Puppy Chow

21 Dec

One of the treats of living a life out there is sharing it with a canine partner, and we’ve been fortunate to have shared our times with some really fun and challenging Labrador Retrievers. Yellow, male, Labrador Retrievers.

But the hardest part of letting these loving, loyal partners into your family is that they eventually have to quit. They wear out so much faster than we do. You give your heart, your family’s heart, to them with the knowledge that down the road you’ll be grieving.

It goes the same way every time.

We’re a family with one dog until that dog is retired from hunting. Then the new dog comes on board, runs the old dog crazy, and takes over as the No. 1 dog in all things but mealtime.

It’s been that way for more than 40 years.

The first lab was “Shackaboo,” a 2 and ½-year-old beauty rescued from a family that didn’t have any idea of what it had, and no time for it if they’d figured it out. By the time Shack came home with us, he would sit, stay and come if it pleased him and he thought the only purpose in my throwing a retrieving dummy was for him and me to play “catch me if you can” once he had it in his mouth.

He was hyper to say the least. And protective. If you came to the car he never growled. If you reached in, as if to pet him, he just bit you. It wasn’t personal, just business.

We got him in Michigan in April and drove him home to Rhode Island. He was a mess, and after nearly daily calls back home to report how my efforts at turning this dog into a working retriever were going nowhere, my late father-in-law, Ken Roush, who arranged the rescue of this pup, finally, in July, told me “find him a good home; we’ll get you a puppy that’ll train when you get back here.”

Then something clicked for Shack and me.

On August 20, 1970 I separated from active duty and we packed ourselves back to Michigan with Shack taking up the entire back seat of our 1969 Pontiac Firebird. The week before we departed Rhode Island, we went to a street fair in the village of Narraganset. Shack walked at heel (on a leash that never went taut) all day. At one point, when we wanted to see the inside of an historic church, we left the leash loop over the top nut on a fire hydrant, told Shack to “stay,” and went inside.

After 15 or 20 minutes, we came back to find Shack sitting where we’d left him, with a huge puddle of drool under his muzzle and two little boys teasing him with the last bites of their ice cream cones. But that dog’s butt had never left the concrete where we left him.

After discussing the pros and cons of teasing a strange dog with a treat, the boys agreed this well-behaved dog had earned the treats they’d offered, and with Susie murmuring “gently” Shack took each in its turn without touching a finger.

Shack lived to be 14, and hunted until he was 12. The last two years of his life, he lived with Whiskey Creek White Lightning III. In every hunter’s life there are key moments, key markers in time and any number of “THEs” as in “THE best dog,” or “THE best shot” or “THE best day.”

Lightning was a “THE.”

In his prime, Lightning weighed 103 pounds with minimal body fat, and was a gentle giant in every situation. When our son was young, he learned to stand by crawling over to the dog, taking double-handfuls of his back and holding on as the big guy slowly got up, stood there a tolerable time as Casey grinned and cooed, then shook gently, disengaging the little guy, and slowly walking upstairs where he could sleep in peace.

Lightning’s salad days happened to mesh with mine in terms of hunting. I was crazy about ducks and geese, and he made 19 consecutive retrieves on the opening day of the 1980 duck season in Michigan. It was Lightning’s first birthday, and Gene Baxter shot 18 pintails at 10 points per bird right in the kill zone in front of the blind. All day I just sent Lightning and welcomed him back. By the end of the day, Gene turned to me and said, “David, I think this dog’s got it, don’t you think you should shoot at least one duck today?”

I did, and that drake mallard was the first of hundreds Lightning would bring back in his 12 years. He hunted right up to the end, and we went a year without a hunting-age pup, but “Mazaska Lake Jake” was already in the wings, waiting his time.

All of our Labs have been great house pets in addition to what they added to our days afield, but Jake was a handful. He and I got divorced almost monthly between January and October because of his aggressive and disobedient behavior around the house.

But our love affair was reborn each fall. This dog was THE meat hook. One of the first retrieves he ever made was on a poorly shot mallard that started swimming for the cattail marsh as soon as Jake was sent. I took one look at the distance separating the two and turned to “The Doctor” Bruce Plante and said, “You’re not going to eat that duck.”

But 10 minutes after both critters disappeared into the cattail maze, we heard Jake find the lakeshore and start our way. He found an opening somewhat adjacent to our blind, and the next thing we knew he was swimming back to us complete with a very lively mallard.

We hunted for three more years before we lost a cripple with Jake. That bird out-swam him and dived under the ice. Jake had seen that act before and brought back the bird, but this time he was too far behind when he dived under the ice and had to turn back – which I was really pleased to learn he could do.

We got the current ruler of our roost, “Indy’s Lost Ark Raider” in July of 2003, and immediately took him on a July 4th expedition to Lake Superior. In fact, his first 4 weeks in our household found him spending more nights in other places than home.

He became very familiar with our 17-foot Aqua Sport as we trolled lakes Michigan and Superior for game fish, and drifted our own Mazaska Lake for walleye and bluegill.
Ark is/was a pointing lab. Now 8 going on 80, he’s the victim of a touch of heat stroke that he acquired on the opening day of 2008 in Oregon. As soon as I realized just how hot he was, I rushed him off the mountain to a hose outside the landowner’s house.

I thought it was in time, but the next day he was less than interested in the game, and on the following day, during our morning walk that had always included an up-close and personal visit with a covey of quail, he never gave them a second look.

Every now and then after that, he would show a bit of his former self, but for the most part, he’s been a wonderful partner in a duck blind. Now he’s regressing at an unbelievable rate. Even when he marks a down bird it takes a number of false starts before he’ll finally take a line and fetch the bird.

This new regression to puppyhood has cost us some lost cripples. Now he’s just as apt to bark at decoying birds as he is to retrieve one.

Our dogs are a “womb to tomb” deal. We’re not the NFL. We don’t ditch pups for having a bad year. Ark will live out his life in comfort with occasional misery when I take off with the “interloper” and leave him behind. Susie will feed him treats and loving pats that will take the sting out of being benched. Of course, if we catch a break, he’ll be sleeping on the good ear when we leave and he’ll never know we’re gone.

So now we’re in the classic Balcom family mode of finding a puppy.

“Susie, there’s a litter of pups just up the road in Oskaloosa. I wanna go up and give ’em a look, whaddya say?”

And her answer will be true to the last three times this conversation started: “You go look. I’ll go buy the Puppy Chow.”

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