’m proud of my calling skills, but on a day like today, they’re unnecessary. Birds would still pile into the decoys if I were blowing a bassoon.
Or for that matter, standing on the levee with my waders around my knees, taking a piss, like Matt is doing at the moment.
“Somebody blow a feeding chuckle while he’s got that teeny little talleywhacker exposed,” I suggest. “What species of duck is partial to eating grubs?”
“None that I want to eat,” Matt retorts, “And I’ll have you know that my – “
Before Matt can defend the size of his wedding tackle, Corey announces urgently, “Mallards out front, locked and sailin’.”
And so they are, a group of close to thirty, so intent on our decoy spread that they’re oblivious to the 16-year-old standing in the open, frantically pulling up his waders. The group passes low over the decoys on their downwind leg, and Corey blows a soft and plaintive “lonely hen” call, “Quaaack. Quaaaaack.”
The call sends a shudder through the group of birds, causing them to roil in the air like a mirage. The lead duck beats its wings once, twice, a third time, gaining altitude, and then abruptly wheels upwind and cups its wings. The rest of the flock follows as if they were welded to her tail feathers. They sideslip on cupped wings, rocking from right to left to spill air from beneath their feathers, dropping lower as they head straight for the opening in the decoy spread, right in front of the blind.
“Doin’ the butt,” Corey announces with a satisfied whisper. He cuts a glance toward me and nods.
“Let’s cut ‘em, boys!” I announce as I stand up and throw open the flaps. The air is rent with the thunder of guns, and birds start raining from the sky. I pick up a greenhead with his feet out, barely three feet off the water, and roll him over backwards. My second shot splashes another drake as the remaining ducks claw for altitude, and I throw a third useless shot at another drake as they climb out of range. I count the ducks on the water.
Seven. That’s thirty-eight birds by ten o’clock. Not a bad morning at all.
“One more volley like that, and we’ll have our limits,” I announce with satisfaction.
“Kelly, can I handle your dog?” Matt asks plaintively, still standing outside the blind. Not smart enough to bring his gun with him when he stepped out of the blind, he was relegated to unwilling spectator during the volley.
I squint up at him speculatively for a few moments. “Rule #1 of dog handling, Matt,” I shake my head. “First, you have to be smarter than the dog.”
I climb out onto the levee and call Sprite to heel. She has picked up seventeen birds this morning with nary a misstep. None of the retrieves have been particularly challenging, but… hell, the dog marks like a robot. Three, five, six birds on the water, doesn’t matter. I just call her to heel, take the birds from her, and watch her ears come up as she locks onto the next one. She’s an automaton. The dog is all business in the duck blind, showing no trace of the playful, harem-scarem puppy she is at home. In less time than it takes to describe, we’re back in the blind, all birds safely in hand.
By contrast, Jazz is leaning her head over the interior wall of the blind, mooching a scratch from Corey every chance she gets. She’s acquitted herself well today, handling with precision on a couple of tough blinds. What few mistakes she has made can be fairly blamed on the inexperience of her handler, a 16-year-old kid whose sole dog handling experience consists of yelling at a hammer-headed chocolate Lab of questionable ancestry.
At a quarter to eleven, we have forty ducks in the bag – two birds shy of a limit. After much debating and not a little name-calling among my hunting companions, the decision is made to let Matt, the least experienced hunter in the blind, call and shoot the next volley alone.
Despite their youth, these kids are seasoned hunters, having accompanied their fathers to the rice fields and flooded timber since they were old enough to swing a shotgun. Every one of them is an accomplished caller, and every one of them has at least one duck band adorning his call lanyard.
Every one, that is, except Matt. Last week, Corey tells me, he and Matt doubled up on a banded pintail, and Matt lost the coin flip for it. Right now, he’s suffering from a raging case of duck band envy.
Five minutes later, Matt gets his chance with a group of four gadwall following the irrigation canal due east of our blind. Matt gives them a seven-note highball, and they turn and follow the levee, straight toward the blind. They’re going to fly directly overhead, tall but shootable, and l lay a hand on Matt’s shoulder and whisper to him to let them make another pass.
“Be patient,” I whisper. “Let ‘em swing downwind, then hit ‘em with a comeback call. The way they’re working today, you can light these in the decoys if you want.”
But inexperience and anticipation get the better of him, and he throws the flaps as they pass directly overhead. I shake my head as the birds flare, still on the ragged edge of shooting range. Still, Matt manages to fold one cleanly that hits the levee with a solid thump a hundred yards away, and scratches down a second bird that lands in the water behind the blind, still very much alive.
With a raised eyebrow, Corey inclines his head toward Jazz. I nod my permission, and he sends her for the bird that landed on the levee. I meet her outside the blind as she returns with the drake gadwall, taking the bird from her and tossing it to Matt. I line her up on the second duck, a hen, and her ears come up as she sees the bird. Just as she always does, she begins to tremble
Heh. You may have slowed down a little, but you’re still dynamite.
“Jazz!” I bark, and she hits the water with a mighty splash. It’s not the clean and graceful water entry of her youth, not with her withered hips and weakened back legs, but still full of enthusiasm. She swims strongly for the bird, whining in her excitement. The hen gadwall, sensing her approach, starts to swim away. As Jazz draws closer, the hen flaps its wings to get away. Whatever her wounds may be, she is unable to become airborne, but still fast enough to stay just out of Jazz’s reach.
Jazz yips in frustration. I watch patiently as she doggedly pursues the bird, driven into a frenzy by flapping feathers just out of reach. If the bird would only turn toward the levee, get into shallower water, Jazz might gain an edge.
But the hen never does, and Jazz won’t give up. I can see her tiring, see her lagging ever further behind, still close enough to drive the bird onward, but steadily losing ground. I blow a stop whistle, hoping to halt Jazz long enough to open a gap between them wide enough that I can administer a coup de grace without hitting my dog.
Jazz ignores the whistle.
I grind my teeth on the whistle, count slowly to ten, and blow it again. Jazz ignores me again. There is a bird there, not ten feet in front of her, and damned if she will let anyone call her off.
“SIT!” I bellow, and Jazz swims onward, as if she had never heard me. I curse under my breath, and trill a come-in whistle, backing it up with a verbal command.
“Here!” I yell angrily. “Jazz, HERE!”
She yips in frustration, and swims after the bird as if I hadn’t screamed a word.
There is a simple principle in dog training that states, never give a command you are not immediately prepared to enforce. The corollary to that is, do not continue to give a command you know will be ignored. And so, livid and embarrassed, I wade out into the field to collect my dog. By the time I get close enough to Jazz to break her feather-induced trance, the gadwall hen is long gone, having dove under at some point and never come up.
I step in front of Jazz, spit “Heel,” through clenched teeth, and grab her by the collar as she swims close. I tow her ignominiously back to the levee toward my friends and training clients, cursing under my breath the whole while. Jazz is so exhausted that she stumbles when she emerges from the water, her legs barely able to support her weight. Her breathing is ragged and hoarse, and she collapses there, totally whipped.
Jazz has never looked so old and frail, and my anger at her wanes, replaced first with concern for my dog, fading quickly into anger at myself for ever putting her in the position to fail, for daring to ask of her all that she was willing to give. If I had not gone out there and fetched her, she’d have chased that duck until her head sank below the surface forever.
Everyone watches in uncomfortable silence as we stand there on the levee, wobbly and out of breath. Matt is the first to speak.
“Still one bird shy of a limit,” he grouses. “Y’all shoulda sent the younger dog.”
Only a supreme act of will keeps me from committing assault upon a minor.
Jazz lies like a dead thing on the floor of my truck for the ride home. Sprite, for her part, nuzzles her companion briefly, and then settles on the seat where she can watch us both, eyes drifting from one to the other warily.
One of my strong suits as a trainer is that I have always been able to read dogs well. Nuances of expression, subtle inflections of body language speak to me as plainly as words. I can tell that Sprite is confused and anxious.
She is confused and anxious because the price for me being able to read dogs well is that my best dogs, the ones with which I have the strongest rapport, can read me well, too. And right now, guilt and anger envelop me in a roiling black cloud.
She doesn’t know from where the anger comes, and for all she knows, it may be directed at her. Truth be told, some of it probably is. I’m angry at myself, angry at Jazz, and angry at Sprite.
I’m angry at Sprite simply because, on this day, she was better than Jazz, and the irrationality of that anger only compounds my guilt. I swore to myself that I’d never set my dogs in competition with one another, swore that I wouldn’t judge Sprite by an unreachable standard set by Jazz… and today I did just that. Sprite proved to be the better dog, and I nearly killed Jazz trying to prove otherwise.
I drive home in a funk, all details of the drive lost in a fog of self-recrimination. A chorus of barking greets me as I pull into the yard, and Sprite bolts from the truck as soon as I open the door, apparently none the worse for wear for the day’s exertions. Jazz lifts her head and watches her kennel mate prance around the yard, but makes no move to exit the truck.
“Come on, Jazz,” I try quietly, more plea than command. I take her collar and tug gently, and with visible effort and a painful whine, she rises to her feet. She stands there silently, staring at the two feet from floorboard to ground level.
It might as well be the Grand Canyon.
I gently pick her up, carry her inside and sit her down. She stands there unsteadily for a moment, then limps over to the bed and waits, looking back expectantly. Obediently, I lift her onto the bed and she collapses there, head resting on my pillow. I stand in the doorway and watch her for a few more moments, then quietly shut the door behind me.
Five hours later, dogs worked and fed, I finish hosing down the kennels by floodlight and wearily trudge back inside. Jazz hasn’t moved, still lying there snoring peacefully. It’s barely six o’clock and I haven’t eaten, but suddenly I am bone-weary, unable and unwilling to even contemplate supper.
I turn off the lights, kick my clothes into the corner and crawl into bed, taking care to let sleeping dogs lie. I lay my head on the pillow next to Jazz and close my eyes as Sprite curls up behind me, and with one arm draped protectively across the old dog and the new one breathing warm puppy breath against the back of my neck, I drift off and let dreams take me.
Two hours later I am awakened by Sprite’s urgent barking and a warm flood of urine spreading across the bed.
Jazz is having a seizure.
Every wolf pack has its hierarchy, but the pecking order is rarely linear. Terms like Alpha dog have less meaning in packs consisting of multiple familial groups, and in terms of retriever training strings like mine, aren’t valid anyway.
I’m more parent than Alpha dog, which is the way most canine familial groups really operate. The dominant animals are always the parents, and younger offspring subservient, until one challenges a parent for pack dominance, or breaks off to start a familial group of his own.
One of the things my brother taught me is that dog training is a lot like parenting; you set limits of acceptable behavior, and stick to them. Raise your dogs like you’d raise your kids – with love and support always, discipline when necessary, and above all, strict boundaries – and generally you’ll be successful.
Still, many parents have a favored child, and if you think the rest of the kids in the house aren’t wise to that fact, you’re kidding yourself. My training string was no different. Jazz was the favored child, and if any dog ever doubted that, she was always willing to show them why. She’d have been a dominant dog in any pack.
I say was, because lately she has been supplanted as the top dog, if not in my eyes, at least to the rest of the pack. Sprite holds that position now.
I’d seen it coming, and unconsciously tried to delay the inevitable. I never took Jazz hunting again, never threw her another pigeon, ceased training her altogether. If she never attempted another retrieve, never ran the same tests as the other dogs, then she could never lose. And I couldn’t bear the thought of Jazz losing to lesser dogs.
The vet told me she was as fit as one could hope, considering the injury she’d overcome. As for the cause of the seizure, that was anyone’s guess. “Most likely stems from her cord injury,” Steve shrugged, “in which case it will probably happen more frequently as she gets older. By all rights, Kelly, she shouldn’t have lived to be ten years old as it is.”
“Any way to control the seizures?” I asked.
“Let’s wait and see,” he advised. “If it happens again, there are drugs we can try. But it’s time you retired her, Kelly. She’s earned her rest.”
“I know that, Steve,” I sighed. “Believe me, she’ll be a house dog from now on.”
“I didn’t say that,” he chided. “You know, I’ve known this dog since you were a kid. For her not to fetch something now and then, well, you may as well just put her down now.”
“Happy bumpers only, then,” I decided. “Nothing physically taxing, just fun retrieves.”
“You need to start thinking about that, you know,” he reminded me gently. “She’s never going to be the dog she was. She’s not even close to the dog she was last year. If she injures herself again, or these seizures become chronic – “
“- and I can spend a ton of money, and only marginally lessen her suffering,” I finish with a weary sigh. “I know, Steve. I’m just not ready for that now.”
And happy bumpers were all she got, free-for-all, fun retrieves with the rest of the training string, retrieves that Jazz could still make through sheer dominance and determination. She was noticeably slower than the other dogs, but even if she was always the last to reach the dummy, she was always the one to come back with it – even if it took a snarl and a show of teeth to get it from the other dog.
Until today, when she tried to take a bumper from Sprite, and Sprite fought back.
“Hey bro, it’s me.”
“What’s up?” asks the voice on the other end, a voice so much like mine, yet guarded and wary. Cold, even. It’s not a voice I recognize any more.
“It’s… it’s Jazz,” I begin, hating myself for the catch in my voice. “It’s time, Terry.”
There is a long pause, then finally a short, clipped, “Time for what?”
“We have to put her down, man,” I answer, and saying the words opens the floodgates of grief. “She’s in bad shape, Terry,” I sob. “I can’t watch her like this any longer. She’s had one seizure after another tonight. She’s having another right now.”
“How long has she been having seizures?” he wants to know.
“She had one back in January. Didn’t have another one until a couple of months ago, and since then they’ve gotten more frequent.”
“We can get her on Phenobarbital. I can call Steve and – “
“She’s already on Phenobarb,” I cut him off. “Started her on it after her second seizure, a couple of months ago. It ain’t working any more, Terry. We have to do something.”
A long pause, and then a choked, plaintive, “Okay. Will you… you’ll call Steve?”
“I’ll call Steve,” I assure him. “Do you want to be there when…”
But I realize I’m talking to dead air. Terry has hung up.
Steve is waiting at his office when I arrive. Mercifully, the seizures have abated briefly during the drive to his office, but as I carry her inside and lay her gently on the stainless steel examining table, they begin anew. I blink the tears from my eyes and lay a steadying hand on her shoulder as she convulses, hoping against all reason that she is aware that I am at her side.
Steve probes a foreleg for a likely vein, and with an ease borne of long practice, slips an IV catheter into her leg and tapes it in place. “You want a minute before – “ he starts to ask.
“Just do it, Steve,” I order, more sharply than I intended. Steve nods solemnly and injects a large IV dose of Phenobarbital, the very drug we’ve been using to stave off this day. Within seconds, I feel Jazz’s body go slack, and her eyes close. I lay my head on her neck and cry brokenly, silently asking Jazz for forgiveness, and thanking God for a dog I never deserved.
After a few minutes, Steve clears his throat uncertainly, breaking the silence.
“I’m trying to remember,” I sigh, “what it was like when she was strong, when she’d do stuff that amazed everyone. I can’t remember it, Steve. Why is that?”
“I remember what she was like,” Steve smiled, “every time you brought her in here. You remember what I used to calm her down, get her to hold still?”
“A spoonful of Jiffy peanut butter,” I grinned. “Only dog I ever saw that liked going to the vet.”
“Stitched up her leg that time, no anesthetic,” he chuckled. “You remember that? When you kept her distracted with the peanut butter while I worked on her?”
“Yeah, I remember. Thanks, Steve.”
“She was a once-in-a-lifetime dog, Kelly. Plenty of good stuff you’ll remember, with a little time.”
Steve was right. On the way home, happy memories come flooding back, and they wrap me in a comforting embrace, even as I wrap Jazz in my camo parka and lay her in her grave, beneath a massive oak tree overlooking the bayou behind my kennels.
With Sprite sitting nearby, I lay a training bumper and my duck calls in Jazz’s grave before I shovel the dark, rich earth atop her, and when I am done, I sit with my back against the tree, and my new dog and I watch the bayou roll lazily by until we doze off in the oppressive heat of an August Louisiana afternoon.
A shadow falls across my face, and I open my eyes to see Terry looming over me. He sits down heavily beside me, saying nothing as he stares at the water. After a moment, he hands me a beer and opens one himself. Sprite lifts her head, and seeing a potential new friend, steps over me to say hello.
“Thanks,” I manage. I don’t know what else to say.
Terry grunts noncommittally, scratching Sprite absently behind her ears. “This your new puppy?” he asks.
“Sprite,” I furnish. “Yeah, that’s her. She’s gonna be a good one.”
“Oh yeah? How’d you come up with the name?”
“After the commercial, you know? ‘I like the Sprite in you’? It fits her personality,” I smile. “Somebody taught me once to pick a unique, one-syllable name that fits the dog’s personality.”
“Heh, good choice. Can she mark?”
“Like a machine,” I confirm. “Better than Jazz, even. Better line manners, too.”
“That wouldn’t be hard,” Terry chuckled. “Jazz never could hold still.”
“Look Terry, I’m sorry that – “
“Not your fault, man,” he cuts me off. “Not your fault at all. I just couldn’t bear watching her after… you know. All I could think of was what she could have been. I couldn’t train any more. She was the only thing I enjoyed about it, had been for years. I just wanted to turn my back on all of that.”
Turned your back on me, too, I thought but didn’t say.
“Well, I’m not tired of it, Terry. I’m good at it, too.”
“You’re good at anything you put your mind to, Kelly,” he sighed, “but this is a waste of your gifts. I hoped you’d figure that out. You’ll never compete with Danny Farmer, and a dog like Jazz comes along only once in a lifetime.”
“I’m not going to fight with you, Terry.” I sigh. “And you’re wrong. I think I may have another one of those once-in-a-lifetime dogs in Sprite. I want to find out. When it’s not fun any longer, believe me, I’ll get out.”
“I love you, bro,” he says resignedly as he drains his beer and gets to his feet, “but you’re fucking up.” He sets the rest of the six pack on the ground next to me, and turns to walk away.
“Goodbye, Terry,” I say flatly, and turn my attention back to the water. “Thanks for letting me keep your dog for so long.”
Terry stops, looks back over his shoulder. “She was your dog, too,” he says softly. “Take care of yourself, brother.”
One chapter ends, and a new chapter begins.
As I sit here in a hotel room in Lake Charles, Louisiana, I am reminded of that fact. It is the eve of the fall hunting retriever test conducted by the local retriever club, and if all goes well tomorrow, Sprite will earn her Hunting Retriever Championship.
Ten years ago, at this very hotel, after a field trial hosted by the very same club, a thirteen-year-old kid threw a stuffed carrot for a hyperactive, harem-scarem Lab puppy until his older brother had to threaten them both with bodily harm to get them to knock it off and go to sleep.
The older brother, a pro trainer struggling to build a reputation with an old dog well past her prime, had placed all his faith, and a considerable amount of his money, in the new puppy currently tussling on the bed with his kid brother.
Unless I am mistaken, the room we’re in now is only a couple of doors down from the room we were in back then. There is a certain symmetry in that, I think. Tomorrow, another dog will take a big step toward fulfilling her promise.
But if Sprite and I get the champagne bath tomorrow afternoon, my first sip will be in memory of another dog, one who was a champion in my eyes if in no one else’s.
One chapter ends, and another one begins.