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?