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    Dogs First

    Having returned to his vehicle at the end of a hunt, Bob DeMott attends to his primary duty, towel drying and combing his English setter Kate. (Photos/Tailfeather Communications, LLC)
    Having returned to his vehicle at the end of a hunt, Bob DeMott attends to his primary duty, towel drying and combing his English setter Kate. (Photos/Tailfeather Communications, LLC)
    Smarter persons would have stayed home in harsh conditions, but among the fanatic grousers I partnered with, no one had the temerity to stay indoors when Saturdays or Sundays were the only times many of us could head out to the woods after a week of work. Ohio’s ruffed grouse season was five months long and allowed a three-bird-per day limit, so hunting the shortened days of January and February in the teeth of winter could be punishing. And yet, heading out into the worst weather seemed preferable to sitting idle on the couch watching a sports event on television.

    Bad weather wasn’t always the norm in a southeastern Ohio winter, but when it did occur, it was memorable. Deep-freeze conditions were often excessive: bone-chilling cold, of course, and at other times heavy wet snow, or worst of all, sleet and ice that sheathed everything and made both seeing and walking difficult and even dangerous in our precipitous up-and-down hill country of the Hocking River Valley.

    I recall days of below-zero temperatures, days of unremittingly harsh winds, days of blizzard whiteouts and days of ice storms severe enough that walking itself was a chore and a burden, made even clumsier by the overstuffed and often inadequate winter gear we wore to keep us dry and warm. Best of all, through thick and thin, the dogs hunted like champs. At different eras, all the dogs of our group – English pointers, English setters, golden retrievers and Labs, springer spaniels, Brittanys, Gordon setters – thought the woods owed them something after a five-day layoff, and they were out to exact their portions of recompense.

    Bird-wise, it was a crapshoot. Some outings were better than others. Most days it was a strenuous, aerobic, stumble-footed, acrobatic workout in slick woods with no reward to show for it, not even a point or a flush. Grouse buried themselves in dense pine stands or in thick, snowbound honeysuckle tangles, leaving nary a single footprint anywhere, not a filament of scent available for the dogs to hone in on. If a grouse flushed, it could scarcely be heard, its takeoff muffled by snow, its flight hidden by more snow. On those days, with so much stacked against us, we doubted our own senses, and our efforts seemed futile and absurd. Other times, though, a bagged grouse or two or even, now and then, three birds lightened our task in ways we could hardly explain, except that each one was the result of great dog work and served as palpable proof of the sanity of our dyed-in-the-wool decision to go afield that day.

    Shooting a grouse is hard enough even in the best situation; to take one in inclement conditions in which every step through whiteout coverts drops a load of snow down your back is a special feat, not to be treated lightly or relegated to a mere ho-hum day in the woods. Such a setting tested the mettle, determination and endurance of both men and dogs. If someone limited out or brought to hand a grouse with a rare cinnamon ruff, then the degree of specialness ramped up exponentially and heightened the day’s achievement. We applauded the fortunate shooter and oohed and aahed over his uncommon prize.

    Warmed by anticipation, it wasn’t too much to hope that perhaps another of our group would be next in line to be rewarded. The promise of success kept us trudging on, sleet in our faces, gloves frozen solid, the legs of hunting pants rigid as stovepipes. That, and the way our dogs spurred us on. Good weather, bad weather: it was all the same to them.

    But it is what happens after the hunt is over that makes the day truly complete. In 60 years of upland bird hunting, dogs, coverts, homes, length of open seasons and so on have changed or come and gone, but my basic routine has not.

    Dogs always come before men, which means, back at the truck, removing bells and/or beeper collars, protective vests, filling their bowls with water, wiping them down and toweling them dry for the ride home. In extreme weather, there were no bar stops for a post-hunt libation but rather a straight beeline for home and hearth. The cautionary tale of someone we knew who, after a hard day’s hunt, left his prize Brittany in an unheated van in zero weather while he stopped at a local tavern, still haunts. Crocked, he made it home, but forgot his dog in the truck. When he went out next morning, hung over but sober enough to realize his oversight, that great grouse dog – one of the best many of us had ever hunted over – was stone dead from hypothermia. Our friend was devastated, his grief nearly bottomless because he had only himself to blame. Our sorrow, too, joined his. For many years in deference to who-knows-what code of conduct, its lesson remained indelible and palpable, though we never spoke of the incident again.

    Cleaning the day’s bag if there was one, putting away hunting gear and outer clothes, oiling the shotgun, washing up, pouring a drink, sitting down to dinner – all ritual, habits, duties, necessities and pleasures are put on hold until the dogs are cared for.

    Whatever the season, whatever the weather, the dogs know the drill: stand still so I can clean, comb, and curry their coats, check their eyes and feet for foreign objects, feel muscles and body structure for anything out of the ordinary. And perhaps, most important, fuss and coo over them, stroke their backs, pat their heads, ruffle their ears, and give thanks, yet again as I have done countless times, for their Herculean efforts, their innate skills and bred-in-the-bone brilliance and their joyous, uncompromising companionship.

    Depending on the number of cockle burs, multi-flora rose thorns and blackberry stickers I find in my dogs’ coats (Ryman-style setters now), the grooming process can take 30 minutes or more, though it seems more labored than that when dusk has fallen on a wintery evening, fingers are chilled, muscles stiffened, breath icy and all thoughts turn toward relaxation, a drink and a hot meal.

    Hot for the dogs, too. After those polar hunts, I sautéed fresh ground sirloin in a cast-iron skillet and mixed the browned meat with their kibble for an extra jolt of protein and savory pleasure. It seemed proper reward for their extra-strenuous efforts. Besides, I loved that part of the post-hunt ritual.

    Why shouldn’t we cook dinner for our dogs? The aroma fills the kitchen and each dog dances in anticipation. Stomachs filled, each takes its place by the fire to sleep off the day’s ration of cold. I like to think they enter the dream space where good dogs go when they are in repose.

    Only then am I free to go about my personal business. Stow down, clean up, eat dinner and before nodding off myself, write an entry in my hunting journal to put the day’s events in perspective: “The dogs hunted like champs today and did us all proud. . . .”

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