When We Give Ourselves To Our Gun Dogs

In writing a blog devoted primarily to the training of and hunting with dogs, it's sometimes interesting to change things up a bit--to put aside the practicalities of training tips, gear reviews and other fact-based topics and just tell a story, a personal story (albeit a short one) that, on some level, I think we can all identify with, because eventually we will all be the man in the story to one degree or another. Is it sad? Perhaps, but that's the devil's bargain we make when we give ourselves to our dogs...

There he was, sitting on his customary stool at the gun counter when I walked into the shop, shooting the bull with the other regulars, just like always. Except that it was mid-August, which meant he was supposed to be in Montana with a truck full of dogs. Like many pro trainers, his was the gypsy life: South Texas in the winter, Montana in the summer, interspersed by a few brief interludes back home in the spring and fall.

He pulled a travel trailer behind his dog truck and would spend the summers camped out right on the grounds, training dogs, running a few trials or hunt tests and laughing at all us suckers back home who were sweltering in the heat while he lived the kind of grand, carefree, nomadic lifestyle that only a retired lifelong bachelor, whose nuclear family consisted wholly of labs, can have.

I hadn't seen him since spring, and when he turned to see who was walking through the door, I noticed immediately how tired he looked, as if some unseen force had left a patina of fatigue on his face--in his voice.

"Well, well, if it isn't Cheap Chad!" (his nickname for me) he called out as I walked up to the counter: His usual greeting, but now missing the vitality and good-natured bellicosity that had always been his trademark. And it was punctuated with a long, rattling cough.

"What are you doing here?" I asked, grabbing a stool. "I didn't expect to see you until at least mid-September."

"I retired," he replied, coughing into a handkerchief. "Sent all the client dogs home, selling the dog truck, the trailer, everything."

A pause. Confusion. This was inconceivable to me. This man's entire life, his whole reason for being, revolved around retrievers; training them, hunting them, talking about training and hunting them, living them. There are those of us who love dogs and then there are those of us who live dogs, and I always figured he'd die - and die happy - while sending one of his labs on a mark in a duck blind or on a training pond somewhere. That i could be so lucky, I'd often think.

"So are you going to just concentrate on running your own dogs?" I asked. Another pause, longer this time. "Nope, I'm done with the dog games. No more traveling for me." The question of why left unspoken, I replied, "Well, at least you'll be here for duck season this year."

"Nope, no more training and no more hunting for me, either. I got sick, and I'm just not physically able to do it any more."

Silence. I didn't know what to say, how to reply. I didn't ask what "sick" meant, and he didn't elaborate. We just sat there without speaking for a few moments as I thought back to a conversation we'd had back in the fall, right here in this same gun shop, sitting on these same stools. While everyone else around us was busy getting ready for deer season, he was packing up to head for Texas, and he had told me then, "You know, as old as I am and as long as I've been doing this, I don't think I've ever been more addicted."

And now, suddenly, it was gone. All over. The fundamental given of a person's very existence erased in the space of a few short months. We sat there for a few minutes more, talk drifting to other things even as the pall lingered on the periphery of the conversation. After a while I got up, told him it was time to go pick my kids up from school.

"You know, I've got a boat now so maybe a few times this duck season we can go out to the lake with one of your dogs. Maybe your young one? What's he got, one master pass? He shouldn't embarrass you too much. I'd do everything and all you'd have to do is sit there and work the dog. Hell, that's all you ever do anyway, right?" Hiding behind the false bravado of cheap humor when real words fail. It's as good a definition of manhood as I know.

"We could maybe do that," he replied. "We'll see how it goes this fall."

We'll see how it goes this fall. The past, present and future of one's existence distilled into a single, brief sentence. We never realize how full life truly is, until it's not. How many more falls do I have? How many more dogs? The great pisser of existence is that I have no idea, no clue. None of us do. All we can do is see how it goes this fall.