Michael Pearce

Michael Pearce: Age changes a dog’s approach to hunting

I often find the old dog lying near the fence, in a wallow he’s hollowed through time. Ashen face on salt-and-pepper paws, Hank’s again fallen asleep watching the street, waiting for me to come home.

I’ve always appreciated the deep loyalty only dogs can give. In Hank’s case, it’s a dedication I can’t betray.

As long as he’s willing to go, I won’t be getting another retriever. I owe that to both of us after our thousands of hours afield.

Besides, we’re not done with training. The ol’ dog is still teaching me about living and aging.

At nearly 12, Hank’s old for a big Lab. People have asked when the next pup is coming, so I’d have a hunting dog at its physical prime as Hank declined.

Hank was certainly something in his prime. Usually pushing 90 pounds, he once had a jaguar’s build and athleticism.

Dense cattails parted like dust around him, he could make steady progress swimming against white caps and break ice with his front end.

Many times he was impressive vaulting a ditch or scaling a steep river bank, often with a big goose in his mouth.

He had brains to go with the brawn, thanks to off-season training sessions we both so loved.

Live or dead ducks could land within yards but he wouldn’t budge until sent. Ignoring dead ducks floating near his face, with whistle and hand signals, I often directed him to birds he hadn’t seen fall 200 yards away.

Many times I stopped him mid-retrieve and had him lay down, sometimes neck-deep in cold water with a bird in his mouth, so he didn’t spook a flock circling above. It got to where he’d do it on his own, having seen another flock before we did.

He seemed impervious to the cold, sometimes beside the blind caked in ice, except on a tail that wouldn’t stop wagging.

For about nine years I considered such the norm, and judged hunts on limits filled and the quality of dog work.

But in the past two years Hank’s flash has faded with his physique, hearing and endurance. Cold and heat crash his stamina, as do only a few retrieves.

Most of last season I watched the on-going decline with sadness and worried so much it detracted from our hunts.

But eventually I noticed Hank was as happy as ever. I realized for him, getting a chance to do what he loved to do, with those he loved, was more important than how well we did.

Like most Labs, Hank has moments perpetual puppyhood, and the ability to find happiness in simplicity.

Days usually start with a happy dash across the driveway, seemingly convinced for the first time in about 4,000 mornings the newspaper will fly away if he doesn’t hurry his fetch. A game of fetch the cap has him as proud as if carrying something with feathers.

This fall I noticed his tail snaps as hard after a birdless hunt as one with many limits. That made me realize I was headed in that direction myself.

Many of my adult autumns I traveled widely, heading to legendary places for glamorous fish and game.

Now I increasingly want to stick to Kansas, and game, places and friends I know well, including Hank.

But now our hunts are harder on both of us. To save Hank’s comfort and our time, buddies often wade to get birds. We’ve added new hand signals since he can’t hear the whistle well anymore.

I’ve lifted, tugged and pushed him more than any dog in about 45 years of serious hunting and training.

His sore muscles from once easy days often require medication. Yet this season there seems to be added anxiousness in the old dog. Many times I’ve heard him go from room to room until he finds me. When laying awake in the dark, I sometimes feel him checking on me.

He’s always most at ease when we’re heading afield. Sometimes it seems he realizes our time’s limited.

I also wonder if dogs, like humans, face increased uncertainties as they age. Being around a loved one may ease some of the aches and pains, and knowledge that body is not what it used to be.

Twenty years ago I’m not sure I’d have realized that. But I do now, and I’m not adding to his uncertainty by bringing another puppy along.

Our trips are no longer non-stop hunting. I pace him on waterfowl retrieves and a half-hour in thick pheasant cover usually warrants a break.

But we’ve had some great moments.

Several times he’s shown the wisdom of age can trump youthful enthusiasm with great retrieves, or close pheasant flushes after a long and diligent tracking job. That’s good to know, because I’ll never walk, shoot or call as well as I once did.

Some of our times are virtual trips down memory lane. Some places he obviously remembers because his tail pounds the pickup seat hard enough to raise dust when I stop the truck there.

I’m not sure what he remembers, but I know seeing and working those places triggers great memories for me.

As well as so many times with him, they’ve lead to smiles about a late friend, and of times long past when a son now grown and gone was a vital part of Hank’s early hunts.

We’ve made it out scores of times this season, a fact I’ll surely appreciate even more down the road. At Hank’s age, hunting next season is just a hope. But far more important are current plans are for a favored wetland for Sunday’s close of duck season, and a few short trips to special places before pheasant and turkey seasons end Thursday. We won’t be hunting hard, but we’ll be out there.

As we go I’ll be cherishing great memories from the past, enjoying every aspect of our present, but not worrying about the future.

I think the old dog is training me pretty well.