Lightning flashes illuminate the shadows where my dog and I stand huddled beneath a patch of backyard pines.
Raindrops splatter around my slippers. I’m clad in pajamas and a light hooded rain coat. It’s 2 a.m. of her second day in a new home — ours.
Thunder booms close and far. I think, “If she can handle this racket, she won’t flinch at shotguns she might hear down the road in some marsh or grassland.”
Here’s hoping the neighbors are not watching. Armed with a head lamp and treats, I try to coax her into doing her natural business with a gentle but firm “be a gooood girl.”
She squats. I grin. My quivering fingertips ready the reward, a duck-and-bacon flavored mini morsel.
It works. Those few ounces of urine, a positive milestone.
Darcy is making progress.
Even so, the jury is still out.
We head back into the house hoping it won’t be necessary to repeat this at least for a few hours.
She enters her porta kennel at the foot of our bed. She whimpers softly, then silence. Asleep!
By way of introduction, Darcy, a 9-week -old springer spaniel, surfaced a few weeks after our previous springer, Ellie, passed away in early August just shy of 16 years.
Seeking to doze off I recall how we struggled with the decisions and memories of dogs past, especially at our age, my wife Sue and I both 72. The choice became obvious after we agreed only another dog would fill that vacuum in our house.
We accumulated names and numbers of kennels and breeders, watched the classified ads and browsed the internet. Everywhere we went, it seemed, we kept running into people with springers. Friends and family opined mixed views of whether getting a new dog was the right move.
The final straw, maybe call it divine guidance, came one Sunday when heading to church we ran into Mike Thorn of Eau Claire out walking his young female springer named Dutch. I couldn’t resist interrogating yet another elderly person about why they needed a dog, especially a hunting dog.
“Yes, she’s a hunter. Her name is Duchess of Clear Waters, but we call her Dutch.
“Yes, a number of people asked why I wanted another dog at my age. I’m 75, and my wife and I travel a lot.”
What did he tell them?
“Well…I hunted with her 53 days last fall. Some of those were training days. Mostly we’re after grouse and pheasants at (local public hunting areas).”
Thorn continued: “She was born to hunt, and this is what I live for. After I’m gone, my daughters will take care of it. Our previous dog died in my wife’s arms and I really missed having a dog and I missed going out the next fall. If I didn’t have a dog, I wouldn’t hunt.”
Like Thorn, Dave Books, 76, Helena, Mont., and a native of Wisconsin, gets plenty of exercise with his two dogs, Bailey, a black Lab, and Tess, a Wisconsin-bred Brittany.
“We take 45-minute walks daily. We hunt pheasants and sharptailed grouse.
“Owning a dog when you’re older you always wonder what will happen to them if something happens to me. A lot depends on your state of health. You never know, things can change in a hurry.
“Right now I’m taking care of them and they’re taking care of me.”
Concerns keep flashing like lightning bolts through the window shades. Can we manage this? How will it affect our retirement years? Can we do Darcy justice? Will she be OK with living at our pace?
As for training, older handlers need to form a strong bond with the dog. It all boils down to resilience, determination, patience and commitment. Overcoming frustrations of house breaking, leash handling and response to basic commands — come, sit, no, yes, fetch, here and drop — is what we shoot for. Repetition is key, you only teach bad habits once.
Looking into Darcy’s hazel eyes and watch her moving about the fenced yard, I detect a strong-willed attitude, plenty of energy and enthusiasm. I also see a dog that eats grass and mouses insects, picks up and chews everything and likes to play race track when you’re trying to instruct her that the direct route back is what’s desired. Help, please!
She’s 16 weeks now. Daily we are discovering ways that fit Darcy. I’m re-learning lessons four other springers and a Lab taught me and how we worked things out with them. Soon there could be some short easy trips afield. Or maybe some time at a game farm. That could come later this winter or right before next fall.
Meanwhile, today we’re soaking up October warmth in our sun space, the two of us taking a break from training.
“We’re going to do this,” I tell her. “You’re probably going to outlive me. “I’m not looking for the perfect dog, just a good one.”
Carlson is a free-lance writer who lives in Eau Claire.