By Steve Meyer, for the Redoubt Reporter
There are several reasons one might want to have a spare dog. Of course, if you just really like dogs, then you don’t really need more than that as a good reason to have spares. But in the world of hunting dogs, where oftentimes their performance in the field is the only reason their two-legged hunting partner has any success, it is a bit different.
Someone once said, “They cannot think, they cannot reason, but they can suffer,” when talking about hunting dogs. I remain unconvinced that they cannot, at least in a very primeval way, reason. I’ve seen it too many times in hunting dogs working out problems and seemingly “reasoning” for themselves. I suppose one could argue that until hell freezes over, or at least until we’ve solved the brown bear explosion on the Kenai Peninsula. There is no arguing that dogs suffer, that oftentimes they will not obviously show it and that as their “thinking” partners, we need to pay attention.
After hunting my first English setter, Winchester, in the rugged shale country pursuing Whitetail ptarmigan, it became clear that it wasn’t a matter of if he injured himself, it was a matter of when. These big running dogs attack the country they hunt with intensity that I’ve not seen matched in another domestic living animal. Their prey drive, to find the game centuries of breeding has told them is their mission in life, is astonishing. This desire is seen in many hunting dog breeds. Good Chesapeake retrievers and Labs (and a multitude of others that would get too lengthy to list) are virtually unstoppable on retrieves. Freezing water, breaking ice, swift currents — pick the circumstance and they will go to the point of near death to complete the task at hand.
Back before the setters, my hunting partner and I each had a chocolate Labrador retriever, Jack and Gunner. Jack is one of those dogs who operated on the edge of nowhere. His heart, it turned out, was much bigger and much stronger than his body could take. One day Jack bailed off a high rock cliff in the high country and injured himself. During his recovery it was discovered he had a bone spur, an injury that had a very small chance of success to correct with surgery, and a high probability of leaving him more severely crippled than he already was. With medication and (he loves this) regular back massages, he is happy and gets around home pretty well. But he was never going to hunt again.
He was used to going hunting with Gunner and us, so when he had to stay home he was not a very happy dog. What do you do? You get him a puppy to hang out with while we hunted. Cheyenne, another chocolate Lab, came to us in a whirlwind. At 9 weeks old she bounced off the walls and everything else in sight. She loved Jack and Jack loved her, a fondness they share for each other even after three years have passed.
Winchester came after Cheyenne, the culmination of a lifelong dream of his hunting partner. Not only did the injury issue seem of eminent concern, the issue of rest also came into play. The way setters hunt the high country is simply too taxing on them to go more than once every five to six days. Not that he would ever let you know that, which is why the thinking partner has to know when to rest them. Nevertheless, it was my excuse to have another setter, in the form of Parker, a female English setter out of the Havelock Setters kennel in North Dakota, famous for their big running field setters.
Parker didn’t join the family until the latter part of July 2011, and she was not nearly as intense as Winchester was when he was a pup. So when Winchester split one of his carpel pads (the pads up above the foot proper that everyone thinks are useless but are in fact critical for these magnificent dogs to slow down in steep country), Parker was not ready to hunt. Thus, Winchester and I were sidelined for two weeks in mid-September. Life is much too short to miss that amount of hunting in the prime of the season, a realization that further cemented the need for a backup setter.
Setters are, at least to me, the aristocrats of the hunting dog world. They get along with other dogs, but on their home turf they would really rather be in the company of another setter. Winchester has especially exhibited this blue-blood attitude. So, yet another excuse for another spare dog — if the setters prefer setter companions when their partners are gone hunting then one must oblige. Which is how Red, our sixth hunting dog, came into the fold. A gorgeous Irish setter who had been dropped off at the shelter with a note saying the divorcing couple that had him could not keep him any longer. He had been adopted a couple of times and returned because other dogs were aggressive toward him, and then lived in foster homes for several months before someone told us about him. Well, as a dog lover, and an age-old admirer of the breed that sadly enough isn’t used for hunting that much anymore, about 14 seconds with Red was all that was needed for us to take him home and make him part of the family. He gets along just fine with Labs and setters alike and is quite possibly the sweetest dog on the planet.
Back to the Labs. This fall Gunner and Cheyenne went with us to Redoubt Bay for a three-day waterfowl hunt. Jack, now having setter companions at home, was baby-sat just fine. On the eve of the second day, Gunner came up lame. He had an abrasion high in the armpit of his left front leg. He never faulted in the field but that evening, when he was limping around the cabin, we discovered the problem.
Not to worry, Cheyenne was right there and more than willing to take up the extra duty without Gunner. Like every driven hunting dog I’ve ever known, Gunner had no interest in sitting a day out. His injury, at least to him, was insignificant if there were ducks to retrieve.
Retiring him for the trip was sad in many ways, but his thinking hunting partners had to make that decision. Without a second dog the trip would have been over. There is simply no reasonable way to hunt that part of the world without a good dog. But, we had a spare.
Steve Meyer has been a central peninsula resident since 1971 and is an avid hunter, fisherman and trapper. He can be reached at email@example.com.