There are certain phrases that roll out so easily they deserve a mandatory cooling off period. ‘Hold my beer — watch this’ is a hardy perennial, along with ‘just give it a thump’ and ‘it’s not that deep’. If you’ve ever been rash enough to let slip with ‘
‘We should get a puppy’ can go either way. It might be the sloppy start to a careless relationship, as anyone who has walked the cell blocks of the local pound can tell you. Talk about a boulevard of broken dreams. Or it can be something so good it will mark you for life.
I generally enjoy my dogs one at a time, so the decision only comes up rarely. When it does there’s time to enjoy it — the research, the yarns with mates, the casting of critical eyes over sires and dams. It’s not obsessing over detail, just a simple problem — I can’t afford a no hoper — but Mrs R finds it hilarious. She told me once that Popes have been elected with less rigmarole than me choosing a gundog.
There’s an old saying with working dogs that you get out what you put in, and for me that starts with their parents and breeding, not just in training. A good worker will be born with more in his blood than you’ll ever teach him. Get that right and the rest comes along much more easily.
I’ve run GSPS for a quarter of a century, half of that in Australia, and still find my heart skips a beat when one swings into a stone cold point. But where I live now on the South Island isn’t the wide country that big running dogs thrive on. There are ducks on the river five minutes away, quail and pheasant and rabbits in the tangles and blackberry. My shorthairs have done it, but cold water retrieving and beating through the thick stuff isn’t playing to their strong suit. You can cut steak with a spoon, but a knife is a lot easier.
You know what comes next, the great Spaniel v Labrador War. Two choices really, settle in and bring popcorn, or just walk around the whole argument. I went in with the view that a well-bred pup in either breed would do me just fine, and still think that way. But life has a way of injecting realities into the situation — if you want a summer pup (and I do, especially with young kids to factor in) then you have to see what’s on the ground out there.
And so after many leads we finally came to a little fellow up on the North Island. Bred by a professional gamekeeper to strong working lines, proven parents and a bonny little chap, but I learned gundogs from a veteran who would damn near look at a pup with X-ray vision, past the cute and deep into structure. And it was also from her I learned the true value of a really well-bred litter — that you can pick almost any one of them and they’ll be good.
And then suddenly, with all the homework done, it’s the easiest thing in the world. Yes, we should get a puppy. This one and no other, because I’m dreaming already — and as they say, dreams are free. They’re part of gundog life and if they’re not then it’s time to quit. I look at him and a name comes from nowhere — a tough old Irishman who was good and gentle with dogs, and who deserves to be remembered — and once there’s a name, you know it’s game on.
Puppies and dreams go together — visions of crisp autumn mornings, the mud and squalls of winter, the birds in hand, the thousand little gestures that pass silently between good friends. We must saviour these dreams like the finest single malt. We need them, because what also comes with the package are the tough moments when it all goes to hell for a little while, when you need to be patient. And to seasoned eyes there might just be a faint glimpse of a faraway day you don’t want to think about — and shouldn’t, because if there is any point to a puppy at all it’s that they are a joy to be around, an escape from the wear and tear of the world. A pup is all about happiness, right here, right now.
With luck, a gundog is a mate for a dozen years. For them it’s a lifetime of loyalty, and all that they will ever know. We won’t let you down, little guy.
Welcome home, young Tom.