I was reading ‘Sporting Classics’ magazine the other day; you might know that it is a glossy, well-edited publication intended for ‘high-rolling’ sportsmen. And, while some of the gear and travel can be pricey, the stories are always good and inevitably there’s at least one story about some sport’s faithful gun dog who could do it all but whistle.
I was put to reflecting about dogs I’ve owned and trained and realized how truly fortunate I was to have had that ‘one good dog’…and when I say ‘good’ I’m really showing a bit of modesty for his sake…’Jet’ was great!
Jet’s been out of our lives for more than 20 years, but the memories are still strong and while they last I need to put them down on paper. But to appreciate Jet’s story I need to tell of my first retriever, a chocolate Lab named ‘Mate.’
It was 1980 and Rachel and I just settled into our first tour of duty in North Carolina. We were living in Cape Carteret, a pleasant waterfront community situated on the mainland side of Bogue Sound…in view of the Intracoastal Waterway. We were fortunate in that not only did Rachel’s parents live in town but so did all of her siblings and they all hunted, fished and generally carried on in and around the waters of Bogue Sound. Of course, we too needed a boat and a retriever…the boat, a Parker working skiff like my brothers-in-law…the dog, a chocolate Lab pup Rachel found through an ad in the paper.
Now Mate was a handsome and eager pup and I, having read the latest retriever training bible, was able to train him myself in the basic obedience commands. He would often sit at heel until told to ‘fetch’ and would deliver the bird back to me, largely unscathed by fang and claw. He had a bit of sense, though it generally abandoned him at the sound of the gun or when there was a whiff of carrion on the wind. He was indeed a stalwart retriever and when left to his own devices, would retrieve anything…the appearance of any number of objects on the back porch, among them, two basketballs and an intact watermelon, attest to his prowess. He did, regrettably, have two singular faults – his unerring facility in finding a rotting carcass in which to roll and an incurable habit of crotch-sniffing.
His tendency to rot-roll was a bad habit, however it was mitigated by the irregularity of the episodes due, I expect, by the efficiency of our native Turkey Vulture population. He did, though, have crotch-sniffing down to a science…and he was insatiable. No one was excluded from his unique manner of greeting…but a particular target was the college-aged daughter of our next door neighbors who became so traumatized that she became a total recluse and is now, I understand, living a monastic life in the Himalayas.
At any rate, we loved him and hated to leave him behind when we were reassigned to Norfolk. We had just bought our first home but the yard was too wet to put in a kennel run, so Mate stayed temporarily with Rachel’s parents until we were ready for him. We learned a few months into our new assignment that Mate had been hit by a truck and killed. Rachel’s dad didn’t give us much detail when he informed us that Mate was gone. At the time we didn’t suspect foul play, but in retrospect, there was that possibility…
So, having just lost our dog, everyone advised us to get a new pup right away. Well, we got lucky. I don’t remember how we met him but we became friendly with a senior Naval Officer who owned, hunted and field-trialed several very well-trained Labs. He had a friend who owned and campaigned that year’s National Derby Champion…the top two-year old retriever in the nation. That dog had sired a litter of pups and my friend said he could get us one. The litter was in California and Jet would be picked out for us and shipped by air to us in Norfolk when he was exactly eight weeks old.
The great day came and I finally found our pup in the freight terminal. I heard him before I saw him. Eight hours in transit and no convenient tree is tough for a pup. Dehydrated and covered in diarrhea, he was a sight, but I got him home and we bathed him. Beneath the mess, he was a beauty. That first night away from his litter mates, he cried and to ease his transition, I slept on the kitchen floor with him. Perhaps that was when we bonded; we were pals the next day. And then his training began…
I was fortunate to have had some very experienced retriever people to help me train him. He was retrieving little puppy dummies at nine weeks and at 12 weeks, he won his first puppy field trial. In fact, over the next nine months, he took first place in every trial we entered. At the one year mark I decided to forgo the field trials, they involved a lot of travel out of the state and all I really wanted was just a good gun dog.
During those early years, 1983 to 1986, I hunted with a professional guide down in Lake Mattamuskeet, North Carolina. He was a somewhat curmudgeonly gentleman, my age, who had descended from a long line of hunting guides. We hunted open-water blinds left to him by his grandfather; blinds that had been passed down through the generations because there was a moratorium on the setting of new blinds. This was a serious water-fowling and he was not inclined, given his experience with other guided parties, to allow some unproven dog into his realm. Yet, once he saw Jet work for the first time he insisted that I bring him whenever we hunted.
There are two Jet stories that come to mind from those Mattamuskeet trips and they both occurred on the same day. On that day it was just the guide, Jet and I because Bud, my usual hunting companion and best friend, could not make it down from northern Virginia. We were hunting from a stake blind, about 100 yards off a piece of marsh, essentially in open water, miles from land. Jet, positioned on a shelf on the front of the blind, was doing a fine job of marking and retrieving the birds I had shot. By mid-afternoon, a flight of Pintail ducks came in and I managed to drop two, but one was lightly hit and sailed into the march behind us. The guide and I marked where the bird finally dropped. I sent Jet for the downed bird in front of the bind; he retrieved it and I was ready to send him for that wounded bird 100 yards away when the guide stopped me. He noted that it was a pretty long swim and up-wind, at that…and that I’s have a difficult time giving Jet directions to hunt. So the three of us got into the guide’s skiff to cross over to that piece of marsh.
We landed on the point of that island exactly where we saw the bird go down. There was the open water on the south side of the island and a ‘slough’ about 50 yards wide that ran down the other side that separated that island from another to the north. On landing, Jet immediately began to hunt ‘dead’ for that duck and we could tell there was a scent in the area by Jet’s behavior. But after about ten minutes of searching we still hadn’t found the bird. We called off that area and reluctantly he went with us down the south side of the island. After a few minutes of searching, both the guide and I had lost sight of Jet. As we walked back to where we had landed we spotted Jet as he leaped into the slough and began swimming hard to the other side. As we looked closer, the guide and I could see that something was swimming under water in front of Jet. As the dog was almost to the marsh on the other side, the ‘something’ turned into our lost Pintail which burst from the water and took flight. As the bird went airborne, Jet came out of the water, leaped and caught the duck in mid-air. He then turned and brought him back across the slough, came to heel and gently delivered the very much alive Pintail to my hand.
The guide and I were literally speechless for a moment and then the guide, shaking his head in amazement, explained what had just happened. He said the wounded bird landed where we thought he would be, but instead of hiding in the marsh grass, the duck submerged against the island with only the tip of his bill above water; ‘snorkeling,’ the guide called it. When we had called Jet away to hunt elsewhere, the duck though it safe to make his sprint under water to the other side. As he finished explaining what had occurred, I believe I saw Jet smile.
We got back in the skiff and returned to the bind for the remaining hour of shooting time and Jet resumed his post on the shelf in front. Now, all day long we had been seeing swan come over the decoys, but since I didn’t have a swan permit I wasn’t shooting. Moments before we planned to quit and pull up the decoys, I spotted a single swan about 500 yards out flying straight at us. Since I couldn’t shoot, I sat back and just watched the bird as he kept coming to our decoys. When he was about 150 yards out, the guide said, “if you get a shot, take it”…meaning he was giving me his permit. I got down fast, changed shells to a heavy load and waited. As he sailed past the left side of the blind I rose and dropped him with a single shot.
Now a swan is a big bird and he made a significant splash when he hit the water. I looked over the front of the blind at Jet; he marked the bird and was poised to act. I sent him. He leaped off the blind, swam directly to the swan, sniffed it, circled it and continued to swim on his original course. I gave him a whistle command to stop and a hand signal to return to the bird. He did…again he sniffed, circled and swam off on a new course 90 degrees to the original. I didn’t know how to explain this behavior but the guide once again delighted by my dog’s performance, asked me if Jet had ever retrieved a goose or swan, I told him ‘no’ he hadn’t. He said, “Jet’s been retrieving ducks all day; he knows this big white thing is not a duck, but there must be a duck out there somewhere and he’s going to get it for you.” We got in the skiff and retrieved both the dog and swan.
A few years later we were back home in North Carolina and I continued to hunt doves and waterfowl with the family. Quail hunting was pretty much a thing of the past due to declining bird populations, but we did hunt quail and the occasional pheasant at a well-run preserve nearby, though I never worked Jet on upland game, I knew he probably would perform fairly well and that at a minimum, I could control him. So one Saturday, my two brothers-in-law and I arranged for a combination quail and pheasant hunt at our favorite preserve.
Labs are also natural flushing dogs and while they don’t point like the pointing breeds, they will find birds and when they are stopped, nose down and tail wagging, get ready. They are also pretty rugged; their coats turn briars well and a good one is not afraid of heavy cover.
That day we let the guide’s pointer do all the work on the quail. We had six pheasant that had been turned out in a very large grassy field hours before and used Jet as a ‘flushing’ dog to get the birds airborne. Though I never trained him in this form of hunting, he took to it immediately and we readily found five of the six birds. Now pheasants like to run to avoid predators and the last bird had obviously been spooked by all the activity around him. Jet was nose down trailing the bird very quickly when the bird finally jumped up about 30 yards in front of us…all of us fired! One of the shots winged the bird and he sailed down into the corner of the field about 100 yards away. We took off for the spot where we saw him land and Jet was there searching. We all joined in the search which centered on a deep ditch which bordered the corner of the field. After about five minutes, I had lost sight of Jet and as I whistled for him I heard him breaking through brush in the field next to ours. I continued to call him in with the whistle for a minute or two and stopped to listen for him. About five minutes later he appeared carrying the wounded bird back to me…my guess is that he had trailed that bird for at least 200 yards.
In 1989, I received orders to Okinawa, Japan…so Rachel, me and Jet made the 13,000 mile move. We lived there for three years and although there was no hunting on the island, I continued to keep up Jet’s training. As a senior officer and unit commander, we had nice quarters with a yard and fenced in patio where Jet got to spend as much time as he wanted outdoors. While I ran to stay in shape I didn’t think pounding or the heat was good for him, so I paid Luke, the youngest son of one of the two chaplains that were on my staff to walk Jet every day after school.
Luke and Jet bonded immediately and Luke’s walks always included stopping by his family’s quarters where all of his siblings got to roughhouse with Jet and feed him dog treats…something of a departure from his routine at home with us…but a good one.
In 1992, we received orders for London. Excited as we were about moving to England, we were concerned about our pets, Jet and Tigger the cat being forced into the mandatory six month rabies quarantine for all pets brought into England. The only right decision we felt was to find new homes…Tigger went to close military friends, stayed in Okinawa for one more year and had a long, happy life living in Germany, California and Virginia. Luke’s family was reassigned to Philadelphia Navy Yard just before we left and on the day of their departure to the States, I brought Jet to the airport in Okinawa.
So, there I was, in uniform, Jet sitting on the front seat of my van, driving down to Naha airport, tears running down my face. We got to the airport and I found a grassy field next to departures where I threw a bunch of retriever bumpers for him to fetch. Unintentionally, we drew a crowd of Japanese onlookers amazed at what this handsome black dog was doing. Time came to meet his new family at the check-in, so we walked into the airport, Jet at heel, leash in my other hand. We got to the counter, hugs and handshakes all around…one last hug for Jet, as the Marine Colonel left the airport with tears in his eyes.
Years later we heard from Jet’s family…he had a long, happy and healthy life and died in his sleep at 16 years old…one helluva ‘good dog.’