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  • May 3rd, 2019

PUPPY LOVE

By Joel  M. Vance

 

            The French actor Maurice Chevalier sang “Falling in Love Again” and that could be my theme song when it comes to puppies.  I am a helpless romantic about my dogs.  A hunting buddy once said, “I don’t fall in love with my dogs, the way you do.”  He did—he just wouldn’t admit it.  He was the kind who went off by himself to cry over a dead dog; I do it in front of God and everyone.

 

           I once talked to another bird hunter who said, “If they don’t produce I put them down.”  I looked at him the way I look at cat vomit, but since he was far bigger than I was, I restrained my urge to put knuckle bumps on his head.  In my considered opinion the wrong animal got put down.  Like the kids my puppies are family, for better or worse, and they live out their lives, for better or worse.

 

           He was new 13 years ago and cute enough to melt the heart of Genghis Kahn.  Cap is his name and he is a French Brittany, appropriate for a French love song I guess.  As a puppy he was supposed to be a gift to a friend…but then, well, I fell in love and, like an echo of something that happened to me at the senior prom only this time it went my way, I cut in on my friend, stole his date, and he went home alone. 

 

           Cap was one of a litter of eight that was star-crossed from the get-go.  Mother Molly came in heat while her x-rays were somewhere in the limbo of the Orthopedic Foundation of America being checked for hip dysplasia.  She’d never showed any sign of the degenerative hip problem so we bred her.  And then the results came back: “moderate dysplasia.” 

 

            With that medical history I wouldn’t sell her puppies, but would give them to friends with full disclosure.  Molly swelled like a football and subsequently delivered.  One puppy arrived dead and one died shortly after birth.  The runt of the litter quickly became my favorite, the most outgoing and quickest to learn among the six survivors.   But he had a deformed esophagus, an incurable condition.  He couldn’t keep food down and despite intensive vet care, he died.

 

          I knew when we left him at our vet that he wouldn’t make it.  I cradled him on the way there, weak, but looking at me with faith in my ability to fix him.  I was heartbroken, took him in a tiny box across the lake and up the hill near the old log where our dogs are buried.  The grave was tiny and I watered it with my tears.

 

            Each time I visit the graveyard just off the trail I’m among friends who were more loyal, more trusting and more accepting than all but a handful of people I’ve known.  It’s one of life’s great injustices that dogs have such a shorter life than people.  We should age together and flicker out together.  That’s the way it should be.  That’s not the way it is.

 

        The surviving five grew exponentially.  One would go to our daughter and son-in-law, another to a young hunting friend.  A third was the one supposed to go to another friend, but he was the one that captured my heart.  He prowled the edge of the yard when the others were wrestling or looking for suck at their mother’s faucets.  He was a born adventurer.

 

            “Captain Adventure,” I said…and it made sense.  “Cap,” a good, sharp, short call-name and descriptive of his exploratory nature.  I looked at him more closely.  Long spaniel ears and a domed head.  He wasn’t a photogenic Brittany, like a couple of his brothers, but while they were dozing he was pulling up short at the flush of a butterfly, quivering with emotion. 

 

            I picked him up and scratched his belly.  He looked up at me, contented, his ear flopped over my arm.  Love flowered.  I heard Edith Piaf singing French torch songs—or maybe it was the tinnitus that plagues me from shooting too many shotguns for too long without ear protection.

 

            Cap’s explorations reminded me of Scruffy now long gone and who in his day was my best friend. In the kennel, he got picked on, but in the field he was his own master.  Possessed of the lungs of a Sioux warrior, he could and did run all day but without a shock collar to remind him of the humans he cherished, he might well have found new continents. Once she did vanish for four days and we had given him up until one night I heard whining at the door and there he was, tired and ragged and, well, scruffy. I theorized he had been pursuing pheromones from a lady dog in heat, but we never knew and he lived out his life without further odysseys. Scruffy was  a Type B dog with his kennelmates.  He sat next to me and leaned and wanted my arm around him.  I was his security blanket.  I’m was not going to bite him, the way his brother  did, or growl at him, the way everyone else did.  We were as close at those moments as brothers (“He ain’t heavy, Father—he’s my brother”).  Yet when I looked at him his eyes were searching the horizon.  I may have been scratching his belly, but his eyes were hunting.

 

            A few days after Cap’s litter discovered they had hind legs to go with the front ones they would burst from their kennel and flood into the yard like a furry tsunami.  Cap (then still unnamed) led the charge.  Cap gnawed on my shoelaces but also indicated that he wanted to be picked up and fussed over which I did.

 

            After getting his dose of sugar he wanted to go exploring.  There’s woods and a glade with a nice muddy wet area where a puppy can splash and make canine mud pies.  There’s a trail toward our son Eddie’s house where three huge Labradors waited to bark at intruders.

 

           Oh, the delicious fear of those bellowing monsters.  Tuck your butt and race wide-eyed back to safety! Whew!  What a narrow escape!  I held Captain Adventure’s nose to the Lab kennel fence, and he and the fearsome monsters sniffed and they were buddies great chew toys and more tolerant of upstart puppies than those adult Brittanies who have little patience for insolence.

 

           With me puppy picking happens a couple of ways.  I look for the dog with initiative and with energy.  Molly, Cap’s mom, not only was the most curious of her litter; she also was the last to wear out.  When the others were sprawled, napping, she still was prowling. 

 

          And then there is the love-at-first-sight factor.   Chubby, my best friend-ever, was the last puppy of a litter of eight.  The rest had gone to new owners and one little male sat with his ears down, his expression that of something that badly needed deep affection.  I picked him up and he nestled close and I told my wife, “There is no power on earth that will separate me from this little guy.”

 

            That remained true for the dozen years of his life.  He became my feel good dog.  More than once I got sick on the road and lay, feverish and miserable, on a lumpy couch while everyone else was hunting.  Chubby crawled up next to me, nestled close as he had when he was a miserable puppy, and we went to sleep.  When we woke, we both felt fine and we went hunting.

 

            Our son Andy’s first dog, Pepper, picked him.  Andy was 14 years old when we went to Iowa to watch a litter in action.  Andy drank a Coke, and then laid the can down.  The little pup picked it up and brought it to him.  “She liked me best,” Andy said simply.  Pepper lived 15 years and hunted to the last.  She became the boss bitch of the kennel and could quell uprisings among her rowdy youngsters with The Look, though they all outweighed her by a third.

 

            She could be willful and after that first pop can retrieve, she decided that retrieving was something she didn’t want to do and never could be persuaded otherwise.  But Andy never regretted his choice of a puppy and I never argued with him about it.  Her blood still enlivens the veins of our  French Brittanies, including Cap and his sister Matty and the newest of the bunch, two-year-old Millie who is, like Pepper, almost totally black colored and has the same boss bitch mentality— tiny in stature but a giant in confidence.

 

            Matty, the only female in the litter, was a unanimous choice.  We both wanted a female.  Except for that semi-annual three-week heat period, females have been far less trouble than males.  They don’t fight over trifles and they don’t pee on everything although that occasionally is justified.  Once my resident male dog hosed down the guitar case of a guy with a serious case of ego over inflation, to my great satisfaction, and the guy bellowed in outrage.  “It was critical comment,” I told him.  

 

            Of course there also was the time when I was pontificating to a group of field trialers about the intricacies of dog training, when I noticed their attention had wandered.  I couldn’t understand why—my eloquence was at a peak.  And then I followed their eyes to my leg where my dog was busy sluicing the leg of my britches.  

 

           Underlying any puppy-pick is the uncomfortable knowledge that Cap and Matty are aging.  Millie is our investment in the future.  We know the time will come when the older dogs simply can’t go anymore. 

 

            Dog work is the be-all for me when it comes to bird hunting.  It is at least 80 percent of the fun.  The way I shoot, collecting a full game bag isn’t much of an option.  But seeing dogs I’ve lived with, loved and trained do the right thing makes my sleazy shooting inconsequential.

 

            Way back when I took took all five of the resident Brittanies at the time to the field and one froze on point and the other four honored, locked in time and in my memory.  I moved in at that sublime moment as the dogs quivered with anticipation.  It was calendar art and I was immensely proud of them.

 

            I flushed a farm cat. 

 

            An outdoor writer once defended bird hunting without a dog.  I wondered if he’d ever hunted behind good dogs.  I’ll bet if he flushed a cat by himself the moment lacked a feeling of rueful satisfaction that at least he had experienced living calendar art.

 

            Before we even get to the farm cat stage there are months of drill on the simple stuff: “Sit!”  “Stay!”  “Come!” and, most important “Whoa!”  Puppy training is an exercise in frustration for dog and man.  Never long on patience, I do much grinding of teeth when a puppy just can’t get simple things like “stay” when it’s perfectly obvious to me what I want it to do.  But, I remind myself, I never could learn algebra either.  In fact I burst into tears and threw my college algebra book against the dorm room wall.  I count it a blessing that our dogs don’t hold us accountable for our mistakes.  We yell at them for busting a covey, but they accept it when we miss a meatball shot.  We snarl at them for pointing a rabbit, only to see a huge covey flush (which we salute with a pair of aimless shots). 

 

             Finally there comes the moment when the puppy sits, reluctantly, for a few seconds and I exclaim, “Okay!” and he comes to a treat and we both sigh with relief.  After all, a puppy does not want to sit.  He wants to run and wrestle and chew and have fun.  I did not want to learn algebra.  I wanted to run and wrestle and chew and have fun.

 

            Once I was demonstrating my training techniques for a cub reporter who wanted to do a feature story on an outdoor writer famed for his dog training expertise.  I was distracted since she was quite attractive (the reporter although Molly also was cute), therefore wasn’t thinking when I chose Molly as my demonstration dog.

 

            Molly had just been to the vet who had flopped her on an examining table so he could stick her with needles and otherwise violate her body.  As the reporter looked on  I picked Molly up and plunked her on a table which I built originally to hold beer and brats, not dogs-in-training.  Molly didn’t wait to see if someone in a white coat was approaching with a big needle.  She screamed like a violated maiden, struggled out of my arms and vanished into the woods.

 

            I grinned weakly, looking remarkably like the Mad Magazine covers featuring Alfred E. Neuman, and said to the bemused reporter, “I guess she doesn’t want to be trained today.”  Then one leg of the table came unglued and the whole thing slowly collapsed.

 

            Training now is a private exercise between me and our puppies.

            

 

 

 

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