“Good morning Rigby, I’ll get yours right away,” said the coffee stand barista to the 110-pound chocolate Labrador retriever sitting in my lap with his big ol’ bear head sticking out the window. Christine and I looked at each other, always delighted by the joy the baby-hippo-looking puppy seems to bring wherever he goes.
For most of my life, myself, and the folks I grew up around measured dogs by performance in the arena of hunting the feathered foul their ancestry drove them to. Dog stories revolved around displays of hunting prowess by these beloved partners and the friendly and amusing banter that involves grandiose accomplishments told with tongue in cheek.
A year or so before moving to Alaska, we inherited a female Chesapeake Bay retriever from a neighbor who had passed on and whose family didn’t want the dog. She had been christened “Peggy” as a pup and, by the time she came to live with us, looked more like “Piggy.”
An enormous dog whose girth suggested she couldn’t get out of her own way, much less find and retrieve a bird. My first memory of how judging the book by cover will backfire on you. She would lay around the house, basically a lump, until a shotgun appeared. She would jump up, tail going in circles, and run to the truck where who knows how, she jumped right into the bed.
The first time I got to hunt with Peggy we had gone to a soil bank field for ring-neck pheasant. As we readied our guns and gear for the hunt, Dad dropped the tailgate for Peggy. He turned to me and said, “Just hold tight, this will take a few minutes.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about but patiently waited for whatever “it” was. I could see Peggy’s tail just above the low brush as she worked out maybe 50 yards into the field. She stopped for a moment with her head down and then turned toward where we stood and trotted back. She broke out of the brush and ran to Dad, depositing a still very alive hen pheasant that she held in her mouth into his outstretched hand.
Dad held the bird for a minute and then gave it a toss into the air. As the bird flew away, he told me that was how Peggy showed everyone that she knew what she was doing and didn’t really need a shotgun but that she would go ahead and play with us if that’s what we wanted. She was magnificent.
She was also a surly dog who didn’t care much about anything but birds and Dad. The pet crow I had, whose name was Bill and who could say a few words, would sit up on a clothesline post and bicker at Peggy. The crow would suddenly dive toward her and pull up just as Peggy’s jaws snapped at his tail feathers.
Crows are one of the most intelligent creatures in nature. But Bill got too cocky and didn’t realize Peggy was plotting for his assassination until it was too late. She watched him and figured out his timing, and one sunny afternoon, nailed him in a ball of black feathers, silencing Bill forever. A forgivable offense for a great hunting dog.
When I talk about “once in a lifetime” hunting dogs, it’s usually while bragging about Winchester, the English setter who stormed into our lives. He was born from a compilation of magnificent gun dogs, centuries in the making, took us places we would have never gone, allowed us into the arena for the greatest show on Earth, and kept us young while we trailed in his wake. He remains in our eyes, the GOAT — Greatest Of All Time.
Having one in a lifetime is a blessing, having two is a utopia that only happens when all things converge precisely at the right time. Cheyenne, who left early, came into our lives and much like Winchester in his world of upland expertise, took to her hunting bloodline of water dogs in remarkable fashion.
People would ask, when hunting with us, who trained him or her? We would smile and say, “Well they trained us pretty well.” It took a while to understand that no one can train a dog to be a hunter, not really. You can teach them to do what you ask, but that’s a different thing. The great ones just do what they do while you help align the details of the fine line between wild and domestic that all the great ones have.
No guarantees exist in the world of gun dogs. One can research the bloodlines, talk to others with experience in a particular line and select a pup. Having done that, most will at least meet the minimum, and in truth, that’s about all most folks need in a gun dog. But a great one comes along by pure good fortune.
Winchester and Cheyenne came as natural hunters and made us appear like great dog trainers. Our major contribution to them has been letting them rise to their own level.
Rigby didn’t storm into our lives when we brought him home, he simply stomped his enormous puppy feet through the house and took over. The roly-poly chocolate Labrador of British descent came to live with us at five weeks old. Early, but we could be with him all of the time, and we were delighted to discover the bonding between him and his people is solid as concrete.
Our expectations were high on the opening day of the 2021 waterfowl season. Sheer looks alone suggested he would be terrific, but you never know. Shoreside of an interior lake, Rigby waited patiently by our side with his comical look. At the shot and subsequent fall of the first duck, Rigby hit the water and brought the duck back, meeting the bare minimum.
After a season with him, we know he will never be a Cheyenne or a Winchester. But, and perhaps this is due to advancing years and my subsiding prey drive, it doesn’t matter as Rigby’s best quality is being our buddy.
He has no filters as he plops around the house, slobbering on everything, and throwing his toys around. One toy, a heavy chunk of antler that he tossed a couple of days ago, broke my toe. His character, facial expressions, and pure joy just to be alive is daily therapy.
When the barista came to the window with Rigby’s “pup cup” — a paper cup with whipped cream and a dog biscuit — he stuck his big head out, grabbed the whole cup in his mouth and backed into the back seat. He did not offer to share.
The antics and companionship of this big ol’ Labrador makes me think there ought to be another category of champion in the dog world. The champion buddy, because in the end, isn’t that really what having them is about?