A new pup brings it all back to the “why”
Story and photos by Michael Neiduski
I forgot. After nine years of consistency and routine — get up, walk, feed, nap — of not worrying what was in their mouth or if they would mess the carpet, I forgot. It dawned on me, all I’d forgotten, that first morning after bringing home the white and liver speckled shorthair, small enough to scoop up in one hand like a basketball. I watched with the nervousness of a chain smoker suddenly removed from their pack while she attempted to chew my sleeping wirehair’s ears.
My mind spun circles around questions unanswerable in the moment. The tangible at first: Will they get along? Does she need to go out? Followed by the philosophical: Will she turn out? What if I screw her up? It’s August, what’s this season going to look like?
October comes quickly when a puppy’s first hunt is on the horizon. There’s a lot to do on the checklist of puppy things. Run around looking, even if it’s for butterflies and occasionally chasing swallows? Check. Pointing said butterflies and a pigeon or two? Check. Come when called? Kinda check. We never get enough done before the season sneaks up on us, do we?
With the real deal here, there was no choice but to go, and go we went; the old dog and the rookie. I had no idea how this was going to play out. More questions: How do you balance the veteran and the youngin’? How will this play out for my hunting partners? What if the pup messes up at just the wrong moment to impact a hunt? Do I run the big dog for consistency and stick with the predictable? Or run the kid with a chance for excitement amidst the bug-chasing and aimless running?
I tend to approach new situations very cautiously — particularly when I have little control over most of the variables at play. I worry about impact and imposition more often than just showing up and letting it flow, a product of life circumstances and a very serious former career. As I’m sure you can tell, I play the what-if game, a lot.
This may come as a shock, but I’m not good at letting go.
Transfer all of that to an opening-week Kansas quail hunt. A new trip to a new place with a new hunting partner. I wasn’t nervous or anything. Nope, no grasping for consistency behind sunglasses eyes and constant sips of coffee on that first morning. No pressure at all.
I put the old girl down first. The known entity first. The safety net. She may not be perfect, but I know her quirks and ticks and the buttons to push to keep her rolling along. I’ll be the first to admit she’s fine on the front end, diligent and methodical with a “get the job done” work ethic, but it’s the backend where she excels; that late afternoon wing-tipped bonus rooster never stood a chance at escape.
The pup on the other hand... on that first run out of the box I thought I ruined her. We mixed her in with two other young dogs before lunch. The prevailing thought was that it’s early in the trip and what’s the worst that could happen, right? She blows up a covey? No big deal.
Turns out, no, that’s not the worst thing that could happen. All that early trip optimism quickly faded into a stomach wrenching sense of dread when she cut too close to the electric cattle fence. With a pup, we always search for that light to be turned on, instead I ended up with a blown fuse and a shorthair who wouldn’t leave my boots after the electric arc nicked her. It took several minutes, but thankfully she came around.
A few days later, the rollercoaster was on the upswing and I thought “this is it” when on the edge of a long swath of walk-in she locked up. She had a confused yet determined look on her face, the “I’m standing here because there’s this thing but I couldn’t tell you why” look only a young dog can give.
And then the rollercoaster took the plunge again — a hen pheasant shot out of the cover and across to the neighboring property, pup in hot pursuit. This time a different type of fence awaited her, and sure enough she came loping back to me with both her tongue and a fresh flap of skin on her chest waving in the wind. She didn’t care. She wanted another, she wanted to run, and after some quick doctoring she was off and skimming through milo like nothing ever happened.
There’s a fear with puppies, the fear of the unknown, the fear that they won’t perform. And that’s entirely our fear, one closely tied to ego and investment. They’re just along for the ride and trying to figure out all that their nose is telling them.
She never got a bird until the last day of the trip, in the unlikeliest of places. Just before lunch, we pulled up and looked out truck windows with that clench-jawed “I don’t know about this” thought in our heads waiting for someone to relieve the tension and say let’s drive on. Instead, my partner, Ed, suggested we run the pup down the milo edge and see what happens.
And then down the farm road just as we circled back to the truck, a few roosters skirted sunlight back into the ditch between gravel and grass. Ed and I gave each other a “She’s a puppy, what the hell” look and off we walked. The roosters didn’t play ball, dumping across the field into an old overgrown homestead, and our debate about whether to chase them was interrupted, and decided, when a covey of bobwhites erupted and followed suit.
What ensued was a mixture of orchestra and chaos. Plans laid, plans thwarted, and plans coming together. The pup got a mouthful from that covey, and that fuse was lit. This time a steady current of this-is-why-I’m-here purpose. We let a few of the big dogs out to get better coverage of this unlikely cover and help with retrieves. It didn’t matter. The pup found the next covey and I worked through the yellowed overgrowth to find her white frame locked up with the elders backing. It was a long time before we ate lunch.
That’s how it went, this new puppy season; puppy questioning and show-up-as-a-big-dog moments. The mental back-and-forth wondering about whether to put down the tried-and-true veteran or cut loose the hellion with a penchant for finding the wrong side of fence lines.
I didn’t know it then, but I needed the reminder, to remember what it’s like to be wide-eyed and awed and in love with figuring it out. That’s what I think back on now, all those little reminders along the way. It’s easy to forget, to get lost in the hustle and the worry and the A+B=C expectations.
Throw a puppy into the equation, take it hunting, I guarantee you’ll remember why you started. After this season, I know I do.
Michael Neiduski is a development officer for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever in Northern Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota.
This story originally appeared in the 2022 Winter Issue of the
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