I haven't gone through something like this in nearly fourteen years. The last time was awful, as my nearly three year old GSP Freya was hit by a car after she snuck out of the lodge from an open door. I knew it was bad when the police chief showed up at the lodge, and I was right. Freya was gone and my dream of endless days roaming hill and dale behind a pointer in search of upland birds was similarly gone.
She had shown some promise in those two years we had together, and in addition to hunting locally, Freya made a trip west with me to Montana and we had a great time chasing ruffed grouse and pheasants. Though our relationship was good, I knew little about dogs and how to properly train them - I was "winging it", pardon the pun.
Needless to say, I was crushed, and after a couple of months I had settled in to a dogless lifestyle, not that I enjoyed it, but I had vowed not to experience that kind of loss again. Fast forward to mid October, 2002 when a breeder friend of mine called to say that he knew of an eight week old female GSP, whose betrothed owner decided to back out of the deal. I quickly called the breeder in Massachusetts and was at his house in two days - yes, I came back with the pup.
After what happened with Freya, I was much more vigilant in keeping track of the new dog's whereabouts. Greta was doted on and babied like no other dog that I've had - funny what fear of failure can do to one's motivation! She also made the transition seemlessly in to becoming the "lodge dog", a mascot of sorts that would greet customers (hopefully cheerfully) and give our business a relaxed, easy going atmosphere.
Early on, Greta struggled to stay out of the dining room and beg from the guests, but eventually she learned her limits and was a popular greeter in our main lobby. Several times, I witnessed returning guests spy Greta on her dog bed when entering the lodge and go to her first before checking in at the front desk - amazing.
Naturally, I also wanted to hunt with her and while it took Greta nearly a year to point a bird (just a few weeks shy of her N.A.V.H.D.A. Natural Ability test), the lightbulb did come on and it would remain on. She was a great grouse hunter, with good range and patterning, and we hunted hard the first year of her life. We spent many days in the uplands, sometimes for 5 - 6 hours straight - that's a lot of walking for me and a ton of running for her.
Perhaps this is what caused Greta to have a knee blow out late in her second hunting season, and we had it repaired in the spring of 2005. Rehab was arduous - 3 to 4 months long, with a slow build up in her activity. Thankfully, we had Back Lake as a swimming pool for her exercise, and through the course of the summer, she had built up to 30 minutes of continuous swimming behind my kayak (equal to 2 hours of running). While she hunted that fall, we had to be mindful of how much exercise she got, so we spent fewer hours daily out there (3 hours became her max) with more rest days as well.
My veterinarian warned me of the possibility down the road of Greta developing arthritis in her other limbs, compensating for the injury to her rear leg. No problem, we would deal with that bridge when we came to it - all I cared about was that I had my hunting partner back. Walking through the woods during bird season without a dog is nothing short of torture for me, so I was glad that Greta could at least do some hunting. This is about the time that the idea of getting a second dog became palatable to me - the new dog could spell Greta when she was too tired to go, and I would have no excuse to get out in the woods even more often.
In late summer of 2006, Rudy joined the pack, and Greta was not at all impressed with this turn of events. She was quite happy being an only child, and there were a couple of months of regular beat downs that Rudy unknowingly instigated. As you might suspect, Greta was the dominant dog and Rudy seemed fine being low man on the totem pole. She helped him navigate the grouse woods that first year, and one of the highlights was a bird that Greta pointed, I shot when it flushed, and Rudy swooped in for his first retrieve - believe me, it was really something to see him proudly prancing through the woods with that bird, though I'm sure that Greta had other ideas.
A trip to Montana in search of wild pheasants, sharptail grouse and sage grouse highlighted our 2007 season. Both Rudy and Greta had a great trip on pheasants (we shot quite a few), sage hens (I shot one that Greta had pointed - it was like trying to bring down a B-52), and Rudy had several great points on sharptails that sailed away in to the distant horizon (blame the guns). Both dogs seemed to weather the long drive out and back better than my brother and I did - they were always a resilient pair.
The next year saw the start of my guiding business, something that would have been unthinkable if not for the talents of Greta and Rudy. I'm sure it was apparent to the majority of our clients that the dogs were the real stars of the show, and they both worked hard and had fun, earning the trust of repeat clients over our first years of operation. Greta and Rudy split time equally that first year, but slowly Rudy became the first dog out of the truck in our second and third years.
We had many memorable hunts in those years with Greta. Some that come to mind:
- When she pointed and then went in to a thick patch of spruce and came out with the grouse (my clients had walked in and nothing flushed) - no pellets in that bird.
- She had a staunch point in relatively open raspberry cover - certainly not impossible to find a grouse there, but when a crimson red turkey head periscoped up above the vegetation, that explained her behavior. She probably thought it was the granddaddy of all ruffed grouse.
- A particularly great hunt in one of our best woodcock covers at the time. I believe that my two clients both limited out on woodcock by 11:00 AM that day behind Greta's excellent work. She could be a machine at times.
There are many others that I am forgetting - we had a ball out there in those days. Eventually, Greta slowed down some when our third GSP, Monty, arrived on the scene in 2010. Once again, Greta established her place at the top of the pecking order with Monty, and everyone was okay with that.
With Monty assuming full time guiding duties in 2011, Greta went gracefully in to retirement. While she looked like she wanted to still go with us each morning, she just physically could not do it because of the onset of arthritis. It turned out that my vet was right, as the condition started making its presence known to us those last couple years of her guiding career. Still, Greta was pressed in to duty one more time late in the 2012 season after Monty sustained an injury that kept him out for a couple of weeks.
I remember that day well. I was with a good friend and client that coincidentally happens to be one of the best grouse shots I have seen, and we were hunting in New Hampshire. Rudy had already done some pretty heavy lifting as we hunted a large cover in the morning and a smaller cover in the afternoon - he had nothing left after that, so Greta was brought out for the final cover of the day, a tight area full of wild apple trees, mountain ash and high bush cranberries. In merely 45 minutes, Greta moved 3 grouse, pointed another, and pointed a woodcock - we were understandably impressed with her effort off "the bench" and Paul shot one of the grouse. Retirement from guiding then began in earnest for her, but we managed to get out once or twice a season after that, just to see if she still had some of the old magic that she used to. Her legs may have been failing, but her nose certainly wasn't, and I always made sure that we hunted some local spots in Vermont where birds could be found quickly. Though they were short excursions, they were usually profitable - Greta waded through the cover the way an aging fisherman navigates a river. I wouldn't even put a bell on her, so we usually took the birds by surprise and she loved it when a grouse would fall from the sky.
Relaxing at home came to suit Greta just fine - the last couple of years, she would barely notice us packing up and leaving for a day in the woods. She was content to stay on the couch close to the fire most of the time, but there were a few times when she would get really animated each day. Feeding times twice a day were sure to get a spirited response out of Greta, and also whenever someone new came to our house. Her favorite person to ambush in to giving her a treat was my wife Karen, but friends and the UPS driver were also targets when they came to the door. Greta had everyone well trained in this regard.
Her hackle would also get up when she had to occasionally set our newest pup Bode straight - again, another unwitting victim of Greta. Don't feel too bad for him, he probably had it coming.
Alas, the story of my first real experience with a bird dog had to end sometime, and Greta's story ended last Sunday, May 22. She suffered a stroke after greeting Karen and I when we returned to the house the night before, and we knew that her time might be up. Spending a sleepless night at her side and finding that her condition had worsened by morning forced us to end Greta's suffering and pain. The trip to the veterinary office that day was a long one, but Greta was able to relax in the back seat with her hunting partner and friend Rudy one last time. All at once it was beautiful and heartbreaking to watch these two friends share a final moment together.
Do we, as hunters, feel the passing of our bird dogs more acutely than other pet owners when their pets pass on? I'm not sure about that and it is rather presumptuous to think so. Greta was there during many changes and adventures in my life, along with becoming inextricably linked with our business (she really was a recognized face of Tall Timber). For me, her passing is a stark reminder of my own mortality and how many more hunting seasons I might have left, and consequently how many more bird dogs I might follow through the grouse woods in my lifetime.
We'll miss her dearly - she was a one of a kind, and she taught me more about dogs, birds, training and hunting than any book ever could.