What spooked Skook? 

When a beloved Brittany pup won't hunt, it's time to bird-dog a cure.

Page 2 of 3

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.

click to enlarge MATT GIBSON

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.

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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.

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