Last week marked the start of Belle’s 15th season and Lily’s 13th….28 seasons worth of memories with these two special ladies. It’s funny I have been so focused on Belle hitting fifteen it wasn’t until after Lily’s first loop that it hit me that this was her 13th. I can probably count on one hand the number of teenage patients I have that are still hunting. A year ago at this time I would have bet all the money in the world that neither of them would still be with us this year after Lily’s 18-day battle with pancreatitis, last September, and Belle’s splenic mass in October. There is something about old dogs that really hits me with a such a powerful mix of emotions. Elation at the joy of being able to still allow them to do the things that they love with a mix of extreme sadness when the dog that never knew quit will suddenly stop in the field because while the mind is willing the body just can’t anymore. As my second generation of hunting dogs approach the end of their careers I think it also signals to me that I’m no longer the youngster still figuring things out, but now as I’m approaching the second half of my life I find myself being more conscious to slow down and take these moments in, striving for quality time versus trying to see how many days I can tally.
I love these two dogs more than I will ever be able to fully put into words and as long as they are excited to go they will always have a place in the truck and time in the field. Belle looks good in these pictures and videos, but it’s through the filter of social media. In reality my former all-day dog will be lucky to cover a mile this season, but as long as she begs to be put on the ground we will continue to chase one more bird. I’ve expressed many times that one of my pet peeves is the owner that retires a hunting dog simply because they hit a certain age or because the dog would require added work to keep them in the field. By no means do I think these two are anomalies, but rather they should be the norm that we all strive for with our dogs, and to be honest, with our own lives. I think too often we retire our dogs, or give up our own hobbies, because of being “too old” rather than doing all we can to maintain health and fitness.
To that end, these dogs have been on super premium nutrition (Eukanuba for the majority of their lives) and at optimal body weights over the course of their whole lives. I think above all else those two factors influence the quality, and quantity, of a dog’s life more than anything we ever do in the veterinary clinic. While I’ll confess that the busier I have gotten with the clinic, and kids, the more their off-season condition has suffered, I’ve never let them truly get so far out of shape that we weren’t able to start the season as hard as the weather would allow. It’s not some magic formula, no magic supplements, it’s starting with a well-bred dog and adding good food and proper weight management.
Both of them are also deaf, Lily nearly completely and Belle to a typical degree that I’d expect in a 15-year old dog. The GPS collars, in my opinion, have been a lifesaver and certainly extended their time in the field. The Garmin unit allows me to keep tabs on them and the vibrate function serves as a connection to them when they can’t hear the whistle. So often people want to have some big ethical discussion about “collars.” At the end of the day they truly are one of the greatest safety devices we can use in the field with our dogs. And just like anything in this world, something that is truly good, when used incorrectly can be horribly bad, it’s about how you use the tool that is important. Even with these safeguards I still pick my battles. I no longer hunt pheasants with either dog simply because I couldn’t live with myself losing them in heavy cover, GPS or not. I also have significantly restricted Lily on ducks for the same reason. That being said for most of the last two decades the majority of my time has been spent chasing grouse on the prairie and duck spots suitable for a cocker.
Let that old dog hunt. Don’t relegate them to the couch. It may not be the dynamic hunt that you had with them in their prime but we owe it to these dogs that still want to go to find a way to let them continue to do so. When it does come together I guarantee it will be that bird that you remember for the rest of your life as you reflect upon theirs.