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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Jesse...Remembering my First Bird Dog

I named him Jesse.


He was the second Springer Spaniel that I had owned by that time. I was Twenty-two years old. I had long before fallen in love with the breed, and my family owned one when I was fifteen.
But Jesse was mine alone. I bought him from a family friend who showed and bred champion Springers. He was eager to learn, and eager to please. In just days, he knew to sit, shake hands, come, stay, lay down, and –if I knelt down in front of him- he knew how to “give me a hug” but putting his paws on my shoulders and laying his head against my neck.
He was my constant companion. He rode shotgun in my pickup truck to every job I went on. I was a carpenter back then and Jesse would come to work with me every day, lying in the front seat dutifully. It took a little work to get him acclimated to the truck, but after a few weeks he enjoyed it and when he knew we were going anywhere, he would jump and bark and prance until I snapped his leash onto his collar and opened the door so he could jump in.
If I was up on a roof, or walking on a scaffold, Jesse sat down in the yard, in the shade, keeping vigil until I came down. If I was working at ground level, or indoors (only on new construction jobs) he was by my side. He somehow knew not to get in the way, but he never went far.
He was a show dog, bred for the ring, not the field. There is a field variety Springer, and they are essentially the same dog, but the field dog has a keener nose and ability to flush out a pheasant or a quail. Show variety Springers don’t usually make good hunters, but Jesse was the exception. He had a good nose, eyes like a sharpshooter, and he was fearless. He wouldn’t flinch when he heard my shotgun fire, and he never retreated from harsh terrain. He held a point like a statue, and best of all…he never ranged far from my side.
Some bird dogs get on a scent and they will wind up in a farmers field two miles away. But Springers are known for staying close to home, and Jesse was especially prone to stay nearby. He was fast enough to flush pheasants –which tend to run for a while before taking flight- and even pursue a rabbit.
He was the best dog I’ve ever owned and I’ve owned a lot of them. I’ve owned six Springers, and three other breeds. Jesse was my favorite. It might be because I bought him on my own, the first dog that was entirely mine. It might be that he was mine in my early twenties when I was starting a business, and had moved out to my own apartment. He kept me company when I worked carpentry jobs by myself even though I probably needed another pair of hands.
He sat next to me at dinner, in my first tiny apartment. He walked for miles at St. George’s hunting area, or Phillips Nursery, when we stalked row after row of shrubs and evergreens, looking for rabbit or Pheasant.
When he was still a pup and I was training him not to be gun-shy, we walked that St. Georges ground for so long, and he grew so weary, that he would sit there staring at me. I’d walk on ahead and he would wait until I got about fifty yards on, and then he’d come charging to me. He’d run past me for about twenty yards and then plop down, exhausted and hoping that I’d end this hunt and head for the truck. He stepped through some thin ice on a puddle and sunk in to his chest. He was cold and wet and shivering and he still wouldn’t stop.
I turned for the truck and he jumped in and stretched out on the seat. Ten minutes down the road, with the heater making the truck warm, and the softness of the seat lulling him to sleep, he was snoring like a buzz saw next to me. I gave him a bath when we got home; put an extra half-scoop in his bowl and he passed out on the couch and didn’t stir until morning.
He would fetch a ball until your arm was sore from throwing it, and he would have stood still while you stroked his hair until you rubbed the fur off his back if he could. He was smart. Maybe the smartest dog I have ever owned. The combination of intelligence and eagerness to please was something special. I got to where he never had to hear my voice, he worked entirely off of hand signals, like the champion show-dogs do. I would set his bowl down and he would stare at it until I said “eat.” He lived to please. If he could have figured out how to work the stove and read a cookbook, he would have made my dinner.
Jesse loved the water, as most Springers do. I took him fishing with me all the time and he would leap into the pond or the gentle current of the Brandywine River and swim for hours while I fished just upstream. He was gentle as a lamb and maintained his playfulness long after his puppy years had passed.
Jesse was by my side through thick and thin and in those days…there was a lot of thin. But I was young, single, working hard and spending a lot of time with my little friend. He was beautiful. Just beautiful. A gorgeous liver and white coat that shone in the sun and was soft as down. He had that regal gait that champion dogs all possess. He held his head high and pranced as much as he walked. He didn’t do this all the time, but when he knew he had an audience, he loved to strut.
We spent nine great years together. Nine hunting seasons, and fishing seasons and nine years of riding in my work truck, keeping watch while I worked. In late winter, early spring of 1993, I noticed he was a little gaunt in the hips. Having a long coat, I didn’t notice the weight loss until I’d had him groomed. Then I knew something was wrong.
Then came the lack of appetite. Then the weakness. By Easter I knew this wasn’t going to pass. I called the vet and described the symptoms. He said “Bring him in, but I have to tell you…this sounds like canine kidney disease to me and there isn’t much I can do…”
I took him to our vet. He’d been caring for Jesse since I picked him up from Ginger’s house at six weeks old.
He did a battery of tests and took a full body x-ray. When he went to read the x-ray, he cocked his head a bit, and a worried look came over his face. I could tell that he struggled with what he had to say next. Pointing to Jesse’s abdomen, he said “This is his renal stem; this is where his kidney should be…” But there was nothing there. Jesse had been functioning without working kidneys for at least three months. Dr. Spencer put his arm around my shoulder and said “Jesse hasn’t produced a red blood cell in months now. He doesn’t have long.” Then he said something to me that I never forgot. He was stroking Jesse’s head and he looked at me and said, “I know the answer before asking, but he is an inside dog, isn’t he?” I said yes and that not only did he live indoors but he was with me all day, almost every day. Dr. Spencer said; “Craig, your dog should have died three months ago. He loves you, and it’s obvious you love him. The bond between you is literally what kept him alive. You did a great job with him.”
I smiled. I didn’t cry then. I don’t think I grasped what was happening. Dr. Spencer gave him some hydrotherapy and I took him home. We tried a special diet and the hope was I’d have six months to a year with him if we were lucky.
We were not.
The next morning, Jesse had begun to shut down. By evening he was fading and he was suffering. The following morning –Easter 1993- I took him back to Dr. Spencer’s office and we put him to rest. I spent a half hour alone with him beforehand. I reminded him about our antics. The rabbits and the birds and the swimming holes and the long rides in the pickup truck. I scratched him on the top of his head and said goodbye. I told Dr. Spencer it was time. He gave Jesse one shot and he went to sleep. I left the room for the second one. I couldn’t stay.
I took him to Ginger’s house and he is buried next to his mother.
And until tonight, I had never shed tears over him. It’s not that I didn’t miss him…because God knows how I have. I had simply never chronicled him before. I’ve never replayed all those great scenes at one time until just now.
I’ve owned many dogs since Jesse, and it’s not fair to compare them, but I inevitably do. Jesse was a special dog at a special time in my life.
Sometimes, when our current dog, “Sugar” comes up next to me on the couch and lays her head in my lap and lets out a soft, plaintive sigh, hoping for five minutes of affection…I feel Jesse there.
I miss the playful bark as we rode up on the fields to hunt. I miss the proud little strut he had when he retrieved a bird or even just a tennis ball. I miss the smell of spent shotgun shells, and morning dew on his coat.
I miss my pal.
He is where all great dogs are. In my heart. And a little bit of him is in each dog I’ve owned since. Because a dog is very much a reflection of the humans who love him.

And I loved that one a lot.

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