Let Me Be Perfectly Frank: Love, Loss, and Come Back Here
t’s the rage in their faces that I find so amusing. The crimson red that starts down in the neck of their shirts and blossoms into full-blown, catatonic frustration. Standing in a field of wiregrass looking every bit the experienced dog trainer, with the whistle and the leads and the necessary accoutrement, and no fewer than two onlookers fully prepared to offer critical commentary on his dogs and, by extension, his training ability—his star student runs like a scalded dog in the direction of, well, we’re not sure on the direction part. That dog’s probably still running. It’s a wonder more of those fellows don’t die of a stroke in the field, or simply and spontaneously combust. As a dog, though, I find the enterprise more than a little bit entertaining. I was a student myself, back in the day, and I’m not sure I’d want anybody recalling what got put on my permanent record. Those are real, right? Permanent records? Just kidding. We all know nothing is permanent in this world. Although I think we should state, for the record, that the still-running dog might be gone, permanently.
The question, then, is how to build trust with a puppy that will persevere through trials and tribulations and manifest into hunting success as an adult dog. And what a question it is. The literary response alone is noteworthy, with hundreds of books currently in circulation about methodology. Obedience training begins early, and the sound of clickers fills the hallways and laundry rooms and backyards as treats are exchanged and bonds are built. As mastery is achieved, or patience wears out, compromises are reached, deals are struck. The puppy has ceded the old recliner in the corner, both as a resting spot and a chew toy, but banned from the new recliner with an even better view of the television. “Sit” and “stay” morph into “slow down” and “kennel, right now, and I mean it.” Almost without fail, the pup cocks her head sideways, casts a confused glance with those glacier-melting eyes, and returns to chewing the Gucci loafer that really didn’t fit anymore, anyway. And this is all long before birds are introduced, retrieves are encouraged, and all the fun is taken outside. I feel your pain. Well, to be clear, I sympathize. Remember, I’ve only been on the other side of that trade, but my wisdom and maturity—perhaps the greatest assets of an old dog—prompt me to offer a cold wet nudge of the nose to that frustrated hand of yours before you raise it in anger. Trust me when I tell you that a dog never forgets. We forgive unconditionally, but we never forget.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, that dog is still running, and that poor trainer has whistled himself hoarse. If this were a television medical drama, somebody would’ve hollered “Code Blue” by now. His vital signs are fading faster than a trophy wife at a will reading. “Somebody get that man back to the lodge and set up a bourbon and branch water drip, STAT,” I said with all the medical authority I could muster. But did they listen to me? Don’t answer that.
The guide decides to drop another brace of dogs, and our hunt resumes, though I’m not sure the trainer has recovered from the shock. He’s working the new dogs, but you can tell his heart is not in it. That muscle rests firmly in the jaws of defeat, and the rush of angry blood has receded back down his neck into his shirt, leaving his face vacant and pale white. He’s replaying the tape, recounting the hours and hours spent in training his prize dog, building a hunting machine so focused on birds that no distraction, no rain, no sleet, no hail, could keep him from his appointed rounds. That dog was the Birdmaster General, and he delivered to hand every time, until he didn’t. There was no consoling the old trainer, so we loaded up the trucks and headed back to the lodge.
Wait for it. Wait for it. Sit. Stay.
The trucks were splashing mud everywhere as we made our way down the rain-soaked, sandy road back to the lodge. As we approached the last little hill, a white flash could be seen in the woods off to the right, darting through the trees like a ghost with a purpose, bounding toward a great cacophony of howling and barking deeper in the woods. The old trainer sprang to life, renewed by the apparition and hopeful, if not optimistic. Turning the Jeep toward the chaos, we emerged from a tunnel of pines into a barnyard of kennels, with happy dogs singing canine love songs in their best tenor voices. The old trainer found his runaway making his case at the kennel gate of an unassuming spaniel, whose hold on the community was as old as time itself. And with much ado, the trainer and dog were reunited and heading for cocktails and an expanded version of this story around the fire pit. Well, at least one of them was. That’s okay, though. Take it from an old dog. Sometimes we frustrate you because that’s how biology works. But sometimes we frustrate you simply because we can. Stir that into your highball and sip awhile.