They come as little fur balls, bleary of eye, with no coordination, puppy fuzz and sweet innocence. They are a blank slate, aware only of the need to eat and sleep. They aren't a part of you yet, not yet . . .
Maybe they're a Christmas gift. The first one was. He was my gift to me and I never chose better. He was a stocky Brittany pup, as wide as he was long, stub of nose, freckled, and, when he wasn't splayed out on the softest surface he could find, filled with aggressiveness that manifested itself by attacking my hand with thin, fierce growls and needle teeth.
I called him Britt. Never let it be said that I lacked imagination. We went through one season together and there were the usual misunderstandings, the usual harsh words from me, contrition from him. He hadn't been quail hunting for 30 years, yet I expected him to know as much as I did.
More, in fact--I expected him to find quail with his nose, and I can't do that.
Then came a sunshot mid-November day in a northwest Missouri corn-stubble field when he leaned into a point at a patch of foxtail. A rooster pheasant came up, speaking Oriental calumny, and I somersaulted him over a barbed wire fence. Britt galloped under the fence, pounced on the big bird, and, after a bit of jockeying to get wings, legs, and body sorted out, brought it to me.
You might think that he held his head high because he was trying to keep from tripping over the dangling bird, but I think it was because he was enormously proud of what he had done. I know I was. On the long road home that night, he leaned against me and I worked burrs out of his ears with one hand and spoke my love to him.
Britt was hit by a car one night after I let him out for a brief run that turned into an awful eternity.
Chip was related to Britt in a way that can only happen in the dog kingdom . . . Chip and Britt shared a father and chip's mother was Britt's mother's mother.
Chip was a leggy youngster who was kennel-bound. Almost a year old, he'd spent his life in a run, had no training, no real deep contact with people. He threw up in the back seat of the family car on the way home and, still mourning for Britt, I thought I'd settled for an egg-sucker.
But I worked with him and he came around. One of my buddies was working with some pen-raised quail and I took Chip along. He froze with wild-eyed eagerness at the first scent of them. Oh, how I looked forward to that first season.
Chip never was a great dog at anything, but he was good at everything. And if eagerness alone could crown a Grand National Champion, he would have retired the trophy.
He went at everything with gusto--hunting, eating, playing, breeding. He even slept hard, with twitches and whines that indicated he was hot after something . . . perhaps the bunnies he never could resist. Chip was not a model bird dog. Game was game to him. Oh, sure, he preferred birds, but if the birds were scarce, he was an exceptional squirrel dog and never the bunny leaped but he was off on the chase, followed by my lurid epithets.
I loved Chip. We were together for five seasons, all over the country. We drove thousands of miles together and he peered at the Black Angus cows with growly venom, sure they were black Labradors--he'd disagreed once with a black Lab and he never forgot it.
Ginger came along before the last season with Chip. She was a whippet-thin Brittany, with strange eyes and as uncontrollable as a tornado. She ran to the four winds and minded only the crazy whims of her erratic personality. I really didn't like her very much. She was like a cat--her loyalty was to her food dish, to her fancy of the moment.
Then she came in heat, and Chip fell deeply in love.
Ginger took off one evening when I let them out for just an instant. I shouted, but he was caught up by whatever lusty insanity had her in its grip . . . and Chip was right behind her, his mind clouded by passion.
He was hit by a car and killed. Ginger came home a few days after that, bruised, battered, exhausted, but alive. I blamed her for Chip's death. I hated her, but she was all I had.
Chip died in August. I took Ginger to Minnesota on a grouse hunting trip in October. I didn't care if she came home or not. She was a bird dog, not a friend. Chip had been a friend.
Then one day late in the trip we went out in the rain. It was a filthy day--as dark as twilight--and a cold, mean rain was misting down through the black-shrouded pines.
She hunted with me for the first time in her life. She patrolled the swales and swamp edges with beautiful precision and finally locked down on a brace of grouse, one of whom I killed going away. When she brought it back to me I realized that what I'd thought was a demented light in her eye was merely puppy enthusiasm, misplaced, but an unquenchable zeal that needed only time to come to focus. All along she had wanted only to please me, but she didn't know how.
We understood each other as we looked into each other's eyes in the rain and I hope she read the beginnings of love in mine, instead of the anger and hurt that had been there before.
I feel that I've come full cycle with these companions of countless hours in the field, that each is, in some measure, a reincarnation of the ones that went before. I hope that's true. Maybe Britt and Chip aren't gone; merely restored in a little different shape, perhaps, to give me love and pleasure for more years.
That's the trouble with them . . . you know when you get them that even if they live out a full dog's life, you'll likely outlast them. Yet they'll always be around in the form of yellowing photos or maybe in the whispering shadows where the firelight can't quite reach.
And to anyone who says that a dog is a dog and you don't fall in love with them, I say, fine--you take your tools out to the field and get what you can out of them. When they rust out, you can walk away from them with a dry eye.
That part of it may be your advantage, but when we share a sweet moment after each having done our part of the hunt perfectly, when I feel him warm against me while I read and absently knuckle silken ears, then the advantage is mine.
Dogs don't judge or condemn. They only keep coming around. Then one day you look and they're gone forever and you hold the age-darkened collar and begin to look for another puppy to grow into it . . .
by Joel Vance
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