“Did you hunt with a dog?” I was asked matter-of-factly.
This hadn’t been part of the questioning when I’d checked bears in with my state’s wildlife agency in the past. I paused, remembering new legislation passed in 2021 that now allows black bear hunters to use dogs.
“Well, technically, yes,” I answered. “But for the purposes of your survey, no; I didn’t use the aid of dogs.”
I received a confused look from behind the desk.
“My black Lab was with me,” I continued. “But he’s more of a handicap than an aid when it comes to bear hunting.”
She laughed. “I understand. No dogs.”
This sort of reaction was common with Leo. He was a Lab, through and through. When asked how old he was, my standard line was “well, he’s 7, but he still reads at a 2-year-old level.”
Leo was a pet more than a hunting dog. But I still threw on his Orange Aglow vest and brought him along on hunts whenever possible. He seldom stopped moving, could never keep quiet, and absolutely lost his mind when a rifle came off the pack or a shotgun was shouldered. But his enthusiasm was just too great to leave at home.
In fact, a motivating factor for this particular spring bear hunt was to get Leo some exercise. My wife Laura and I had welcomed our second kid a few weeks prior, and Leo was getting a little stir crazy. I wouldn’t have convinced Laura to let me out of the house for the afternoon if it hadn’t come with the promise of returning with a sufficiently tired dog.
We adopted Leo shortly after we started living together. It was a big step for us, going in on the shared custody of a puppy. Three years later, the dog walked down the aisle with one of my groomsmen at our wedding. Handmade signs warned people sitting near the aisle that they were in a ‘lick zone,’ which proved to be true. Leo proceeded to chew on his leash and roll around during the ceremony, delivering some comic relief during our tear-filled vows. A few years after that, a chalkboard and a bewildered look on Leo’s face helped us announce to friends and family that we were expecting a baby girl. When we brought home a second baby to pair with our toddler, Leo accepted his role once again as big brother, protector, and cleaner of the floor after meals.
I told my buddy Patrick where I wanted to go for this bear hunt, likely the only day I’d get out this spring season. “It’s about an hour drive, and a 1,500-foot climb up a ridge. I’ve seen a bear there before. And I found some sheds up there.”
Leo loved sheds. It’s the only hunting we trained him for. When he was a puppy, we’d make him sit in one room of the house while we dropped an antler in another room. Then we’d tell him to go find it and watch as he sniffed his way through the hallway, peeping into each bedroom before emerging with an antler in his mouth and a big accomplished smile. From then on, few things made him prouder than happening upon an antler in the woods. He’d bring it to me with not so much a tail wag as a half-body booty sway.
He found four sheds that day. None of them were worth keeping, but I kept a few anyway. I didn’t want to insult him.
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We reached the glassing knob, and Patrick got to work picking apart the drainages to the east with his spotting scope. I glassed to the west, hoping to find a bear on the parallel ridge.
A short attention span is something Leo and I shared. “You ready for a snack, bud?” He always was.
I pulled out my food bag and ripped open the corner of a peanut butter packet. Leo sat expectantly with drool dripping out of the corner of his mouth. His eyes got wide as I squeezed the peanut butter onto his tongue and watched it quickly disappear. I then emptied some of my water into his pack bowl as Patrick walked over with some good news.
“I found a bear.”
Patrick is one of the few people I hunt with these days. Most of my hunts are solo, with just Leo by my side. I like the solitude, the lack of expectations, and the ability to make decisions without debate. Leo was always game.
But there’s certainly no way Leo would have found this bear.
I pulled up my binoculars and looked where Patrick was pointing. Sure enough, a glossy, black bruin lumbered around in a neon green creek bottom, just barely visible from our vantage. With steep hills on all sides littered with thick brush and blowdown, this bear would be a chore to get to.
Patrick doesn’t get caught up much with expectations either; he didn’t even bring his rifle this time. So the decision to go after this bear was mine.
Before I left home, I asked Laura, “So if I have the chance, do you want me to shoot a bear or not?”
Bear meat is delicious, and the fat is baking gold. More than anything though, Leo and I just needed to get out, and Laura knew that.
“Yes, I want you to get a bear,” she said, surprising me a bit. “But mostly so you’ll stop asking if you and Leo can go bear hunting.”
With a newborn and a toddler at home, I was fortunate to get the hall pass, and I knew this was my shot. So we went after him.
The blowdown was rough, even more so for the dog. But he leaped and ducked his way through, without complaint. As we crested the final finger ridge above the feeding bear, Patrick was tasked with sitting back and restraining 85 pounds of determined canine. I took my time to confirm the bear was a shooter and that there were no cubs. As I crept in closer I could hear Leo bellowing behind me with excitement.
“Ugh, he’s gonna spook this bear,” I thought.
But the bear, just 160 yards away, was preoccupied with filling his belly.
It’s never easy to take a life; I’m reminded of that each time I pull the trigger. The challenge ceases. Brutality takes over, albeit briefly.
The bear never left the wet grassy patch where we first spotted him a few hours prior.
I took a deep breath. “You can let him go!” I yelled towards Patrick. “You can let Leo go now!”
Leo sprinted up the hill to me, panting and looking around, wondering where the grouse was that I shot and was now his job to find. “Sorry, buddy. No bird.”
“I could keep him quiet or I could hold him back, but I couldn’t do both,” Patrick said apologetically once he reached me. I shook my head and smiled. Typical Leo.
After skinning and quartering the bear, which Leo showed zero interest in, we loaded up our packs with meat, fat, and hide, and spent the next few hours navigating blowdown, boggy bottoms, and scree fields by headlamp before reaching the dirt road.
Leo was with us every step of the way, like he had been on countless adventures before. He would have hiked all night if we asked him to. When we finally made it to the truck, he leaped into the backseat and sucked down one last peanut butter packet, his third of the evening. He was asleep on the floor before I put the truck in drive. Little did I know this would be my last hunt with him.
A month later, with seemingly no warning, Leo started limping, and we noticed his ankle was swollen. The next day, his whole front leg was engorged and non-weight bearing.
The vet diagnosed him with osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer. The X-rays showed that it had metastasized into his lungs. We were sent home with painkillers and discharge paperwork. It was as if we were watching him age five years in five days.
We said goodbye three weeks later.
Driving home from the vet in tears, I realized that I never had time to fully comprehend this part of the deal. Leo was my first dog, in the prime of his life, and it all happened so fast. This allowed me to love him unburdened by the unavoidable and crushing heartbreak to come.
What a way to love a dog.
With a few rugs already on the walls at home, I wasn’t planning on getting another one made from that tanned bear hide, but I changed my mind. The rug represents my final adventure with my best buddy, a reminder of the fragility of life, and the cruelty of it all.