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Raider and the Birthday DuckClayton Bolton
I really wasn’t interested in another “throw away” dog. My last two were dogs that no one wanted to make a home for. If somebody hadn’t taken them, they were going to become pound dogs. They were good dogs, mixed of breeds most would recognize. But now I was looking for a more “pure” hunting dog for upland birds and waterfowl. By this time, I was finally getting over having to put down Mutt Lee. He was almost 18 at the time, and his body was just done.
I regularly visited a friend who lived around the block for a few brews and some lie swapping. He lived in a rental with his wife, kids and two dogs. His landlord threatened him many times because his contract only allowed one dog. I got to kinda’ know the younger dog, but she was more than three years old, overweight and with many bad habits.
At around 100 pounds, she was very intimidating. Half Aussie Shepherd, half Black Lab, she was a pretty dog but scared the hell out of my wife Donna. I asked her to spend more time around Raiderette, telling her one would eventually warm up to the other. But after awhile, we agreed I wouldn’t take the pup.
The end of December rolled around, and my friend’s landlord gave him an ultimatum –“get rid of a dog or move.” By then, I had spent considerable time with Raider and saw some good qualities in her. She fetched well, seemed to have a “cold nose” and loved to swim. So, against the wife’s wishes, I accepted her.
This put me in the doghouse for a while, but I worked hard to reduce some of the bad habits in order to bring my wife and dog together. My kids had no real problem except for the time they accidentally let her out the front gate and had to chase her across town on their bikes.
It took some time, but Donna decided Raider wasn’t so bad after all. It seemed that maybe Raider felt the same of Donna. I continued to bond and work with her throughout the year and into the fall. I had a few pheasant wings in the freezer, and she took to them well. She exhibited a very soft mouth, and her nose took her everywhere I hid them.
I decided to put her in the field alongside a pair of well-seasoned Labradors that belonged to another buddy of mine. When the first rooster went down, she was right on it. But when it got up and ran, she didn’t quite know what to do. Raider began to “herd” that bird. It was rather interesting to watch the “Shepherd” side of her go to work keeping that feathered rat from running away. Then when my buddy’s Labs ran over and picked it up, something clicked in her because she has retrieved every pheasant for me since.
We hunted two or three days a week during the season and even in times of heat, wind or rain, she would raise a bird. Raider wasn’t much for pointing, but she would flush on command. We had our signals worked out and could almost read each other. I was happy.
On one of the last runs of the pheasant season, while walking along a canal in bluebird weather, a big, fat Greenhead exploded off the water. With a quick swing of the Winchester pump and a pull of the trigger, the duck splashed down hard.
Raider was right in after it. She swam up to it, nudged it with her nose and then swam back. Dumbfounded, I told her “get the bird.” She dove right back in and did the same thing twice more. When Raider crawled out all drippin’ wet, she just looked at me like, “what the hell is that?” So I walked about a quarter mile and crossed at an old beaver dam to collect my bird with Raider bounding right along with me. At least she pushed it close enough to the far bank that I didn’t have to get my feet wet. When I picked it up and put it to her face, she just backed away.
It was just one of those things; Raider didn’t like ducks. She still went with me to chase ‘em. She would swim out while I waded for the ducks and geese I’d dropped in the water. I really didn’t mind too much. Raider was a great companion, and she loved to go.
If I put any kind of camo on or picked up anything resembling a gun, she would go through a dance routine for several minutes and head for the door. Even if she had only been there once before, she’d begin her dance and then, about a half a mile from our destination, she’d let out an excited whine. She always seemed to know where we were and where we were going.
My birthday is in January, a couple of weeks before duck season ends. Since it’s my day, I always go hunting. On a B’day run near the end of my second season hunting with Raider, the weather was cool and clear, but it was coupled with a very dry year, and I had taken far less than half of my normal yearly take of ducks and geese.
As I snuck up on the dam side of one of the ponds I frequent, a greenhead squirts out of the middle. It took me two shots to knock him down, but he made a good splash. As I looked out across all the deadfall choked with weeds and briars and began walking toward a more friendly side to retrieve my prize, Raider jumped right into the water jungle. She was really struggling, and I almost panicked watching her, knowing I wouldn’t be able to get through that mess to help her.
After several minutes of swimming, walking and crawling, she broke free and headed for the downed bird. Another brief period of panic set in when I thought she would “bump” the bird and swim back the way she came. I hustled to the friendly side of the pond and called her to me. She must have known what I was going do because that’s exactly where she was heading, and SHE HAD THE DUCK! I was speechless.
Standing in only a few inches of water on the shallow side of the pond, Raider swam to me with that duck in her mouth, handed it off, walked out of the pond to shake, and looked at me as if to say, “let’s do it again.” I praised and thanked her repeatedly. It was the only duck taken that day, but I didn’t care ‘cause she fetched my B’day duck.
We went through two more waterfowl seasons together with her collecting every duck and goose I dropped. She was even great on multiple retrieves. She grabbed ‘em up for all my buddies, too.
Then as summer approached, I noticed a lump on top of her snout behind her nose. I thought she had a tooth infection but didn’t see anything in her teeth or gums. I was devastated when the vet told me it was cancer, and they wouldn’t be able to operate given the tumor’s location. The vet said it wouldn’t cause Raider any pain and to hunt her as long as I wanted. She said I would know when it was time.
As dove season approached, the lump was getting big. A few teeth started to fall out as her gums swelled. We did make opening day of dove season, and she was just as energetic as always, but as she was retrieving, I could sense the discomfort she felt. I knew it was time.
It wasn’t a hard decision, but it was one of my toughest. My wife was probably hurt the most. As Donna, my girls and I gathered around and comforted her before the injection, we reflected back on how she affected our family. Raider looked up at me one more time as if to say “it’s okay, we had a good run,” and then she went to sleep.
It’s been a few years now, and we all still miss her. She left us with multitudes of memories, from how she settled in and accepted us to breakin’ her into hunting. But the one thing I think I’ll remember most is my “Happy Birthday duck.”