I caught a post on social media from a fellow outdoors writer regarding a story on a gun dog’s last hunt. Something struck me about it and there was a yearning to read the writer’s take.
As I get older I have experienced things such as my last baseball game and witnessed my oldest son’s last soccer game. There are times when you knew it was coming and you took in the moment along with all the emotions that you would expect on such an occasion.
I have also seen when a career ends abruptly. Whether it be something like Joe Theismann’s injury or someone on a much less public scale walk of the field because of a disagreement with a coach and decide it was over.
That brings about a different set of emotions, and sometimes they do not manifest themselves until years later. Either way, in hindsight, you look back and try to see what would be done differently as well as how could the moment been captured.
I read a story about where a hunter started hunting with his dog at the young age of 14. His dog Riley was one year old at the time. They were duck hunting and he had a wounding shot on a diver. The wind was as strong as the current and the water was choppy. Riley leaped into the spread and began searching for the downed duck. However, every time the dog got near, the duck would dive for a minute or so at the time and resurface a few dozen yards away.
Still, Riley would not give up. He continued and continued. The hunter and his dad decided to call the dog off for fear of him tiring in the turbulent and frigid waters. Riley would not listen. Finally, the duck gave another dive and Riley disappeared from the surface at the same time. The young hunter thought he had just killed his dog on his first hunt. Moments later, Riley resurfaced with the diving duck in his mouth.
They hunted for over a decade together. They learned how to hunt together as both gained more and more experience. They were not the perfect hunters, but both enjoyed each other’s company.
Riley had aged over that decade, gaining arthritis in his hips and other ailments that come with aging. It had come to the point that after the last hunting season, even with trying to hunt Riley lightly, the toll had been great. The veterinarian suggested any strenuous activity for Riley should be avoided.
The hunter struggled with the idea. Riley still shared the excitement of a pup whenever there was a shotgun shell nearby or at the sound of a duck call. His body just wasn’t as ready as his heart. The hunter had said that Riley would die trying to find a hard to spot bird, and it was to the point Riley would prove it.
He tossed about the idea of one last hunting season, on last hunt, and if Riley could not withstand the rigors of the season, then at least he would die doing what he loved. But as the season neared, he just couldn’t make the call. It was too hard to watch an old friend wither away.
And as is many times the case, someone else’s story begins to show as reality right in front of you. I was approached by a lady at a AKC agility trial in Concord, NC towards the end of one of the day’s events. She told me her dog Gus was retiring after this trial. He was old, he couldn’t run quite as fast. He couldn’t jump quite as high and far. Although he still had the desire, he just did not have the ability that he once did.
It was an emotional moment. There was happiness in her voice, but not because it was the last run. It was present because of all the memories they had shared together.
Watching Gus navigate the course, I wondered, “does he know?” Is Gus aware that this is his last event? Afterwards Gus walked by with his toy frisbee in his mouth. He held it with both tenderness and love just as a child clutches a favorite stuffed bear or a security blanket. His eyes shown the innocence of that same child, but you could tell they were aged. Maybe it is best he didn’t know.
Maybe to him, there is only hope and anticipation of the next and not the last.