The spirit that drives a dog
BY MITCH MODE
Special to the Star Journal
At times I wonder of Thor, of what he is and what he was and what he left undone. I wonder what moved him, what held him back, what spirit drove him, if drive is a word that can be applied to Thor; he seems, for most of his life, to have lacked even a sliver of drive. I wonder, at times, if it was all too easy for him, the hunt, as if he was a gifted athlete that never seemed to reach their full potential and left questions ahead of answers.
Maybe Riika, in some ways less gifted, runt of the litter, maybe Riika used that as motivation to push harder, to run farther, to hunt better than any other dog. Perhaps Thor was content linger in the shadow of her blaze of drive and passion. Perhaps Thor simply did not have anything to prove.
Who knows? They are both dogs, they don’t have much to say about the matter. It is left to us, to me, to ponder on it all in the nights of waning October when chill comes with sundown as if part and parcel now of the early darkness which falls not as a blanket but as a knife that cuts away all pretense of warmth.
Thor had it all over Riika, he of long legs and easy stride, a distance runner’s build. She, shorter and stocky, she had to work. And work she did since the day she felt dirt and fern beneath her feet and the scent of bird jolted her system like an addict’s rush. He never felt that. She had drive; he never did. She’d work the thickets and the brambles; he’d stay on the roads. She’d come home tangled and matted with sticks and burrs, laced with cuts from the blackberry canes; he’d look ready for the show ring.
But he had a nose and when I turned off the old logging roads into the brush he had no alternative except to follow and when he did he’d find birds. He’d follow the invisible threads of bird scent for grouse, sense woodcock in thick cover where I could not go.
He loved to hunt, no mistake, but she lived to hunt and in that is all you need to know.
We hunted, the two dogs and I, hunted the autumns for a decade. They both contracted Lymes. They both took on porcupines, about half a dozen, maybe more; the results were predicable. They both hunted, she with passion, he with seeming indifference. They ran through woods and marshes, upland and low lands, in open areas and thickets as dense as a bad dream. They ran crazy after rabbits and deer, breathed deep the intoxicating scent of woodcock and grouse.
They grew old. Riika took it the hardest. She would come home tired and achy, limping and in discomfort. We’d dose her with meds. Thor would come home tired. He never limped but his bright eyes showed cloud. I started to take out one at a time while the other rested at home.
In his tenth year he changed. Gone was Thor as an acolyte to Riika. He began to hunt as he never had and his hunter’s heart beat faster and the river of hunter’s blood surged. He was as if a new dog. He was, that autumn, without cause or explanation, a wonderful hunter. Why? I wondered. What metamorphosis he emerged from? What now moved him?
He worked the thick cover, flushed birds with enthusiasm and, dare I say, passion and desire. He was a changed dog at an age when one could only expect the first steps on the long slide down. He hunted that season as he never had hunted before.
On a day in late October we hunted along the Wisconsin River, pushed the thickets dark with shadow and alive with grouse. Eased through aspen and balsam. I killed one bird and then another. Thor flushed a grouse and I dropped it, my third, in briars and fern.
I looked for that bird. I could not find it. I marked the spot and searched at times on hands and knees and I could not find the bird. All the while Thor ignored my entreaties to “come” and wandered off and I cursed him and kept looking for the bird. I never found it. Thor did. Thor found the bird 40 feet from where I’d dropped it and he brought it to me, eyes alight.
We killed a fourth bird and I missed a drop-dead-easy shot that would have given me a five-bird limit. It was the best day we’d had. Ever. The best season.
And never to come again.
The next year he was going deaf. I didn’t know it even though Riika’s hearing had failed a year earlier. It was in the woods that I could tell. I could see him looking for me but the whistle would not turn his head and my shouts did not reach him. More often he’d go away from me. I’d watch, helpless to stop him and see him fade into the dark underbrush. Gone.
I’d stand in the silence and I’d be sick with fear. He’d come back, scared, fearful; I could tell it by watching him. It had all changed. One great season; then only memories.
We still hunt, the two of us. He is fourteen-and-a-half, stone deaf but he loves to hunt. He has the loose, easy stride of a distance runner still. But at times he ranges too far away from me and I stand and I do not see him and I know he feels fear coming on with our separation and I feel the fear and I do not know what to do.
In time he leaves the shadows and the fear and comes to me with eyes happy and my stress fades away. I tell him he’s a good boy. And I mean every word.
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