They are called once-in-a-lifetime dogs.
While most dogs are great companions and are often at least adequate hunters, the long-held theory is that a hunter, over the course of his or her lifetime, is lucky to own one really special dog.
A once-in-a-lifetime dog.
I think I have mine — which is both good and bad.
Good, because my 8-year-old yellow British lab, Bailey, is a joy around the house and in the field. Bad, because I fear, at age 65, I’ll never again own a dog as special as she is.
For starters, she’s a solid bird dog, rousting pheasants and ruffed grouse with passion. She hunts close, flushing those birds in shotgun range. And she has a great nose, finding and retrieving countless ringnecks I’ve dropped in heavy cover, many on the run when they hit the ground.
Late last fall, in a frozen South Dakota slough, a rooster cackled and rose up 40 yards ahead. I took the shoot and clearly hit the bird, but it fluttered over a snowy ridge and disappeared.
Bailey rocketed through cattails and brush before disappearing over a ridge. I bemoaned a missed late-season opportunity. But moments later, she sprinted back to me, the gaudy rooster in her mouth.
My previous dogs were good hunters, too. Like Bailey, they saved me numerous times when my shots weren’t quite true. They were kind and affectionate, part of our family — great dogs all. I shed tears when they passed.
But Bailey is different. Special.
Did I mention she retrieves shotgun shell hulls? I never encouraged her to pick up spent shell casings, usually mine but sometimes others she finds in the woods and fields. I don’t know why she does it, but I pocket them and toss them in the trash.
There she was last fall on a northern Minnesota trail, retrieving the hull from a load of No. 7 steel that I fired at a fleeing ruffed grouse. I missed the bird, but Bailey didn’t miss the hull, bringing it back to me with glee. The same thing happened numerous times while pheasant hunting last fall.
And though Bailey isn’t a pointing lab, and has never been taught the technique, she points on occasion.
We were hunting a heavily wooded river bottom in western Minnesota when she locked up on point at a small clump of grass. I took two more steps and the rooster exploded and headed over the river.
I fired once through the trees, mostly in desperation. I heard a splash, followed by another. Soon Bailey scrambled up the riverbank with the wet bird — a point-shoot-retrieve etched forever in my memory.
So, yes, she’s a great hunting dog and a great companion. But those aren’t the only reasons I think she may be my once-in-a-lifetime dog. Call it personality. Character. Or charisma. Whatever, she has it in spades.
She’s easily the most affectionate dog we’ve owned. It was obvious from the get-go.
We took her canoeing to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness when she was 3 months old, and instead of just lying at our feet in the tent, she insisted on crawling into our kids’ sleeping bags to snuggle. Now, when I paddle, she usually rests her head on my knee.
She has an insatiable thirst for affection.
Take the time my buddy Tim and I were sharing a ramshackle motel room during a late-season pheasant hunt. He was resting in his bed, watching TV, his black lab, Louie, next to him.
Bailey, eyeing a vacant lap, slowly crawled up into his bed, snuggled into his lap, then nuzzled her nose to his face, hoping he would return the affection. He looked at me in disbelief. I just shrugged.
“What can I say?” I said.
Oh, Bailey isn’t perfect. She’s leery of strangers, overly protective of birds she’s retrieved, and sometimes doesn’t play well with new dogs she encounters. But those faults are overwhelmed by her affection for us and the simple expressive joy she exudes.
Our hunting dogs are family pets that also hunt. They sleep in their own spot in our entryway. For nearly 30 years, the rule was that the dogs don’t get to go onto the family room carpet. They have always been trained to stay in the entryway and the adjoining kitchen. And they were absolutely never, ever allowed on the furniture.
Then Bailey came along and changed the rules with those big, brown eyes.
My wife agreed to allow her on our leather sofa, after putting a sheet down first. Bailey quickly learned that if a sheet was the only ticket she needed, she would oblige. So every evening, Bailey grabs the sheet in her mouth and brings it to us to put on the couch for her.
Sometimes she just jumps up on the couch with the sheet in her mouth.
If she forgets, no problem.
“Get your sheet,” my wife commands. And Bailey does, dragging it to the couch.
Lying on a comfortable couch isn’t enough for her. She inevitably creeps into our laps, nuzzling us, as if she hasn’t seen us for a week. The 60-pound hunting dog acts more like a 25-pound lap dog.
“What a diva,” my kids say.
A once-in-a-lifetime diva.
Doug Smith is a retired Star Tribune outdoors reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.