Early Season Lesson Learned

February 15, 2009 by  

By Mike Taddy

Every dog owner’s worst nightmare is losing his or her canine friend, especially when you could have prevented an untimely death. As my 2 ½ year-old male black lab, Harley, lay at my side panting deeply and whimpering, I questioned my judgment to take him a field on this warm second day of the North Dakota 2005 grouse opening weekend.

My anticipation for the grouse opener began the day last year’s pheasant season ended in early January. I hunt upland birds not because of the thrill of the kill or the delicious taste of a properly prepared cock pheasant or tasty hungarian partridge. Rather, my eagerness to take the field each year comes from my desire to hunt over my labs, Harley and Maggie. Any true sporting dog lover will tell you it is the work of the dog that one measures the success of the hunt, not the number of birds harvested. My entire off-season is spent training and preparing Harley and Maggie for the upcoming fall bout with geese, ducks, grouse, pheasants, and huns.
Admittedly, Harley is not the best hunting dog to ever grace the North Dakota landscape. Instead, he is the quintessential first mistake of a first-time dog owner; sheepishly purchased from a pet store. Only through hard work, many mistakes, and a vast majority of patience from both parties has Harley developed into a quality hunting partner. Regardless, his willingness to cuddle next to my eight-month old daughter, Hailey, and share a bed with my wife, Maggie, and I qualifies him as a keeper in the Taddy household. In great contrast, Maggie possesses an incredible drive and eagerness to pursue game. She is an exceptional companion dog, yet has the drive to hunt to her death. Harley will quit and let me know when something is wrong. On the other hand, Maggie will run until she keels over. They compliment each other well and serve as a good reminder that canines are a product of their owners.

As grouse opener approached, I couldn’t wait to enter my second season with my two young labs. September 10th couldn’t come fast enough! Four days before the season opener my wife, Stephanie, 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 has the moved to the top of my priority list since 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 dash – 69 degrees. Recent advice from a post on Nodakoutdoors.com came to mind, “take it easy on your dogs this weekend.” I knew my hunt would be short. If I wasn’t able to knock down a few sharptails, at least the pups would be exercised I thought as I let them out of their travel crates.

I loaded my Browning 12 gauge over and under Citori with Federal 7 ½ shot. The familiar “click” as I closed the break open action reminded me bird season was finally here. Harley and Maggie rushed out in front of me with noses in the northwesterly wind. I glanced at my watch, ten o’clock on the head. Within five minutes, the first sharpie flushed beneath Maggie. I remind myself to take my time. My bead was right under the bird as it flushed directly away from me. My first shot missed and I steadied for a second attempt. Only this time as I pull the trigger, the gun didn’t fire at all. 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 virgin season. The familiar chuckle of flushing grouse brings me back to reality. My first shot knocks down one bird and a second flushes. Here is my opportunity for the year’s first double. However, I rush my second shot and the bird lives another day. I tell him we will meet again. Harley makes a perfect retrieve to hand on the first bird. I remind Maggie with a slight correction on her electronic collar that first dog to the downed bird gets the retrieve. She is eager to pull it from Harley’s mouth, but my Dogtra 200 NCP Gold provides her a friendly reminder that it is his keep and her time will come.

I look at my watch. It is now a quarter past ten. I am thankful for the chance to bag my day’s limit in fifteen minutes, although I only connect one so far. As we crest a rolling hill, Maggie becomes “birdy.” Seconds later, a sudden flush from the prairie grass reveals another sharptail eager to challenge my marksmanship. My grandfather’s Citori rings true again. Maggie rushes to the downed bird and proudly brings it back. This is why I am here, I tell myself. My dogs are working great and I have had the opportunity to enjoy their company in the field. I head for another hill a hundred yards away hoping to find another bird, and if not, that is fine because I am enjoying the company of my dogs.

I continue to monitor Harley and Maggie as approach the next rise. I understand how fast a dog can overheat. I kneel down in the grass and realize how hot it is at ground level for the dogs. Both are showing signs of heat stress already. This surprises me because both are well-conditioned. I decide to turn back and head to the car for our return home. I am eager to share my “opening day” experience with my wife, but more importantly to rest my hunting partners. As we head back through the thick CRP, I realize Harley is showing increasing 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 drink in days. He is panting heavily and I begin to rub the cool water under his legs. My anxiety increases as I realize this is my fault. I pushed too hard, too soon in too warm of weather. Maggie looks at me as though she is trying to reassure me.

I tell myself to calm down and strain to remember situational tips from my fellow dog lovers. I continue to provide water to Harley and ensure he lies in the cool grass. As minutes pass, I recognize his heart rate is slowing down. I am not sure how long we lay there, but Harley slowly recuperates. I decide to try to get him back to the car. Both he and Maggie try to get out to quarter in front of me as they improve, but I know better. This is where the hours of obedience pay off. I put both at “heel” and take frequent rest and water breaks. Finally, we reach the car. More water waits for them. After resting by the roadside for twenty minutes, I get them loaded in the car. Again, I look at the temperature, seventy-four degrees already. I tell myself I know better. We head straight for Kolding 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 thirty minutes home.

We reach home without incident. Photos are taken and birds cleaned. Harley and Maggie are in the air-conditioned house on a well-deserved break. I take time to reflect on the day’s occurrences. My dogs did great in the field, but my eagerness to get them out blinded me from the obvious risks. I should not have taken them out in those conditions. Looking back it is as obvious as my motto for dog training, “Never set your dog up for failure.” That is exactly what I did. I should have refrained from a late morning hunt and opted for another, cooler day. Fortunately, everything turned out all right. This experience will be an ever-lasting reminder of the importance of not pushing my dogs when I shouldn’t. As I finish this, I am thankful for the warmth at my feet provided by two of my best friends in the world – Harley and Maggie, who I am fortunate enough to share my passion of the hunt.


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