I was too young to actually remember it, but every time my dad tells the story of the last hunt with his beloved black Labrador retriever, River, I am instantly transported to that early fall morning so many years ago. I can smell the first breaths of the new day’s breeze, feel the dampness of the morning’s almost forgotten frost, and hear the delicate coos of the morning doves. My dad awoke early, pulled on his weathered leather boots, and packed his day-sack with 12 gauge shot gun shells, Hot Tamale candies, and water. River’s interest was perked when he laced up his boots. As soon as he lifted the wooden stock 20 gauge from the closet her focus shifted from interest to obsession. As she did on every pheasant hunting trip for the previous 10 years, River impatiently lay in the passenger’s seat of the old 1970’s Ford pickup truck. She gently placed her head on my dad’s lap and whimpered and whined with growing force as they headed towards her favorite pheasant spot. As the site drew near, her whimpers and whines metamorphosed into near screams. The dog loved pheasant hunting with a passion.
My dad pulled off the road and into the tall reeds, killing the engine and climbing out to get his gun from behind the seat. River remained seated. Her screams had quieted. Upon opening the passenger side door, River slowly wobbled to a standing position, and then against the offerings for assistance, jumped from the seat and landed feebly in the dirt. Her legs slightly buckled and she struggled to maintain her balance. However, after a quick shake from ears to tail, she brushed aside her age and pushed out into the thick reeds in search of birds.
My dad slowly followed behind as River struggled to traverse the damp and stubborn foliage. Many times he attempted to call her back, and each time he was unsuccessful. She continued on until she was so exhausted her tail was dragging and her back legs were limping. He tried again to call her back, and was unsuccessful again. Finally, after about an hour she jumped a rooster. The rooster emerged from dark, dense brush with ferociously flapping wings and loud squawks. My dad fired a single shot, but was too late and missed. The bird coasted above the reeds until he disappeared from sight.
River had laid down in the dirt at the site where she had jumped the rooster. She was panting, her tongue hanging long and heavy. Her eyes were exhausted, but he said there was just a hint of a smile in them. She couldn’t get up to walk anymore. He had to carry her back to the truck. It was her final pheasant hunt, she was too old and tired, but it ended in the only way it can for a bird dog: working until you can work no more.
I have only ever owned bird dogs. I can’t say I know how to train them or even teach them simple tasks like retrieving birds. It’s weird, but they have just always kind of known what to do. I am sure if I actually learned how to work with them and taught them how to “be” a bird dog they would be astonishing hunters. But I myself am just an amateur, so we work together. Just because we lack the professional skills and training does not mean we lack the same passion or working drive found in the technically trained.
Bird dogs are a different breed from other dogs. They all have different personalities. Some, like the Labradors, are lovers and goofs. They seek reassurance they are pleasing you, even when they aren’t quite sure how to do so. Some, like Chesapeakes, are stubborn, protective, and extremely loyal. Despite their loyal nature, they do what they want to do, regardless of your desires for them to act otherwise. While they all have differing personalities, they share a very unique and common trait. They are designed for bird hunting.
At a basic level, it is quite easy to spot the bird dog. They seem to spot birds out of nowhere, their ears perking up and eyes sharply focused in search of the slightest movement. They hear every quack, whistle, coo, squawk, crow, and peep. They find pure satisfaction in dropping anything, a ball, a toy, a bird, a dead frog, whatever, at your feet. Their faces say, “Aren’t you pleased? Let’s do it again!” If nothing else, when you are around them you notice “Dang, that dog really likes birds.” It’s just a thing about them.
At a deeper level, the bird dog is much more than simply a lover of birds and retrieval. A bond is created between bird dog and hunter, and it is a unique one. Hunters and bird dogs work together, both for the common goal of finding a bird, and this work must be accomplished without traditional communication. Hand signals, whistles, even glances are the language between hunter and dog. And this language is exclusive to each hunting pair, and is created from hard work, understanding, and consistency. But the key ingredient to this bond is trust. An unbreakable trust is built between hunter and dog.
It is an odd relationship to have with an animal. In a way, it is like a marriage. The relationship’s foundation is composed of this common goal: bird hunting. But like any relationship worth having, it must be fed through hard work, time, and even struggle. And if the bond is built correctly, the payoff is worth the sacrifice.
When I was just 21, my little yellow lab, Ryah, entered my life. We were instantly a good fit. She was independent enough that I could be a flaky twenty-something year old and she would remind me to do things like feed her or let her outside. But she was instantly loving and cuddly. Nothing cures a broken heart or the depression of trials at work like a soft dog head on your lap with a listening ear.
While our bond was nothing short of amazing, Ryah was a bird dog at heart and she needed to exercise that desire. My husband starting taking her out when she was about a year old. He had never pheasant hunted before and Ryah had no idea what she was doing. They were two lost hunters trekking through the reeds of the wetlands, stumbling and tripping the entire way. Their first season was pretty uneventful, but at night after they returned from yet another unsuccessful day, I noticed my puppy was a bit more serious and slowly her place at my feet was inching towards his feet. By the end of the second season, they were bird hunting pros, and my feet were no longer Ryah’s resting place. Her place was now at the feet of my husband. Their bond was unbreakable. Ryah and I still shared a special relationship, but it was more of a caring and supportive one. Their relationship had quickly evolved to a mutual need for one other, with Ryah constantly working to see what was needed of her to help accomplish the goals of the team.
Now Ryah is 13 years old. I know she is too old to hunt, but like my dad’s dog you can’t just tell the old dog they can’t go anymore. And she has yet to have that breakdown point of being so exhausted she can’t walk back to the truck. So, what do you do when that dog is just too old to hunt? I find it is our duty as the owners of a bird dog to pay Ryah back for our her hard work and her commitment to our relationships. So, when that old dog is too old to hunt, take her out anyway. Even if it just means riding in the bed of the truck. Fill her bowl with just a little extra bite of food, she earned it. Let her sit out in the sun on the porch and relax in the hug of a warm day. She spent years silently communicating with us, watching our every movement in order to decipher what her next move should be. Now I am trying to listen a little better, and give that old dog whatever it is she needs.