And so it ends as it always does, with me on the floor of the small, vaguely chapel-like room in the veterinary clinic, the room set aside for the final act of mercy. I cradle the head and neck of my adored English setter, Tina, as she sits close. She can no longer see or hear me. But there is my smell, and there is my touch, and there is the bond of trust, forged over the 13 years of her richly lived life, that together tell her she has nothing to fear.
Her body is lumpy with tumors, but she carries it with stoic dignity. Her eyes are sightless, but her pride is undimmed. She betrays no trace of apprehension. She is, as always, almost preternaturally calm.
I feel those wondrous muscles relax and go slack, the breath leaving her lungs in a long, slow sigh. Her eyelids close, her beautiful head settles softly into my lap. The veterinarian, a kind and compassionate young man, puts his stethoscope to her side and says, “She’s gone.”
What he means, of course, is that her existence as a biological organism has ended. But she isn’t remotely gone, just as none of the dogs whose spirits remain alive in our memories are gone. And the memories Tina made will continue to animate my dreams, waking and sleeping, for as long as I’m capable of thought.
It had been dawning on me for a while that Tina might be something special, but it wasn’t until she was 2½ that she removed all doubt. I still thought of her as a pup in those days, a perception that her diminutive stature—she weighed 36 pounds soaking wet—fed into. It was just hard to look at this bright-eyed, orange-speckled little dog and come to grips with the idea that she was an adult.
We were hunting pheasants on a pretty piece of ground in central South Dakota, a series of milo feed strips and grassy draws that wrapped around a
pond. The first rooster didn’t play fair, flushing long before I could get to Tina’s point. It was only when it flushed, in fact, that I figured out exactly where she was, the chest-high milo having swallowed her up. She was wearing a beeper collar capable of being activated remotely but, as a fervent believer in the virtue of quiet, I didn’t want to use that feature until it became absolutely necessary.
The next bird, happily, tarried a bit too long. Tina had flitted over a little rise and when I topped it I spied her standing 30 yards ahead where a feed strip narrowed to a finger. The rooster flushed at almost the same moment, hammering hard to my right, and when I pulled the trigger he collapsed in a heap.
After that I worked up a long strip of milo, following Tina as she popped out one side, dove back in, popped out the other, and dove in again. Then, after glimpsing her far ahead, I lost her. I looked hard, hoping for a glimpse of her tail, but no such luck. She’d either run right out of the country or she was buried on point, and there was only one way to find out.
The beeper sounded roughly 60 yards behind me. I’d walked right past her. She’d been standing on point at least five minutes.
I hurried in her direction, busting stalks, tensed for a flush that could come at any moment. I tapped the beeper again. She couldn’t have been more than 20 yards away but in that dense cover she was as good as invisible.
If the rooster hadn’t lost his nerve I probably would have tripped over her. Just as the big bird clattered skyward the milo directly in front of me parted like the Red Sea as Tina plowed her way out. I didn’t kill the bird cleanly but it didn’t matter. He fell on bare ground and Tina was on him in a heartbeat.
It was then that I knew a divide had been crossed, a corner turned. Tina was no longer a work-in-progress; she’d arrived.
For the rest of her career—I had to retire her at age 11 due to failing eyesight—Tina was the most reliably staunch pointer of birds I’ve ever owned. As long as the bird didn’t move, she didn’t. And if it ran she’d stay with it, cautiously but relentlessly, until she pinned it.
Most pointing dogs, even very experienced, highly trained ones, will purposely torpedo a bird every now and then, as if it’s something they simply need to get out of their systems. Tina never did. When she went on point, you could take it to the bank.
This was a dog who’d all but turn herself inside out to keep from bumping a bird. Once, running a field edge at full speed (which was considerable), she pinwheeled 90 degrees mid-stride and landed on point with her front end crouched so low and her rear end jacked so high that something seemed, well, off. When I got within a few yards of her I saw what it was: Her front paws were folded underneath her. She was literally standing on her wrists.
Tina was no slouch as a retriever, either, although she applied a discriminating logic to the task. The greater the danger that a downed bird might go unrecovered, the more effort she invested in retrieving it; if a bird fell stone dead in plain sight she was apt to just sort of glance at it on her way past.
Once, a hunting partner wing-tipped a grouse that fell into a northern Wisconsin alder swamp and proceeded to flutter-hop deeper and deeper into the mire. Three setters plunged in after it but within a few minutes two of them, soaked to the skin, straggled back. Only Tina pressed on, the tinkle of her bell, like our hopes for recovering the grouse, growing fainter by the second.
We shouldn’t have doubted. It took a while—ten minutes, maybe longer—but eventually she brought the bird, minus a few tailfeathers, back.
My hunting partner just stared at her in a kind of dumbfounded awe. “That’s the damnedest retrieve I’ve ever seen,” he said.
There were blue grouse and valley quail in Idaho; Huns, sharptails, and sage grouse in Montana; pheasants and prairie chickens in South Dakota; bobwhites in Kansas and Nebraska; ruffed grouse and woodcock in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. Regardless of the address or the conditions, Tina looked around, took the measure of the country—and got down to business. Nothing fazed her; nothing intimidated her; nothing rattled her. As long as birds were part of the equation, it was all good.
And oh, could she find birds.
Given how ferociously hard she hunted and the number of miles she logged doing it, she was remarkably injury-free. She rammed a stick the diameter of a pencil under her tongue one morning in the grouse woods but after my veterinarian buddy Terry Barker extracted it and cleaned the wound he pronounced her good to go. And she was.
Other than that, while she suffered the usual nicks, cuts, and scrapes, and while she slipped her pads a few times on long hunts in punishing terrain, Tina never showed the slightest hint of a strain, sprain, or any other musculoskeletal trauma that might have kept her on the sidelines.
Some of this was just luck, but I’m convinced that what had even more to do with it was her easy way of going. She ran with balletic grace, her feet seeming barely to touch the ground, her tail swishing merrily at a thirty-degree angle to the plane of her back—and the effect was mesmerizing. You couldn’t take your eyes off her. More than the points and retrieves, more than the swell of pride at her accomplishments, more than her undemanding companionship and even-tempered personality, that’s what I’ll remember: Tina running.
I see her, still, and hope to, always.