By Nick Simonson
As the neighbor’s speedy, slender lab streaked unleashed across the road toward Ole and I on our evening walk, I watched the hairs bristle from the back of my dog’s head straight down to his tail and expected the worst. The two retrievers squared off and in tried-and-true lab fashion sniffed each other’s undersides until they were satisfied neither was a threat and they both could be friends. Ole, now almost fully grown, clocked in at the veterinarian’s office at 96.4 pounds last week in his first annual checkup, and he easily had height, weight and I’m guessing reach on the newest member of the neighborhood dog pack.
“Is he a purebred,” my new neighbor Wade asked me, as he further commented on Ole’s stature while he towered over his dog, Dre.
“Nah, he’s part mastiff,” I said with a laugh, before coming clean and comparing my new lab to my old one in a quick discussion as he pulled his dog away.
Going our separate way from the new neighbors, Ole and I wandered down the street and I promised him some time in the backyard with his new favorite toy – a Dokken’s Dead Fowl F-100 Pheasant Dummy. In the honey-thick humidity warmed by the afternoon sun between the broken rain clouds of the swirling system around us, Ole didn’t start to pant until 15 full-sprint retrieves into the workout. 25 retrieves and he was still going, tongue hanging out one side of his enormous mouth, the bouncing green plastic head of the rooster waggling on the other. 40 retrieves and he gave up on circling around me for a drop, instead slamming on the brakes, spitting the dummy loose and skidding to a stop at my feet; leaving wet flip-flops, slobber-covered dummy and a blonde ball of energy holding steady all within a space of seven inches. Finally, by 50 retrieves Ole slowed ever so slightly, a barely noticeable cue that he’d be semi-calm the rest of the day.
Now at a year, I’m able to run with Ole. He’s not the speedster that my wife’s German shepherd is, but that’s okay. Having lost about 30 seconds on my average mile time over the last couple of seasons, the slower pace required by the slightly larger and well-built dog suits me just fine. As we have run through this early stretch of summer, I’ve watched the puppy fat start to melt away, giving way to tree-trunk thighs and a broad chest that even at six months of age served as a blade for plowing through the thickest of cattails in our late season hunts last November and December. My guess is, with the time spent building endurance and muscle this summer, the wake it’ll make in his unstoppable pursuit in the thick stuff this autumn will be enough to flush pheasants thirty yards away on either side.
As I undertake the thrice-weekly battle against the onset of permanent, middle-age dad bod, sweating and grimacing at the rising hills along the river valley, Ole, unfazed by the inclines, happily bounds on his leash alongside me sniffing out other dogs in the five-mile stretch and mock charging the blackbirds and robins in the boulevards at the edge of town. Coming out of the pheasant nesting season with a number broods spotted in the area, I keep our ventures away from the nearby city limits where the old pastures still hold a number of birds and will do so at least until I know they can fly away from my yellow wrecking ball.
In place of these field-edge jaunts, I bury a few old pheasant wings in the grasses of the undeveloped lots around the neighborhood and form scent trails by dragging them behind me through the unmowed vegetation on the future building sites. Letting them sit through the afternoon, I bring Ole back to play the evening wind and the scent it carries from each hiding wing. Having gone five-for-five every night but the one a wandering dachshund distracted him, he still stays strong on the scent learned last season.
That is our summer training, making use of the time we have together in a busy day, working with the exercise hours we have allotted and seizing the scenting opportunities that exist right out the back door. Bit by bit, day by day, it’s starting to come back together, until, a couple months down the road, we’ll both be ready for the real thing…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: The author’s young lab, Ole, retrieves a pheasant dummy. Simonson Photo.