The Last Days of a Great Gun Dog

The author pays tribute to his English setter and longtime hunting buddy, Ike

This F&S Classic first appeared in the April 2011 issue. This is the first time it has been published online. —The Editors

Ike had a brother named Ike. He was born of grouse hunting stock in southeast Ohio. My friend Randy had promised me the generous gift of a tall, spotted setter with a big head and droopy lips, “like a dog out of a Currier and Ives print.” He called me shortly after the litter was born.

“I’ve got two males left,” he said. “Abe has the tricolor markings you wanted. I also have this black-and-white puppy, Ike. I’m liking the Abe dog for you.”

“Abe sounds great,” I said. “But I like Ike’s name.”

“No problem,” said Randy. “We’ll call ’em both Ike.”

We met at a motel in Richmond, Ind., halfway between Randy’s house in grouse country and my home in pheasant country. “Here’s your next 10 years,” he said, giving me the 10-week-old puppy. I’d like to say we bonded instantly, but Ike was a baby and I was a clueless first-time puppy owner. Randy taught me the command “Be quick,” to encourage a dog to relieve itself quickly outside. “When it’s 10 degrees on the side of a gravel road in South Dakota you’ll be glad he knows this one,” he explained. Outside in Richmond it was 70, and Ike was in no hurry to do anything but explore the grass at the edge of the parking lot. My first memory of our journey together is of me following him around ineffectually repeating, “Be quick.”

Thirteen years, not 10, would pass until Ike lay blind and dying in the house. When my wife, Pam, and I took him to be put down, he wouldn’t have lasted another 24 hours. I cried some, but mostly I felt relief. I’d seen him through a long life. I’d given him a second chance. In the first days after Ike died, I felt joy just for having known him. My mother, who ranked second on Ike’s list of favorite people, told me I would have the distance and perspective, now that his decline had ended, to remember him as he had been. When I did, I realized with a start that Ike had been my dog for a quarter of my life.

The Knucklehead

People told me setters were slow to develop and that I should just let Ike run and have fun during his puppy season. On his first hunt, at 6 months old, he chased after the big dogs. Next day, I ran him by himself. He pointed a rooster in a field of overgrown corn stubble. The ringneck fell dead in front of Ike’s nose, and from then on he was a hunting dog. He did have to recalibrate. As a grouse dog, his instinct was to freeze at the slightest whiff of scent, but he soon learned the best way to stop a pheasant from running was to forget the long-range grouse points and crowd right up over a crouching bird. I shot many more pheasants than I had expected to over Ike that first year and was looking forward to the second. Then he bit my son.

phil bourjaily kneeling beside hunting dog
Ike seems pleased with his pleased owner during an upland hunt. Phil Bourjaily

Gordon was 8 years old. He put his face too close to Ike’s, and Ike nipped him hard enough for stitches. Gordon tried to cover his bloody lip and lie about what happened so the dog wouldn’t get in trouble. The ER doctor insisted we put Ike down. I couldn’t believe Ike was vicious, but I had two young kids at home. I had to do the right thing. I was just afraid of what the right thing would entail.

I called my vet. “Ike was just being a teenage knucklehead,” she said. “He’ll outgrow it. At that age they see little kids as other dogs.” She prescribed neutering and a month in a promise collar—a halter-like collar that would simulate another dog grabbing Ike’s muzzle and, theoretically, enforce subdominant behavior. Ike went under the doctor’s knife, then into the collar, which he hated. When we finally took it off, he found it and chewed it to bits.

We hired a dog behavioral therapist to examine Ike. (If you live in a university town like I do, you just look under “pet therapists” in the Yellow Pages.) Ike greeted her as he greeted everybody: with a big grin, a wiggly tail, and jowls of drool. She pushed him around. He flopped. She put him on a leash and walked him around the block. “This is not an aggressive dog,” she said. “I predict success.”

Reprieved, Ike went on to give me 11 more seasons. Everyone with him was a delight. He never lost his puppy dependence on me. All he ever wanted to do was hunt, then come find me for a head scratch and a drink, then go hunt some more.

Ike learned the mix of finesse and aggressiveness it takes to pin wild roosters. He performed the task by freezing into a classically beautiful point—tail held low, the old-fashioned way. But he was far from perfect: His cripple finding was poor, his retrieving nonexistent. Some days he ranged farther than I wanted. Even for a dog, Ike was dim. You only had to watch him try to negotiate an obstacle like a fence to see him max out his problem-solving abilities. He would stand, wagging his tail either hopefully or frantically, depending on how long he had been stuck.

Field Trials

Whoever thought up the English setter had only a vague idea of where hunting actually takes place, and Ike was proof of that. Setters are covered with long feathery hair everywhere, including in between their toes. Our seasons began with an annual haircut. I used electric clippers on his coat and scissors on the hair between his toes. Ike would flop stoically until his hair was gone. But even buzz-cut, Ike looked good. With my stylish gun dog, my dad’s high-grade Beretta o/u, and my perpetually new hunting clothes (a perk of the job), I liked to think I was the picture of elegance afield. If I ever was, that picture always shattered the moment the gun went off. He could find hard-hit birds that didn’t go far, but the only runners Ike caught were the ones that came down in plain sight. I learned to toss elegance aside and run to any pheasant I shot.

One day, at our local wildlife management area, a broken-winged rooster hit the ground running in weedy bean stubble. Ike ran after it. I ran, too, dropping my gun in case I needed both hands to grab the bird. As Ike was about to catch it, the pheasant turned 180 degrees and tried to dart back through Ike’s legs. Ike did a belly flop, then lay on the bird, ending the chase. He looked at me, wide eyed and uncertain what to do next. I dug the pheasant out from underneath him and dispatched it, relieved that Ike had caught the bird and torn between laughing at my dog and feeling sorry for the pheasant that deserved a more dignified end. Then I spent the next 15 minutes looking for my heirloom shotgun in the weeds.

I shot a lot of birds over Ike. Whether he was a good hunting dog or not ultimately doesn’t matter. He was my dog. And to a bird hunter, hunting without your own dog doesn’t feel like hunting.

Show Dog

My approach to bird-dog training is simple: Teach the dog his name and to come when called, then get him into birds. It worked with Ike, who got better every year. All dogs show you birds you would never see otherwise, but at his peak Ike scented birds in ways that made me wonder if he couldn’t have been something special in the hands of a real trainer. Once on a November afternoon, four of us, along with Ike and two other dogs, stopped in the corner of a fenceline to take a break after a long walk without any action. Ike went to sleep with his head in my lap. After a few minutes, he opened his eyes, lifted his head and sniffed, then crept 15 yards and pointed.

“Ike’s got one,” I said. No one else made a move to get up, but “always believe the dog” is a cardinal rule. I loaded my gun, walked past Ike, and shot the rooster that flushed in front of him. Another flushed at the report, and I shot it, too. Those were the only two pheasants we saw all day.

hunting dog napping on clothes
Ike gets ready for a nap on the author’s hunting clothes. Phil Bourjaily

We had good days, uneventful days, and frustrating days together—​probably 300 hunts in all. Both of my sons shot their first pheasants over Ike’s points. I usually hunted with Ike by myself, but he saved his very best day for an audience of my peers when I took him on a Beretta-sponsored writers’ hunt. As four of us writers and two guides gathered our gear, I asked the guide timidly if it was O.K. to run my dog, promising to put him up if he didn’t behave. I opened the crate, wondering whether it would be Good Ike or Unruly Ike that jumped out. I needn’t have worried. My big white dog sailed across the field, pointing bird after bird, the guide’s shorthairs trailing in his wake, backing and retrieving. “Dude,” exclaimed the younger guide. “Your dog is in the zone!”

Later, I overheard my colleague Larry, owner of many pheasant dogs I have admired, telling the other guide, Pete, “I’ve hunted over Ike since he was a puppy,” as if just knowing my dog was something to brag about.

“We can put Ike away now if you want,” I told Pete after a while.

“No way! You can’t put the hot dog up!”

For the rest of the season, I called Ike the Hot Dog.

Sweet Relief

Dogs’ lives are fragile; so many mishaps can befall them. There were only two times in Ike’s life when I thought I would lose him, both of which proved more comical than serious. One Christmas Eve we came back from midnight mass to find that, unbeknownst to us, my mother had included a pound of chocolate coins for each of my sons among the gifts we had put under the tree. Ike had sniffed out the chocolate—he had an incredible nose for it—opened the boxes and eaten every coin, leaving the foil wrappers licked clean all over the carpet. Chocolate, I had read, was deadly poison to dogs. I called the vet. The doctor asked me what kind of chocolate, how much, and how much Ike weighed, then he did some math. “A 65-pound dog would have to eat over 10 pounds of milk chocolate to hurt itself,” the vet said. “He’ll be fine. You’ll have some cleanup to do tomorrow. Merry Christmas.”

hunting dog sitting in snow
Ike takes a seat during a bird hunt in South Dakota. Phil Bourjaily

Much scarier was the day at the edge of the frozen reservoir when we jumped three deer that took off across the ice. Ike chased them. I screamed and shot my gun in the air, but he kept after them until he and the deer were just tiny spots in the middle of the lake. Finally he came back. Fifty yards from shore he broke through. I peeled off my coat and started taking tentative steps out on the ice. Before I did anything stupid, I looked at Ike again. He was standing in the hole, wagging his tail. The lake wasn’t more than a foot deep there.

Old-Timer

At 6 or 7 years old, dogs peak, then start to slow down. I rarely hunt whole days, so I didn’t notice Ike’s decline until the year he turned 10. We were having some of our best hunts together, but he could only hunt slowly for three hours a day. It was time for a new dog.

Jed, a German shorthair, came into our home the next summer. It’s true that a puppy makes an old dog younger. Ike and Jed chased each other around the living room, Ike galumphing like a giant puppy. At first, Ike had to be gentle with Jed. But as the younger dog grew, Jed had to be careful of Ike. As Ike aged, and Jed’s agility increased, their game became Jed running while Ike barked and wagged his tail—the barking often ending in a coughing fit.

During Jed’s first season, Ike would tag along for a while, then I’d put him in the truck and run Jed by himself. Ike pointed one covey of quail that season. He backed Jed on a few points. On the last day of pheasant season Jed was off being a puppy, bumping birds in the long grass. Ike pottered unseen behind me. Temporarily dogless, I found fresh pheasant tracks in the snow and followed them until a rooster flushed. I shot, and it hit the ground mortally wounded but running. Before I could give chase, Ike ran past me and jumped on the bird. It was the last time he ever got feathers in his mouth.

The next season, Ike came along but never hunted. I would lift him out of the box, let him run around as I got my gun out, then put him back and hunt Jed. When we got home, he felt as if he had been hunting and went to sleep. He was like the old-timers who go to deer camp just to sit on the porch and be there.

Good Dog

Ike went blind suddenly. One day he could see, the next he started walking into furniture. For the rest of the season, I still brought him along and let him wander around the truck as I got ready to hunt. He declined fast in the winter. For a while I could lead him up and down the stairs, but eventually I had to carry him, all the while trying to gather the nerve to have him put down. Ike was weak and scarcely aware of his surroundings when I finally called the vet.

Pam and I took him to Dr. Ebert just before closing. She had always liked Ike. Every annual checkup Ike would sit quietly to be examined. Dr. Ebert would look into his ears, and I would make some joke about how she should be able to see right through to the other side. When she put the stethoscope to his chest, she always said the same thing: “You’ve got a good heart, Ike.”

I always believed he did.

She gave him the injection. Ike’s good heart stopped beating.

“I guess it’s the circle of life,” she said. “He was a good old dog.”

hunting dog collar hanging on a wall
Ike’s collar and bell, retired. The Gormans

Circle of life. Good old dog. Banal but true. It was his time, I thought, and he’d had a long, happy run. I had given him another chance, had taken him hunting, and had no regrets. I had Jed now. Losing a dog isn’t so bad, I told myself. The joy I felt in having known Ike lasted a week. It must have been a kind of natural anesthesia for the pain of loss, because the feeling faded, leaving a hole.

New Season

The season that just ended was my first without Ike since 1996. Honestly, with a young dog to watch, I didn’t miss Ike in the field as much as I had feared. But there are still those constant little reminders around the house that he is gone. When we’d come back from hunting, I would always set my vest, bag, and gun case down by the hall closet, and Ike would always fall asleep on top of it before I let go of the carrying strap. So this season, whenever I glanced at the hunting-gear dog bed, I expected to see Ike on it as I had for 13 years—a stretch that seems like both a very long time and an instant. When I saw it was empty, I’d tell myself to remember always that we are lucky to have them every day they are here.

In the last few days of the season, Jed picked up the habit of sleeping on my hunting gear. He is only two and a half, but the other day I noticed the first white hairs around his muzzle.