by Blane Klemek
I've had the fortune of sharing my life with many different dogs. Most of them were raised from pups. Some were picks of the litter, and some weren't. Some were mutts, others were purebreds. Most were hunting dogs. There was one cattle dog, one lap dog, one neurotic dog, and one wild-caught pup that never tamed. Every one of them had their own qualities. And I remember them all.
Duke was a well-muscled, large male Chesapeake Bay retriever. I prized him. He was an energetic and loyal companion. Hunting and pleasing me were his life.
His passion for the hunt was insatiable. And though I glowed with pride with each duck or grouse he retrieved, I was simultaneously anxious to reach the fallen bird—especially grouse—before he did.
At the report of my scattergun, Duke immediately coursed the terrain in front of me in search of the bird. His technique was all-out, full-speed, stop at nothing. In a flurry he'd have the grouse in his mouth while I—half glad and half mad—had, once again, made it only halfway to the dead bird, well behind Duke.
I can still hear and see him: leaves cast behind his churning pads like exhaust plumes trailing an old truck, lifeless grouse dangling from his grinning mouth, and the unnerving sound of bones crunching between his 42 teeth. He'd drop the bird on the fly, at my feet, and continue hunting.
Buster was the faithful Boston terrier that belonged to my late grandparents. The small black-and-white, snub-nosed dog snored loudly when he slept, had a disagreeable odor, but was as happy-go-lucky a dog as any I've ever known. As a small boy, I relished every waking moment I could play and be with Buster.
I can still hear his unclipped toenails clicking on the linoleum floor as he danced enthusiastically when we'd come to visit. And his scent, though pungent, was nonetheless a familiar and comforting smell. I adored the tiny dog.
One Sunday winter morning, a red-haired boy, still in pajamas and rubbing sleep from his eyes, stumbled into the kitchen where Buster slept. Buster's rug was there, as were his bowls, but my little friend was not. Grandma was ready for my question, "Where's Buster?"
Grandma led me by my hand outdoors and into the frigid and dimly lit garage. She lifted me up so I could see. Inside a small cardboard box, on top of the workbench, lay Buster, curled up and still. Grandma assured me that Buster was in heaven. I petted his cold and stiff body and cried. We both did.
The wild one I called Wolf was a scared little pup that looked very much a wolf, and I suppose I wanted him to be a wolf. My father had spotted a stray adult mongrel dog escaping from underneath the junk pile in our woods. He told me three pups followed her, but another stayed behind.
After finishing the milking chores, I ran the half-mile through the woodland behind the barn, across a hayfield, and into the woods to the junk pile. On my hands and knees, I circled the debris until I located an entrance big enough for a dog to crawl into. I bent low and peered into the cavity of twisted junk and spotted the pup.
I wiggled my way toward the cowering whelp, grabbed a fistful of neck fur, and pulled him out. Not once did he growl or snap at me, but I knew the pup was petrified. I carried him all the way home, cradling him in my arms while keeping a firm grip on his scruff.
Wolf didn't live long, especially after he killed a few chickens. I tried in vain to tame him. I kept him leashed for a while in the haymow, where I visited him often, talked to him, fed him, and tried to pet him. He'd always shrink to the end of his rope and stare at me in silence. Sometime later he lived underneath the corncrib, and he'd run back there whenever he saw us. I wish I could've befriended Wolf. I know I tried.
Some of the dogs I've lived with met sad and tragic ends. Tony, a liver-and-white English springer spaniel, and Duke and Duchess, two fine chessies, died on roadways. They were farm dogs, never knew kennels or chains. They just enjoyed sitting at the end of the driveway, waiting for us to come home.
Kip, a jet-black springer spaniel–Irish setter cross with a wisp of white on his chest, was my pal. He never retrieved a single game bird to me, but he hunted with gusto and enjoyed, above all, hunting squirrels. He loped tirelessly alongside the tractor as I made round after round doing whatever fieldwork Dad had assigned me. Wherever I went, Kip went.
That wonderful dog rode on, or in, every vehicle we had on the farm: on top of the truck's cab—his feet dangling onto the windshield, in the tractor loader, on hay racks stacked with bales of straw or hay, and in truck beds—his front feet planted firmly on the wheel wells, tongue hanging out, slobbering, face in the wind. He even rode on the snowmobile as I drove to Wing River to spear pike. Once there, he'd sleep on the fish house floor, occasionally growling if he saw a fish.
My current canine companion is another chessie. Duke II (he reminded me so much of the original Duke) can leap more than 15 feet from the end of a dock. He loves kids. He finds my hat when I ask him where it is. He stares at me for minutes at a time, seemingly gauging my mood. He's playful, dependable, and protective. He's a good dog.
Outdoor writer Gene Hill knew what he was talking about when he wrote, "Whoever said you can't buy happiness forgot little puppies." Indeed, our lives are enriched with a dog at our side as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.