Working for a Living
“It’s Paco. Something is wrong with him. He was running down the trail and started to walk funny and then fell over. He’s not doing well. He’s not okay.”
My girlfriend trailed off into sobs and I told her to meet me at the vet.
These were the words that would change my life, that would echo in my mind for months and that would make me acutely aware of what it really was that made me who I was, what I was, and what I lived for. I was at the gym that spring afternoon when I took the phone from the kid who had searched frantically for someone named Ross who had an emergency phone call from a hysterical woman with bad cell reception.
I ended up meeting her on the highway on the way to the clinic. I ran up to her car on the shoulder and she got out, barely able to stand. I opened the passenger door and there was Paco, lying across the passenger seat. Terrified and numb, frantic but silent, I reached out my hand and ran my hand across him. He was soft as ever, his brown fur shiny, his muscular frame and tail relaxed and his head resting on the arm rest. But he didn’t move and I knew immediately that it was too late.
Minutes later we were at the vet. They brought a gurney and placed Paco gently on it, as if he might be in pain. It was a Sunday and there was nobody there but the kennel staff and one vet at the clinic who I didn’t know. They wheeled Paco into the main surgery and examination room and placed him on a stainless steel table that seemed cold and uncomfortable. The staff left the room—all but the vet who sat at a desk as if I wasn’t there.
I hadn’t cried in several years but at that moment, I totally collapsed into sobbing pleas, apologies and promises. The vet looked over momentarily and I snapped. “Do you think I could get a fucking minute here, buddy?” Without a word he got up and left. I said my goodbyes, my girlfriend outside and understandably unwilling to see Paco in this setting. On the drive home I called my mother. Then I spent the next 48 hours totally broken. I didn’t go to work on Monday and I can’t say I honestly remember what I did or said during those few days.
Paco was my first hunting dog. I had grown up in a city and my mom had introduced me to hunting through friends. She had grown uphunting in the rural South and wanted me to experience it. I shot rabbits with a .22 and killed my first bird—a dove—with an old police-model Winchester Model 12 twelve gauge. I shot my first duck when I was 12 but didn’t truly become passionate about wing shooting until I moved to Idaho at 22 years old. I bought Paco when I was 25 after hunting without a dog for a few seasons and the whole game changed.
Before Paco, I would often go out by myself and wander the mountain foothills with my mutt., Bella, a rescue dog I had adopted on a whim a few years before. Bella was half lab, half shepherd and
she made a decent enough upland dog that I’d often go home with a grouse or a few huns in the bag. Bella wouldn’t swim, however, and so water-fowling involved a good pair of waders, a canoe, or tagging along with one of my buddies and their dog. She also offered a free meat grinding service that accompanied her awkward retrieves, often bringing me the bird with substantial puncture wounds. I enjoyed hunting—maybe even loved it—but not necessarily any more than I loved long days spent backcountry skiing or mountain biking in the Northern Rockies of Idaho.
Then came Paco, or Sir Chicken Soft Paco Supreme, as the AKC would know him. Paco was a chocolate Labrador retriever from local hunting lines including a then-legendary black lab named Big Wood Woody. He was eight weeks old that July and had a head shaped like a toaster oven. Taking my friend’s advice, I called a local trainer and began fostering his drive, playing with duck wings and pheasant tails. Paco took an immediate liking to retrieving balled up socks down the hallway. At twelve weeks old, Paco discovered the most enthralling component of his entire life—water. Though he was no bigger than a loaf of bread, Paco stormed into a local pond like he was born in it and never looked back. The term “water dog” couldn’t have been more fitting. Paco would subsequently spend a good portion of his life simply swimming in circles, chomping at the splashing water he’d kick up with his front legs.
I spent the next several months devoted to training that dog, though in retrospect I wasn’t a very good trainer. He spent two months at the trainers being force-fetched and learning the fundamentals of handling but I couldn’t afford to keep him there any longer, so it was on me. He was too small and young to hunt his first Idaho fall so I spent over a year working with him as best I could—by the book, literally, and with no experience. By the time the following summer came about, Paco was pretty solid at long retrieves and starting to gain confidence at blind retrieves and handling.
That October my friends and I headed up to the alpine river we hunted—a small river deep in the mountains. It held a decent
amount of birds back then and offered a walk-in blind on public land that suited our budgets just fine---the long hike in with heavy decoys on our backs helped to sweat out an otherwise crippling bourbon hangover. Paco had no idea what we were doing there but he sat in the blind without complaint for the first hour, no birds in sight. I periodically petted him and he’s look at me quizzically, hoping it was time to go swimming in the eddy in front of us. Suddenly a lone Gadwall drake swooped in and my friend shot it, sending it across the river into a tall, thick willow bush. Paco had fortunately watched the whole thing happen and sat still, ears cocked, eyes focused on the opposite bank.
“That’s going to be tough,” my buddy offered, softening the likely disappointment of what might be a failed first retrieve of an inexperienced puppy. A bit hesitant, I had to give him a shot, even if it was far from ideal for a first wild retrieve.
“Paco.” I said softly but deliberately, thereby sending him to retrieve on his name. Paco took off and catapulted into the water, swimming across the small river and running up the bank on the other side.
He ran right past the willow, into the brush that lined the far bank. “Shit.” I said, hoping he’d realize his error but knowing he was too
excited to be thinking about much of anything. Suddenly the willow shook as Paco had come in from behind it and was deep in the middle of the thicket, making the tall branches shake and rattle. Triumphantly he pushed through it, duck in his mouth, swimming across the river and then sitting at my side, holding the duck in his mouth with his eyes fixed on me.
It was over. In my heart, I was no longer a skier nor mountain biker—I was a bird hunter and Paco was my dog.
Over the next seven years, Paco retrieved hundreds of ducks, flushed countless grouse, pheasant, chukar, huns, sage chicken and quail in multiple states across the west. He was a proficient upland dog, learning to stay within range of my shotgun even when his nose told him there were birds up ahead. Paco had multiple triggers that would send him to frenzy—my vest or shotgun, his hunting coat and collar, decoys, the word “birds” or even a bumpy ride on a gravel road—all surefire signs to him that we were headed to work.
And work was what he did.
After his death, we bought a new hunting dog that we named Steve. By breed, Steve is a Wire Haired Pointing Griffon. The truth is that my own experience with Paco has benefited in training Steve and
after only three seasons and 2.5 years of life, Steve is already a better hunting dog than Paco ever was. While he is by no means a champion trial Labrador like some of his blind mates, Steve has already managed to retrieve over two hundred ducks and is a rock solid pointer in the field. He’s hunted all over Idaho, Oregon, Montana and North Dakota and has never met a dead duck he didn’t want to eat (and occasionally has). He is full of personality and loves his “people” in a way that makes us laugh every day. But he isn’t Paco and Paco wasn’t Steve. They were--and are--simply hunting dogs that work without question every day in the field.
There are pets and there are working dogs. There are companions and there are partners. Not to diminish the value of a companion dog, but a human being and companion K9 will never know a bond with an animal like that of a hunter and his dog. One cannot functio without the other and success is only relative to those with a dog. A man without a dog will relish in kicking up a grouse and then bringing it home for dinner. A hunter with a hunting dog, however, will never be totally satisfied until he fills his bag limit with no hens, no missed shots and no missed points or retrieves, depending on the breed of his dog. And a dog, by nature, will never know the definition of true satisfaction until it is placed in the position to utilize its instincts—hardwired and reinforced for generations and generations--and subsequently please its master by succeeding in what it was literally bred and born to accomplish.
The truth of the matter is that 99% of dog owners will simply never know this. And it doesn’t mean that their dog loves them any less or that their devotion to their best friend is any less meaningful. But not until you see your own dog with icicles forming on its coat, refusing to be distracted from the sky for impending retrieves in negative temperatures on a river so cold that ice chunks dislodge the decoys; not before you witness the glow of pride from a tired and panting dog with worn pads and a coat chalk full of burrs standing over a pile of pointed, shot and retrieved rooster pheasant on a warm North Dakota afternoon; and certainly not prior to sitting aside that cool stainless steel table whereupon your best friend’s body lays in a sterile room with no life at all, can you possibly know what I mean.
Ross Copperman resides in Idaho, working for First Lite by day and often wandering the hills and rivers of Idaho in search of winged treats whenever possible. You can reach Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org