I have been both blessed and cursed with long-lived bird dogs. Keela, my first Brittany, was my sixteenth birthday present, and despite her devotion to making an enemy out of every living thing, she managed to survive to see her own sixteenth. The quintessential alpha female, Keela picked fights with other hunting dogs (a trait responsible for diminished invitations on group hunting trips), scrapped with coyotes, got roughed up by a bear cub that she provoked, killed one housecat that I know of, and largely hunted for herself, flushing birds well out of range and refusing to hold point or retrieve. Despite all this, she was a loyal friend and I lay the blame for most of her shortcomings on the dog-rearing skills of a teenager. I even took her to college with me.
Not long after I departed, my mom decided to get my dad a new Brittany pup for his own birthday. He'd formerly owned two Britts, but it had been years since they'd passed away, and now that Keela wasn't at home, he needed a new hunting partner. I was enlisted to select the puppy from the litter, and relied on the opposite logic I'd used to choose Keela. I'd read in a training book that hunters should pick the most aggressive pup in the bunch, but this time I chose the quiet little one lying away from her roughhousing littermates.
Quinn turned into the best hunting dog I've ever known. Since my dad had a real job and I didn't—opting to be a fishing guide after a fruitless stint at school—she became my constant hunting partner on my unemployed autumn adventures. I was living in an apartment in Bend, Oregon, with an allergic girlfriend, which didn't allow me to keep Quinn with me. But at least once a week I'd sneak up to my parents' house in the wee hours to steal her and make a trip to one of the many Oregon rivers rich with upland birds—the Deschutes, John Day, Owyhee or Grande Ronde.
Quinn had a split personality—a good one. When she was in the house or on a walk in the park she was passive and quiet; in the field she was energized yet efficient. Her nose rarely missed a bird and she was the most versatile and adaptive upland dog I've ever hunted over. With minimal training on my part, she learned to point ruffed grouse roosted in trees, cut off running pheasants and flush them back to me, work tightly and quietly when hunting quail and Huns, and freeze nervous chukars from a distance, allowing me to get within range before flushing them. At age three she up-and-decided to start retrieving, and took great pleasure filling my bird bag every day we hunted together.
Quinn and I chased birds in the steep, basalt canyons of Oregon until she was 10. When I moved to Missoula in 2005 my dad told me to take her with me, so she could enjoy her latter years in the more subtle terrain of ringneck country. Quinn, bless her soul, passed away this past winter and set the bar pretty high for both friends and bird dogs.
Bird hunters tend to be as loyal as their canine counterparts when it comes to devotion to a breed. Lab guys will always own labs; English pointer guys will always run pointers. There are exceptions, of course—hunters who play the field, continuously searching for a breed with the perfect traits to suit their game and lifestyle. I fit in the former category. My dad ran Brittanies when they were still classified as "spaniels," before the powers-that-be realized the error. Britts are pointing dogs; spaniels are flushing dogs, a different style of hunting.
Enter Skookum, my latest Brittany, my hunting partner for the next decade. If everything goes as planned.
Like many couples, my fiancée and I decided that we needed to start our future with a puppy, a sort of readiness test for parenthood (all inferred hesitancy intended). Lauren's miniature schnauzer, Roxy, was six, too old to be practice material. Quinn had hunted her last full season and I'd had to retire my favorite bird dog to a life of short walks and lounging around the house, a transition she adjusted to more easily than me.
By spring, Lauren found a liver-and-white Brittany online in Columbia Falls. I'd always owned the more traditional orange-and-white variety and was hesitant, but Lauren insisted we drive up "just to take a look"—and I knew damned well we were coming home with a puppy.
There were two dogs left in the litter, an orange-and-white male and the little brown-and-white female with the irresistible face. She was the product of an accidental rendezvous between a highly acclaimed sire and well-papered bitch. At $400, she also came at a fair price, so we paid the man and took her home.