Meaux looking intently for doves during a recent dove hunt. (By Jon Swaby)
Anyone who has hunted with dogs, be it pointers, hounds or retrievers can understand the statement laid out in the headline of this column. A great dog is more than a tool, a great dog is a companion. A barometer of successes and failures and a bragging point among friends.
Recently, I hunted with Frank Lemaire. Frank’s best friend is a yellow lab, named Meaux, grizzled with age and hard of hearing. (What’s the old saying... a dog reflects traits of its owner, but I digress. Sorry Frank, I just had to.) Meaux (pronounced Moe) is 11 years old, yet despite his infirmities lights up with pup-like enthusiasm whenever a gun points skyward. Leaping into action, Meaux becomes a machine driven by scent of game and desire to please.
An international traveler, Meaux with Frank has lived in some of North America’s greatest waterfowling areas. From Illinois to Alberta, Canada; Louisiana, Illinois and Indiana, Meaux has seen it all. But that’s the beautiful thing about a dog, they don’t care what they’ve done or where they’ve been. A dog lives in the moment, and this particular moment Meaux was tucked behind a silage pile waiting for the next dove to fall.
Intermittently, as our shots connected Meaux would spring into action and become best buds with whoever made the last shot. A real “fair weather fan” he is.
Watching him work brought back memories of a great dog I had the pleasure of hunting with for far too short of a time. Cooper was a black lab that I had the pleasure of sharing seven hunting seasons with. New to waterfowling I had no clue how to train a retriever, let alone what to look for when purchasing one. Working at the Bloomfield Evening World newspaper at that time I came across a classified ad for a black lab for $50. Not one to pass up a bargain I immediately jumped on the chance. He was six months old when I got him and was lucky to find he was from a fellow duck hunter and thus born of a hunting dog lineage.
Undoubtedly, I made many mistakes training him. Cooper never would have won any ribbons or retriever championships, but what he lacked in training he made up for in personality. When the shooting was slow, there was no better pillow than Cooper. He was content just relaxing next to a lake all morning with his human.
Just like flipping a switch, however, Cooper would jump to attention when a duck would fall to the water. No matter how far the retrieve or how rough the water, Cooper would bring the game to hand. If, in the course of swimming out, he lost sight of the bird, he would turn back to look at me, and a hand signal would send him back on course. After landing back on shore with his prize, Cooper was content to nestle back into pillow mode until the next flock.
Cooper had a hatred for geese in particular. On more than one occasion he would be sent after a goose and, as if to emphasize his point, he would tackle into it head-on, resulting in a muddy forward roll, coming up with the goose in tow.
Surely no sin was greater to Cooper than for me to attempt to go hunting without him. Unless he was locked up, when I headed to the truck with a gun it didn’t matter to him if my tailgate was down or not. He would be in the bed of the truck one way or another. As I found out the hard way, if the tailgate wasn’t down he would just jump over the side of the truck bed. Using claws and any means of traction necessary, Cooper would not be denied.
One day, I came home from work and he wasn’t acting like himself. Cooper was waiting by my parking spot as usual but clearly in discomfort. Telling him I would go in the house and be right back to check on him, I left him there momentarily. When I came back out within five minutes he was gone. It was four days before I found him. Laying next to our pond where he and I spent so much time together, Cooper had passed.
Inconsolable with grief, I sat next to him for the better part of two hours remembering the times we had together. The time he chewed up my grandfather’s solar yard lights. The time he belly crawled up to a flock of geese with me, as if he understood the importance of concealment. The time we shared an Egg McMuffin at McDonalds after a long morning of hunting.
I gave up duck and goose hunting for several years after he passed. Somehow, it just didn’t feel right going without him. Now, as the wounds have healed with time, I have once again taken up the sport, and I’m better for having Cooper in my life.
Great dogs make our lives richer. They embed themselves into our memories and are missed as surely as a family member. Great dogs help us to appreciate the simple things, a way of slowing down our own lives and seeing things through their eyes. They help teach us to live in the moment and simply enjoy what we have. A great hunting dog is a treasure indeed.