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On the first day of his fifteenth hunting season, Farley died in his sleep. Farley was our first gundog, and when we brought him into our lives, I was ignorant as to how his life bound to my own would take me deeper into the landscapes I call home and deeper into the hearts and minds of all working dogs. If you want to understand the magnificence of dogs as a unique species, hunt behind one. I once heard someone say that the most disrespectful thing you can do to a dog is treat them like a human, and now I know those words to be true. In hindsight, I should have kicked off Farley’s arrival with a heartfelt vow, earnest words spoken aloud for his ears and my own, something to capture the seriousness of the commitment I was taking on, but I didn’t realize where this dog would lead my husband and me as individuals and as a family. A commitment to a gundog is as serious as a marriage commitment except, thank goodness, hunting collars are less expensive than gold rings. Who of us is worthy of a good and stalwart pointing dog? None of us. We can only strive to be.
I didn’t know what a german shorthaired pointer was when my husband told me he intended on procuring one. I took it upon myself to undergo a swift but thorough canine education. I made a journey to a good old-fashioned bookstore, whereupon I found a specific book about the dog breed my husband was so keen on. I read it cover to cover, on the spot. In the chapter that blathered on about breed standards, I saw the words, “A sign of good breeding is four lovely spoon-shaped feet.” Someone had the audacity to describe the paws on these dogs as “lovely” and “spoon-shaped,” and this specific detail appealed to my imagination to such a degree I converted immediately from being excited about any old mutt from the local pound to aligning myself with my husband’s German shorthair dream.
We quickly located a breeder and sent a deposit for a male puppy. I was in Alaska when my husband made the journey alone across Arizona to pick the puppy up from the kennel — he chose a little male with a liver head and rump and a nearly solid white body in between. For a few weeks, I called home every day from Alaska and begged Robert to tell me stories about the puppy I hadn’t yet seen. We tried to name him, but everything we came up with failed to suit the pup — even at eight weeks old he had a distinct personality. One day, over the phone, my husband suggested the name Farley in honor of beloved Canadian author Farley Mowat. Robert tried the name out on the puppy, and it stuck. Farley would turn out to be sweet, smart, dorky and idiosyncratic in rather endearing ways. Mister Mowat, I think, would be honored to share his name.
At last, I flew home from the dewy fresh summer of Alaska to the dry blaze of Arizona, burst in the front door of the house to announce my arrival, and there, in the hallway, was the floppiest puppy I had ever seen. In absolute elation, I hollered, “Farley!” Farley took one look at me, peed himself, and ran to the far end of the house, where he hid beneath the sofa while whining and shaking. I despaired — my puppy feared me. I quietly sidestepped the puddle, walked to the end of the house, assumed a quadruped position, and peered beneath the furniture. I spoke quietly, convincingly to Farley, and eventually, he emerged, sniffed me all over, and waggled his docked tail until I thought his body might fall to pieces like a jalopy on an eternal stretch of washboard road. I picked him up and held him to me. He pushed his face into the curve of my neck; his girl had come home.
He tore our lives apart for a little while. If I’m honest, he tore it apart for the better part of his first four years. We once made the mistake of leaving him sleeping on his dog bed while we ran to town for tacos, and when we returned it looked like an F4 tornado had ripped through the house. Plants were unearthed from their pots and flung about the living room, Jackson Pollock style. The kitchen garbage had also succumbed to his wild anxiety, and he’d taken great care to not only empty it entirely but also to stash the addled contents in every nook and cranny in the house — I found a petrified banana peel seven months later beneath the shoe rack. Farley himself was standing atop the kitchen table, spraddle-legged as a giraffe at a watering hole, his little pink tongue licking the butter. He paused, there in the eye of the storm, looked at us with joy on his face, wagged his stubby tail like a maniac — delighted by our return — and then resumed sweeping his tongue across the salty lump of gold. Thus began his lifelong love of butter.
Do dogs, like cats, have nine lives to live? Farley didn’t have nine lives to live, but he certainly had more than one to squander. In Arizona, I once watched him launch himself over a creosote and was horrified to see a rattlesnake shot upward from where it was coiled on the ground, fangs unsheathed and gleaming with malice, scaled lightning. Thankfully, the trajectories between dog and rattler were incompatible. Farley flew over the snake-like a sleek, metallic aircraft in a tactical maneuver. He let out a surprised yelp at the apex of his flight, continued soaring through the air in a perfect parabolic arc, and landed safely on the other side, unbitten, unscathed, undeterred. I breathed a sigh of relief. Farley kept on running with his nose to the wind.
Farley loathed skunks with the fire of a thousand burning suns and was sprayed more often than any other dog we’ve ever known. If you tally up the skunk spritzes endured by all six dogs we’ve owned, Farley still comes out like an indomitable champion in the lead. I once watched him catch a skunk by the arse and proceed to chew on it like it was a rubber squeaky toy for the better part of three minutes. Let me tell you, 180 seconds can tick by quite slowly in such dire circumstances. I pleaded with Farley to spit the skunk out and he refused, blinded and deafened by his hatred for Pepé Le Pew. The skunk’s feet paddled the air like an Olympic swimmer while its rear end attended to the business of emptying skunk essence, squirt by squirt, directly into Farley’s outraged mouth. The malodorous attempt at self-defense seemed to only make the dog angrier. The intensity of Farley’s rage visibly doubled, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. At close range, the fumes were unbelievably potent. The stink drew tears from my eyes, and my palate became offended by the swirl of rank molecules. Farley continued to crush the skunk’s rear quarters with a fervor I haven’t seen in any dog since eventually doing enough internal damage that the skunk died. Once the varmint was defeated, Farley spat the limp body into a sagebrush, hunched over, and promptly began one straight hour of violent vomiting. For the better part of the next week, he struggled to consume any food, so corroded was his gut by skunk spray. I wish I could tell you he learned a lesson, but his intolerance of skunks was something of a holy crusade. He continued to toy with them into old age.
One year, in a two-month span, Farley set his mouth on four different porcupines, and the vet bills threatened to bankrupt us. His final encounter resulted in an infection in his nose. Short on cash, as we often were at the time, we took care of him the country way and proceeded to the ranch supply, purchased a bottle of antibiotics intended for treating cattle, dosed it down to his weight, and treated the infection with immediate success, at the end of which the single, troublesome quill that caused the kerfuffle finally worked its way up through the roof of his mouth and out through the top of his nose — poking out like a church steeple on an expanse of prairie. When I grasped that final, pesky quill with the Leatherman pliers and steadily pulled until it popped out, I can testify we were all in the grip of rapturous relief.
I won’t claim that Farley was the best pointing dog ever to walk the face of the earth, but he was a master, a real Leonardo da Vinci of dogs. His hunting repertoire included 15 upland bird species, and he made himself handy on geese and ducks in the blind from time to time. He was also known to subsidize his daily food requirements by digging up and eating alive dozens of voles a day in our hayfield, making him a more valuable mouser than my three barn cats combined.
It wasn’t until the event we call “The Big Fetch” that I began to truly understand Farley and appreciate his character and drive. We were hunting quail in a wide, creosote studded wash, and we followed Farley’s nose to the top of an adjacent mesa, where he hit a lovely point. My husband flushed the birds and peppered one hard enough that we saw it flinch in flight before the covey dropped off the mesa edge and out of sight. Farley went ripping past us, and like the Man from Snowy River on a sturdy brumby, he dove off the mesa and galloped nose first down the nearly 90degree cliff face. All that was missing from the scene was the report of a bullwhip cracking.
He reached the wash at the bottom of the cliff and continued chasing the covey across the sand. From our vantage, we watched as the quail continued flying across the flat expanse with Farley closing the distance with greedy, ground-devouring strides. He drew closer to the wounded quail, which was still flying but lagging behind. To our shock, he leaped off the ground and fetched the fatigued bird out of the air, its final wingbeats smacking him in the jowls. He landed on all fours, quail secure in his maw, then smartly turned and began a relaxed lope back across the wash to the base of the mesa, where he engaged his four-by-four, clambered up the nearly sheer cliff face, popped out on top, and deposited the quail in my husband’s hand. Tongue fully extended and dripping with exertion, Farley flopped down in the dirt to rest.
This was when I realized our dog had heart and charisma and an unsurpassed devotion — to us, of course, but more importantly, to his work. I have never seen another pointing dog perform such an uncanny retrieve. The event occurred in the realm of the supernatural; it’s still difficult to fathom and believe. We hunted him for another fourteen years, and he always gave the field the fullness of his effort and attention. I can tell you without a doubt his work fulfilled him in a way that few humans or dogs are ever truly fulfilled. He felt great affection for us, but he loved his work, and I was never jealous. For a gundog, this is exactly how love should be.
The best lesson Farley ever taught me was that developing a gundog is not about controlling their every movement in the field. The goal is not to be a fiendish master ruling over a cowering, slavish creature, but to be strong and kind, to teach a pup the value of self-control and composure, and to mirror that same demeanor and character at home and in the field.
Farley also taught me that a good hunting dog has the opportunity to achieve greatness when his handler learns the dog’s language when the dog is permitted to communicate and to be heard. A dog cannot say in the language of man, “There’s a single quail holding at the roots of that sagebrush on the southside of this spring creek.” But I can watch him track foot scent with his nose close to the ground while he waggles his tail with exuberance, and I can watch him bring his nose up when he catches a pungent whiff of body scent on the breeze, and I can see him work the field in decreasing arcs as his speed slows and he begins to creep and stalk and stand his game. I can watch all of his subtle body language with great expectations, and when I see his eyes blazing like a hay barn on fire in the night and his body freezes as though he has been chiseled from marble by deft hands, I can interpret quite clearly that he is locked onto and holding a group of birds. My job is to simply observe and keep up with him until he conveys to me with every muscle, sinew, and bone to get the shotgun ready, flick the safety off, and blast him a doggone bird.
Farley taught me the language of pointing dogs, which I still speak fluently, and he also transcribed for me a bigger lesson, a lesson on the topic of the ineffable — he wrote it on my heart with indelible ink. I keep my ego in check by remembering I follow my dogs into the field. A dog hunts into the wind and ushers me onward; I go where he goes, I follow where he leads. I am haunted by a poetic line in Psalm 42: the deep calls to deep.
I am tirelessly hunting for what is real and true in this life, and occasionally it’s the wise, curious nose of a gundog that leads me to questions I never asked and answers I never knew I was seeking, ultimately launching me out of the synthetic shallows of the modern world into a raw, tender, untrammeled wilderness that eternally awaits me.
Farley grew old. For every day he hunted, he ached and limped for three. His bones creaked like hardwood floors when he stood up from his bed, his face turned silver, arthritic mice scurried about in his joints, and his eyes lost their sharpness, but his nose still worked. We had a second shorthair by that time, and whenever we left
Farley home to rest and recover from the hunt the day before, he made a sorrowful ruckus, voicing his absolute denial of his physical limitations until he was so wrung out by his woe that he lay back down in his bed to sleep until our return. It’s hard to watch a good dog grow old. As Jim Harrison reminds us, “in the main we only die seven times slower than our dogs.” Watching Farley move into the twilight of his life broke my heart for us all — it broke my heart that all this vigor, all this beauty and youth and stamina, all the vitality and aliveness in the world cannot last forever — not his, not the wildflowers’, not my own.
Farley died alone. While we were away, our farm sitter called to inform us Farley had curled up outside on the hard concrete of our dog run, shut his eyes to sleep, and failed to wake up. The weather was rotten with heat and we couldn’t travel home immediately, so a kind neighbor buried him for us five feet deep. I missed the opportunity to enact the ceremony I perform when my animals die and I lay their heavy, spiritless bodies in a hand-dug grave. I failed to be there to make Farley comfortable in his last hours, to stroke his face, to help him let go peacefully. I have carried a portion of guilt for a couple of years, that I failed my gundog in his time of need. There is grace and mercy in remembrance, and the story of Farley I keep in my heart is one of love, trust, hilarity, and grit.
Each time we set Farley on the ground and spoke the incantation to hunt, we asked him to lead us onward and we trusted in his leadership. We proceeded into the vast unknown of the landscape, of ourselves, of him, with fidelity stuck to our souls like November’s mud clung to our boots. Farley was the first of us to move through life and set his feet down on the other side of death, and in that regard, he continues to lead us still. I know he’ll stand his game and hold his point — as we always trusted him to, as he always did — until we join him there.
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