I was visiting with an old Army buddy, and fellow bird hunter, several years ago and got to spend about an hour in the presence of a litter of seven week-old English setter puppies. They are at that rambunctious age of developing their own personalities and exploring the world. Let out of the kennel, they bounded around tussling with each other and exploring the area near the tree line.
Little Oscar, with black and tan patches around his eyes, sat and tilted his head with that “pick me up” look. I complied not so much for him, but so I could feel the roughness of his tongue on my cheek and smell that sweet puppy breath. I’ve always wondered why all puppy breath smells the same despite the choice of puppy food.
Then there was Tina, named after her mother, who playfully swung Al’s glove around her tiny body. Big John had to be coaxed from the warmth of the doghouse because of the morning chill. He’s going to be big like his father and will probably grow to be Al’s field trial prodigy. Wee Bit, the runt of the litter, was showing that despite his size he was to be reckoned with by sneaking up on his siblings and jumping on them.
Not having been around puppies for a while, my last dog came to me at the age of four months, I have forgotten what a rejuvenating experience they are. I like foolin’ with pups. They make me feel younger than my years. I suspect if someone took the time to study it, they would find that bird dog owners who train their dogs from puppy hood tend to live longer. Age is just as much a function of the mind as the body.
Some folks like to get their bird dogs started or broke. They are missing out on something. All of my bird dogs have come to me as pups or young. I’m no great shakes at training and my dogs’ performance will attest to that. Watching a puppy chasing butterflies in the back yard evokes visions of him working a favorite local grouse cover or coursing through an altar thicket in her first annual trip to Wisconsin. To some the grouse wing on a string is a cute trick, but seeing that new pup do it allows me to envision that first solid point along the edge of a laurel thicket on a crisp Autumn morning.
In his book Mans Search for Meaning, psychologist Viktor Frankel explains how many people who survived Hitler’s concentration camps were able to do so because they had a purpose in life; a reason for living. That’s what puppies do for the bird hunter. They give us the reason to look to the future, to keep hunting. Looking to the future keeps us young.
Kennel space and finances didn’t allow me to bring one home. I’m sure if I’d asked Al would have let me take Oscar and pay later. We connected from the outset. On the four-hour ride home we would have talked about the future, explaining what kind of hunting we would do and where we would go. He would hear about those that preceded him and why they were so special, although not perfect. We would also come to an agreement that although I had high expectations of his performance, I would also excuse the occasional transgression. As long as he understood I’m not the best wing shot in the land, and his forgiveness on that matter would be expected in return.
When we got home he would meet his kennel mate and hunting buddy and I’m sure she would fill him in on how to train me. As I led him through the back yard and started the initial training, there would be youthfulness in my step. Training would be done with a smiling face and laughter at the clumsiness and short attention span that is part of being a puppy.
Just like some people get the new car itch every August, I’m getting the new puppy itch come December. Despite my lifelong affair with Setters, a Boykin Spaniel may better suit my hunting style as I slow down a bit. There’s a pup out there somewhere that will put a smile on my face and add a few years as only foolin’ with puppies will do.