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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.