September 23, 2010
"If Bo could do it, you certainly can."
Packing up a few office things in preparation for my retirement, I found myself gazing for long moments at framed images of a beloved field-bred springer spaniel, now gone but not forgotten. As a school principal, I kept these photographs of Bo with pheasants and double guns in my office, where they aroused the curiosity of many students over the years. In fact, they invited some wonderful conversations and lessons with kids at the school I opened in Broomfield, Colorado.
These lessons varied, depending on the student questions, from wildlife conservation and ethics to safety in the outdoors and how hunting pays to improve our natural world. My hero, Aldo Leopold, was often a central figure in these conversations. Bo's story however, offered a specific yet essential life lesson in teamwork.
As the saying goes, a boy (or girl) and their dog -- especially a working dog -- enjoy to a bond too few people ever know. While hunting the Colorado uplands with Bo, I felt as though we were kindred spirits, both of us compelled to go afield by primal instincts in pursuit of a common goal. Separately we might have failed woefully, but as a team we were formidable.
As a school principal, I made a habit of sharing Bo's story with the girls as well as the boys since the lesson here was not gender specific, nor should outdoor pursuits like hunting be gender specific. The kids, boys and girls, were always curious to hear Bo's story. The photographs simply served as a vehicle for that learning.
The majority of the problems that came through my office as a school leader involved people not getting along, and the most challenging problems did not always involve children. Working with the kids was a lot of fun and very rewarding. I enjoyed telling Bo's story to students of all ages, and how the dog changed for me just to improve our mutual success in the field.
Truth be told, there was a time as a wing shooter that I was in a horrible slump and my shooting was poor at best. Bo knew it too. After all, he was born to hunt and his master was not giving him nearly enough opportunities to retrieve, something he absolutely lived for.
He was doing more than his part and would often give me a look of dismay when he worked up a nice flush and I'd miss. He even started pinching the roosters between us.
This is a difficult task for any gun dog and when he pulled it off, it certainly offered better opportunities for me. The result was only a small improvement on my part. That's when he started behaving in a way that went directly against his breeding; against his genes, all just to get more birds.
As a flushing dog, any spaniel that hesitates prior to a flush is ejected from a field trial.
Bo's "flash point-esque" behavior started while we were hunting along the South Platte River in northeastern Colorado. It was the antithesis of proper flushing dog performance and contrary to his usual hard-driving nature, but I now appreciated the prior warning€¦and I definitely needed it.
The dog began hesitating momentarily, not really as if to point, but to make eye contact with me. This eye contact during the seconds prior to the flush soon became a sweet hesitation I will never forget. He wanted to be sure I was ready -- there was no question that he was. While Bo wanted every bird, he also understood his teammate all too well.
He quickly associated the warning, via our eye contact, with more retrieves.
At 35 pounds, Bo was all muscle, fast and built low to the ground. Liver and white, he had long floppy ears, a silky coat and as a pup was often mistaken for a female. He was by my side always -- home and field. He would charge straight into thorns and thick brush, hot on scent and without fear, but could snuggle up on a cold night like a kitten.
Bo and the author shared the same goal while afield and worked well as a team...especially after Bo voluntarily made some adjustments.
He was a family dog and loved us as much as he loved hunting. Unfortunately, at four years old, an undetected cancer began growing deep in his chest.
As the Colorado pheasant season opened, a fog covered the South Platte River bottom like a soft wooly blanket. The sun rose red, melting the fog. Not far from the truck, Bo became birdy near a woodpile; he stopped momentarily, made eye contact and gave me a look like, "Get ready; here they come!"
I already had noticed the woodpile and wondered about quail. When Bo had my attention, he charged in and flushed a covey of 15 bobwhites. My double gun spoke twice and I managed to scratch one down. A celebratory shout followed, "That's my boy!" Bo proudly pranced back and presented the bob to hand.
From that day forward, Bo would warn me of an impending flush whenever he could.
This behavior was never taken for granted as I knew he was working hard against genetics to become a better teammate. With any bird that would hold, he employed this advantage.
We hunted mostly wild pheasants, so he would flash point perhaps once or twice per outing when he was able to pin down a sprinter. Again, while this certainly is a disqualifying behavior for a field trial dog, I took advantage of the warning and the extra time it gave me to get my gun up. It started working and eventually resulted in more birds in the bag.
After cancer surgery and with his incision still on the mend, Bo hunted as if each outing was his last. We took to the field for training or hunting as often as we could, and he wore a protective vest. With each adventure it appeared as if he was getting stronger. The dog just would not give up, he loved hunting that much. I did not know it at the time, but the cancer was already beginning to grow back.
Another surgery was required the following summer, this time as part of a research study at Colorado State University's renowned animal oncology unit, and it was obvious that the cancer had spread. They removed what they could, but the prognosis was poor.
Holding him with tears in my eyes, I made a promise to get him to South Dakota before he was gone, a dream that came true that fall. The vet gave Bo only a few weeks to live, but he pushed all the way through the fall and into the
December found us out on the wind-swept Colorado plains, hunting ditch country for any roosters that remained. We had put just one bird into the bag all weekend and we were about to head home after our final hunt. I tried to apologize to Bo for the two shots that I had missed. We had done better several weeks earlier in South Dakota.
A snow squall had moved through the previous evening and dumped half a foot of wet snow. A cloud-covered sun hung low against the gray sky. The instant I stepped out into the cold, the wind whipped a chill up my spine and the temptation to climb back into the warm Land Rover loomed large. But Bo jumped out of his kennel. He was bleeding again from his incision, but his tail wagged and he was happy to be hunting, so I couldn't let him down.
Mac, the author's springer pup, learned a lot from Bo duringBo's final year.
We started out together in fresh snow down a ditch run that looped around a long mile back toward the vehicle. The ditch was packed thick with tumbleweeds blown in by the perpetual prairie winds; a ceiling of snow held firm on the top of the tumbleweeds to provide a refuge below.
We trudged along, with Bo working close. Then he literally disappeared into the ditch and under the snow ceiling, pushing strong through the gnarled mass of packed tumbleweeds. I could watch his progress as the snow ceiling moved and shifted, but did not cave in. Then I spotted a big rooster track.
Bo was on it, following along the top edge, then plunging back into the snarled abyss. I followed his progress by watching the shifting snow up the ditch until the most memorable thing occurred. The rooster was pinned and ready to explode; the snow ceiling lay completely still for the longest moment€¦and Bo stood up on his hind legs and poked just his head through the snow ceiling to daylight, with snow piled on the top of his head.
We locked eyes and his look said, "Dude, you better be ready!" He dove back under and a mature rooster rocketed up through the snow, his wings catching the wind. I rushed my first barrel, still stunned by the unforgettable look on my dog's face with the snow piled high on his head like a crown. But I couldn't disappoint him.
I took a deep breath to allow the big rooster a distance that matched my full choke barrel.
Bo made it up to the top of the bank just in time to see the old bird crash hard into a cut cornfield below. "What a dog; what teamwork; what a finish!" I thought to myself. Little did I know at the time, this would be Bo's final retrieve.
Not long after, I was finally forced to make the decision that his quality of life would be greater in a better place. Anyone who has owned gun dogs has been in this position and knows how very tough it is. My local vet, who had been following Bo's case, agreed to come out to the house to euthanize Bo so our beloved spaniel could pass away in the comfort of his own home.
That night for dinner I stir-fried two extra roosters and Bo ate pheasant dinner with our family, something he had never done before. While happy about this and managing a slight wag of his tail, he also gave me a look like, "What is this?"
My family participated in a dinner prayer for Bo. Many fond memories were shared, some I had not heard before. On a carpet of leaves in his own backyard, we watched Bo pass this life away. His eyes were locked on mine and in his last seconds it was as if he knew what I was doing and why. I made a plan to save his ashes for a future hunt in eastern Colorado, a place Bo knew and loved, where we would toss the ashes to the wind on a day full of bagged roosters.
In Bo's final year, we bought a puppy from the same kennel where we had purchased him. Our new puppy, Mac, became another reason Bo hung on so long. Mac learned much from Bo and still carries some of his attributes today.
What we learn about ourselves from one another is essential to fostering good relationships. Even our relationships with our gun dogs are of value, and that's why I shared Bo's story with the kids at school. Here was a dog that went against his own genetics to accomplish our mutual goal. That's teamwork.
Whenever a student was leaving my office after hearing Bo's story, I'd hold up a framed image of my gun dog and offer these final words: "If Bo could do it, you certainly can."
The lesson was complete.