By Nick Simonson
The dark wood of our living room floor is the color of coffee, making it easy to disguise my spills when the replacement pot I bought this spring leaks a few drops down there on my first pour of the day. But since getting Ole, my new yellow lab puppy to replace my retiring Gunnar, now aged 13 and struggling to make it around the block, the dark wood floor has also created a bit of a random Russian roulette with each new puddle that appears from day-to-day. Is it water spilled from an adjacent dish? Sleep-drool from the overbite of my wife’s German Shepherd, Lena? Or will it be that telltale shade of yellow on the paper towel as I continue the 24/7 puppy patrol? Ding-ding! Most often, it’s the latter.
In the past 13 years, there’s a lot about training a puppy I’ve forgotten. The 2:00 a.m. wake-up whines, the need to elevate everything made of leather, cloth or plastic if I want to keep it in the same wearable or usable condition an hour later, and just how hungry a growing little dog can be. In my boxers and undershirt I wake up, wobble out to the front room where Ole’s kennel is, pick him up and set him down at the bottom of the front steps. It’s pretty quiet in the area at that time of night, and I haven’t seen a car roll by yet in the past two weeks, so I’m pretty sure the neighbors don’t mind my Tony Soprano-like early-morning get up while I watch my dog pee in the yellow-orange glow of the porch lamp.
When we walk, the four of us, I’ve been told it’s quite a scene. Lena pulling and charging at the front, Gunnar dragging along at the back, and Ole underfoot, winding his short leather cord in and out between my legs while I avoid the inevitable face plant and spider-web like twist of nylon Flexi leashes. By the time we’re done, the dogs – especially old Gunny – are exhausted, for at least a few minutes. When Gunnar was a pup, he did the same walk as Ole, right by my heels, catching the back of my shoe when he found it convenient, biting and growling at the rubber sole and flipping laces, and he turned out okay. A dozen seasons down the road, he’s set the standard, as I think many first dogs do, for what will be expected by the hunter, so I try to remember all that I did to get him there.
It started with walks – lots of them – building that bond and practicing the basic commands of sit, heel, stay and come. Shortly thereafter, it was fetch; throwing small balls and bumpers, working on retrieve to hand. All the while we developed a sense of scent from wings off of birds from the season before, bagged and stashed in the freezer in preparation for a puppy. They held the scent of future pursuits or at least served as a realistic chew toy for my dog after he followed its microscopic odor trail through the grassy field at the edge of the neighborhood.
I am lucky to find myself on the edge of a similar development more than a decade later, and fortunate to have a friend who stashed a few wings from last season for his own training purposes, and saved a few extra for me. As Ole half-worked and half-played his way through the grasses and weeds of an empty lot just down the block from our house this weekend, he dropped his nose from time-to-time and caught a whiff of something that kept him on track. A few feet of dirt and vegetation later, he sniffed out the source in the fading evening breeze and pawed the half-thawed rooster wing loose from a clump of grass.
It was a good start, and gave me hope that I had not forgotten everything my old dog had taught me in the training process, and confidence that I would have the patience to meet my new dog halfway to that point where Gunnar and I ran through autumn fields, flushing grouse, partridge and pheasants, in seasons that blurred together and disappeared in warm memories like coffee on the wood floor, and from time to time come back in surprising ways, like an unexpected morning puddle, only more pleasant. In this time of transition, whether Ole hunts this fall or just walks along after a half-summer of training, I’m certain I’ll remember more of what I’ve forgotten…in our outdoors.
(Featured Photo: The author’s new lab puppy investigates a rooster wing found in the grass. Simonson Photo)