Sunday, January 10, 2021

A good dog

It seems to be not enough to say. Consider though, the base level of dog is so much higher than the base human - full of loving kindness freely given without judgment. A good dog is an exemplification of the higher spiritual life. I try to be the man my dog thinks I am, if I could do that heaven is certain. 



My friend Ken was given a pup from the litter sired by his good dog Spot, as part of the stud fee. He'd had enough of my haverings and tergiversations about getting a dog and simply gave Artie to us. We let the boys name him. They decided on Artemis, for the Greek god of hunting, though the gender didn't quite line up (and maybe also for Artemis Fowl, also appropriate for a bird dog). Artie, for family, sometimes spelled Arty.


That's either dog bliss or exhaustion, maybe both.

He was a field-bred English cocker spaniel. The breed guides say, “The English Cocker is merry and affectionate, of equable disposition, neither sluggish nor hyperactive, a willing worker, and a faithful and engaging companion.”  The field-bred is made for hunting not show, bred for soundness, strength and the drive to work rather than some artificial standard of prettiness. Of these, "Generally they are a thinking breed. They learn fast and can be bored and discouraged by repetition." He ran true to breed.

Artie was a remarkable combination of family pet and an outstanding hunter. After a little training from Ken and Spot in his first year, he tried all his life to teach me how to hunt upland birds, never tiring in this thankless task, always ready for another attempt. An early lesson with Spot on the left, Artie right.

 Upon seeing me pick up a shotgun he would begin to grin and not stop.

Tell me dogs don't smile. 

My first pheasant, faithfully retrieved. This photo turned into a painting which Ian made for me for one Father's day. 

 Back in the barn the smaller child would visit in his crate. In times of distress Christopher would go to get what he called fur therapy. As he said then, "Artie is better than Mom because he doesn't press for details."

Early training and a biddable dog work well together. Here he romps through the backyard. I installed some large mesh green wire on that open fence to keep the pup inside. By the time of this picture Artie could do a standing jump and look me straight in the eye, yet he never jumped this pitiable fence. 

The gardens suffered much from dogly depredations in the early and late years. Helen worked long hours to build this lovely back yard, with something blooming in every month not deep winter. An extensive drip irrigation system underlaid the flowers. One day Artie at home with no company was bored and decided the thin black hose of the irrigation was a deadly snake which had to be rooted up and killed before the family got home. Our neighbor said it was very funny to watch as he tussled with hosing across the lawn. Helen was unamused. The books had warned us that working dogs need work to do, or they will find self-employment 'which you probably won't appreciate'. Daily walks helped.

I never could get a good portrait of Artie aware in these years. As soon as he saw me sitting or kneeling at his level he'd run over to give some love. All I'd get is a pair of loving brown eyes, closing fast.. 

My hunting education continued. One area we hunted around a substantial reservoir was the location of many long swim retrieves executed faithfully. 

Artie glares at the bird but it was really my fault for not shooting straighter. 

There were family trips too. Luckily we had a minivan which could hold a dog in his crate and a load of camping gear, with a canoe on top for luck. Here's a springtime walk in the Western slope foothills, a bit hot for dogs though.


This was not a dog of moderate habits. On a scale of one to ten, he was either at one or at eleven. It's possible to hunt a spaniel to death as they will not slow or stop for much of anything. Once Helen took him out to the Chatfield dog area. He plunged into the lake, hit some rebar or a submerged spike of wood which penetrated his belly, came out streaming blood and kept running. She had some trouble getting him to stop and come back to be repaired. This tendency caused Helen considerable embarrassment at the local vets, equipped as they are for comfortable pets whose main problems are under-exercise and over-eating. Taking in our bleeding and bruised swamp hunter made her feel like a bad Mom.

On hunts this meant a deal of patchwork. There were many versions. Here's an early one with rigger Ken, just a child's small T-shirt to cover the chafed armpits and belly.

The next picture shows robodog version two, resolute and ready for the fray. He started dragging his R paw, so it would abrade on top. Bandage, duct-tape and boot over that would keep it from bleeding too much. On the hunt a week before this picture we'd run into sand burrs, horrible little things with long sharp spikes, he got them in his armpits and chafed raw. For that, ointment then gauze then stretchy self-stick bandage, then duct tape over the whole lot for protection. The duct tape is stuck to the bandage rather than the fur, so can cut it off easily. Then an orange skid plate because his low-slung belly gets abraded by all the cat-tails and other undergrowth he goes crashing through.  If I could get him to slow down a bit it would help, but he never did slow until the end.

Two very truly run-after dogs loafing in the sun. The good dog Spot had died here on the farm at a young age: came running up to Ken one lunchtime, yipped, licked his hand and died. We guessed some kind of anaphylactic shock but never did find out for certain. Spot sleeps beneath the orchard trees to the east of the barn, waiting for us to catch up. Here in the picture is Tau, a springer spaniel and successor to Spot. 

Artie came along for many of my bootless elk hunt scouting expeditions. Here I am wandering into a maze of boulders while he waits patiently at the edge, sure the dumb human will soon be back. On this trip we both slept in the back of the minivan much to his delight. I confess I liked it too. At home he wasn't allowed upstairs. In the barn we'd sleep on cots in front of the woodstove, dogs on a blanket. He'd get up every hour or so in the wee hours of morning to poke me with a wet nose, 'oy is it time to go hunt yet ? come on, lazy bones, slug-a-bed !'

After hunting season we'd plunge up to our chests in snow for exercise, at least some of the party would.

Back down to level 1 in front of another woodstove, more comfort than a thin blanket on a cold concrete floor in the barn.

His cousins came to visit from Australia bringing some soft toys for Artie. That grey soft toy in the picture of the dog as a young pup, lasted about two days before being gnawed to shreds. So I'd never thought to buy him more in his mature years. Fortunately his cousins knew better. This white rat pictured is still in the basket of dog things that is shelved until I can overcome my grief and adopt a new companion.

I felt bad having deprived him of his mouth comforts. Socks and shoes would move around the house and garden like glacial erratics, deposited wherever the carry stopped: not chewed or torn, just carried for comfort and the mouth feel. This used to make us late for school as the only pair of shoes the child could tolerate on his feet, would be in widely separated units, one covered with dew or snow.

In the early years we'd take him to be groomed, like a suburban cossetted hearthrug dog. For this as for the patching up of cuts and bruises, I ended up doing rough and ready home jobs. My ragged hairchops never bothered him much. In fact he seemed to enjoy them, a nice soothing buzzing sort of massage with the clippers I guess.

In 2018 we had another hunt by the reservoir. Several pheasants got up together and many shots rang out. In all the confusion we did not notice one that was only lightly hit, flew far out over the water before dropping - but Artie noticed. We started to move on to the next covert and wondered where he'd gotten to. Far far out there was a little head with a mouthful of bird, doggedly swimming and swimming back to shore. After this he lay down in the shade and watched us walk away. That was the first but not the last time I had to carry him out of the field, like a lost lamb across my shoulders.

On another occasion we'd walked for ten (me) or twenty (him) miles through empty Colorado fields without seeing a single bird. Coming back there was a small creek where Artie put up a wounded goose. Geese are not usually hunted by flushing with a dog but I overcame my surprise and shot it anyway. The long hill back up to the car saw another lie-down strike. Carrying a 12lb goose, 35lb dog and 8lb shotgun up the hill altogether was a bit more exercise than planned.

Here he is on a hunt in 2019, thinking there is something in those cattails. His enthusiasm for busting through dense thickets had waned with the years. At the end of the day like this I usually had to be the dog struggling through the thick stuff while he patrolled the fringes to ensure no-one ran out.

By the end of the hunt he was fully ready to go home, hopped into the truck and waited for us.

Early in 2020 we went on a Colorado hunt where he did his usual sterling job of finding me birds. I missed one and had a misfire of the shotgun on another, a vegetarian day then. Artie was still limping a week after the hunt which was unusual. Also his right shoulder felt strange, as if a bone had come loose and was sticking up hard and pointed in the wrong place. The vet took him in and disappeared for a longer time than I liked. The verdict was osteosarcoma which had already metastasized into his backbone and lungs, nothing to be done but hospice care. This cancer is more common in big dogs, as the vet said, 'dogs that abuse their bones'. Well that's a match for Artie poor old boy. 

With the pandemic at least we got to spend a lot of time together in the home office. In the mornings I'd come downstairs on my commute and be greeted as usual at the bottom of the stairs with a wagging dog bearing a sock or a shoe as a love offering. As the months went on he stopped getting out of bed, instead wagging a cheerful greeting from his rest when I came into the kitchen. Coffee made, I'd head for the study, and he'd limp over to a blanket on the floor.


As both Artie and I were old and cranky by now the dog parks like Chatfield no longer worked for us. He'd always be focused on hunting while the other dogs wanted to socialize. Often there would be dogs with issues, too. I found the closest National Forest without leash restrictions and we'd drive up there to run around in peace and quiet.

In the evenings I'd be reading and become slowly aware of an intense pressure to pat someone, beaming up from my side. 

We took Christopher out to college, thirteen hours in a car each way. Artie stayed home at the kennel run by the vet. On the thirteen hours home, we got a call to say his back was done and he could no longer stand up or walk. One of the vet techs kindly stayed on a Sunday so we could pick him up. He couldn't walk but he could still wag and lick my face. We spent an afternoon together then called the assisted dying vet service. 

We buried him on the farm near his dad Spot, on the hill above the swamp, where the pheasants still strut and cackle.

I put a tail feather from the first bird this year on the grave.


Artie's distant cousin Addie has given these lessons to her owners too. Addie's still running, follow her at @addiedoesstuff.
(update 2021 - @addiedoesstuff has become @mountainroche due to intimations of mortality). 

“Addie has taught us that love has to be unconditional, because there is no such thing as conditional love. If someone has to earn it, you don’t actually love them,” says David. “That love is a renewable resource for Addie. She gives it to everyone, and that doesn’t make it less special; it makes it more special. It makes life more real and death more real. In contemplating her mortality—something we’ve already done a few times already—I think, ‘What a life she had led!’ Not because of the adventures, but in the amount of spirit she has given to other people. "
“We say, ‘You are amazing,’ not because someone earn accolades or wins races,” David explains. “We say that because someone moves forward into the unknown and goes for it. What Addie has taught us is that everyone deserves that. You can lift a lot of people up with that attitude and bring a lot of light into your own life, too.”

A paragraph from Teresa of Avila and/or John of the Cross, the provenance is not clear but the sentiments are exact. Via Poemas del rio Wang. 

And yet, upon that warm, alert animal is the weight and care of enormous sadness.

For what sometimes overwhelms us always clings to it, too—a kind of memory that tells us that what we're now striving for was once nearer and truer and attached to us with infinite tenderness. Here all is distance, there it was breath.

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