Monday, May 26, 2008

The Speckled Pup (A Love Story)

Everybody thinks fuzzy yellow lab puppies are cute. That’s why they use them in TV ads for everything from dog food to feminine beauty products. Personally, I can’t think of anything cuter than white and ticked English Setter pups. Part of that, I think, is my understanding of what happens when the respective pups grow up. The adorable labs grow into barrel chested brutes with tails like runaway fire hoses that knock infants off their feet and sweep everything off the coffee table. Setter pups, on the other hand, grow to be swift, graceful and beautiful with gentle dispositions. (I think I wrote something in this space recently about prejudice… nuff said?)

Growing up as a kid I never had a dog. Of course, there were plenty of dogs on my Uncle Lee’s farm….beagles and cockers. And, I spent a bit of time hunting with my neighbor’s two German Shorthairs, convincing me that pointing dogs were the ultimate in sporting breeds. I also enjoyed some great days hunting with my friend’s full sized poodle named Sardie who was, without question, the best retriever I ever saw. But, for some reason I was attracted to English Setters.

Once I got back from my eight month Med deployment with Third Platoon and Loi and I got settled in a tiny house (but with a big back yard) in Virginia Beach, we decided to get a dog. An ad in the paper announced “setter pups for sale” and we went to take a look. Eight of the little bundles of white fur and black spots tumbled over each other in their joy at our visit. Going home without one never entered our minds. We picked out a bold and inquisitive male with black ears and tiny black ticking. We named him Zeke after the best hunter and wing shot I knew and he became our first baby.

Romping in our yard the little guy would snap on points at butterflies and flowers. Frozen in place with his tail high and still, he would raise his front paw in the classic pose. I had high hopes and immediately went out and bought a book on training hunting dogs. Basic training was going well and we quickly realized that Zeke had superior intelligence and a desire to please. Then I got sent off on another mission for the Teams for a few months. Loi went down to Florida to spend the time with her Mother taking Zeke with her, of course. By then he had developed into a gangly teenager and committed a few crimes… like charging through the screened in porch without the benefit of the door a couple of times. He seemed quite enthusiastic about shagging squirrels and birds out of the yard and the screens got in the way. Loi’s Mom was not thrilled.

Back in Virginia Beach I started working with Zeke in earnest. After dinner Loi and I would head out to the approaches of the airport where the grass and brush harbored quite a few coveys of bob white quail. Zeke loved these romps but showed no inclination to point the quail. He seemed to find great joy in locating the coveys and running into them, watching them scatter in all directions. I was getting discouraged when one night in the gathering darkness as we headed back to the car, Zeke screeched to a halt on a point. I slowly approached from behind and gave him a nudge. He stood firm like a statue. I peered over him and saw a tightly bunched covey of quail directly beneath his nose. The hot bird scent had him transfixed. My hopes for him soared only to be dashed again. His new game: find the birds, briefly point and then jump in to make them fly.

I had to figure out a way to make him hold point until I got there to flush the birds. Otherwise, he’d find all the birds but I’d never get a shot. I bought six quail and kept them in a cage in the back yard. Leaving Zeke in the car, I would take the quail out in the field, spin them to make them a bit dizzy and plant them in the grass. I tied a 4 ft. piece of string to one foot so I could catch them again. I’d bring Zeke into the field on a long lead and work into the wind. When he pointed the bird I would make him stand there until I flushed the bird. This worked well and I next let him run on his own without the lead. Unfortunately, he had figured the game out. As soon as I let him out of the car he simply followed my scent trail through the grass to precisely where I’d placed the bird. He knew I’d taken the bird out there so he had no need to look for the damn thing. We had six quail for dinner that night.

In the fall I got out of the Navy and we headed home to Buffalo for six weeks before I had to report to my job in Chicago. It was time to introduce Zeke to pheasants. He had become pretty good at pointing quail in Virginia but pheasants were all new to him. He just chased them until they flew. He had also developed the nasty habit of hunting on his own. He’d figured out that by circling he could cross my scent trail and follow it until he found me. I had become simply his ride to and from our little outdoor expeditions. I’d be standing there fuming and I’d hear the tiny brass bell he wore on his collar tinkling as he galloped up my back trail. He was always happy to see me and though angry, it made no sense to punish him. One day when he’d been gone for a long time, I spotted a large lone tree in the middle of the field. I made for the tree, grabbed a low hanging branch and swung up into the tree. I climbed well up in the branches and waited. Soon I heard the tinkling as he jogged up my scent trail. He got to the tree and stopped as my scent track abruptly stopped. Zeke looked around, obviously puzzled, and then set off again to run another circle. Here he came again following the track, got to the tree and stopped, totally confused. I almost fell out of the tree laughing. Now he panicked and headed off again at a dead run. When he came around the third time I was sitting at the bottom of the tree waiting for him. Boy, was he ever happy to see me! I would like to tell you that the exercise in tree climbing cured him, but of course it did not. Since we had never actually hunted yet, he had no idea that we were supposed to be doing this as a team.

With the opening of the pheasant season rapidly approaching, I decided to go to a pheasant farm and buy a couple of birds, shoot them over him and see if he’d catch on to the program. With him on a long lead he’d pointed and I’d shot the two birds, but I was uncertain he’d learned anything. The game farm owner had cautioned me not to shoot any other birds than the ones I’d purchased. But, on the way back to the car with Zeke off the lead he snapped into a solid point. I walked up behind him and a big rooster flushed from under his nose. I capped that bird and Zeke brought him back to me quivering with excitement. I had to beg forgiveness from the farmer and pay for the extra bird but I could care less. A light had gone off in Zeke’s head. From that day forward we hunted as a team. Yes, he had a lot to learn and made mistakes but he knew what we were doing out there and would stand forever on point waiting for me.

Like this. One day that season a friend and I were hunting near a small lake. A flock of geese circled and looked like they were going to set down in the lake. I ignored Zeke while watching the geese. After ten minutes or so the geese buggered off and I started looking for the dog. No bell and no white dog bouncing in the field. I spotted a large clump of bushes and walked over. Peering under the brush I saw Zeke locked on a rock solid point. He’d been standing there patiently for about 15 minutes. I kicked the brush and out popped a hen pheasant. Now hens are not legal and I would never shoot one…. except my young dog had just done something extraordinary and he needed to get his reward. I shot the hen and then dug a hole and buried it. May God and the New York DNR forgive me.

Zeke had an exceptional nose and although pheasants are tough and wily buggers and will run like the wind if wounded, he never lost a bird I’d downed. One time he brought me a hen that someone else had shot illegally. He seemed quite pleased with himself. But, we were hunting at a public hunting grounds routinely patrolled by game wardens. I could see myself trying to convince the officer that I had not shot the bird and that my dog had simply found it. Right. I placed the bird in a grassy road that meandered through the field and led Zeke 50 yards further down and turned him loose. He made a big circle and picked up the hen again and brought it to me. He seemed to be saying, “Hey Dick, you forgot this!” Thanks. I dropped the bird on the road and led him about 300 yards away before turning him loose again.

Zeke had had a good first season but it was now November and time to head for Chicago. We rented a small basement apartment and I commuted by train downtown where I worked on the 1st National Bank building setting granite slabs on the side of the building…20 to 30 stories in the air. Working six or seven days a week at 10 hours per day left no time for much of anything much less hunting. Zeke had a long wire strung in the back yard that allowed him to run back and forth. One night the doorbell rang. The man at the door asked if my name was Dick and I gazed past him to the car parked at the curb. There in the back seat between a couple of kids sat Zeke looking quite relaxed. The man explained that Zeke had scaled the fence to their back yard and had his way with their female collie that happened to be in heat. They lived about a mile away and fortunately, Zeke’s collar had our name and address on it. I apologized profusely and vowed it would not happen again.

Two nights later the doorbell rang again. There he was with Zeke. This time he had torn down the wire and made the trip with his 12-foot chain dragging behind him. Missy was inside on this night so Zeke went up on the porch and managed to accidentally (?) ring their doorbell. When they answered there sat Zeke waiting to call on his lady friend. Luckily the guy had a good sense of humor. Some time later, after we’d moved on to Olympia, WA., we got a letter from them. Enclosed we found a snap shot of Missy and her litter of ten white and speckled puppies. Our boy had strong genes. The pups didn’t look like collies.

We made the cross-country trip from Chicago to Olympia in our ’66 Plymouth Barracuda. In the back we had a bassinette containing our new baby daughter, Tara, and Zeke who was somewhat whacked out on Dramamine. He rode most of the way with his chin resting on the edge of the bassinette. Through the big back window of the ‘cuda it must have made a pretty picture. We got a lot of friendly toots and waves from passing motorists.

Like I said, Zeke possessed exceptional intelligence. I calculated that he understood 24 words and commands. Like a lot of exceptionally intelligent humans, he did have his quirks. For some reason he was hypnotized by Loi’s emery board. Whenever she filed her nails he would sit in front of her motionless with a glazed look on his face. Loi could balance the emery board on his nose and he would sit there staring at it cross-eyed and never move. He loved oranges and hated peas. If you peeled an orange, he would sit in front of you and drool like a Great Dane. He would gulp down any slice tossed his way. But peas? Furgetaboutit. We often mixed some gravy and meat scraps in his kibble. He’d wolf down the bowl in seconds, leaving it as clean as fresh out of the dishwasher. If there were any peas in the mix, there they would be, sitting in the bottom of the bowl. I could never figure out how he could gobble the food down and avoid the few peas.

We lived out in the woods on one of the salt-water inlets outside Olympia. We had a gentle and fluffy cat named Phoebe. Zeke and Phoebe got along fine and occasionally could be found cured up together taking an afternoon snooze. Never anything but friendly….except when Zeke was in his kennel. Phoebe would jump up on his doghouse and then vault up on the 2 x 4 that capped the wire enclosure. She would casually stroll the narrow board and stop to wash herself while Zeke went absolutely nuts down below. Why was he so upset? I can’t say.
Territorial maybe? I know why Phoebe did it: just to piss him off. Cats are like that.

For the next four years when we lived near Olympia, Zeke and I did a lot of hunting. Most weekends I would go out with my business partner’s high school aged son. We usually headed over to a nearby valley for a little duck hunting at first light. With his thin coat Zeke was not designed for cold water and he did not appreciate sitting around. He was built to run. But, hunting is hunting and he enjoyed the birds coming in and the excitement of the shooting. He hated the taste of ducks and refused to pick one up on dry land. For some unexplained reason he was OK with swimming out to retrieve a downed duck. Once his feet hit solid land he spit the duck out, refusing to pick it up again. It seemed as if he were saying, “OK, I will do this thing for you, but I refuse to keep this stinky bird in my mouth any longer than absolutely necessary.” I was grateful and told him so.

About 9:30 we would head over to the public hunting grounds to hunt pheasants. By then most of the early arrivals were leaving. One morning, two guys with two black labs were leaving one of the 40-acre plots. They said, “Don’t bother with this field. We just covered it with our two labs. No birds in there.” As you can expect, we hunted the field and Zeke pointed two nice roosters and we smugly put them in our game pockets.

With each new season Zeke became wiser and wiser about the sneaky pheasant. From painful experience I gave up trying to tell him where to go and what to do. His exceptional nose and uncanny sense of what the wily birds were attempting never failed and made me look foolish telling him otherwise. He was now six years old and at the peak of his game.

Living as we did, out in the boondocks, with few neighbors, I never worried about letting Zeke out at night for his evening constitutional and a little rambling. One night he didn’t come home. The next morning and for several days thereafter I drove the country roads and searched the ditches for miles around looking for him. We posted rewards. We never saw him again.

Later we learned that a number of purebred dogs had gone missing in our area and a dog-napping ring was suspected. The culprits were never apprehended. I mourned him, as would a parent of a kidnapped child never returned. Over the years we had other hunting dogs. They tried hard, although none could fill the considerable paw prints of ol’ Zeke. I miss him still.


Heide said...

What a wonderful story and pictures. Thank you for sharing this memory.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely tribute to a beautiful dog. I'm a speckled pup person myself, although my spotted mutt would be useless on a pheasant hunt.

I'm so sorry you lost Zeke in such a sudden way. What a terrible loss to your family.