From canine employee to best friend

Mar. 02, 2013 @ 06:43 PM

This week, I shot quail in Clinton, South Carolina at the Clinton House Game Preserve. Mike Johnson is the manager at Clinton House and I’ve known Mike since we met at an upland hunting and fly fishing show in Charlotte, about four years back. Mike has a gorgeous little Boykin spaniel named Tillie and when I hunted over her for a newspaper story shortly after we met, I proclaimed her and Mike’s pointer, Rebel, as the best two dogs I ever hunted over.

Rebel, the pointer was a fast, wide ranging dog. While he ranged across the field, Tillie stayed close to us but kept a close eye on Rebel; her job would come later. When Rebel pointed, Tillie checked to make sure we’d seen the point. She anxiously paced towards the pointer and back to us, as if she were rushing us to get there sooner. Once we arrived, she sat at Mike’s side while he got us in a good position to shoot. Now it was time for Tillie to do her work. On Mike’s command, “Flush ‘em out,” Tillie bounced onto the covey and a couple of birds exploded out. My shooting partner, Jerry McBride, and I each scored a bird and when my gun came down, I was amazed to see Rebel and Tillie sitting patiently awaiting further orders.
Mike gave Tillie the go signal and she bounded across the field and brought my bird back. She sat at Mike’s right ankle and he took the bird out of her mouth. Rebel watched the proceedings out of the corner of his eye but otherwise, he never moved. Mike then sent Tillie after Jerry’s bird and she repeated the process. There were still birds in the covey and, once again, Tilly was given the command to flush, the process was repeated to flush out the rest of the planted covey and during the whole process, young Rebel never moved a muscle. Once Tillie had cleaned up the downed birds, Mike touched Rebel on the back of the head and he was off like the Millennium Falcon.
Tillie is not quite as honed as she was in those days and Rebel has since passed away from lung cancer. I think Mike could keep Tillie as sharp as she was in those days, but Tillie isn’t just a hunting dog, she’s a daily companion who accompanies Mike all day through his duties at the preserve. Like my Larry, the formal “boss to employee” relationship has faded into a “boss to trusted friend/employee” relationship. In my travels, I encounter all kinds of man/dog relationships and, provided the animal has good care, I don’t have a problem with any of them.
Most hunters have boss/employee relationships with their dogs and I have to admit, this is a great life for the dog. Dogs are instilled with a desire to do their life’s work and employee dogs who find birds or bombs or help those with disabilities lead rich lives, I’m convinced of this. I have a friend with a service dog named Elliot and Elliot is a well-adjusted, disciplined dog who loves his job and his life.
The hunting dogs I see in my travels are also happy. They get to do what dogs are supposed to do and, while they don’t have a lot of social interaction with humans, it’s a good life. It’s not a way I could interact with a dog, though. I get emotionally involved with my dogs. I see their admirable qualities and I enjoy their company. I haven’t always been this way.
My first Lab was Ernie. Ernie was intended to be a working dog who’d stay in a lot and not in the house. I trained him for basic obedience and retrieving and he was steady to wing and shot and a good retriever with a great nose. He was a great dog and by the time he was a year old, he’d manipulated me into keeping him in the house. He slept in my bedroom but didn’t travel with me. My life situation changed with a divorce and suddenly, Ernie was my constant companion. Our relationship changed from boss and employee to boss with trusted employee. We traveled together; he rode in my car and stayed in motel rooms with me. We hunted and fished and did everything together but I was still the boss. Ernie wasn’t a perfect dog but he was the best dog I’d ever owned and in some ways, he was closer to me than anyone human.
By the time Ernie was ten years old, Cherie and I were married and Ernie was beginning to show his age. He had some arthritis problems and I was concerned with his well-being. As strange as it sounds, I began doing things because he enjoyed them. Oh, I enjoyed shooting planted quail on a game preserve but mostly, I enjoyed watching Ernie hunt them. I began arranging hunts that worked well for him. I did allow him to make long retrieves but I made sure it was easy for him to climb back into the boat and that he didn’t have to jump down from tailgates or high places. There was little need for discipline on my part and I almost never corrected him. I was a lot more forgiving. We were no longer boss and employee; we’d progressed to friends with a common goal.
By the time he was twelve, we were fixing his meals especially for him. He lived on rice and Alpo slices dog food. It looked good enough for me to eat. By then, he had lost his hearing and I was lifting him into the truck and lifting him down to protect his sore joints. We continued to hunt and fish, but I was careful to make sure he had fun and didn’t come home too sore or worn out. Our relationship was one of caretaker with a beloved but fragile friend. It was that way until the day I decided life was just not fun for him anymore and I made the tough decision to end our relationship in this world. I still miss him every day.
I know I write a lot about training dogs and the importance of having a trained dog. It makes life better for both man and dog but don’t feel obligated to make you relationship with your dog anything more or less than what you want it to be.
Dick Jones is an award winning freelance writer living in High Point. Larry is a five year old Fox Red Labrador retriever. Dick’s a member of the board of directors of the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association. If you’d like to have him and Larry speak to your group, they can be reached at offtheporch52@yahoo.com

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The High Point Chapter of Ducks Unlimited will be holding their annual DU Banquet coming up on the 9th at Showplace starting at 5:30 pm lasting until roughly 10pm.  Food will be catered by Pepper Moon and there will be an Open Bar stocked with beer, wine, and liquor.
Raffle and auction items include: a Big Green Egg, an oyster steamer, the DU gun of the year, a 1911 pistol, along with shotguns, rifles, duck hunts, and lots and lots of other Duck related things you might want in your house.
Below you’ll find the link to the event on DU’s website.  You can purchase tickets there online, contact me, or contact Ryan Perry or any of the other committee members and they’ll will make sure you get what you need info or ticket wise.
To Purchase DU Banquet Tickets Online: http://www.ducks.org/north-carolina/events/30461/2013-high-point-ducks-unlimited-banquet
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