January 17, 2022

Retrievers and Me (7): Marco, the Dog with the Wrong Tail

"Conquer Through Cuteness."
That is the Puppy Way, Marco knows.

Already published

Part 1: The Retriever Who Did Not Retrieve

Part 2: A Professional Golden Retriever

 

Part 5: Half a Lab, Totally Brave

Part 6: Fisher, the most Difficult Dog

The Covid pandemic "shrinkage" sneaked up on us. By early 2021, I realized that I was not going anywhere except two nearby towns, even after being vaccinated against Covid-19. It was a mental thing. "Lassitude," M. called it. 

Fisher's world was shrinking too. His increasing mobility issues meant walks were shorter and sorter, a quarter mile instead of half a mile, then maybe only 200 yards, then less. No rough terrain.

In May 2021, I drove up to Colorado Springs. I had not been there since March 2020. There were whole new buildings downtown! 

In June, we realized two things: First, Fisher had reached the end of his trail. Second, we had to hit the road! Go somewhere! Break out! No more "Covid Contracture"!

Now dogless, we took our popup trailer down to the Conejos River, along with what seemed like hundreds of other campers and RV-ers. It felt wonderful.

A trip to northern New Mexico followed in September. In October I went to visit my friend Galen in North Dakota. We did a little bird-hunting. It seemed wrong not to wear a whistle. (Gracie, his young German wirehaired pointer, was picking up the slack.)

November saw us on the road to the Texas Hill County and San Antonio. It was a business trip for me, with some sightseeing. We knew it was our last planned trip, and then it would be time to think about dogs.

I put out some feelers about adopting another mature Chessie or a Lab. Nothing panned out. M. was interested in a black German shepherd puppy, but the fostering organization said we lived too far from "their vet." 

Then a Colorado Springs breeder DM'd me after reading what I had posted on a Facebook Chessie group. She had this ten-month-old dog — not a little pup, but not fully trained either.

We went to see him. This time, I had more questions, like why was she getting rid of him at that age? What was his problem?

It looks fairly straight here, not typical for him
The problem was his tail.

"Tail of medium length; medium heavy at base. The tail should be straight or slightly curved and should not curl over back or side kink."

American Chesapeake Club Breed Standard 

The website goes on about how the standard should "enable the Chesapeake to function with ease, efficiency and endurance." What does a curvy tail have to do with swimming, water retrieving, or upland hunting? Nothing that I can see.

The breeder explained that he had been shown for "conformation" — and club records show him as far away as York, Pa.* She had also considered training him as a therapy dog — and I agree he has a easy disposition. By Chessie standards, he is a love bug.

Oops, there it goes curling over his back!
But as he grew, his tail curled too much! So he was selling for half price. But we could take him home, and she would hold the check. We brought him home on the 2nd. On the 5th I emailed her: "Cash the check." We had a new dog, and his name (thanks to M.) was Marco.

So much was new. I think his previous world was concrete-floored kennels and mowed grass. Now there was snow, ice, cactus, pine needles, goatheads, twigs, trees. And other dogs barking at him! And horses — so big! 

His reacting to birds on the television screen makes me think he had not been in a room with a TV set before. 

The basic retrieving instinct is there, and if this weird warm weather holds another day, I can take him to a shallow pond for a controlled water introduction.

Yep, dangerously curled.
Of course, there are puppy problems. He is always stealing something: a piece of crumpled paper, a glove, a T-shirt from the laundry basket. He is not 100-percent housebroken, but we are working on that. 

It has been 25 years since I had a dog so young. Retriever-training books are being (literally) dusted off. Dummies and balls and check cords, etc. are gathered into a bucket.

School is in session, but sessions are short, just ten minutes. And the teacher is less worried about him Getting It right away. Tomorrow is always another day. Let's go for a walk. 

* He appears as Ocotilla's Orion of Dalbrian

January 15, 2022

Retrievers and Me (6): Fisher, the Most Difficult Dog

Already published

Part 1: The Retriever Who Did Not Retrieve

Part 2: A Professional Golden Retriever

 

Part 5: Half a Lab, Totally Brave

A mid-air frisbee catch, somewhere in northern Wyoming.

"Fisher" was the name he came with. It was a little suburban for my taste, but, I thought, he has so much to learn, so why add learning a new name all that?

Wrong decision! I should have taken him to two or three dog-shamans for soul-retrieval and psychic cleansing, given him a dose of ayahuasca, changed his name, and dyed him blue. Anything for a fresh start.

It started when Jack's cancer was worsening and we knew that his days were limited. M. and I were sitting in Eske's Brew Pub in Taos that spring (Jack being back home at a wonderful boarding kennel) and decided that we should be thinking about another dog.

I contacted the breeder who had sold us Jack, but in the intervening dozen years she had dropped out of making new Chesapeake Bay retrievers. 

Willing to adopt an adult dog, I contacted the Chesapeake Bay Retriever Relief and Rescue group. (As usual, most of the adoptable dogs were on the West Coast or the Upper Midwest or East Coast.) A volunteer from the Colorado Springs area came out down to meet us, meet Jack, and check out  our home. She promised to be in touch. 

Fisher's first day — looking good — on land.
And she was! Someone in Denver had brought her a 2-year-old dog. He was not yet listed on the website. Would we like to meet him?

We took two vehicles so that Shelby could come and meet him at a neutral site. When we arrived, there he was, sitting a perfect Sit on her kitchen floor while she tossed him cheese bits.

"He's a food whore," she said. Truer words never spoken.

The two dogs met, sniffed — no conflict.

The previous owner was there. He said something about a divorce, no one home all day . . . kids . . . whatever. And he said that when Fisher swam in a lake, "they had a hard time getting him out." That should have been a warning.

Not only was he a food whore, he was a food bully. When I tried feeding both dogs in opposite corners of the kitchen, he inhaled his kibble, ran over to Shelby, body-slammed her out of the way, and inhaled her food too. So, separate rooms.

(Jack, meanwhile, gave Fisher a menacing growl, and immediately started sinking fast, to where he had to be put down the next day. I wished that he had not had to see the new dog arrive.)

The next day, I took him down to the dog swimming hole (picture here). I tossed in one of the retrieving dummies, and he sprang after it — and kept going. Barking crazily, he rampaged over the dam and headed downstream, splashing, wading, swimming.

I jogged down the parallel road, tracking his barks. When they stopped moving, I cut through someone's lawn and down to the creek, where he was standing calmly in a pool. I waded out and snapped a leash on him, then walked home in soggy jeans. What was that all about?

Another day, I tried a shallow pond. At first he dog-paddled normally, then it started — splashing with his front paws, biting the water, ignoring all commands. Thinking he was in distress, I stripped to my underwear and swam after him, herding him to the bank. In fact, he was not in distress at all. Given time, 10–15 minutes, he would stop and swim out

It's called "water-freaking," I learned in online forums. And no one seemed to have a cure for it, really. It appeared to be genetic. Watch this video and add more barking and more thrashing.

I tried working with him, using food mainly, to encourage him to be in the water without going nuts, but with only small success. It was like trying to cure epilepsy with dog biscuits.

In the long run, it meant he was only an upland hunting dog. With sharptail grouse or pheasants, he could be useful. But I had a Chesapeake who had to be kept away from water deep enough to swim in.

That was not the worse thing that he did

A year went by. He had some hunting experience, and we felt we were calming down his food aggression.

Then one summer day, when M. was setting out our meal on the front porch dining table, I heard her screaming. I ran out to find her backed up against the porch gate, her forearms bleeding, Fisher in fighting stance in front of her.

I grabbed the nearest object, a large metal dustpan, and lit into him like an angry ape, yelling and bashing him with the dustpan until I had chased him to the far end of the porch.

Then she and I spent some time disinfecting and bandaging her wounds. (That NOLS Wilderness First Aid class was helpful.)

Fisher at 11. He never went gray.
I had a plan for him. I would put a pistol in my pocket, snap on his leash, take him for a walk up on the national forest, and come back alone. He had crossed a line and kept going. There would be no more.

So how he live to be almost 14? He could thank my wife's tender heart and a dog-writer in St. Louis.

When I told her my plan, she begged me not to do it. So I did not. But I had no Plan B.

She offered one. Her sister-in-law, a true dog-lover, lives in greater St. Louis and supports a group called Stray Rescue of St. Louis. The dogs they foster and try to re-home come with every behavioral and socialization problem that you can imagine. The group's founder, Randy Grim, put his experience into a book: Don't Dump the Dog: Outrageous Stories and Simple Solutions to Your Worst Dog Behavior Problems.

We did everything in Chapter 9, "Bullies with an Attitude." When other people came to the house, we either crated him, or we coached them on how to act. (Hint: He could be bribed.)

Things were better — until the day a neighbor stopped by, drove up to the house, and got out of his truck. I started down the steps to the driveway — and then Fisher, who had been napping on the porch, shot by me and launched himself at the guy. More defensive wounds. More bandaging and apologies — we ended up taking the neighbor and his wife to dinner at the best restaurant in the county.

But before that, they had gone to a walk-in urgent-care clinic for proper medicine, antibiotics, etc., and the clinic reported the dogbite to our county sheriff. I got a call from one of the public health nurses: "Just so you know, your dog was reported, and you will be hearing from the sheriff's office."

Yikes, his rabies vaccination was expired! I rushed him to the vet, so that when the bored deputy called, I could say, "Oh yes, he's up to date."

The law here is "Two Strikes and You're Out," but M. does not believe in dealing with The System, so he skated.

We tried one more thing that Randy Grim's book does not mention: bear spray. We live with bears, and in the summer, a canister sits on the kitchen counter, ready for walks in the woods or, heaven forbid, a home invasion via the back door. 

The next time Fisher started acting aggressive toward her in the kitchen, M. gave him a shot of Udap cologne. It cooled his jets right away. "Ow! She bites back!" Once or twice more she just had to lift it up off the counter. He had learned.

All the aggression made it hard to get into his head, but eventually I figured out that inside the big dog was a scared dog. I don't think he had been mistreated, but he was missing something. One neighbor (whom Fisher never bit) used to just shrug his shoulders and say, "That dog was made on Monday." (Think of a GM auto plant in the 1970s.) 

Fisher hiking in the Wet Mountai
Sometimes we wondered if there was such a thing as canine autism, because when riding in a car he seemed overwhelmed by The World Out There. Must bark! Must jump around! Yet in a crate he would travel quietly all day long.

For all that, he was still The Dog. Shelby died six years before he did (they were never friends, but co-existed), and after that he had it all to himself. And we had some good times, if he was carefully managed.

We had him cremated and placed his ashes in an urn up the ridge between two boulders. M. likes to go up and sit with him.

Read the last installment: "Marco, the Dog with the Wrong Tail."

January 13, 2022

Retrievers and Me (5): Half a Lab, Totally Brave

Already published

Part 1: The Retriever Who Did Not Retrieve

Part 2: A Professional Golden Retriever

 
Part 4: Hardscrabble Jack
With Shelby and Jack on a spring hike in the Sangre de Cristo Range

Shelby was the mystery dog. She was our first "rescue," not through a group, but through a neighbor. M. and I were her third owners, and I guessed her age at around two years at the time. If that is true, she lived to be fifteen, so she had a pretty good run.

Allegedly she was half Labrador retriever and half Rough Collie. Her coat was long and silky, like the Rough Collie's, but her ribcage was more round and her muzzle not as long as the "needle-nose" purebred strain. She weighed 75 lbs. (34 kg). And she was black, with a small white blaze on her chest. "Shelby" was the name she came with.

She had nicknames too. "The Bandit Queen" was one of them. Before she came to live with us, she aready had a small posse of her own who followed her for quite some distance.

If Jack was "my" dog, M. hoped that Shelby would be "her" dog, but in fact, Shelby was Shelby's dog. 

Another of her nicknames was "cat in a dog suit." Although she stuck with us, we felt that she always had a Plan B in case we let her down, and possibly a Plan C as well.  

In personality, she was a collie. Walking in open country, she would not be up front quartering like a hunting dog, but off to one side — with the invisible herd of sheep in front.

She was more predatory than any of the Chessies. Once I found a dead fox squirrel in the snow near the house, and the snow told the story of how she had caught it as it tried to cross from tree to tree, killed it, whirled it around in a war dance (blood splatter), and then left the carcass for me to find.

Another time I came out to find her playing Keep-Away with Jack around the vegetable garden, having possession of a still-warm dead chicken. Another neighbor's dog was shot for chicken-stealing —  did she care?

Victor the cat and Shelby shared a fashion sense.
She and Jack were a sort-of pack but she also was close to our cat Victor, who shared her long silky black coat with a white blaze. It was a cross-species genetic connection of some sort.

I credit her collie side with how she was "crazy-brave." Once M. told me how she charged a black bear near the house, but consented to be called back.

But that was not her peak of crazy-brave.

When she was twelve (?), Jack was gone, replaced by Fisher. One morning in late summer I was walking them both off-leash up the Forest Service road.

Fisher, still young, had "the zooomies," and he went racing down into a deep gully, up the other side, and into a thicket of Gambel oak. Shelby, now slow and arthritic, plodded along by my side.

He ran into the oak brush but suddenly shot out again at a run, pursued by a medium-size black bear. (The bear was just loping. Don't underestimate their speed over a short distance.) 

He dashed back down through the gully, ending up in a face-off with the bear, who was on the far side.

There was a poor mast crop (acorns) that year, but that particular clone-cluster had a lot, which had attracted the bear.

I was calling him, but he was too overwhelmed by events to come to me. Meanwhile, Shelby launched herself at the bear.

Old and arthritic? She forgot all about that! Barking furiously, she charged down into the gully and up the other side. Head down, tail flowing in the wind, she went for the bear like a black guided missile.

The bear turned and ran into the brush, pursued by Shelby. 

I ran to grab Fisher, saying good-bye in my heart to Shelby: "You lived a good life." I fully expected to hear the shriek of a dog being disemboweled. 

There was silence.

Something black moved in the oak brush. Dog or bear?

Shelby trotted out into the open, squatted, and pissed with her back to where the bear had gone. Then she consented to notice that she was being called.

With a dog collar in each fist, I hustled them toward home.

Crazy-brave.

Next: Fisher, the Most Difficult Dog

January 11, 2022

Retrievers and Me (4): Hardscrabble Jack

Already published

Part 1: The Retriever Who Did Not Retrieve

Part 2: A Professional Golden Retriever

Part 3: A Bulldozer of a Dog

Jack swimming in the creek on a hot summer day.
Let's try changing Leo Tolstoy's famous opening line of his 1878 novel Anna Karenina to this: “All happy dogs are alike; each unhappy dog is unhappy in its own way.” 

When Perk was gone after only ten years, I turned to the Internet and located a Chesapeake Bay retriver breeder in Black Forest (an area NE of Colorado Springs). 

M. and I visited her, bringing photos of Perk as our credentials, and we put down a deposit on one of the current litter, who were just fat little puppies wriggling around in the whelping box at that time.

In June she announced that our puppy was ready. Based on our previous ownership of a dominant male, she assigned us another one —first out of the whelping box, she said — although he never grew as large as Perk, topping out at 90 lbs. (41 kg).

He spent his midsummer following our cat Victor around the yard and garden, until Victor seemed to say, "Would someone get this clumsy puppy away from me?" (Victor's real inter-species friendship was with Shelby — see the next post.)

He perfected his characteristic stance, front legs braced extra-wide, as though saying, "Are you going to make me? You and whose army?" 

In late summer we took a car-camping trip up into British Columbia and Alberta, visiting friends and some of my Canadian relatives. He sat in M.'s lap as we traversed Wyoming on I-80, contentedly chewing on the armrest. 

Jack bays back at the local coyotes.

In a small Idaho town, a retired logger gave him his "secret name" — Little Hamster — and told us a story of another Chessie who would ride atop a loaded log truck. 

On a hiking trail at Lake Louise, the cute puppy/le chiot received many compliments.

But I don't have many tales to tell about Jack. He hiked, he hunted, he camped, he traveled, he howled back at the local coyotes. Although his muzzle went gray early, I hoped he would live forever. As you do.

His only quirk was that he did not show his belly. If you caught a little bit of belly showing as he napped and wanted to rub it, he immediately would turn upright. Perk used to wriggle on his back in the snow, making doggy "snow angels." but Jack would never do that.

When he started to pass blood in his thirteenth year, and I took him to the vet, it took me and a vet tech together wrestle him over and hold him so that the vet could pass the ultrasound transducer over his bladder area.

It showed "a mass," she said. 

A relatively new graduate of the Colorado State University vet school, she was a little afraid to say the C-word to a client, I think. But that's what it was — bladder cancer.

I wrote a haiku some time later:

I splash cold water on my face.
The young dog sniffs
at the old dog's grave.

The young dog. Fisher. Oh gawd, Fisher.

Maybe I should acknowledge another dog as well before dealing with . . . Fisher.

Part 5: Half-Lab, Totally Brave.

 

January 09, 2022

Retrievers and Me (3): A Bulldozer of a Dog

Perk modeling an improvised muzzle, from an article
I wrote for Gun Dog magazine on field first aid.

Already published

Part 1: The Retriever Who Did Not Retrieve

Part 2: A Professional Golden Retriever

Just a few years after I hunted over the "Swiss guide" golden retriever, M. and I found ourselves living in a 1908 smelter worker's cottage on the wrong side of the tracks in Cañon City, Colorado where I had been hired on a start-up outdoor magazine, Colorado Outdoor Journal, edited by my friend Galen Geer, who appeared in Part 2 as a writer-deputy sheriff but was on his way up, or at least out.

You probably have not heard of it — not because you are unhip, but because like 80 percent of magazine startups in the (barely) pre-Web era, it failed. That's another story.

As managing editor, I was the main point-of-contact with the writers. Some were already established, such as John Gierach and Ed Engle for trout fishing, Doug Harbour for upland bird hunting, and David Petersen for elk hunting.

Others were not, like the man from the North Fork Valley who had written a piece about his moose hunt, back when moose were only recently re-introduced in Colorado and licenses very few, available only by a lottery system.

The North Fork Valley in Delta County is on the Western Slope, but he was going to be in Cañon and wanted to drop off some photos or something in person, so of course we said "Come on by."

After taking care of business, he asked Galen and me, "Do you fellas like dogs?" 

"Sure," we said. 

"I have two pups out here from my last litter," he said, "but I have not yet found homes for them." 

He had built a sort of nest with straw bales and plywood in the bed of his pickup truck. He dropped the tailgate, and the two pups emerged. One bounced right out, while other came more cautiously.

They were four-month-old Chesapeake Bay retrievers, born to a dam named Dustbuster of Bone Mesa, sired by a dog named Mount Lamborn's Baron. One or both, take 'em. No cost. I chose the bouncy one.

Galen had no room for another hunting dog but I now had a small house on a large lot with open land beyond that  — and I remembered that superb golden retriever. I knew nothing about Chessies, but they were clearly retrievers too.

I called M. at home and said that I had been offered a puppy. She agreed to my bringing him home. Later she admitted that the word "puppy" to her meant a little guy that you could hold in your cupped hands. Instead, here was a doggie who weighed maybe thirty pounds already!

His first new experience was being attacked by cats. We had three. They all went into full Intruder -Attack Mode, and he was soon backed into a corner of the dining room, going "Please don't hurt me!" The cat line-up would change, but he always drew a line between Our Cats (politely ignored) and Other Cats (could be chased out of the backyard).

His name was Perk, from the idea that free puppies were a perk of the job. I joined the Hunting Retriever Club (HRC) chapter down in Pueblo, and so registered him with the United Kennel Club as "Baron's Editor's Perquisite."

He grew to 105 pounds (48 kg), a stoic bulldozer of a dog. He traveled with us from Puget Sound to the Shenandoah Valley and made the move from Cañon City to the higher hills. He hiked and hunted and accompanied me at the endless summer work of cleaning the irrigation ditch.

At the new place, where houses were farther apart, a neighbor once asked if we still had a dog. "I never hear him," she said. 

That was because he saved his window-rattling Woof! for serious things: "Someone is walking up the driveway!" or "There is a bear out front!"



I took him to HRC training classes. That group makes much of distinguishing themselves from other dog groups. They have "hunt tests" or "hunts," not "field trials."  Handlers wear camouflage, not white coats. Duck calls are blown and blank shotgun shells fired. 

We learned some good things.  But serious competion would require travel around about a four-state area, campaigning a dog through various "hunts" of increasing complexity. I lacked the time, money, and inclination.

It seemed to me that a "Started" dog had the basic skills for a hunting retriever, assisted by his own learning on the job. So I dropped out after that level. He got his one (camouflage-printed) ribbon. It might still be around here someplace.

Plus, I never forgot a conversation I overheard while waiting for an HRC chapter meeting to begin. This woman, one of the club stalwarts, was complaining that her husband had taken their competition dog out the previous weekend for some actual duck-hunting. 

"He ruined [the dog]!" she exclaimed to her friend.

The lightbulb went on for me. It was not about the dogs and actual hunting; it was about humans coming up with increasing complex and unrealistic challenges for the dogs so that they could have canine winners all neatly ranked.

Perk would jump into the Arkansas River flowing with bits of ice and grab a duck. Wasn't that what it was all about? 

Part 4: Hardscrabble Jack

January 05, 2022

Retrievers and Me (2): The Golden Retriever Who Was a Real Professional



Horn Peak from across the Wet Mountain Valley  (Wikimedia Commons).

It was the early 1980s, I had my grandfather's Winchester Model 12 shotgun,  and my friend Galen Geer, who worked as a deputy sheriff in Custer County, Colorado while developing his skills as an outdoor writer, invited me to go mourning dove hunting in the Wet Mountain Valley, which makes up the western part of the county, bounded by the Sangre de Cristo Range.

The party consisted of him, me, another off-duty deputy, and a man I will call "Charlie." Charlie was an independent operator, a bit of a trickster. He was somewhere on the spectrum between professional hunting guide and poacher, but I was never sure where.

Among other things, he taught me to blow a predator call properly, enough that I was able to impress another pro guide one time.

So we were going dove-hunting, but we had no dog. No problem. Charlie had it covered.

We stopped at a house in the little town of Silver Cliff.

A hunting-line golden retriever.
Charlie went to the back yard, opened a gate, brought out this golden retriever, and put him in one of the trucks.

"It's OK," he said, "I have permission."

The dog was a total professional. He was the Swiss mountain guide of hunting dogs.

 "You are my clients for today? Sehr gut. Let us begin."

We moved from spot to spot, mostly pass-shooting over stock tanks at ranch windmills. 

If a dove was hit, he trotted out, found it, picked it up — and always returned it to the shooter who had hit it.

If you missed a shot, he might turn from where he sat in in front of the guns, curl his lip, and give you a significant look, as though to say, "I am a professional. Please do not waste my time. Do better."

We paid him in head-scratches and bits of sandwich. At the end of the day, Charlie returned him to the back yard in Silver Cliff. I never saw his owner.

I wanted a dog like that.

Of course, I did not get one.

Part 3: A Bulldozer of a Dog

Retrievers and Me (1): The Retriever Who Did Not Retrieve


A boy with a shotgun that shot only corks, and a Labrador retriever who did not retrieve.

The yellow Lab's name was Misty. Dad got her cheap. She had been bred several times. He thought she might make a hunting dog. He was wrong. In his phrase, "She wouldn't retrieve hamburger."

He tried to train her, but Misty was just not interested. Maybe he was too impatient. Who knows?

On the other hand, she was sweet-tempered and never harmed anyone. She was an outdoor dog — Dad bought a set of plans and some sheets of plywood and built her that two-roomed doghouse, which was placed on the south side of the house with the inner room generously piled with straw — and she spent South Dakota winters out there. One summer she wandered off, and despite all the searching, was never found again.

The boy, well, he didn't know anything. When Misty followed him to school during first grade, he dragged her home again, then arrived at his classroom crying because he was tardy and embarassed.

The next year, Misty was replaced by Fritz the dachshund, litttermate of Dad's buddy's dog, who for some reason needed a home. Fifteen pounds of dog, but he weighed about sixty pounds in his own mind — which got him into trouble once or twice.

Nevertheless, Fritz went small-game hunting, camping, and backpacking. The month before the boy went off to college in Oregon, Fritz suffered a heart attack or something on a camping trip and never fully recoverered. After an interval, his condition worsened and he had to be put down; the boy never saw him again.

But he knew where Fritz's grave was on the Pike National Forest and visited it occasionally in future years. 

Part 2: "A Professional Golden Retriever"