It had been a long drive—1,250 miles to be exact—but I was almost giddy with childlike excitement as I pulled into the roadside motel in Little Falls, Minnesota. There are few things that stir a jaded old soul like the prospect of a new puppy, and I couldn’t wait for the following morning when the kennel would open. So, I cheated a little and drove out to the kennel that Sunday afternoon, hoping to catch someone in the process of feeding dogs or working around the yard, but I would have to wait.
I had been thinking about this trip for weeks. Pouring over pedigrees and photos of shorthairs, some so old they were fuzzy black-and-white reproductions from the old country itself. Reading over and over the names of some of the greatest dogs in the history of the breed. Looking at videos of the litter, hoping in 30-second snippets to recognize my gundog of the next 15 years. There was the little male with the perfect head and short, straight back, just as I like them, and a big female puppy that seemed to always be antagonizing her littermates. I have been told the best way to pick a puppy is to throw them all in a box, close your eyes, and grab one, but this was far too important to leave to chance.
I was already at the kennel when the breeder arrived the following morning. He asked me to wait in the main room while he rounded up the litter and the parents, then he spent half an hour demonstrating how well the parents followed commands, showing me the pedigrees, which I had all but memorized, and going over the personalities and attributes of each pup. I produced some woodcock and quail wings wound up in fishing line and trolled them through the roiling mass of puppies.
In the middle of the chaos, a medium-sized female with a solid liver head and a perfect 12 o’clock tail stopped in her tracks, staring up at me with a burning intensity I had not seen in the other pups. I did not remember this puppy from the videos—strange, as she was the only liver-and-white puppy in a sea of black-and-white dogs. The breeder explained she had been the “pick of the litter” and was going to another breeder in the Carolinas until he decided he needed a male at the last moment. I could have her if I wanted.
I tossed a woodcock wing behind me. She went after it immediately, picking it up and ran back through the middle of the other puppies. A couple of the larger pups tried to take it from her, but she would have none of it. She plowed right through them and came back to where I was standing, stopping with her foot on my boot. I picked her up and looked her over: nice running gear, dark pads, a perfect scissors bite. Her hocks were straight, and her feet were nice and tight.
She has a lot of promise, I thought.
I put her down and walked off to look at a couple of the other puppies, but she followed me everywhere I went. Every time I stopped she stood on my boot and fixed me with the same focused, unblinking gaze. I had been chosen by the little liver female.
I paid the breeder and loaded the puppy in the car, making sure to give her the small stuffed duck my wife had sent along. We had a long way to go, and calling her “puppy” the entire way would never do. I decided to name her Gretchen.
She barely made it to the old bridge on the Mississippi River before she got sick. It happened again as we drove through Detroit Lakes, but she seemed to settle in after that and we made good time. In fact, we were well into Montana when we stopped for the night at some little riverside cabins in Columbus.
I had talked to the pup throughout the day. I told her how things were going at the farm and how the pheasant and chukar populations seemed to be up. I told her of the fall hunts I had planned and how old she would be for each one. I could picture many muggy summer mornings with pigeons, check cords, and bird traps.
I think in many ways that is the allure of a new gundog. It is the license to dream that you really buy when you write that check, the limitless promise of frosty mornings on the northern plains, countless miles of golden logging roads in Wisconsin, feeling the warmth on your face as you walk down some sandy Arizona canyon on the winter solstice. All the while following this same little dog that is already steady to wing and shot in your imagination.
As we settled in for the night at the cabin, she started burning off some pent-up energy from a long day in the car. She spilled her water bowl, then set about worrying the corner of the bedspread. I chuckled at her antics and told her that I was sorry for putting so many expectations on such a little soul. Carrying the burden of an old man’s dreams was a lot to ask of her.
She dropped her toy, ran over, and locked me in that same piercing, unflinching stare. She was up to it. They always are.