I have been both blessed and cursed with long-lived bird dogs. Keela, my first Brittany, was my sixteenth birthday present, and despite her devotion to making an enemy out of every living thing, she managed to survive to see her own sixteenth. The quintessential alpha female, Keela picked fights with other hunting dogs (a trait responsible for diminished invitations on group hunting trips), scrapped with coyotes, got roughed up by a bear cub that she provoked, killed one housecat that I know of, and largely hunted for herself, flushing birds well out of range and refusing to hold point or retrieve. Despite all this, she was a loyal friend and I lay the blame for most of her shortcomings on the dog-rearing skills of a teenager. I even took her to college with me.
Not long after I departed, my mom decided to get my dad a new Brittany pup for his own birthday. He'd formerly owned two Britts, but it had been years since they'd passed away, and now that Keela wasn't at home, he needed a new hunting partner. I was enlisted to select the puppy from the litter, and relied on the opposite logic I'd used to choose Keela. I'd read in a training book that hunters should pick the most aggressive pup in the bunch, but this time I chose the quiet little one lying away from her roughhousing littermates.
Quinn turned into the best hunting dog I've ever known. Since my dad had a real job and I didn't—opting to be a fishing guide after a fruitless stint at school—she became my constant hunting partner on my unemployed autumn adventures. I was living in an apartment in Bend, Oregon, with an allergic girlfriend, which didn't allow me to keep Quinn with me. But at least once a week I'd sneak up to my parents' house in the wee hours to steal her and make a trip to one of the many Oregon rivers rich with upland birds—the Deschutes, John Day, Owyhee or Grande Ronde.
Quinn had a split personality—a good one. When she was in the house or on a walk in the park she was passive and quiet; in the field she was energized yet efficient. Her nose rarely missed a bird and she was the most versatile and adaptive upland dog I've ever hunted over. With minimal training on my part, she learned to point ruffed grouse roosted in trees, cut off running pheasants and flush them back to me, work tightly and quietly when hunting quail and Huns, and freeze nervous chukars from a distance, allowing me to get within range before flushing them. At age three she up-and-decided to start retrieving, and took great pleasure filling my bird bag every day we hunted together.
Quinn and I chased birds in the steep, basalt canyons of Oregon until she was 10. When I moved to Missoula in 2005 my dad told me to take her with me, so she could enjoy her latter years in the more subtle terrain of ringneck country. Quinn, bless her soul, passed away this past winter and set the bar pretty high for both friends and bird dogs.
Bird hunters tend to be as loyal as their canine counterparts when it comes to devotion to a breed. Lab guys will always own labs; English pointer guys will always run pointers. There are exceptions, of course—hunters who play the field, continuously searching for a breed with the perfect traits to suit their game and lifestyle. I fit in the former category. My dad ran Brittanies when they were still classified as "spaniels," before the powers-that-be realized the error. Britts are pointing dogs; spaniels are flushing dogs, a different style of hunting.
Enter Skookum, my latest Brittany, my hunting partner for the next decade. If everything goes as planned.
Like many couples, my fiancée and I decided that we needed to start our future with a puppy, a sort of readiness test for parenthood (all inferred hesitancy intended). Lauren's miniature schnauzer, Roxy, was six, too old to be practice material. Quinn had hunted her last full season and I'd had to retire my favorite bird dog to a life of short walks and lounging around the house, a transition she adjusted to more easily than me.
By spring, Lauren found a liver-and-white Brittany online in Columbia Falls. I'd always owned the more traditional orange-and-white variety and was hesitant, but Lauren insisted we drive up "just to take a look"—and I knew damned well we were coming home with a puppy.
There were two dogs left in the litter, an orange-and-white male and the little brown-and-white female with the irresistible face. She was the product of an accidental rendezvous between a highly acclaimed sire and well-papered bitch. At $400, she also came at a fair price, so we paid the man and took her home.
Lauren and I got married four months later at a family cabin in Oregon's Blue Mountains, and it was then that life with Skookum got interesting. Other than the standard boots-eatin' antics, she hadn't exhibited any exceptionally destructive maneuvers—until she attempted to take her own life the day after our wedding. Actually, she probably ate the D-Con rat poison the day of our wedding, but it wasn't until the following day that we realized something was wrong.
Her usual boundless enthusiasm was gone. She lay listless, and when we picked her up, she let out a horrible squeal. Fortunately, one of my groomsmen quickly diagnosed the problem after inspecting her gums, which were pale white.
We contacted my veterinarian cousin en route home from the festivities, and she made phone calls until she found a vet willing to save our dog on a Sunday evening in nearby Walla Walla, Washington. I sped down mountain roads as the dog breathed laboriously on Lauren's lap. By the time we reached the animal hospital, Skookum's lungs were so full of blood that the veterinarian conducted an immediate transfusion, using her own dog as the donor. All we could do was go to a hotel and wait for news the next morning about whether Skookum had survived.
Somewhat miraculously, she pulled through, and now has one-part Labrador blood in her veins. The vet cautioned us that she'd probably never be athletic, and advised us to keep her as sedentary as possible. We tried and, of course, failed miserably: there's no way to keep a Brittany from running. So we let her live out her puppyhood naturally—and she fully recovered.
Skookum's basic training the rest of the summer went well. She pointed beautifully when I cast a pheasant wing on the end of a fly rod, a training technique that teaches the dog to hold its point and refrain from rushing at the bird. After an hour of work five nights a week, she learned to hold her points with the "whoa" command and only rushed the wing when told to. She also exhibited a natural retrieving instinct. By fall, she seemed ready for the real thing.
In late October I took her on a pronghorn antelope hunt near Miles City with my dad, my friend Erik, his dad, Dick, their two Pudelpointers (a poodle-pointer mix), and two of Erik's buddies. The country is good for Hungarian partridge and sharp-tailed grouse, and I figured Skook might get her debut once we got a few pronghorns on the ground.
On day two, I was driving with my dad and Erik to the top of a wheat field to glass for pronghorns when a covey of Huns slipped across the road into a patch of wheatgrass. We parked the truck. My dad and Erik circled around with Erik's veteran dogs, leaving Skookum plenty of room to work the covey alone.
She worked beautifully out in front of me like a veteran herself. It didn't take her long to pick up the scent. She zigzagged through the tall grass and locked up on point. I was ecstatic at her work; now the pressure was on me. The bird flushed and gave me an easy shot up and to my right—which I promptly missed. I could blame it on the borrowed shotgun, but the magnitude remained. Her first point-and-flush, and I'd blown it.
As the rest of the covey erupted, I aimed to redeem myself, but the Benelli autoloader misfired. Skook kept working the ground; I marveled at her skill and thought how fortunate I was to have lucked into such a natural hunting dog. It was so satisfying I nearly forgot about the cursed jammed shotgun in my hands.
Erik's dogs, meanwhile, had found a bunch of sharpies, and Skookum raced off to join my friends in wait at the bottom of a coulee. As birds poured down the draw, the hunters opened fire, repeatedly shooting 12-gauge autoloading shotguns.
When the shooting stopped I called for Skook. My friends gave me the thumbs up and pointed toward their feet, indicating she was with them. But when I called for her she wouldn't come. It was odd for her to disobey me. I walked to the coulee to investigate. And there was Skook, cowering by their boots, shaking like she'd just endured an air raid.
It was a long walk back to the truck.
I'd shot my .22 pistol near Skookum all summer and it hadn't bothered her, so I was dumbfounded. Her fear was completely unexpected. And I, the happy hunter just a few minutes ago, was now faced with heartbreak. How had I become the owner of a gun-shy dog?
Not only did I have plenty of time and money invested in Skookum, but I also dearly loved her and envisioned her as my longtime partner in the field. Like a parent who had just witnessed his kid blow an ACL, I feared the worst for her future as the athlete I so desperately wanted her to be.
It was impossible to avoid the issue on the drive home. "Have you ever owned a gun-shy dog?" I asked Erik.
He hadn't. "But the breeder I bought my pups from fires a starting pistol when he feeds his pups," he offered.
His father had a different approach. "My dog Cooter was gun-shy as a pup," Dick said. "I took him to the trap range, stood at a distance, and gave him a biscuit. Eventually, I moved closer and closer to the shooting until he just got used to it.
"Just casually reintroduce her to random gunshots for awhile when you're out doing fun stuff, and she'll come around," Dick said.
Firing a starter pistol in the house when I feed the dogs in the morning—which is often before my wife wakes up—would most certainly freak out Lauren's diminutive schnauzer. I opted for Dick's advice.
Over the next several weekends I took Skookum on romps and occasionally shot my .22 pistol. When she seemed used to the sound, I decided to try her in the field again, during the last weeks of the pheasant season.
Late-season roosters tend to be spooky, opting to stay on the ground and run. This is not ideal bird behavior for a young pointing dog: there's no immediate reward for pointing a bird that runs off. What you want instead is a bird that holds tight, then flies. Still, forecasters predicted a cold snap, and that can make birds hold longer.
I took Skookum to Choteau with a friend to intercept the December cold front—and intercept it we did. We arrived, exited the truck, inhaled the thirty-below and headed home with plans to try again the last weekend of the season.
That day was T-shirt weather by comparison, and we hit the field. Skook was overzealous at first. It took a low-voltage zap from her training collar to remind her we weren't out there to marvel at her speed: she needed to stay within shooting range. Conditions were tough. Week-old crunchy snow announced our footfalls and high winds had matted down most of the holding cover. The few birds we did see flew well out of firing range.
I was so determined at this point to get Skook a bird, I decided to buy her a few. Mike Mickelson of Rooster Ridge Pheasant Preserve in Missoula made me a great deal on his pen-raised variety. He met me on the preserve and even volunteered to take photos of what was sure to be Skookum's first successful day.
Not long into our walk on the preserve, Skook locked up on-point. The rooster flushed, I dropped it, and turned to see Skook's reaction. She looked apprehensive, came over to investigate the bird, and wouldn't pick it up. She posed just long enough for her first bird-in-hand photo.
On the next bird a few minutes later, she had clearly lost her enthusiasm and seemed to be anticipating the loud bang. She never did find the planted bird, and when it flushed at my feet I let it fly off a bit before putting it down. That was it for Skook. She went to my heels and sheepishly walked with me to the bird with her tail between her legs. By the time we looked for the third bird she was clearly terrified and I saw no point in shooting when we kicked the pheasant out of the brush.
It's not such a bad thing to take a few steps back with a dog. For months now, that's what I've done with Skookum, taking her on forays into the woods and shooting a pistol to get her comfortable with the noise. All has gone well.
Skook, meanwhile, has developed into an extremely athletic little dog. There are times when her dumbfounding speed, tireless energy, intelligence and inquisitiveness even remind me of Keela, with a few key caveats.
On recent "walks" near Blue Mountain in Missoula, Skook has evaded tragedies that Keela would have pursued to the end. On the first near miss, she disappeared into a willow patch and started yipping horribly. I called her and she emerged on the edge of a field nearly a furlong ahead of a pursuing coyote, which only gave up the chase when it saw Lauren and me. Skook fled to safety when the encounter turned ugly; Keela would have fought the coyote to the death.
On another walk in the wilds a few days later we heard Skook yelp again, and came around the corner to find her face-to-face with a cow moose. The moose stomped her front feet and lowered her head, and I thought we were about to witness bloodshed. I screamed at Skook and she raced away just as the moose was getting ready to trample her. Keela would have ignored me: she relied on her toughness to pull her through. Skookum knows when to listen and when she needs help.
In that way, Skook is most like Quinn. At the moment of truth, her desire to please overrides her curiosity; she trusts us when we call her back from the brink.
It's Skookum's strong desire to please that keeps me hopeful. Not only will it help keep her alive, but I'm betting it will also help her trump her fear of guns, once she realizes how much I love to bird hunt. She really has no choice, because I'm not giving up on her. And, gun shy or not, she's my bird dog.