A good gun dog is equal parts skill, science and luck. At least I got lucky.
Getting a good dog from the right stock is important. So is training well and often. But all things being equal, the most important factor in succeeding with a hunting dog is trust. Reciprocal trust. That's the moral of nearly every story about hunters and their dogs. It's also a difficult lesson for the novice trainer to embrace. Especially a novice trainer who is also a novice shooter and a neophyte hunter who has succeeded reasonably well before acquiring a dog. That described me perfectly when I finally learned to trust my English springer spaniel when it came to birds.
Mea culpa: I'm a lousy trainer, despite good intentions.
Even tempered -- no. Consistent -- don't think so. Smarter than Murphy -- yes, but not often enough.
On the plus side, I am a good audience when there's a strong performance and I appreciate a good effort nearly as much as getting the desired outcome. I'm also forgiving -- relatively -- since I have so many faults of my own.
Then there are Murphy's less-than-ideal pupil traits. Congenitally rambunctious, even in her middle years. (Describes her middle-aged owner, too.) Impatient. (Me too.) Prefers to dash into things rather than listen or think. (Ditto.) Goofy. (Doesn't apply, though my daughter tells me I'm silly nearly everyday and in her context she's right.) Always hungry. (No comment.)
Of course, she also has strengths. Eager to please. (A trait we don't share.) Loves birds. (Yep.) Great nose. (Just so-so for me.) Guileless and grudgeless. (Hardly, I'm ashamed to admit.)
Murphy was something of a gift, something of a curse.
Bred by a former hunting buddy, she was an eager bit of puppy fluff when I first laid eyes on her six weeks after I married. Murphy became mine for the price of her puppy shots, not because of any perceived gun dog abilities, but because she was, at least to my eyes, the prettiest bitch in the litter. She also seemed friendly without being forward. Many relationships -- human and canine -- rest on less.
Born just two days before I married, Murphy was to remain kenneled at my buddy Joe's rural spread while I began wedded life in urban Atlantic City. I'd come out mornings or weekends and train her with his guidance and he would run her with her his experienced dogs: her mom, dad and a sister from a previous litter.
The plan lasted about two weeks.
Joe got a job at another newspaper. His wife stayed behind for a time, but caring for a puppy -- my puppy -- was out of the question. She had two daughters and Joe's two remaining springer spaniels to tend. Murphy's dam was quickly sold, but there was still her sire, Max, an aggressive hunter with a will of his own, and Belle, a sweet-tempered sister from an earlier litter.
My bride said no to the little dog.
Deep in puppy love, I heard Nora's "no" with one ear, but not my heart.
And so Murphy came home to our second-floor walk-up apartment in Atlantic City, above our landlord's medical practice, where dogs were unloved, unwanted and forbidden.
Not much of a start to marriage or a hunting dog partnership. I was wrong, but Murphy suffered the most for my mistake. Nora loves animals, but her feelings hardened toward the interloper. Embarrassed and impatient, adoring Murphy, but ashamed of her and myself at the same time, I spectacularly failed the dog and my wife.
Not a good start afield or at home. I set out to make it right. And made it worse.
I found a house for us -- and Murphy -- on Brigantine, the island north of Atlantic City. An affordable little ranch-style house, with a backyard and an attached porch where Murphy could spend her days, close to her would-be-trainer, but removed just enough.
With only one bridge providing access on and off the island known as Brigantine, Nora was unhappy about the location. The lease, however, did not prohibit pets and Nora went along. Through a sin of omission, Murphy and the cat known as Lizzie, a foundling Nora brought to our union, the pets went unmentioned. We signed the lease.
All was well -- for a few short weeks.
It was soon evident that the landlord had a propensity for turning up unexpectedly. Hiding a growing springer from him was out of the question. It would not have worked, anyway: It turned out his then-wife -- there was a previous wife and there's been a third since -- who was given to incredible histrionics and hyperbole, had parents living on the next block. Big Brother lived in the neighborhood.
They demanded a substantial additional deposit. Too high, and for better or worse, the law was on our side. We struck a compromise and more money -- the unhappy balm of testy modern relationships -- changed hands. Life settled into an uneasy calm.
When Joe got the other newspaper job, I lost my coach as well as my kennel, leaving Murphy and me to muddle through training. The dog and I spent mornings running the island's dunes, where she scented mourning doves, shorebirds, gulls, pigeons and the occasional duck using a temporary pool of rainwater. Cottontails, masters of the bayberry thickets, ran her ragged, never coming close to being captured. I also carried along a bright orange retrieving dummy, which she found no matter how far or where I heaved it. And, unless a real bird distracted her, she even brought it back, usually to hand, before rocketing off again. Although of no value for learning to scent, she loved nothing more than chasing the dummy through the surf, frothy waves pounding her as she went out and providing a slick ride in on the way back. Although she wanted to be off, Murphy stayed fairly close and let me maintain a modicum of control unless she could see distant birds. She stayed close because she knew eventually one of her delicate pink paw pads would pick up a ubiquitous sandspur, which she could worry out with much biting and effort, but I could pluck out in a few seconds. Mutual needs served is the glue of many relationships.
As fall approached, The question loomed: Do you hunt a young dog, or just let them romp and chase birds?
I sure didn't know. The advice of experts seemed divided. But I wanted -- too much -- to put birds on the table, precisely the reason I'd gotten Murphy.
She handled planted pigeons I shot over her, finding and fetching them with aplomb. Just like hunting, or so it seemed. And so it was that Murphy and I came to go hunting when she was just six months old.
Hindsight is 20/20, but my unequivocal advice now, especially for hunters who care too much about birds and not enough about their dog, is a resounding "No!"
Decoying gullible, delectable wood ducks was our first foray afield as a hunting team. It could have been the last.
I -- not Murphy -- committed the day’s first faux pas before we left the house.
I left the front door to the house open as I hauled gear out to the Honda Accord, a ritual requiring several trips. About the third time out the door it dawned on me that the open door was also an open invitation to Lizzie, a strictly indoor cat with a fascination for -- and huge fear of -- the outdoors. A quick inventory of the small house turned up no cat. At least I knew Murphy's whereabouts, already loaded in her kennel in the back of the car.
Where was that enormous graphite-colored cat hiding in the darkness?
Remarkably, I spied her just outside the door, spread sprat cat on the ground, tail swishing nervously. Lizzie always thought she wanted to be outside; the minute she got out, though, she turned schizzy, clinging to the earth as through gravity was about to be suspended. I could see a morning of duck hunting becoming a morning of kitty stalking -- or wife consoling -- instead.
I headed slowly toward the surprisingly agile 14-pound cat. She feinted left. I moved to box her in. She turned tail and ran back in the house. I shut the door. It was cold, but I was perspiring across my brow and through my scalp.
I ignored the warning -- a clear harbinger of disaster to come, had I cared to listen -- and rode onward. We headed to the headwaters of a river that bisects an abandoned cranberry bog where I'd killed two gorgeous drake woodies the year before. In the semi-darkness, I set out a handful of mallard and black duck decoys -- sociable woodies will take a look at just about anything that floats -- and we waited. At least I did.
Murphy does not rest easily when she thinks there are birds at hand. My attire and the gun resting on my lap told her there were supposed to be birds. None were apparent. All she saw were the plastic ones I'd plopped in the current. She would find the real thing, her little spaniel brain told her, even if I was content to sit along the riverbank, staring at ersatz ducks
She began pacing, unable to sit for more than a few moments. When she did sit, aided by my death grip on her collar, Murphy sounded as loud as the beaters in a driven pheasant hunt as her over-animated stub-tail made contact with weeds. About half an hour elapsed, enough to go from predawn gray to full light. Numb and bored, I released her collar.
That's when Murphy went swimming.
Though the river was no more than 10 feet across, it was also equally deep at the spot where we set up. Wading across was out of the question, for me. So when she decided to go paddling, circling the decoys, heading upstream, gliding downstream, there was nothing to do but to call her. The calls increased in volume and urgency and soon became bellowing. That confused her more. That was when I fleetingly considered how I would explain what I would euphemistically refer to as "a hunting accident."
Deciding to assess her options, Murphy headed ashore -- on the other bank. She scrambled up the escarpment and disappeared down the center of the breached berm, once used to hold back the waters that flooded the cranberry bog.
I was furious. And worried. A couple of hundred yards beyond the riverbank, the path intersected a county highway. Murphy, hyper aware of natural surroundings, was utterly oblivious to cars. I could probably wade over at some spot upstream or downstream, slog across the bog and reach the berm, but there was no telling where she'd be by then. I sat tight, kept calling and hoped for the best.
About three minutes later she reappeared, with an older hunter bringing up the rear. He'd heard my yelling and seen her running and decided to be neighborly and get Murphy back where she belonged. Besides, calling ducks to himself was out of the question with a madman bellowing across the river.
He edged down to the river and sent Murphy across. She started, then circled, resting in chest-deep water in front of the man. I called again. She came -- most of the way. Then she swam back. This kept up for a time, probably about two minutes, though it seemed longer.
Finally she got close enough. I was able to snag her collar and haul her out in one motion -- she hadn't hit full adult weight and probably went about 30 pounds.
The other hunter tactfully suggested that I try running her before taking her hunting next time. Seething, I thanked him through clenched teeth and headed home.
I didn't learn a thing.
Looking back, I know I was a bigger dunderhead as a trainer than T. H. White was when he attempted to man a hawk, a wonderfully told story in his little-read classic, "The Goshawk."
Then again, Murphy always returned to me. She may not have obeyed, but she wanted to trust me. That was more than I could say regarding my feelings toward her.
The coastal duck season began the following Saturday. Full of hope and not much sense, we began before dawn, walking a salt creek.
Young and unsure of the new environment presented by the marsh, Murphy stayed surprisingly close. Though she heeled -- marginally -- on a lead, unsnapping the buckle apparently was a secret signal to behave like a greyhound. That is not a problem in the uplands, where good cover and exciting scents keep Murphy in reasonable gun range. The flat, wide-open marsh, however, is an invitation to her antecedent hound blood.
But she was like glue that day. I didn't realize it then, but I believe now that she was anxious because of the last time out and wanted to return to my good graces.
She almost did before it all came apart once again.
A couple of black ducks got up on a middling creek and I knocked one down over the narrow creek with a snap shot. The duck was a swimmer. So was Murphy. In she went, in close pursuit of the bird. Too close. For more than 30 yards, Murphy was never more than a few feet behind the bird, her first cripple and her first duck. A second barrel was out of the question with the bird just in front of her.
She wanted the bird that was obvious, her genes urging her ahead better than I ever could. But her lack of experience kept her from getting the upper hand.
About 20 yards into the chase, I got panicky. In 10 more yards the middling creek dumped into a wide and deep creek that quickly ran into a main bay thoroughfare. There would be no retrieving the bird -- or the dog -- if they made it to the ditch-like creek and both were still paddling strongly.
Running in baggy rubber chest-highs while carrying a gun and gear feels about as natural as wearing a sauna suit while jogging with a tuba -- ungainly and slow. But I managed to pull ahead of the dog and the tiring duck just feet before the intersection. With Murphy's bobbing head out of the way, I killed the duck. Dead, it involuntarily paddled furiously, driving itself onto a shelf on the far side of the middling creek, no more than 12 tantalizing feet away.
Murphy went to investigate. Unfortunately, that's all she did. Several times. Finally, she came back, got out and shook. It was clear she was finished and was not going across again.
I had several choices. I could leave the bird. I could wait until an honest to goodness dog trainer miraculously arrived and we persuaded Murphy to give it another go. Or I could get wet and get the damn bird myself.
No use waiting for Murphy to decide she wanted to pick up the bird and bring it back: Dog-training was over.
Leaving it was out of the question. I've lost birds, but not without a major search and never one I could plainly see. The year before, I fetched 17 birds by myself. I'd only lost three birds that year -- all tenacious black ducks that eluded me, that dropped unseen and remained hidden despite my best efforts. This wasn't going to be another lost bird. Besides, leaving it wouldn't set much of a precedent for the dog.
Fetching the bird myself was all that was left.
I tested the waters, edging across the middling creek. With the tide still coming, it was already too high.
That left two options:
I could backtrack for hundreds of yards until I found a place shallow enough to cross, and then leg back up the creek, hoping the rising tide had not dislodged the bird. Or, I could get wet.
Wet it would be.
Getting the gear off took longer than it did to half wade, half swim across the 50-degree water in underwear and socks, grab the bird, and return. The bird interested Murphy, but I wasn't talking to her by then.
On the long chilly walk back to the car I warmed up, but not toward the dog. Murphy was canine non grata by then.
I wouldn't call it wisdom, but I was savvy enough to pass on taking Murphy out on opening day for pheasant, a day that draws all the once-a-year shooters in dangerous droves.
In New Jersey, most pheasants taken by hunters are stocked by the state the day before they are hunted. They get planted twice during the week, as well as Saturday, when all the would-be nimrods turn out. Assuming we'd find less pressure during the week, I set out one morning shortly after the opener. We started out well, with Murphy casting and quartering, but soon the shooting began to sound more and more like cannonade. Murphy went from working out front to cowering behind in a matter of minutes. I knew it was time to get her out of the field, back to the car and out of there.
We cut through a hedge of Russian olive and just about stepped on a pheasant. I was carrying an Ithaca SKB 20 gauge, and although the first barrel is choked improved, the bird was still too near to allow the pattern to open up. One wing shattered, the bird headed toward a patch of woods. I killed it with the next barrel. Excited now, Murphy picked up the bird, though I couldn't say she truly fetched it, given I was standing next to her. Still, it was an improvement. Not wanting to press our luck, we returned to the car. As long as I dandled the bird in front of her, Murphy seemed not to mind the incessant roar of shotguns.
This might work out after all, I thought.
I was not able to test that wishful judgment until the following year.
At just seven months old, Murphy went into heat for the first time in her young life. It nearly killed her, though that wasn't apparent for another month.
In the meantime, I was effectively without a gun dog. It was out of the question to consider hunting her, given the number of dogs we encountered afield. Just imagine if the outlandishly out of place Doberman we'd once seen, festooned with a string of Bossy-sized cow bells -- probably to slow down its galloping stride rather than serving as a locator signal -- had its way with Murphy while we were scaring up pheasants.
For consolation, I went hunting solo a few times. Though I cannot recall overall how I did while dogless, I do remember solidly dropping a cock pheasant in a woody area fronting a road, but not being able to find it. Another hunter, a fellow named Frank who hunted a petite English setter bitch, white with fine black ticking, accompanied me to a landmark tree. He ordered his setter to hunt dead. She had my bird in less than a minute.
I missed Murphy afield even more.
Murphy never returned to the field that season, though. But not because of her puppyish performances.
Nora noticed first. Call it female empathy. She called me over to Murphy one night and pointed to a still-engorged teat, evident because the rest of her nipples had shrunk to normal at the end of the cycle. Probably a blocked milk duct, I said nonchalantly.
Nora said I should see the vet.
I did. He said it was likely a blocked duct. He took a biopsy to be sure.
Dr. Newkirk called a day later. Murphy had cancer. He said he had never seen cancer in young dog during its first heat. But that was in Murphy's favor -- she was young and strong and the cancer was still new and contained. Surgery was scheduled. It would cost 12 times what I'd paid Joe for her, a fortune to a just-married young man.
Off came all her nipples on the left side, as well as lymph glands in her hind leg. Spayed too, solving the problem of a recurrence and unwanted pups all at once. It was the flood of hormones that brought her into heat that kicked off the cancer, explained the vet.
She came through the surgery, but looked pathetic. Her belly was stapled back together. She was drugged and dazed. A cone-shaped vinyl Elizabethan collar encircled her neck. Nora, who probably saved Murphy's life with her attentiveness, and I sat with the dog on the floor of the porch, her normally nonstop metronome tail slowed.
Murphy recovered slowly, never quite getting the hang of the protective collar, bumping into walls and catching it on her food dish and water pan. And although she was knitting back together, running her in rough terrain was too big a risk. The season ended with a hurting pup's whimper, not a shotgun's bang.
I cannot recall her first time afield or even the first bird she found and fetched in her second season, but I vividly remember the bird she found that made me trust her.
Murphy spent the summer -- about two months -- with a professional Labrador retriever field trialer. He never outright said so, but his demeanor shouted, "Shoulda got a Lab." Still, he worked on the basics and did force-fetch training with her. But two months later Murphy was still tentative about finding and retrieving -- small quail she mouthed too hard and larger ducks and pheasants seemed to throw her. Pigeons, which she saw often in training, were a comfortable mouthful, but I was not going afield in search of rock doves.
Most of the second year, I dimly recall now, was a time of fits and starts, a strong performance followed by madcap folly. Recollections of that season are overshadowed in memory by our disastrous first season and eclipsed by Murphy's standout third year, when other hunters stopped to inquire about her breeding and training.
We were not quite to that level when Murphy and I made peace in her second season and I learned to trust her instincts and give her time.
It was late in the second-half of the split coastal duck season, though precisely when I cannot say. I'm certain it was late December, maybe even early January.
I recall being bundled up, but that's not the day's remembered hallmark. No, the telltale sign was ice, tremendously thick ice heaved up in odd places by the ebb and flow of the tide in and out of the salt creeks we hunted. It takes extended severe cold to turn salt creeks into meadows filled with icebergs, but that's precisely how it looked that day.
Murphy and I came up a long, straight, narrow creek bordering the edge of the marsh without seeing a thing. The tide was low, too low, for the small creek to appeal to black ducks or mallards. It petered out, leaving me with a choice: Aim for another smallish creek or go straight for a deep wide bend in a larger creek. Given the lack of success so far in small waters, I chose the bend.
I could see the tide was way down as we approached. Steep mud banks pitched rapidly toward a slack black puddle rimmed with remnant ice. In the center, several huge blocks of dirty ice drifted aimlessly.
We edged along. As Murphy hit the bend, a black duck vaulted up out of the water, going away fast.
I was shooting a Smith & Wesson autoloader that year, not a favorite of my gunsmith's, but a lethal tool that fit my jump-shooting hunting style and me perfectly. Refinished with a hand-rubbed oil finish when a chip at the heel got repaired, it was a utilitarian thing turned beautiful that moved just right in my hands. It is the only gun I've ever sold that I'd buy back.
The shotgun did just what it was supposed to and the bird came down hard, beyond the ice-filled pool. From where I shot, it appeared as though the bird had hit in the center of a small feeder creek. That was a worry: Black ducks can hide in a teaspoon growing algae when they need to disappear.
Murphy and I went across together, easing through the frigid sludge. She hit scent a few feet in and eagerly smashed through the cordgrass, intent on finding the bird.
Fifteen feet in, Murphy stopped. She had to: An oblong slab of ice two feet thick and three feet wide wedged into the tiny crevice formed by the small creek's diminishing bed.
She stuck her snout under the slab, but the space was too narrow for her to advance. Then she circled it, sticking her nose under the far side. I put my shoulder to it. Nothing. Not an inch. It wasn't moving.
So what, though? The duck could not possibly fit underneath.
I began to move the search onward, but Murphy began barking furiously at the huge chunk of ice.
I tried moving it again. No go. I could not reach far underneath. What to do? A shotgun makes a lousy lever in the muck. What to do?
I stood about two feet away and pulled the trigger. The ice was old and rotted enough so that the steel duck shot didn't just ricochet off, but the slab seemed untouched.
Working the action, I emptied the chamber and the magazine. Then I got serious. I filled the gun with three-inch steel BB shells that I carried in case of geese and fired again. It blew out a divot, but the immovable block stood firm. At the third shot, the block cracked into three large pieces, still heavy, but small enough to manhandle.
The iridescent purple speculum of the bird's wings caught the pale sunlight of winter as I heaved the second piece aside. It was as if I'd found a delicately colored butterfly buried beneath a glacier.
The dog picked up the muddy bird and brought it to me.
Murphy was a bitch no more.
"I'd rather have a springer," I said, "and pay the tax."