Today, when I told you I was taking my shotgun to “show a friend,” I wasn’t.
And later, when I brought home that limit of roosters, it wasn’t the whole truth when I told you I had “found them on the side of the road.”
We’ve known each other long enough that I need to be honest. I went pheasant hunting without you. I think you knew that by the long, pitiful look you gave me as I drove away from the house, leaving you alone in the driveway, sad as a single sock.
I felt as bad as you as I drove down the road, but here’s the thing. I kind of forgot about you as I shot one bird after another, almost all at close range. I retrieved them without any drama or shouting. And they didn’t have any canine-teeth marks on them when I tucked them into my bird vest. I kind of felt relieved at the end of the hunt to not have to reach under your private parts to lift you into the pickup because you were too fat and lazy to jump up on your own.
I guess what I’m saying is something I’ve been thinking for awhile, or at least since last week, when you lost two birds and flushed dozens more out of range and then wouldn’t come when I called: I think it’s time we spent some time alone. I think maybe we can be better without each other.
It stabs me like a cattail frond in the nose to say those words, but we’ve been hunting buddies for nearly all of your 11 years, and we’ve always been honest with each other. Well, most of the time. Thinking it over, I guess I wasn’t completely honest when I said “Good Girl!” when you brought back that mangled mallard after 15 minutes of searching, when it was in full view for the entire time. And I didn’t really mean, “You’re a real sweetheart!” when you rolled in that rotten carp and then wanted to snuggle and lick my face.
But this harmless deceit goes both ways. When you indicated that you would “Stay!” we both knew you sneaked over to the neighbor’s house where he gave you a ham bone. And when I said, “Give!” for the hundredth time, we both knew that you would drop the bird wherever you felt like it, and never in my outstretched hand. I was okay with that, because I always knew that you’d do all the other things perfectly and with good humor.
But I never knew until this fall that Dog Years was real, and that the seven-times factorial would start to accelerate so swiftly. I know it’s not your fault that you get out of breath in the first quarter mile, or that you fail to hear my command to “Get That Bird!” when the brush where it fell is so dense and thorny. I almost feel guilty taking you hunting, because you are so stiff and stove up the next day that you can barely move out of your bed.
Thinking back on today, when all my shots brought down birds and I had the unusual experience of blissful silence while I flushed one rooster after another, I started to wonder: Do I really need a bird dog? Do I really need all the work and the frustration that goes into training and owning a Lab?
Then I remembered, and the flood of memories came back so strong that I had to sit for a spell. I remembered your first duck retrieve, when you tentatively nipped just the tip of one wing and dragged the bird—which was as big as you were—over to me. And when you wouldn’t let me call you off that wounded rooster, even though I knew you were going in exactly the wrong direction. It was only when you chased it a half mile across the open prairie and then brought it back to me that you proved your point: always trust your nose and not my eyes. And I remembered when you got in the fight with the crippled honker that tried to drown you, and how you kept circling it and grabbing its neck until it died, and then you retrieved it, so tired you could scarcely walk with that giant bird in your soft mouth. I remembered how excited you got when you heard the snick of the safety on my gun. And I recalled the hundreds of grouse and roosters that you flushed, found, and retrieved. And how you slept on my hunting gear the night before a trip.
And I thought about what it’s like to get old, and how you are showing me a version of my own future, when I can’t walk so far, or smell so well, or jump up in the bed of a full-sized pickup.
Where I really missed you was on the walk back to the truck, a limit of warm roosters weighing down my vest, the last light of a November evening pulling the shadows out of trees and fence posts, that silent, satisfying stroll of a couple of hunters in such complete harmony that no words need to be exchanged.
My walk back to the pickup tonight was, frankly, sort of lonely. On the drive back to the house, I missed scratching your ears. And when I walked in the house with that heavy bird vest, I couldn’t look you in the eyes. It says a lot about our relationship that you couldn’t look at me, either.
So let’s be adults about this. Let’s go our separate ways for awhile until you lose some weight and get that fire back in your belly. And learn to come when I call you. And stop sniffing other dogs’ butts. And stop wagging your tail every time you see a shotgun. And stop rolling in it… For my part, I just may hang up my shotgun until you come around again. Because, if we’re being honest, it’s just not as much fun hunting without you.
Photograph by the author