“You’ve got too many shotguns not to have a bird dog,” Steven told me. It was half admonition, half challenge, to someone with no real experience with bird dogs. Let’s be clear: it’s his fault.
He wasn’t wrong about the shotgun part though. I have a lifetime of fond memories of shooting clays with my dad. Once, when I came home from college too cocky, he restored my humility by trouncing me with his perfect round of skeet. I might have broken half of mine. Maybe.
He liked shotguns and obviously shot them well. But as his eyesight faded over the years, I inherited a couple that fit me, with the understanding that they would be used often, and paid for in stories. When I met Steven, they were only getting used occasionally.
I was also dogless at the time, so I probably needed a little chaos and mayhem in my life. Right?
After phone calls to friends to discuss their favorite dog breeds, hours of internet research, weeks of discussion with my wife, guilt over not adopting a shelter dog and months of vacillating, I found a breeder, not far from us, with a new litter. One dog unsold.
We settled on a day for me to come out and visit and I climbed into the truck for the trek north. I’ll admit I showed up with a bit of a chip on my shoulder, sort of daring the guy to give me a reason not to spend my money. I was polite but I was looking for a reason to write the operation off and say no to a big change in my life. Still, I did what you’re supposed to do. I asked questions, I checked the place out, and I met the parents. As if to reinforce a stereotype, the breeder was a bit reticent. Not impolite, just taciturn. He answered every question I had. Confident. Clear. Concise. Compelling. Never a salesman.
Every single dog in the pen was clean, active and happy looking. Their bedding was clean. The floor around the pen was clean. And they were cute with a capital C (italicized and underlined for good measure). Intellectually, I knew they’d be cute and was ready for it. Of course puppies are cute, it keeps us from eating them when they wreck the rug. Being cute is what they do, so for a while we watched them do it. I may have giggled, but I doubt it. I’m a pretty serious guy.
At some point I asked about his claim that every dog would point and retrieve before it left his kennel, and he offered a demonstration. There was no way I was going to say no to that.
He reached in and confidently picked out a puppy. How he could tell one dog from another in that squirming pile of puppy flesh was a mystery to me, but he seemed to know his business and picked out the only dog unspoken for. He set her on the floor and she flailed a bit as he set her down between us. Then, true to puppy form, she started to stagger off like a drunk in pursuit of a shiny bottle of smart juice.
He steadied her with a soft word and a hand on her chest, pulled off a leather glove and waved it in her face to get her attention. Once her eyes had focused on the target he lobbed it about ten feet away and let her go to it. She took off like a wobbly dynamo, a ton of cute in a six pound frame. She picked up the glove, shook it once, and started back toward us at a proud trot, head held high, with the glove almost entirely hiding her tiny body.
At that exact moment I was a goner. I just didn’t know it yet.
We talked some more. I met the dam and saw her work. We discussed guarantees, health certifications, shots, shotguns, worms, vet visits, parvo, training options, theories and support. At some point I realized I was buying a dog and should probably let the breeder know. He probably already knew. He took it well.
On a good day, I live about two hours from this kennel. With snow on the ground, some ice on the roads and an uncertain puppy bladder we made it home in three. We stopped twice for water, a pee break and to stretch her tiny puppy legs. I’m pretty sure I also wanted to watch her walk around and sniff things. I was smitten.
In hindsight, I was a goner from the get go, a sap with no power to resist puppy cuteness coupled with a genuine desire to own a bona fide birddog — a deliverer of ducks, retriever of roosters, pointer of pheasants, chaser of chukar and mauler of mergansers (and general badass with birds I couldn’t come up with cheesy alliterations for). Now four, she’s all that and more — companion, conscience, comic relief, mood adjuster.
I couldn’t be happier, though my elk hunting time has suffered a bit.
Which leaves only one question. What is the proper shotgun to dog ratio?