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Taking Your Old Gun Dog for Granted

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January 02, 2013

Taking Your Old Gun Dog for Granted

By Chad Love

Sometimes, through poor planning, you find yourself in the unenviable position of having two dogs vie for the majority of your attention, but for very different reasons. Such is the case with me. I have a young setter pup that desperately needs as much wild bird contact as he can possibly get in his inaugural hunting season. But I also have an old retriever for whom it's looking more and more likely that this will be her penultimate full-time hunting season.

So do I concentrate on grooming the young prospect, or do I honor the old-timer by giving her as much time as possible in the sunset of her career?
 
It's a sticky wicket, especially when dealing with two different and competing styles of wingshooting and dog breeds. I decided this Christmas break to turn off the computer, let the cell phone die, ignore all responsibility, and simply hunt with my dogs as much as the family and the weather would allow. Achieving balance was my aim.

I spent most days in the past couple of weeks either in a duck blind with Tess, my old chessie, or following the setters, Jenny and Ozzy, across the prairie in search of quail. I devoted time to both, but I have to admit that after we got some foul weather that pushed a few ducks into the area that balance shifted mostly toward duck hunting. And I'm glad it did, because there comes a point in every dog's life (and yours, of course) when an uncomfortable truth hits you: the realization that your old, familiar partner—the one you've spent countless shivering hours with—won't be able to do this much longer.
 
For me that realization came this week, after a stretch of five mornings in a row of duck hunting. I started noticing things, little things no one else would. A step slower than normal, stiffer in the mornings, a little less zip than her normal hell-bent gear. Taking more time to plow through ice and reeds. That kind of thing.

One morning last week, while walking back to my truck I happened upon three dogless duck hunters, area high school kids new to waterfowling. They were standing on the dam of a pond ringed by a dense stand of reeds, looking forlornly at three Canada geese and a gadwall that were floating out past the rim ice in deep water. They had no clue how they were going to get their birds (they obviously shouldn’t have been hunting there in the first place but that's another topic). Tess completed four long, difficult, physically taxing blind retrieves, breaking ice and reeds to bring those three Canadas (fat, heavy resident greaters) and that gadwall to hand. By the end of it I could tell she was exhausted, and when we got back to the truck she slumped into her kennel. The next morning Tess was ready to go again, like she always is, but it's obvious her endurance and recovery time are declining with age.  
 
I think many of us tend to take our older dogs for granted, assuming they can do the same things they've always been able to do. And they can, up to a point. I'm not a Toby Keith fan so I hesitate to quote him here, but I think a line from a song of his sums it up nicely for older dogs (as well as older men…): "I ain't as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was." Tess is still as good once as she ever was, and at this point, that's still good enough for me. I just have to recognize that fact, and adjust our hunting accordingly.
 
How many of you are in the same boat with older dogs? When did you first notice your dog slowing down? Have you adjusted your hunting to accommodate your dogs's diminished physical capabilities?

Comments (11)

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from ITHACASXS wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

Thank you for great story. My wife had said no more for our labrador, until she saw Mindy dance around and get happy when I was cleaning my shotgun. That year was barely half-a-day hunting at a at-heel pace 'till she caught a scent, with the last bird for her being a woodcock. We lost her on November 14th, just 3 weeks later. She was fine friend.

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from Mark-1 wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

12-years age was about it for my setters. The dogs could keep the pace at 10, 11 they'd slow down, they were gone before their 12th year was up. Don't know why, but hearing loss was prevalent in most and would sneak up. The dogs would get separated from me in the brush. I'd have to wait at the truck for them to find their way back to me. That was the first hint for their full retirement.

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from Pray- hunt-work wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

October 3rd 2010 I lost a French Brittany, he was 12 yrs old, the very same age I was when I bought him. He passed the second day of bird season here in Maine. He had slowed, but like Ithaca mentioned, my dog was just like a puppy when the shotgun came out. 1 point, 1 shot, 1 retrieve. That's was Rems last day in the woods.

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from springerman3 wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

I currently have two springers, Celm turned 12 on Dec 5th. We had a fine day for his birthday of 4 roosters ( one pheasant and 3 quail ), flushed two coveys, totaled about 40 birds so I was not concerned to take a few. this was a repeat of a hunt we had a few weeks earlier with my late Dad's gun 16 gauge Model 1400 to celebrate his birthday ( different field ).
He is still good for 2 - 3 hours in good pheasant cover and can go 5 - 6 in the grouse woods.
Pete the pup ( now 15 months )will be his replacement, I have been trying to alternate hunting them which has worked well. Pete has improved greatly in the last two weeks with snow now on the ground ( east central Iowa ), we shot 5 pheasants and 4 quail on two hunts around Christmas
While Clem is not ready to relinquish the throne he has been extremely tolerant of Pete and at times it is just hilarious to watch them go at it in the yard !
Clem was the replacement for what I thought was the dog of a lifetime ( Gabe, passed away at the age of 14 years, 2 months & 2 weeks ), he turned out to be every bit as good and a little better in a couple of areas. So Pete hads big paws to fill and seems up to the task at this time ( I will try to not mess this up ) !!
All my springers have been excellant family dogs as well !
It is hard to see an old friend go but the best cure is having a young one to fill that void.

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from Double D wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

Before Dublin passed a few years ago, I faced the same difficult choice. The dogs solved it for me as Aengus turned out to be the pheasant hunter. (Dublin never figured out he was supposed to be flushing birds for my benefit, not his.) Now that the old black dog is gone, I find myself taking the not-so-young-anymore black dog out for uplands birds and retrieving the waterfowl on my own (or relying on friends' dogs to do it).

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from Ontario Honker ... wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

Pearl is eight now and I guess officially a cancer survivor - she had her last chemo just after Christmas. She was a bit slower this year and her hip sometimes bothered her after a cold long day chasing pheasants. I would then leave her in the Jimmy the next day and hunt the other two dogs. I'd always make sure to drop a bird before I got back to the rig, put the hunters in, and let Pearl out to go find it. Really made her day, mosty I think because Opal couldn't take it away from her! She was happy enough with that. But she's always such a good natured dog. No chance of leaving Opal in the vehicle though! She barks her head off for an hour!

The way I field hunt geese is real easy on the dogs and I imagine they'll be doing it well into their twilight. It warms my heart to see other hunters on here who feel it is just as important to watch their dogs enjoy themselves as it is to fill the bag. Too many guys these days are so fixated on killing stuff that they refuse to make any adjustments to their hunting as the dog gets older. Just leave them home. Those fellas don't have a clue as to what hunting is really about.

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from Ontario Honker ... wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

This thread and the one in Gun Nuts on deer camp junk food has helped me rethink my attitude about hunting as a social function. I have never seemed willing to adjust my hunting habits to accomodate friends or family, but have always been more than willing to bend for my dogs and, to a lesser extent, my horses (bending to the will of a thousand pound animal when seventy miles away from civiliation is not always advisable!). Perhaps that speaks volumes about the respective value I place on human life and culture vis a vis animals and the natural environment. Is there something wrong with this? Do I need to change? Hmmmmm. Mine is a different perspective and in some respects anti-social. But does that mean it's good or bad? My singular life in the field has been extremely enriching. I'm not sure it would have been as enriching if I'd been more socially "balanced." But could I not have shared the enrichment and thereby have become more enriched in a different way? Maybe. Maybe not. On thing I have learned is that following the trail less travelled usually took me to the places that were more inaccessible, less despoiled, and ultimately more productive. Nevertheless, I think there has been a price to pay. Whether it was worth it or not is perhaps in the eyes of the beholder.

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from SD Bob wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

I didn't realize when I read the topic it would turn into an emotional free fall? My golden started showing the signs when she turned 10. She went from hunt all day at 9, to hunt for a few miles at 10, to not being able to get in the truck on her own at 11. She passed this November at 14. My lab is 7 years old and I noticed her slow down this year so we no longer go on marathon outings or hunt more than 2 consecutive days.

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from Ontario Honker ... wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

Sorry, Bob. Most of us tend to get a bit emotional when our dogs get old. Makes it clear the bell tolls for us too.

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from WA Mtnhunter wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

We retell the story of my hunting buddy's Lab, Rocky, every year. Four years a go, he was almost 12 and suffering from a little cogestive heart failure, I thought. On the last Sunday of January, the snow goose closer, he beat the two youngsters to my last goose of the season as they scampered after other geese downed. Rocky smartly retrieved the big adult snow and brought it to me. When I reached for it, he jerked it away and trotted over to his master with it, releasing it to him. Tuesday morning, he had a brief episode and died before Jim could get dressed and get him in the truck to the vet. Always a trooper, he died with his boots on. We should all be so lucky....

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from Big Bob W wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

I've got my story too. Kate an English Pointer will be 16 on Thursday. I've never hunted her enough. We've had a great nine years together since I rescued her from an idiot that didn't know how to hunt pointers or what he had. She has been a big going bird finding machine. Took me three seasons to get her to hunt within foot range. In what was probably her last wild bird hunt I took her with me on a retriever land training day and after training was over I took her and Roux (my chocolate lab) up to where I knew one of the few decent covey's of quail would be findable since there is a permanent water source. We stopped frequently to rest and after the second break for water she finally hit scent. I got one bird on the covey rise. She had a total of four more points and I knocked down three birds in four shots. Roux made three nice retrieves and it was a great day. Kate has a raspy cough, but the heart is willing and every time I pick up a gun and head for the door she whines in he kennel to go. I might get some pen birds to plant for her just to watch my grand dame work, but with the drought we're in where I live there just aren't many wild birds and I think I owe it to the birds to give them a break and pray for winter snow and spring rain.

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from ITHACASXS wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

Thank you for great story. My wife had said no more for our labrador, until she saw Mindy dance around and get happy when I was cleaning my shotgun. That year was barely half-a-day hunting at a at-heel pace 'till she caught a scent, with the last bird for her being a woodcock. We lost her on November 14th, just 3 weeks later. She was fine friend.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Mark-1 wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

12-years age was about it for my setters. The dogs could keep the pace at 10, 11 they'd slow down, they were gone before their 12th year was up. Don't know why, but hearing loss was prevalent in most and would sneak up. The dogs would get separated from me in the brush. I'd have to wait at the truck for them to find their way back to me. That was the first hint for their full retirement.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Pray- hunt-work wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

October 3rd 2010 I lost a French Brittany, he was 12 yrs old, the very same age I was when I bought him. He passed the second day of bird season here in Maine. He had slowed, but like Ithaca mentioned, my dog was just like a puppy when the shotgun came out. 1 point, 1 shot, 1 retrieve. That's was Rems last day in the woods.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from springerman3 wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

I currently have two springers, Celm turned 12 on Dec 5th. We had a fine day for his birthday of 4 roosters ( one pheasant and 3 quail ), flushed two coveys, totaled about 40 birds so I was not concerned to take a few. this was a repeat of a hunt we had a few weeks earlier with my late Dad's gun 16 gauge Model 1400 to celebrate his birthday ( different field ).
He is still good for 2 - 3 hours in good pheasant cover and can go 5 - 6 in the grouse woods.
Pete the pup ( now 15 months )will be his replacement, I have been trying to alternate hunting them which has worked well. Pete has improved greatly in the last two weeks with snow now on the ground ( east central Iowa ), we shot 5 pheasants and 4 quail on two hunts around Christmas
While Clem is not ready to relinquish the throne he has been extremely tolerant of Pete and at times it is just hilarious to watch them go at it in the yard !
Clem was the replacement for what I thought was the dog of a lifetime ( Gabe, passed away at the age of 14 years, 2 months & 2 weeks ), he turned out to be every bit as good and a little better in a couple of areas. So Pete hads big paws to fill and seems up to the task at this time ( I will try to not mess this up ) !!
All my springers have been excellant family dogs as well !
It is hard to see an old friend go but the best cure is having a young one to fill that void.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Double D wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

Before Dublin passed a few years ago, I faced the same difficult choice. The dogs solved it for me as Aengus turned out to be the pheasant hunter. (Dublin never figured out he was supposed to be flushing birds for my benefit, not his.) Now that the old black dog is gone, I find myself taking the not-so-young-anymore black dog out for uplands birds and retrieving the waterfowl on my own (or relying on friends' dogs to do it).

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Ontario Honker ... wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

Pearl is eight now and I guess officially a cancer survivor - she had her last chemo just after Christmas. She was a bit slower this year and her hip sometimes bothered her after a cold long day chasing pheasants. I would then leave her in the Jimmy the next day and hunt the other two dogs. I'd always make sure to drop a bird before I got back to the rig, put the hunters in, and let Pearl out to go find it. Really made her day, mosty I think because Opal couldn't take it away from her! She was happy enough with that. But she's always such a good natured dog. No chance of leaving Opal in the vehicle though! She barks her head off for an hour!

The way I field hunt geese is real easy on the dogs and I imagine they'll be doing it well into their twilight. It warms my heart to see other hunters on here who feel it is just as important to watch their dogs enjoy themselves as it is to fill the bag. Too many guys these days are so fixated on killing stuff that they refuse to make any adjustments to their hunting as the dog gets older. Just leave them home. Those fellas don't have a clue as to what hunting is really about.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Ontario Honker ... wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

This thread and the one in Gun Nuts on deer camp junk food has helped me rethink my attitude about hunting as a social function. I have never seemed willing to adjust my hunting habits to accomodate friends or family, but have always been more than willing to bend for my dogs and, to a lesser extent, my horses (bending to the will of a thousand pound animal when seventy miles away from civiliation is not always advisable!). Perhaps that speaks volumes about the respective value I place on human life and culture vis a vis animals and the natural environment. Is there something wrong with this? Do I need to change? Hmmmmm. Mine is a different perspective and in some respects anti-social. But does that mean it's good or bad? My singular life in the field has been extremely enriching. I'm not sure it would have been as enriching if I'd been more socially "balanced." But could I not have shared the enrichment and thereby have become more enriched in a different way? Maybe. Maybe not. On thing I have learned is that following the trail less travelled usually took me to the places that were more inaccessible, less despoiled, and ultimately more productive. Nevertheless, I think there has been a price to pay. Whether it was worth it or not is perhaps in the eyes of the beholder.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from SD Bob wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

I didn't realize when I read the topic it would turn into an emotional free fall? My golden started showing the signs when she turned 10. She went from hunt all day at 9, to hunt for a few miles at 10, to not being able to get in the truck on her own at 11. She passed this November at 14. My lab is 7 years old and I noticed her slow down this year so we no longer go on marathon outings or hunt more than 2 consecutive days.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Ontario Honker ... wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

Sorry, Bob. Most of us tend to get a bit emotional when our dogs get old. Makes it clear the bell tolls for us too.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from WA Mtnhunter wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

We retell the story of my hunting buddy's Lab, Rocky, every year. Four years a go, he was almost 12 and suffering from a little cogestive heart failure, I thought. On the last Sunday of January, the snow goose closer, he beat the two youngsters to my last goose of the season as they scampered after other geese downed. Rocky smartly retrieved the big adult snow and brought it to me. When I reached for it, he jerked it away and trotted over to his master with it, releasing it to him. Tuesday morning, he had a brief episode and died before Jim could get dressed and get him in the truck to the vet. Always a trooper, he died with his boots on. We should all be so lucky....

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Big Bob W wrote 1 year 14 weeks ago

I've got my story too. Kate an English Pointer will be 16 on Thursday. I've never hunted her enough. We've had a great nine years together since I rescued her from an idiot that didn't know how to hunt pointers or what he had. She has been a big going bird finding machine. Took me three seasons to get her to hunt within foot range. In what was probably her last wild bird hunt I took her with me on a retriever land training day and after training was over I took her and Roux (my chocolate lab) up to where I knew one of the few decent covey's of quail would be findable since there is a permanent water source. We stopped frequently to rest and after the second break for water she finally hit scent. I got one bird on the covey rise. She had a total of four more points and I knocked down three birds in four shots. Roux made three nice retrieves and it was a great day. Kate has a raspy cough, but the heart is willing and every time I pick up a gun and head for the door she whines in he kennel to go. I might get some pen birds to plant for her just to watch my grand dame work, but with the drought we're in where I live there just aren't many wild birds and I think I owe it to the birds to give them a break and pray for winter snow and spring rain.

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