The recent summary of the MO Hunting and Trapping Regulations features a picture of a dog on the front cover, perhaps a Brittany or English Setter, I can’t be sure. The pose is classic. Wise eyes. An aged, experienced face. A quail softly clutched in its mouth.
But something was missing. A vital piece of information. I looked everywhere but couldn’t find it anywhere. The dog has no name. No attribution given. No credit present, except for the photographer. I realize this is not uncommon. I just received a magazine and catalogue in the mail full of gorgeous unnamed dog models. But when I thumb through the pages, looking at these provocative canine pictures, something feels wrong. It feels exploitative.
Dogs are not just an accessory to adorn covers of brochures and magazines. They are not a fashionable prop to be paraded and then kenneled. They are dependents. They are family. They are people. And this is especially true of hunting dogs. The kind of dog, when not hunting, is waiting to hunt, and when sleeping, is dreaming of hunting. The kind of dog who makes a man whole and tears his heart in two when they are gone.
Now you may think I’m overreacting a bit; much ado about nothing, but I think not. You see, I just read 29 stories about another man’s dog. For the fourth time. The man’s dog, a yellow Labrador, was named Thor, and during his long but short life he became a celebrity, and 30 years later, after his life ended, I find myself grieving his passing. Or maybe my sorrow is for the life of the man who was Thor’s keeper, and the time they shared together, now both gone and past. Or maybe I mourn a life without a dog, a detail too personal for this story. Or maybe I am simply trying to rationalize decisions made and not made.
Any way you cut it my conclusion is the same. A dog’s story is important. Their identity is important. Their stories are as meaningful as our own because they are one and the same. And to make this point clear, all you need to do is look at the hunting scenes scratched into the wall of a cave in Saudi Arabia, possibly dated to 8,000 BCE; dogs tethered to the waist of hunters. That is their life and a symbol of their story. Tethered to humans, or maybe we are tethered to them?
Now I have met many dogs. Mostly good dogs of various breeds. I’m attracted to some more than others, and clearly, the feeling is mutual. I have followed them on foot and horseback through the brush and grass. Been amazed by their work in the field and marsh. Some have been indifferent to my presence, but not rude. Others chased me, and a couple nipped me a time or two for no good reason for which I am aware. I’ve petted them, held them as they slept or were sick, hurt, or afraid. So, believe me when I tell you dogs are among some of the finest people I’ve ever met.
And so, to Thor, your days of thunder long past, the man left behind copious evidence of your triumphs, failures, and character. We know more about you than you likely knew of yourself. Be thankful you lived before social media, although I doubt the man would’ve been a fan, preserving some privacy known only between the two of you. I will read your stories again, and again, and wish I could’ve met you.
To Hank and Paige, thanks for all the ducks and geese retrieved and your patience when waterfowl were few, or our shooting was poor. No duck fell too far. No goose was too big. No eagle could out retrieve.
To Rip, the old wise one. Size of small pony. A great nose. Known for little patience and a gift for slobber and drool. No dog has logged more hours in our marsh. The Gandalf of duck camp. Thanks for overcoming your age to find one more duck. A retrieve that defined who you were and what time has taken away.
To young Willow, you steal my heart, and if I could get away with it, I’d steal you.
To Lucy, I wish I could chase grouse and woodcock like you did and wish I would’ve been a better shot. I hope you weren’t disappointed.
To Gypsy, I’d shovel three feet of snow for you again, making an easy place to pee in the middle of January. Getting old is not for the faint hearted. Thanks for preparing me for the inevitable. I hope someone does the same for me someday.
To Betsy, thanks for taking time away from chasing rabbits to be the only friend Mina ever wanted to see, and for occasionally stopping by to say hello even though your friend is gone.
To Bo, GO HOME!
To Maggie and Mina, we miss you. Thanks for all you gave to us.
And so today, before I clean the nose doodles from the downstairs window, I think about DNA and cloning. I think about starting again. I wonder about lifespans, mortality, freedom, and commitment. And for now, I chose to be satisfied living a part of my life vicariously. It’s been 920 days, the window is clean, but my vision is blurry.