It started with a handshake. Completing the deal and signing the last of the papers, I looked down at a fluffy ball of blonde fur who apparently was now mine. She quizzically stared back at me as if to ask, “what are we going to do now”? As the next twelve and a half years would tell, we had our share of adventure together. From the early years of potty and house training to the numerous sunrises and sets in the marsh or in the woods, my Penny girl was always up for some shenanigans.
I vividly remember when she was teething as a puppy, how a beloved Christmas dvd vanished into thin air. My wife and I searched high and low for the disc but stopped looking the following week when we noticed something a little peculiar in the backyard. As we gazed across the summer grass, tiny dots sparkled with the noon sun in a mosaic pattern. Upon closer inspection we had found the dvd, evenly distributed through numerous Penny droppings. We could only laugh at the seemingly indestructible internal organs of our newly acquired pup.
Then came the field training. My twenty-five year old self was very naïve as to what it would take to get my new pup and turn her into a bird hungry hunter. Although I had read a few books and a plethora of articles, translating that knowledge into reality took quite the effort. Starting by releasing game farm pheasants for her to retrieve, my sheepish grin turned to grimace as Penny looked back at me with a confused look on her face. I could only stand and watch the elegant long grey legs of the pheasants as they dashed off into the wild, and my thirty dollars along with all of them.
After a few years, all my pressed efforts seemed to be paying off. Penny could retrieve most household items on command, and her prowess for hunting grouse was a thing of beauty. Her blonde coat streaking through the thick northern woods reminded me of a lioness surging after its prey on the African plain. It was at this sweet spot that I made the switch to hunting waterfowl. Penny loved the water, and her ability to soar sixteen feet from a dock made me believe that she would be a superb water retriever.
The truth is, we really struggled. The seamless transition that I was hoping for was met with whines, barking, and utter confusion when in a duck boat. I almost stopped bringing her with me completely when I talked to an older friend of mine who had owned numerous waterfowl Labradors throughout the years. I explained my frustration with her behavior, and what he said next completely shocked me. “It sounds like you want a robot for a dog”. Over the length of our conversation, he explained to me that every dog he’s ever owned has had its own little quirks and bad habits. It’s up to the owner to show patience, and to make the relationship work. After that conversation, our experiences waterfowling turned a corner. Instead of showing frustration at every whine, I would just focus on the working birds or the majestic sunset before me. In turn, Penny showed just how good her nose was by blind retrieving birds that had dropped in the deepest cattails or show her excellent swimming ability by chasing down cripples in the thickest muck imaginable.
Over the course of the next years, we spent many days in the marsh. Whether we were watching the sunrise together or staying close on November mornings to stay warm, we thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. When her hips were getting too stiff to hunt, I reluctantly kept her home as I knew her mind was willing, but her body was not able. Watching her struggle through that pain was unbearable, as she could barely stand or walk after a weekend of hunting.
After a few years of well-deserved retirement, those old hips of Penny’s couldn’t produce enough energy to get her around. That’s when it ended, with a handshake. A tear-filled handshake to the veterinarian who helped her pass into the woods and marsh in the sky.
It’s been very difficult saying goodbye for my family and I, so I decided to carve an urn for Penny. I decided to carve a ringneck drake, as that bird was her first unassisted water retrieve. Placing her ashes in the decoy, I felt that she would be hunting with me for the rest of my life. A steadfast reminder of the hours we spent in the great outdoors.
This fall I set her in the water for the opening day of duck season. Being she was in a ringneck decoy; I kept her 15 yards away from the puddle duck decoys we had placed for early season birds. Over the course of the morning, my friend and I sat back to drink some coffee and have a chat. I briefly looked up at the decoys and couldn’t believe my eyes. A hen wood duck sat two feet from Penny’s decoy. I had time to rise as the hen exploded of the water and was quickly sent down again with a thunderclap. I had to smile, as I new Penny sent me that duck. It was definitely an easy retrieve.