My Very Own Dog

A long line of English setters and a wish that finally comes true.

[by Chris Dombrowski]


Very early one September morning, Brent, a good friend and hunting partner who breeds hardrunning Llewellins, left a nine-week-old pup in our mudroom. A three-by-five card taped to the dog’s kennel included feeding instructions and the note: “Frank the Tank, pick of the litter. Figured if he was a surprise, you guys couldn’t say no.”

Indeed I couldn’t, and my eyes beamed with expectation when I picked up the pup. On the other hand, my wife, Mary, who had recently weaned our infant daughter, Molly, from the dreaded midnight feeding, had no trouble saying, “Not a chance.” She didn’t go so far as to add “him or me,” but I took the hint, and back went Frank, who quickly found a new home with a middle-aged, divorced fishing guide who possessed plenty of time to train a pup and perhaps resembled the man I would have become had I not ceded to Mary’s sound judgment.

“I picked a pheasant rump feather from the dashboard talismans, let it loose out the window, and wished on it, similar to wishing on an eyelash.”

I went dogless until the following fall when Brent headed to British Columbia to fish famous steelhead rivers for six weeks and left Pearl, Frank the Tank’s mother, in my care. He said he didn’t want his sevenyear-old female losing out on several weeks of prime bird season but later confided that he thought a trial dog would soften Mary’s stance.

I hoped he proved correct, but regardless . . . Relishing this second chance, I toted Pearl everywhere—in the boat on guide trips, to my office on campus—and even let her sleep on the couch, naïvely figuring that she would work more diligently for me in the field if I spoiled her.

I had shot numerous birds over Pearl’s points in seasons past and expected similar results as her surrogate parent—expectation leading the list of this hunter’s recurring failures. Our first hunt that October found us traipsing a small spring creek near the foot of the Mission Mountains—okay, I was traipsing, while Pearl was using up the country in hundred-yard bursts. When she did stop to point, it was only at the verge of sight: a small white puff buried in the grass, distant as a cloud on the horizon. Eventually Pearl tired and reined herself in, pointing numerous snipes among the cattails—but we were hunting a chunk of federal land where migratory snipes were illegal to shoot, and Pearl seemed only to grow more and more flustered when I passed on the tight-holding birds that flushed with eerie cries.

The next week we struck out for Eastern Montana to hunt pheasants. The results were improved if far less dependable. One minute, Pearl worked close and held a bird so tight that I’d have to kick an adjacent fence post to get a flush; and in the next field, she ranged half a mile, as if studying the curvature of the earth. Flustered, I called my friend Dan Lahren, a former hunting guide who raises top-flight French Brittanys, and asked what if anything I could do to convince Pearl to hunt nearer the gun.

“For starters, your voice is hoarse,” he said, sipping loudly from what he’d called his “evening goblet” of vodka. “Don’t yell at the dog. She’s seven years old and can hear a mouse belch from a hundred yards away. When you yell, she thinks she’s in trouble. Just give a whistle, then turn around and make for the other side of the field. Pretty quick she’ll want to be out front and find you. Remember this: Dogs don’t hunt for you; you hunt with them.”

In large part I heeded Dan’s advice, and while my game bag didn’t suddenly bulge, I began to enjoy my hunts with Pearl. One day, driving home from a hunt with mere feathers to show for my efforts—I’d shot the tail off a rooster, missed another clean, and failed to switch the safety off on a third—I stopped along the road near a grove of aspens to write in my journal: November 4, coming down the Blackfoot birdless with Pearl, and damn am I happy.

It hit me then that Brent was due back shortly from steelhead Shangri-la, that my time as Pearl’s surrogate was waning, and that I would miss these hunts, even picking the houndstooth from her ears, the burdock from her tail. Mary was pregnant with our third, and funds were tight, so I didn’t expect to be able to care full-time for a bird dog any day soon. But I hoped to. I picked a pheasant rump feather from the dashboard talismans, let it loose out the window, and wished on it, similar to wishing on an eyelash.

FRESH FROM THE BORDER, Brent met me the following week to reunite Pearl with her pack mate and an offspring, respectively Red and Blue. We rallied at an old dependable Hi-Line haunt, which, with its grain ditches threading between windbreaks and through alfalfa fields, looked like the cover of a Pheasants Forever calendar. Red and Blue were rangy after several days in the truck with Brent, but Pearl, never more than 50 yards in front of us, picked through the cover and pointed several birds in the section. At the end of one particularly staunch point—Pearl’s lip quivering, tail bristling with sunlight—I watched her resituate, angling her body every so slightly between Brent and me, orchestrating the bird to flush in my direction.

“Clearly,” Brent said as we bent over the killed bird moments later, “you haven’t been feeding her mere Purina.”

“She does get dibs on table scraps,” I admitted. Later that afternoon, when I was packing up my vest and gun and Brent was watering the dogs, Pearl climbed into my truck and slumped into the front passenger seat, curling her tail around her keen nose. I let my heart sink a little.

“Sorry, Pearlie,” I said while ushering her out the door. “It’s back to kibble for you.”

Over the next three years, I would hunt with Pearl several times a season. As she grew more efficient in the field, often downright lethal, she also grew more socially reserved, almost matronly, though she always met me wagging wildly and paws on my thighs. Last winter on her 10th birthday, she labored through a final hunt with Brent and she pointed four birds— three hens and a rooster—the latter, Brent shot, cooked, and fed her. She died of bone marrow cancer, survived by her mate Red and daughter Blue, as well as dozens of children and grand-dogs—among them our family’s first pup, Zeke.