Once upon a time, long before professional dog trainers, sophisticated electronic collars, or beauty contests for golden retrievers, our human predecessors were discovering new methods to harness the intellect and capabilities of wolves. It has been documented, beyond a doubt, that the ancestors of our pointers and retrievers were making life easier for cavemen so they would have time to invent the game of golf.
What a shame prehistoric man did not begin to selectively breed out the embittered hatred of skunks in their working dogs. If so, bird hunters of today would be a much more civilized lot and would probably not drink so much.
Although I had heard horror stories of sporting dogs getting sprayed in the hunting fields, it had luckily never happened to any of my mutts. But if you hunt in areas where these big black and white striped weasels exist, it is only a matter of when, not if, a catastrophe will occur. If my awareness would have been just a bit more acute on my first trip to North Dakota, much grief, labor, and lost time could have been mitigated from a skunk encounter.
Maybe white-line fever took over on my long drive, but any nimrod, experienced or not, would have made note of the unusual number of flattened polecats along the highway, signifying a very high density of these duck egg-eating predators.
As soon as I crossed the border into the Peace Garden State, I went to the nearest hardware store, got my non-resident license, and sought to find an inviting pheasant covert to air out the experienced and over anxious wirehair pointer. The map was marked by a blue square, indicating a marshy chunk of public hunting that mandated non-toxic shot even for upland birds. So I obliged, loaded up, and turned the dog into the stiff, bitter wind. She bumped a few hen pheasants before a rise in the landscape offered some handsome looking property. As soon as I crested the hill, a ducky eruption of enormous proportions occurred just below my feet! A snap shot on a quickly departing gadwall resulted in a wounded flyer, which feebly fluttered behind an island in a soggy wetland.
The dog’s eyes revealed that she had marked down the victim precisely, so I sent her with a strong “Back!” She took the line and disappeared into the cattails, cleared the first spit of open water, and struggled up and over the island’s muddy bank. I settled in behind some tall prairie grass near the water’s edge and hoped to greet some returning greenheads with a volley of hot steel.
About 15 minutes later I heard the returning retriever’s crashes through the weeds, but some strange wheezing as well. I stood up to reconnoiter and when the beast was within 15 yards, an unbelievable cloud of stench announced the commencement of my nightmare. She did indeed have the drake gadwall in tow, but there was no sign of any other creatures in sight, so I assumed she had shaken the polecat to heaven’s gate, as this dog also had no tolerance for woodchucks or squirrels infringing on her territory. I had to quickly devise a strategic plan to salvage this long anticipated adventure.
First, with one hand pinching off my nose from the vapors, I very carefully hooked a 15-foot check cord to her collar without touching any fur. Then I posted her downwind in a field near the truck. I emptied everything out of the back of the bed, tossing all gear in the ditch or back seat, then tied the dog up in the bed and headed off to the nearest self-service car wash. I always carry a bottle of commercial “odor-be-gone” in my first-aid bag, and this was my chance to see how well it worked. I strung up that sorry little girl in the rusty corrugated stall and we proceeded to do battle — a war I planned to win.
About six wash and rinse cycles later, I thought it was time to try the store-bought concoction to eliminate the remainder of the putrid oil, but did not have a bucket to mix it in. Just then, the car wash attendant came by checking on the place, and saw (or smelled) what was going on. He reluctantly donated a five-gallon plastic bucket to my cause, but placed it at a safe distance on the driveway and hastily sped off to, I assume, happier pursuits.
Now the real bout was starting. The animal was violently yanking on the rope and howling so loudly and fiercely that the entire town of Hankinson, ND, must’ve wondered what the hell was going on. PETA would have had me brought up on cruelty charges that would have stuck for life. It took three dousings of the foamy liquid to finally cut the fog to a tolerable level, or maybe my sinuses were just so toasted that discrimination of any olfactory stimulants had become impossible. I then spent a half hour and $20 in quarters to wash out the leftover fumes from my hunting clothes and flush the skunk fluid down the drain, so as not to get arrested for destruction of commercial property.
In subsequent hunts with dogs, not only in Kansas but other known skunk hangouts, I have been involved with many sprayings and the ugly cleanups, but none as wicked as this first encounter. Now I carry a proprietary recipe in my wallet that works better than any commercial application and doesn’t bleach black labs to blondes or ruin their noses for the season, but this potion shall remain a privately held, closely guarded secret.
Maybe instead of training dogs to avoid Pepe Le Pew, one of those animal-whisperer types should breed a strain of skunks that would just leave our feather chasers alone. Or perhaps a Harvard geneticist could re-engineer some skunk chromosomes that would make their juice smell just like peppermint; a research project I would donate to generously!