by Michael Taddy
Author’s Note: I wrote this piece in 2005. Harley passed in 2014, and Maggie ages with each passing day, having turned 14 in July 2017. I learned an incredibly valuable lesson as an inexperienced dog owner; one I feel is worthy revisiting for the sake of others.
As my two-and-a-half-year-old male black Lab, Harley, lay at my side deeply panting and whimpering, I questioned my judgment about taking him afield for North Dakota’s opening weekend of grouse hunting. Every dog owner’s worst nightmare is losing his or her canine friend, especially when you could have prevented an untimely death.
My anticipation for the grouse opener began the day the prior year’s pheasant season closed in early January. I hunt upland birds not for the thrill of the kill, nor the delicious taste of a properly prepared fowl; rather, my eagerness to take the field each year comes from my desire to hunt over my black Labradors, Harley and Maggie. Any true sporting dog lover will tell you it is the work of the dog that measures the success of the hunt, not the number of birds harvested. My entire off season is spent training and preparing the dogs for the upcoming fall.
Admittedly, Harley is not the best hunting dog to ever grace the prairie. Instead, he is the quintessential mistake of a first-time dog owner, sheepishly purchased from a pet store. Only through hard work, many mistakes, and patience from both parties did Harley develop into a quality hunting partner. Regardless, his willingness to cuddle next to my young daughter, Hailey , and share a bed with my wife and I, qualifies him as a keeper in our household. In great contrast, Maggie possesses an incredible drive and eagerness to pursue game. They complement each other well.
As grouse opener approached, I couldn’t wait to enter my second season with my two young Labs. Four days before the season opener my wife called from our former home in Wisconsin to let me know she would be returning early from her vacation. I was excited because two weeks away from her and Hailey were quite trying. As an additional bonus, my mother was accompanying them on the return trip and would remain here for a day before boarding the Amtrak for her trip home. They were set to arrive at five in the morning on September 10th. Well, it didn’t take me long to realize my grouse opener would be delayed. Family time moved to the top of my priority list when Hailey was born. After all, I only get to see my mother about once a year and grouse season would be open for months.
After taking my mother to the Amtrak station for her 1 a.m. departure, I returned home with thoughts of grouse in the air and the first retrieves of the year. I awoke on Sunday morning to the familiar cry of Hailey. After spending two weeks apart, I was eager to get up with her. As the early morning hours passed, I contemplated a late morning hunt. After securing approval from my generous wife, I departed home at a quarter after nine. When I reached my field of choice, I looked at the temperature reading on my car’s dashboard: 69 degrees. Recent advice from an online outdoor forum came to mind, “Take it easy on your dogs this weekend.” I knew my hunt would be short and even if I didn’t knock down a few sharptails, at least the pups would be exercised.
I loaded my Browning Citori 12-gauge, which once graced my grandfather’s beautiful oak gun cabinet and now continued its journey as a family heirloom. The familiar click of the break action closing announced that bird season had finally arrived. Harley and Maggie rushed out with noses in the northwesterly wind. I glanced at my watch, 10 o’clock. Within a few minutes, the first grouse flushed beneath Maggie’s anxious pursuit. I remind myself to take my time, but my first shot misses and I steady for a second. Only this time, the gun didn’t fire. The bird coasted unscathed to the safety of a nearby CRP field. Only minutes later, I find myself daydreaming of a double to make up for the first miss of the season. The familiar chuckle of a flushing grouse awakes me. My initial shot knocks down one bird and flushes a second. In a split-second, I salivate at the opportunity for the year’s first double. However, I rush the shot and the bird lives another day. Harley makes a perfect retrieve to hand. I remind Maggie with a slight correction from her electronic collar that the first dog to the downed bird gets the retrieve. She is eager to pull it from Harley’s mouth, but she heeds the correction.
My watch displays a quarter past 10. I am thankful for the opportunity to bag a day’s limit in 15 minutes, although I only connected once. As we crest a rolling hill, Maggie becomes “birdy.” Seconds later, a sudden flush from the prairie grass reveals another sharptail eager to escape the disturbing force, known as Maggie, interrupting its day. My grandfather’s Citori rings true and Maggie rushes to the downed bird, proudly displaying it upon a perfect retrieve. I reflect, these moments between hunter and dog are why I am afield. My dogs are performing as trained, and I bask in their performance and company. We saunter off towards another hillside a hundred yards away, hoping to down the final bird.
As we approach the slight rise of native prairie ground underfoot, I monitor Harley and Maggie. I kneel down and realize the temperature at the dogs’ level seems quite warmer than that at mine. Both begin to show signs of heat stress—panting, flattening tongues, increased heart rate, tucked tail, and decreased mobility. This surprises as both are well-conditioned and only minutes before both are eagerly pursued game. I decide to return to the car to provide Harley and Maggie a well-deserved break. As we meander through the thick CRP, I realize Harley is increasingly showing signs of heat stress. He begins to whimper and stagger as I call him to my side. I tell him “down” and he lays in the grass. He is much worse than I thought; I can see it in his eyes. I reach for the water bottle stored in the game pocket of my vest. I squirt water into Harley’s open mouth. He drinks as though it is his first in days. He pants heavily as I rub cool water under his legs. My anxiety increases when I realize I’m at fault for this dire situation. I pushed too hard, too soon, in this warm weather.
I urge myself to remain calm and strain to remember situational tips from my fellow sporting dog lovers. I water Harley and ensure he lies in the cool grass. As minutes pass, I recognize his heart rate slows. I am not sure how long we lay there, but Harley slowly recovers. Again, we begin our trek to the car. As they improve, he and Maggie try to quarter in front, but I know better. The hours of obedience pay off as I put both at heel and take frequent rest and water breaks. Finally, we reach the car where water and shade await. After resting by the roadside for 20 minutes, they eagerly load into their crates. I look at the temperature, already rising to 74 degrees. I tell myself I know better and that I’m lucky to have both dogs back at the car. We head for a nearby dam. Both dogs are ready for a refreshing swim. After 15 minutes in the water, they seem fully recovered. Harley’s tail no longer is tucked between his hind legs and begins to wag. We spend over a half-hour in the cool water of the dam. As noon approaches, I feel it is safe to travel the 30 minutes home.
We reach home without incident. Photos are taken and birds cleaned. Harley and Maggie rest in the air-conditioned house. I reflect on the day’s events; my dogs did great in the field, but my eagerness blinded me from obvious risks. Looking back, it’s as obvious as my training motto: “Never set your dog up for failure.” I should have refrained from a late morning hunt and opted for another, cooler day. More so, I could have better conditioned the dogs over the summer leading up to the season. This experience will be an everlasting reminder of the importance of not pushing my dogs when I shouldn’t and the importance of proper conditioning. I am thankful for the warmth at my feet provided by two of my best friends in the world, Harley and Maggie, whom I’m fortunate enough to share my passion of the hunt.