I still remember the night, more than 13 years ago, that we had to put my hunting dog down. He was a 10-year-old yellow Lab named Miles, and he was bleeding out internally as cancer consumed his liver. We had been aware of the general immediacy of the outcome for several days, and I'll never forget the heartbreaking sight of him that evening as he refused to re-enter the house after a short and very slow walk—lowered head, pained eyes, resolute stance. He was telling me it was time for him to find a bush to crawl under and die, and instead we took him to our vet. As I held him in my arms she put him under general anesthesia, removed his testicles, and pumped the heart-stopper into his system. That night I cried like I hadn't since childhood, and I feel his absence to this day. A great hunting dog is a huge part of your life when he's around, and leaves an equally big hole when he's gone.
As for the story of his balls, more on that in a bit.
Miles was three months old when we arrived in Missoula in the spring of 1991. Just as I received a waterfowling imprint from my father, Miles carried the genes of the dog my dad and I had hunted over during my formative years. Captain was a magnificent yellow with a heart that equaled his powerful physique, and his legend still resonates among a particular subset of aging Wisconsin bird hunters. When my dad informed me that he'd bred Captain for a hunting pup, I jumped at the chance to acquire a littermate. I named him Miles after the jazz great with whom I share a surname—a decision that initially rankled my old man, who considered musicians unworthy namesakes for hunting dogs. He got over that quickly and named his own pup "Shotgun Willie" after the great Texas troubadour.
Sparse employment that first Missoula summer and fall allowed me to devote countless hours to working my pup, guided by Water Dog, a training book by the late, great Richard Wolters. Miles was highly competent at 7 months, his age during our first waterfowl season together. By the next season he was an absolute machine, working whistle commands, hand signals and blind retrieves with a passion and precision that left witnesses astonished.
For a decade we hunted ducks as hard as we could, first in the river bottoms around Missoula and then, after a move, along the north end of Flathead Lake. Thanks to Miles, my hunting companions and I routinely recorded season-long retrieval rates at or near 100 percent. From a practical standpoint, that's why you hunt over a well-trained waterfowl dog: to maximize retrieval efficiency and thus demonstrate proper respect for the birds you shoot. Every good bird hunter I know will go to near-Herculean lengths to find a downed bird, and the advantage a trained retriever gives you is so significant that I generally refuse to hunt ducks without one. But of course, practicality is only the start of the hunter-dog relationship. I'm not sure anybody really knows where it ends, but there's no question that its arc is defined by stories. And man, I've got a million of them.
My 9-year-old son has taken to requesting Miles stories at bedtime. I think he's probably playing me a bit, because he knows I seldom refuse the request, and because Miles stories tend to delay lights-out longer than most. But I also believe Miles' presence is still strong enough, in our house and in our lives, that he feels it, even though he was born nearly five years after Miles' death.
So I'll crawl into bed next to him and tell him about the time I sent Miles into a thicket of cattails after a duck I'd shot sailed clear across the pond we were hunting. I couldn't see Miles, but from my vantage on a short bluff above the thicket I could see the tops of the cattails shaking as he bulled through, searching for scent. When the shaking stopped suddenly, I knew he was on the bird, and I encouraged him to pick it up.
Nothing. Dead stillness. Confused now, I gave Miles the whistle command for "go" and again called him to fetch it up. This time a few cattail tops began moving slightly, in rhythm, and I could picture him in there, locked on something and just barely wagging his tail. He whined when I whistled again but still didn't move, so I whistled and barked the order in the tone he recognized as one not to cross. A half-second later he came tearing out of the cattails like a bat out of hell, yelping loudly and sporting what appeared to be a cartoon beard. I spent the ride home with his pin-cushioned head on my lap, and the next several hours removing dozens of quills from his face. I felt like a complete asshole, of course, for abusing the power I had over him, for making him fetch what his instincts correctly told him was distinctly unfetchable, and for not listening when he communicated that fact to me.
When I tell the story to my boy, I give voice to what Miles must have been thinking: Seriously, man? I mean, I know this thing is not a duck and I'm pretty sure we don't want any part of it... Really? Well, okay... ouch ouch ouch I told you, you asshole!
I don't actually use the term "asshole" when I tell the story, but he's a sharp kid and I'm pretty sure he can read between the lines.
Or I'll tell him about the first time Miles ever hunted upland birds. He was a year and a half old and our training to that point had been strictly for waterfowl retrieves. We had driven to Wisconsin for a family visit and been invited on a pheasant hunt with my dad and a handful of his hunting buddies, guys with whom I had spent a lot of time as a teenage bird hunter. Most of them had professionally trained and highly experienced upland dogs, and as is customary in such groups there was a good-natured but competitive pride over the performance of those dogs. I found myself surprised at how eager I was to impress these hunting heroes of my youth, to show them what a home-trained dog like Miles could do. I would have been supremely confident if it had been a waterfowl hunt, but I was more than a bit concerned about how Miles would stack up as an upland dog.