Hello. I write outdoor columns for a central PA newspaper. I'm a big fan of fresh eyes and lots of proofing and this column hits a little closer to home than others I write, so I'd love some feedback before I submit it for publication. Any help would be appreciated.
One last car ride
Loading a good hunting dog into a vehicle can be quite a challenge. Every car ride offers the opportunity for another hunt, and the best bird dogs are well aware of the potential cause-and-effect of a drive in the family automobile.
The more the anticipation, the more the emotional excitement of heading down the driveway and to the local state game lands. It is on par to a 6-year-old counting down every last minute to Christmas morning.
The car ride I shared last week with my 14-year-old Brittany, Shell, was definitely an emotional one.
However, we weren’t on our way to another pheasant hunt or to track down a covey or two of bobwhite quail. This trip was to the emergency animal clinic near Watsontown. Shell had lived a long life. She was suffering through rapidly declining health. It was time to say goodbye — to have her put down.
Why can making the right decision sometimes be so hard, so gut-wrenching and so painful?
The 30-plus minute trip from Middleburg to Watsontown through late-night darkness gave me one last chance to reflect on the life a good dog and even better friend.
As she slept quietly on the seat next to me, wrapped as comfortably as possible in a towel and old sweatshirt, I stroked her head while driving northward.
“Thank you,” I said with a voice that sounded as if it was being strained through a bucket of gravel, “for all the great memories.”
And I shared aloud a few of my favorites.
Like the times that Shell was in hot pursuit of a pheasant, quail or chukkar and I called her name. She’d stop on a dime every time, no questions asked.
She’d hold a point longer than gold holds its value. I learned quickly that she was never wrong. There would always be a bird in the cover and she’d always patiently wait for me to produce it.
Shell would work a scent trail for an hour and be just as happy with the end result regardless of whether my Charles Daly hit its mark or not.
And while the life lessons she taught me in obedience, trust, patience and forgiveness are things I’ll treasure forever, the best memories I’ll cherish of Shell are those shared with others.
Like the agility classes my mother and I took Shell through one summer after I started college. The evenings were hot and it took some time and patience to work Shell through the obstacles one by one over the course of the summer.
But looking back, it was that time spent together that helped shape Shell into such a good hunting dog, and I realize now just how much I valued the extra time spent with mom.
Shell welcomed my future wife with open paws — literally. She had a knack for giving people hugs. Shell was there as we learned the ropes of early marriage and gave us numerous litters of amazing puppies.
She was pregnant with one of those litters at the same time my wife was pregnant with our daughter. A week after Paige was born, Shell gave birth to nine rambunctious puppies. Our small house was one busy place.
As our daughter grew, Shell was there each step of the way. We have pictures of her cuddled on a recliner with baby Paige. Shell was gentle and obedient enough to allow toddler Paige to take her on walks.
When we adopted our then-teenage son, Shell was there to welcome him. As he got into hunting, she was the one who tracked down his first pheasant. After the shot, she retrieved it to him with her tail wagging — just as proud to be sharing this special moment with him as I was.
And even in her older age, she took quickly to our newest family member, a 5-year-old girl whose adoption was finalized this past Wednesday — just two days after my emotional trek with Shell to the vet.
The tears were flowing freely as I pulled into a parking space at the emergency clinic. My trip down memory lane and the long one-sided conversation was over. I turned off the car and switched on the dome light.
Shell didn’t move. She was dead. She had passed away peacefully during our final trip together.
As our family laid her to rest in the backyard the next evening, each of us said a prayer and shared a few favorite memories. The girls each drew a picture to place in her homemade casket. Our son recalled how neat it was to hunt over her.
I realized at that very moment that a good hunting dog is so much more than simply a tool someone uses to bag a few extra birds, more than a companion in the field and even more than an extension of the family.
The best bird dogs are the glue that help bind that family together with stories, memories and adventures shared.
Thank you, Shell, for being there each step of the way.
And I know when my time comes to join you in the happy hunting grounds in the sky, I’ll find you surrounded by goldenrod, staunch on point and patiently waiting for me to catch up.