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    Sleeping with the Princess

    In 1968, it was still universally accepted that a hunting dog would become “soft” if you let it sleep in the house at night. I had just purchased my first dog, a male Brittany, so I built a kennel outside, provided a nice doghouse and diligently put him up each night, even when it was snowing and blowing and the trek to his kennel door and back made me miserable.

    More recently, this theory about “softness” has been replaced with one about bonding: Make your hunting dog part of the family, put it in the house at night, treat it like one of your children, and it will more likely perform for you when afield.

    Nevertheless, old lessons died hard for me, and my wife had no problem agreeing the Labs I subsequently purchased needed to stay outside. She said that with a Lab in the house, she would have to spend half her housekeeping budget buying those sticky rollers used to take hair and lint off garments and half her time vacuuming.

    Yellow Labs (I’ve had five) have been the worst. Even if you spend an hour each day brushing their coats, the shedding never stops. If one saved the accumulation and had the inclination, one could crochet two sweaters and an afghan each year with Lab hair yarn and have enough hair left over to stuff an oversized pillow.

    Several years ago, for nostalgia’s sake and to keep Jill — my duck and goose specialist — company, I added Lucy, a Brittany, to my kennel. I had some reservations about getting another Brittany, as my first one had not lived long. I’d had very little experience with anything but retrievers, but Lucy has turned out to be an excellent upland dog, considering all I didn’t know about the breed. She hunts big (no small consideration for a man whose legs are worn out from chasing flushing dogs), has a superb nose and will hold a point forever. I started calling her “Lucy Lou” after the first year as my affection for her grew.

    Winter came in October the next year, bringing lots of snow, biting wind and single digit temperatures.

    “Are you still making your dogs sleep outside?” my friend Jack asked one day. “The weatherman on TV said to bring your pets in when it gets this cold.”

     “The weatherman has a Pomeranian,” I said. “Lucy and Jill have a comfortable dog house; they keep each other warm. I don’t want to make them soft.”

    “No, you’d rather make them pupsicles,” said Jack with a laugh. Jack enjoys word play and is a connoisseur of corn, but I could hear the implied accusation. “I put my dogs in the house when it gets this cold.”

    “Well, I don’t,” I said, “and those ankle biters of yours aren’t real dogs anyway.”

    The next morning, I took Lucy pheasant hunting in three inches of new snow. The birds were in thick cover, and she was finding, pointing and holding them, sometimes up to 10 minutes while she waited for me to scramble down or up to where she was locked up. For the morning, she had a dozen points — mostly hens, but one nice cock bird I shot, and one I somehow missed. When I got home, I let her briefly in the house, fed her double rations and praised her prodigiously. Then she went back to the kennel with Jill.

    Another time, Lucy and I went pheasant hunting in the scabrock BLM land south of town. On this day, the snow had melted, but the wind was fierce, and I really didn’t expect to see much. But Lucy pointed a rooster in cattails by a small, shallow, partially frozen pond, and though she wouldn’t retrieve it, I was happy to do the honors. Two hours later she pointed another rooster that I also retrieved. Satisfied with the day, we headed back to the truck, and on the way Lucy, always ranging big, went on point that according to my Garmin GPS was 155 yards away in prairie grass so sparse it had zero possibility of providing cover for anything larger than a grasshopper. But I honored the point anyway, and she began to creep. Then she ran another 10 yards and froze in a nose-down point that made her look like the letter “C.”

    This time, a dozen or so Hungarian partridge exploded upward when I walked in, caught the wind and were gone. It was blowing so hard by then I couldn’t catch up with them, but I fired anyway. Lucy, never particularly excited about retrieving, seemed satisfied that I had acknowledged her hard work, and she was off again on another search.

    That night, I let Lucy Lou have an old quilt on the basement floor.

    “You’re beginning to treat that Brittany like a princess,” said my sister, who was visiting from out of state. “Aren’t you, by your own definition, ‘making her soft’?”

    “She is a princess,” I said. “I think she might just be the best dog I’ve ever had. But she isn’t as well insulated as Jill. We’re hunting pheasants in the morning, and I want to be sure she gets a good night’s sleep.”

    “You’ve had other great dogs,” my sister said.

    “That’s true, but I think my unreasonable affection for Lucy is because she allows me to continue to hunt longer because I’m not wearing myself out chasing after a long-legged Lab.

    “I still love Jill and all that,” I continued, “but before I got Lucy and a GPS, I figured I was done pheasant hunting. Now, I can anticipate hunting, perhaps even into my 80s. When she’s on point, I know there will be a bird there when I finally arrive.”

    Indeed, Lucy sometimes amazed me and always exceeded my expectations, and over the next couple seasons, she gradually made her way upstairs at night in the winter to sleep on a couch in my office. And on the final day of last season, she topped all previous hunts with seven solid points on hen pheasants, three on roosters and numerous points on quail. To my amazement, she even retrieved two of the pheasants, and I came home with a game bag heavy with the fruits of our long hike. That night, I let Princess Lucy Lou sleep upstairs in the bedroom … on my bed. Despite what Jack told some of my other friends, we did not share a pillow, and I did not let her under the covers.

    Maybe next season.

    Wolfe Publishing Group