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I thought I should write out some of my memories of Gus’ first hunting season, as I want to remember some of it.

Gus came to us in the spring of 2012, a rescue, about five months old, a scared and confused pup, but with a lot of love and patience, he slowly rounded out into the dog he became. I remember he had a bad stomach and bad diarrhea when we got him. His tongue was a sickly purple colour and he stunk of the skunk he had encountered somewhere along the line in his wanderings. A dog that needed a home and some love.

He was slow to trust and we never got to see his puppy side for many months and even then in mostly tiny increments. He and Ellie our Springer took to each other right away though, both pups, about three months apart in age, it was a match made in heaven. They treated each other like brother and sister and carry that bond to this day.

Ellie and Gus, the perfect pair.
Slowly our love chipped away at his reserve and finally he let his guard down with us as well. I particularly remember the first time I observed his puppy side. We had been playing fetch and I hid behind the plant box in the backyard. It’s not very high, maybe ten inches, and my butt must have been a good foot above the box. He was ready to accept the act in the vein it was given though; unexpectedly, he dropped down and his butt went up with his tail gaily sweeping the sky. He began to stalk me and then suddenly, he rushed into my arms, licking my face and grinning like a fool; he seemed to be inexplicably, wonderfully free. Although this was the first of many such steps, it was a big step; none of the others would be as significant, he was unexpectedly a pup again.

We had a lot of fun in the next few months and for him, it seemed everything was again possible. Joy seemed to find footing in his spirit, and his stride became confident and strong. As the summer stretched out, we went on many outings, Cypress Hills being a favourite for both of us. Here, he was a hero in his own eyes, a ne’er-do-well bound on terrorizing all the creatures he came across, he walked with a swagger that belied his standing in his pack. When called, he listened well and came back on command, but you could see the desire in his eyes as a deer or even cow disappeared across the horizon. I kept him close lest he is tempted beyond what he could bare, and he always honoured me with deference.

In late summer, I began to plan trips in the city to bird populated areas. He didn’t seem to be all that interested in the birds, but if a deer or rabbit popped out, that longing look came out. I would call him back, scratch his ear, and tell him what a grand dog he was, but I knew where his heart was.

With the start of pheasant season came a mix of hope and apprehension. Would he get turned on to birds, would his dislike for gunfire be overcome by his desire to hunt? Opening day was a disappointment, a place that has traditionally been good would not give up her birds, and neither Gus nor Ellie the Springer gave any indication of smelling any birds. Gus had a grand time despite my disappointment. He had trouble understanding the excitement in Ellie, but followed her around in her enthusiasm anyway. His own excitement slowly began to wane and he soon found other things to puzzle about, and only occasionally looked her way in curiosity. I wondered what went through his mind, as he tried to make sense of her franticness. We went home that day without even hitting a scent or seeing bird sign. 

The next day, I returned to the same ranch in a different area, this time just the two dogs and myself. An hour in and the second day began to work on Gus’ stamina, or maybe just his desire. The area was heavy with rose bush and he began to follow me around instead of hunting. After a couple of hours, it became obvious that something was amiss here as well, no birds. As I looked at Gus, I began to see him with a more critical eye, things I shouldn’t let bother me became an issue. I encouraged him into the bush, a slow tail wag. Gus, get into the bush! A blink. Are you simple? Another blink. I walked away in anger, cursing under my breath but had the good sense to just go home to try again another day.

A few days later brought another opportunity to hunt a different area. This was a release site; heavily covered and dog’s needed. My partner and I split up a little, about fifty yards, hoping to get Gus away from the busy Ellie and give both of them a little room. Fifteen minutes in and Ellie put up a bird that was quickly put down by her hunt master. A quick search and she found the bird. She is a small dog and had never been encouraged to retrieve in her first year and she carries that into this year. My partner bagged the bird and goes to carry on but Gus has been watching with interest. I realize I’ve missed a lesson and after some discussion, we agree to get Gus to retrieve.

Another hour goes by and Gus is losing interest fast. I’m pushing through some heavy trees and ground cover and he is following with a few side trips to satisfy some curious smells. Slowly the thought that I had not wanted to entertain starts to creep into my mind, maybe he’ll never be a bird dog. As I push through the bush, this nagging thought comes to bother me more and more. We had discussed this possibility when we had adopted him. At that time, it seemed very real, but with the time I’ve spent with him, I know he’s happiest out here on the wild, I thought it would translate into a bird dog.

We meet up and Gus and Ellie are pleased to see each other. Ellie still wants to go but I’m played out and need a rest. I hold Gus in my arms and tell him that birds or not, he and I are in for the long haul. He studies me and then I get a lick, a sigh, and he lays his head on my lap. My mind again goes to what I could do to change the situation. If I continue to bring him, we have to keep the dogs apart, as Gus seems more interested in play than the hunting. For me, this points to many birdless days, as my partner enjoys the fruit of Ellie’s labour. Ellie deserves her time with me as well and that might mean leaving Gus at home occasionally. I worry over this and the outcome, to the realization that I could never do that to him. I shake my mind clear and climb to my feet.

We discuss where to go next. My partner wants to try a small draw that runs away from the main coulee. I’m convinced that birds won’t hold and just continue out the top where we don’t have permission. About halfway to the property line, my partner says, “Ellie’s on a bird!” We both speed up a little in case the bird flushes and are about five yards ahead of Ellie. I check Gus; he’s still following me. The brush is getting very thick with a small clearing further up, so I speed up even faster to cut off any runners. I watch for Ellie and she’s working towards me. She’s full of bird and I assume I arrived too late and it’s past me already. She breaks into a run right at me and a big cock bird gets up between us and makes a beeline for the next piece of cover up the draw. I’m surprised at the bark of my gun; the bird folds and drops in the opening, flapping like crazy and doing a little circle. Ellie pauses for a second and then hustles over but is passed by a blur... what the! It is Gus, he picks up the bird and is bringing it back to me, except he doesn’t stop but keeps on right past me, head high, tail high, he is a picture of pride. My partner and I both laugh and my mind goes back to the book I have been reading that said this would probably happen, and to let him have his moment.

After showing off for a minute, he delivers the bird to me and I’m left trying to figure out what just happened.

Following this, we work back down to the main coulee with one more bird to get. Gus is acting a little different; he’s interested now and starts to hunt again. After an hour of nothing, we head to the far corner of the property before calling it a day. Both dogs get birdie and we let them work, they are getting faster so I speed up to keep up. It’s obvious the bird ran down the trail and is headed for the creek bed but for some reason, he jumps up right before the edge of the cover. My gun booms and down he goes. However, the dogs are having trouble so he must have ran. Ellie unravels the mystery and Gus picks up the bird and retrieves it to me, no side trip this time though, right to hand.

Gus poses with four well-earned pheasants.
We agree to cut across the field and keep the dogs away from any more cover and birds, as we have a limit. But just before we get to the vehicle, we pass a finger of bush and Gus goes on point. My partner recognizes this before I do and calls Ellie. Hmmm, now what? I am thinking he’s on point but not quite convinced, I go over and the bird sticks, so I tell Gus what a terrific dog he is. After some discussion, I encourage Gus to go after the bird thinking it will just flush. He jumps in and the bird makes a dash across the field... crap! Gus is in hot pursuit and suddenly Ellie joins the fray. The only thing that could make this bad situation worse happens, someone is watching. Double crap! A limit and the dogs trying to kill a bird! I start blowing the whistle and Ellie immediately sits but I can see it’s going to be tough to keep her there. Finally, I have to resort to snapping Gus to get him to drop the bird and sit. The bird sprints for cover and poor Gus is so wound up he’s almost howling because he can’t get to the bird.

Order has been restored and my partner goes to talk to the watcher. He missed all of it, as he could not see the dogs, only our heads. As I look at the dogs, I have to laugh. Ellie is a little perturbed but has calmed down. Gus is beside himself and looks at me and then the direction the bird disappeared in, back at me and at the last bird sighting again. He’s making a half whine, half howl sound and is as animated as I’ve ever seen him. I’m thinking that the collar jolt will not have a lasting effect, as he seems to have put it out of his mind already. We wait a few more minutes and then head back with the dogs heeled. I’m running things through my mind already, as I want us to build on this turn of events. ■

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