When is a good time to keep your aging hunting dog out of the field?

With shaking hands and nervous anticipation, I slipped the GPS collar around Winchester’s neck and felt the ever-present subtle tremor before launch. For a while I considered leaving the collar in the truck, knowing that my big running partner wouldn’t run hard enough that I feared he would go to the edge of nowhere, one of the defining characteristics of our 12 year relationship.

He sat quietly, except for the slight pounding of his tail on the seat, while I assembled the Winchester 101, 12-gauge, which I had also considered leaving in the truck. But, Winchester knew the gun and collar meant a hunt, and their absence meant the outing was just a walk.

The March morning had dawned clear and cold, suggesting that the snow cover in the mountains would present a crust that would support Winchester’s weight. The opportunities for the perfect conditions that were once a luxury had become a necessity for Winchester’s creaky old body.

The charcoal orbs that stared at me as I scratched his ears still glowed, and with some reserve I nuzzled his nose against his ear and whispered, “Find the birds.”

The command no longer produced the cannon-shot launch effect that would find him, in brief moments, hundreds of feet down the nearest mountainside, the passion that would ignite his “daddy’s” heart and would lead the day’s hunt. He descended with some caution, made a small jump to the snow bank next to the truck and, with a kind of drag, headed for the mountain he knows well.

The question, “When is it right to stop taking your old hunting dog, or any old outdoor active dog, to the field,” has been a source of anxiety for Christine and me for years. . With so many hunting dogs in our family, this question has been part of our lives for a long time. It couldn’t have been easier.

It’s not debatable when they clearly don’t want to go. The hunting dogs I’ve had and been around for most of my life will grab something that tells them it’s time to go hunting. This may be removing the shotgun from the safe or putting on an item of clothing that the dog associates with hunting.

Gunner, one of our beloved chocolate Labrador retrievers who had to leave early, was excited about a shotgun or an old upland vest I wore for grouse hunting. Gunner loved grouse hunting, and his level of excitement reflected that when I put on that old vest.

Winchester only ever needed me to think we were leaving. It may sound ridiculous, but it’s true and a characteristic shared by two of his descendants, Hugo and Boss. If Christine and I talk about removing one of them, out of their earshot, they’ll be amplified the next time we see them.

Jack, another Chocolate Lab, was injured early in his life and he couldn’t negotiate the rigors of hound life without significant pain, so we limited his activities to “puppy walks” his entire life. life. Even when he became severely paralyzed and virtually unable to leave the house, he lamented and cried to leave when he knew what was happening. Saying no for their own good in such cases always makes me wonder.

It seems safe to say that most people don’t like being told no, especially if it’s an activity they enjoy. It’s human nature, I guess. Perhaps a smaller percentage will reluctantly accept it as reasonable given the circumstances. And there are those who won’t and are willing to hurt themselves or their lives to pursue their passion.

I always fell into the latter category. Following doctor’s orders is one of the hardest things for me to do if the order restricts my physical activity. It could delay your recovery, they will say. Yeah, anyway. In truth, who could blame Christine if she locked me and Winchester in the house the next time we refused to follow orders.

But that’s why it’s so hard to say no to a dog, whose only means of communication is overwhelming joy at the thought of accompanying you. It’s been a bit of a dance with Winchester over the past two seasons, and his 12th birthday was approaching.

Parker, the mother of all our setter puppies, and companion to Winchester, who went from seemingly good health to loss for us in just a few days, helps me make these decisions.

The year she suddenly got sick came when the puppies were just starting to put their paws under them. So we hunted them and Winchester as much as possible. Parker had a good nose and could find birds, but she never hunted well when there were other dogs. So that season she didn’t go.

One morning she came up to me and sat down at my feet staring at me. It broke my heart – she said she wanted to go. So off we went, just the two of us, and had a wonderful day of grouse hunting. She found birds, and she came back into the house when we got back like the princess she was. Two weeks later, we held her in our arms as she passed away. If I hadn’t taken her that day, it would have haunted me forever. We never know.

That’s why my thoughts had briefly considered no collar and no gun when Winchester and I started our March day. For Winchester, finding birds completed it. He never cared if we missed every shot, as long as he could find them he was happy.

I didn’t want to shoot a bird and risk it having to put down an injured bird, which could set it back and hurt it for days.

We spent half a day covering the country, which would have taken him maybe 30 minutes just a few years ago. He found birds, and when he felt their trail, his helicopter tail, just before he locked on point, told me all I needed to know about the decision I had taken.