Raven, my black Lab, was lying stretched out on the living room floor the other day. Her back legs were twitching and she whimpered softly. She seemed to be dreaming, if that’s what dogs do.
The late Gene Hill once wrote, “Our greatest [hunting] trophies are not things, but times.” Perhaps hunting dogs feel the same way, dreaming of great times afield in autumns gone by. We can only hope.
This much I know.
Our times together, Raven and me, are winding down to a precious few. This autumn, she has become an old dog and, for the first time, at the age of 11, is older than me in dog years.
I’m not sure when her aging body became so obvious. Months ago, she started limping a little on her right front leg. Her back hips seemed weaker, too. The vet’s diagnosis was arthritis. Comes with age, he said. I nodded, having a little arthritis myself. Give her Rimadyl, the doc said, it’ll help. Without it, she’d be crippled, he said.
Author Steve Reider once observed that when you get a puppy, “you’re about to embark on an adventure, which will create memories that no one can ever take from you.”
If you’ve ever followed your dog through the pheasant fields or grouse trails, you know what Reider was writing about. All of us who go afield with hunting dogs have our own doggy adventures and fond memories.
Raven was born in my garage and, at age 6 months, was the third Raven to gain fame as ‘“the star of the ‘Minnesota Bound’ television show.” She was a natural in front of the camera.
What most television viewers never knew about this canine celebrity is she also starred as a retriever of anything with feathers.
Excuse me for boasting.
Memories with Raven? I’ve got a bunch. But you know what? You always want more. OK, one more … maybe? Do we do more bird hunting this fall? Do we not? She’s old. Is it over? Am I being selfish to ask an old dog to retrieve one more pheasant?
Answers don’t come easy. She seems so content just hanging out, sleeping in comfort, eating on schedule, taking her Rimadyl. Of course, I never asked Raven what she wanted. I just assumed. After all, her interest in catching a Frisbee went away months ago.
So it was the other day I walked out of the basement adorned in hunting clothes and carrying a cased 12 gauge. Raven raised her head. She started for the door. I’d been busted. She was not about to be left behind. She knew. And I knew.
Can’t do this, I said to myself, tears swelling in my eyes.
My wife asked if something was wrong. “’No,’’ I said, lying. “I changed my mind; she’s coming along.” It was quickly obvious: Her body was old but her hunting heart was forever young. We’ll take it easy in the field, I said to myself.
“Hunt em up,’’ I ordered. Just like the days of old.
For the first 15 minutes or so, I was watching a veteran Raven in her prime checking out corn rows and other ringneck haunts. She rousted a bird. I fired. She retrieved. Just like the days of old. She would have had more retrieves, but younger Labs got to the birds first. She seemed resigned to the fact her competitive fetching days were behind..
Gradually, however, her pace slowed. It was time for a break. Raven didn’t seem to mind. I lifted her into the car kennel. She flopped down on the cushion and let out a low groan. We had one more memory together.
As I write this, Raven is in her favorite place — in the house, on the floor, next to me. Neither of us knows how much hunting time we still have to share.
Will Rogers once noted, “If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”
Guess I’m headed for a field of pheasants.
Schara is a retired Star Tribune outdoors columnist and host of the TV show “Minnesota Bound.’’