Bird Dogs & Training  |  09/18/2013

Can't Discount the Old Guys

This is probably one of those you-had-to-be-there stories, but I’ll give it a try.
Background: Harley was a 14-year-old German shorthair in good physical shape. Mentally, however, was a few biscuits short of a full box for a year or two. Never a rocket scientist, Harley spent his senior years in his “happy place.” The daily schedules that keep our other dogs riveted to the food bin or back door no longer mattered. Two minutes after Harley’d been out, he’d think it was time to go out. At dinner hour, he needed a personal escort to his food bowl. Sometimes he just showed up in a room, circle it a couple of times in his slightly shaky, half-hitch gait, then disappear upstairs again for another nap. Other times, when addressed, he’d simply stare, as if the words were in a foreign tongue not meant for him. He never seemed unhappy, though.
The story: After dinner one warm June night, I let Harley out the back door for his usual short stroll around the back yard. Knowing he wouldn’t be aware of me in the big field in front of the house, I walked a track with a dead duck for my husband Terry to practice the Utility Test “Retrieve by Drag” with his German wirehair Tank. It was a good 85-100 yard drag with a big bend through tall grass before crossing a thick brush line. After placing the duck inside a patch of dogwoods, I circled back to the house to get Terry and Tank. We turned around and headed down the driveway towards the spot in the front field where I’d left feathers marking the start of the track. Terry had Tank heeling properly, with me following solemn as a judge, everything in a serious demeanor as it would be on test day the next week.
But there was Harley!  Trotting right towards us up the driveway with that big old mallard – tracked and fetched 100 yards out – now held proudly in his mouth. His white legs pumped up and down, pistons in even tempo. His head was high, boney spine and tail up, course steady. I’d like to say his eyes were full of glee or maybe even focused on mine in a message of determination, but, to be truthful, they were as vaguely crazed as always.
Pump, pump, Harley came straight at us. As he reached me, clearly with no intention of stopping, I grabbed the duck and he skittered away as if I had one of those handshake buzzers and was about to zing him. He then zigged and zagged to the garage without a second glimpse back at the duck, giving no indication whether he’d tracked me doing the drag or somehow simply stumbled across the duck in a newly expanded route.
Nonetheless, for that first minute or two down the driveway, Harley once again looked like a determined, noble bird dog bringing game to hand, confident in action, steadfast in delivery. For a moment. Then he was back to being a resident of Planet Zorwack, living out his days in an otherworldly state of bliss.
Nancy Anisfield, an outdoor photographer/writer, sporting dog enthusiast and bird hunter, serves on Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s National Board of Directors. She resides in Hinesburg, Vermont.