Too often gun dog owners take their teammates for granted and do not realize how great they truly were until after they have passed. I own numerous dogs and have had the pleasure to hunt over dozens of fine hunting hounds. With that said, I always knew my first dog, Lily, was something special.
I got Lily as a wedding present from my mother and father-in-law. She was a chocolate bundle of joy and the first dog that was wholly mine. I was determined to train her myself to not only hunt, but run competition. Hunting was natural to her, but the competition was, well, something she ran me in. Trainers would refer to her as a “whole lotta dog.” This was basically a nice way to tell me that I was in over my head because she was running me. I still decided that I was going to train my girl and learn with her the art of the retrieving sports. We worked plenty and she became a great upland hunter for grouse and pheasants. Many a time came along where I was ridiculed for my brown dog being inferior because of her color. Nothing would be said and we would head to the field. After the hunt, and after she hunted the other dogs off the field in embarrassment, I would receive the same compliment: “not bad for a chocolate.”
Lily eventually led me to the Labrador Retriever breeding world. I decided to work on producing my own kennel and line of labs. With the strength of puppies from Lily,the groundwork was laid for my kennel, training program, and eventual foray into television. With all of the above said, I will always remember our last hunt.
It was December and I had five dogs at our cabin. Grouse season was still open and I decided to take the dogs out. Slowing in her old age, Lily would struggle to keep up with the young dogs. But even at 11 years old, she still would manage to put up her share of birds. As I got my shotgun and coat, I let Lily out of the cabin. I was walking to the kennel to get a couple of other dogs when she gave me that look. The look said, “let’s go out together, just me and you boss.” I had gotten the look other times, but for some reason took her up on it that day.
We went out in the woods and put up 12 grouse. I shot like usual and we only got one. It didn’t matter though. I could see how much it meant to my old girl that it was just the two of us. She would flush birds, look after I shot and run back to me. Once at my feet she would drop on her back and perform the “victory roll” that she had become famous for with friends and clients. The truth was neither of us cared if we got a bird; it was just her and I as a team. I did take her out to a few game farm hunts later in the year, but that was truly our last hunt.
It is said that you only get one great dog in your life. I am sure that I will and already do have dogs with immense talent, shown by their titles. But ability and titles are not what make a hunting dog great. I know that I will never again have the same bond with another dog that Lily and I had. She was my first and once-in-a-lifetime dog all at once.
My Dillers taught me more about dogs, training, life, and now death than any other animal ever will. She passed with a massive infection. By the time she saw a vet it was too late. To her last day she never showed a sign of illness. I think she was just focusing on the hunting season that was only a month away. Twelve years is a good life for a Lab, especially as they were all quality years. That still doesn’t make the thought of her not being in the field, riding shotgun in the truck, or sitting on my lap on the couch any easier.
Tomorrow dawns a new day and I’ll pick myself up. I will work with my dogs and hunting season will be packed with adventures. I just won’t enjoy them quite as much as I used to.
Thank you for the great memories girl. Now rest easy, find a nice tree to curl up under and please wait for me. I’ll be along in a bit and we will hit the field. I promise to shoot straight this time and it will be just the two of us. I promise.
Image courtesy Jeff Fuller