Lizzie is a welcome visitor to the farm, full of life and happiness and excitement and wonder. Boisterous and hyperactive, she charges into the wild of weedy fields, ready and willing to meet and master new adventures. Her youthful enthusiasm triggers the release of some combination of endorphins in my own body, lightening my step on a cool spring morning in the North Country at a time when my tread has become labored and heavy.
Lizzie is pure fun. A four-month-old yellow Labrador retriever, she is joyful, beautiful, strong, and well-built – and she smells nice. She is bold, but she is also eager to please and quick to comprehend and abide by the new rules of proper behavior she is learning. This most pleasant combination of personality traits in a hunting dog is more rare than you might think. Lizzie is aggressive but not stubborn, sensitive but not soft, clever but not cunning, attentive but not fixated, obedient but not submissive, affectionate but not doting. She has the makings of an outstanding bird dog.
She reveals these character traits all though our morning walk as she charges forth, explores, hunts, examines, reacts, seeks affirmation, responds, and remembers. Her steep learning curve afield is partly due to the instruction she is receiving from Abbey, my six-year-old French spaniel who is leading the morning walk and (reluctantly) teaching Lizzie the basic skills of the bird dog trade. But mostly Lizzie’s talents can be attributed to her good breeding and the affection she received in the first few weeks of her life.
The key to success as a bird dog trainer is to choose a puppy that was born of canine parents who are both good hunters and that is emotionally secure because of much attention from and gentle handling by its human family. Add two or three 30-minute training sessions each day for six months (even the most talented dog has to learn The Eight Commandments to be the best hunting partner it can be), and your friends will be amazed that a clod like you could become such an amazing dog trainer.
Lizzie is a “loaner puppy”: I am boarding her a day here and a day there while her family deals with some health issues. Each of these days brings back memories of a long-ago time when I thought myself an accomplished trainer of bird dogs, despite the clod that I am. We are working, Lizzie and I, on a few of those Eight Commandments whenever she is here on the farm, but mostly I am renewing my sense of astonishment with the retrieving desire and skill of the Labrador breed.
Throw the retrieving dummy as far as I can, hold her as long as I want, and when released she is a guided missile to the “dead bird,” never wavering from the most direct line, never under-casting, seldom over-casting, using her nose like a pro in heavy cover, racing back to me with the retrieving buck firmly in her mouth, then sitting to offer, handing it to me on command. I did not teach her any of this. It is instinctive. And that is the thrill and the wonder.
As with any hard-driving puppy, Lizzie’s exuberance and drive hit the wall at a certain point, and I am careful to pay heed. We retire to the Clubhouse, and while I sit in my easy chair, light a cigar, and re-read any of a dozen much-thumbed dog training books from my bookshelves, Lizzie collapses on the floor at my feet and is soon snoring. I do not regard snoring as a fault in a bird dog. After all, imitation of the master’s style is the most sincere compliment.
These days with Lizzie have awakened a yearning to find and train one more bird dog puppy of my own, but the pipedreams of an old man vanish like smoke in the wind when I match up the lists of Pros and Cons. At the top of the Cons list is the fact that it would not be fair to offer a new puppy my tacit promise of 10 years of bird hunting when I do not have 10 years of bird hunting left in me. Also, I no longer have the strength to go through another “puppy-to-put-down” cycle of life with a hunting companion who comes and claims a part of my soul in the springtime of her years and then departs with it in the winter of her seasons as she dies in my arms. As Rudyard Kipling wrote more than a century ago, “Brother and Sister I bid you beware of giving your heart to a dog to tear.”
Instead, I lash a couple pheasant wings to the retrieving buck while Lizzie sleeps, preparation for another few moments of happiness for both of us on today’s visit, hers inspired by a Labrador’s innate passion, mine by the wonder of witnessing that passion. A burst of youth’s credulous excitement flashes between us, a spark of electricity that opens my brain’s memory cells and frees the delight and enchantment of thousands of puppy training sessions over the past 50 years.
Come visit any time, Lizzie. For me, your name is Elixir.
More essays and stories about bird dogs, bird hunting, bird guns, and life in the North Country are published in my five collections of essays, available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page