Close up of a gundog and their owner
Close up of a gundog and their owner

The last retrieve

Toni Paull from the BASC South West team reflects on a final day picking up with an old friend.

When we think about our dogs, there is one thing that almost everyone will say: “I wish they could live forever.” Unfortunately, just like us, their time on this planet is finite.

There’s an unbreakable bond between us and our dogs, a unique connection that has been built through experiences shared together, mutual trust, and a common goal. From sitting in a gutter on a foreshore, to waiting in the heather on a grouse moor, countless hours can be spent with only our faithful companions by our side. The silent understanding between two species, who cannot speak the same language, is something truly special.

We often forget just how much of our lives are shared with our dogs. We spend hours with them as puppies, acclimatising them to the world, training them for the job we wish them to do. And then there are the many hours out in the field, followed by the retirement days in front of the fire. That’s why, when that inevitable loss happens, it can be so hard to cope with.

When I had the idea of writing this I had just found out my first ever gundog, Kai, had been diagnosed with cancer and the outlook wasn’t good. I wanted to document a final day out picking-up for us both, something to remember forever. Unfortunately, a few weeks short of the start of the season, I lost Kai on a Saturday afternoon at the end of July 2023.

In fact, it turns out his final day picking up had already happened the season before, in late January 2023, with our local syndicate. He hadn’t been out that season, as he had been recovering from cruciate surgery at 11 years old. But with the go-ahead from his physio, we made it out for two drives together. He picked a fantastic bird in a thick hedge line, something he’d done thousands of times before, but I’ll never forget that last one. It’s bittersweet to look back now, as I never thought it would be our last together.

We often look at the older dogs on a shoot day. They come out for a drive or two and then retreat back to the vehicle for a well-earned snooze and then reappear for a sniff and sausage roll at elevenses or lunch. But have you ever looked at the younger dogs during the day and really taken in just how well they have done and truly appreciated them in that moment? I normally favour the oldies, I think because we recognise our time is more limited with them. And knowing what I do now, we can’t always say when our last day might be.

We’ve all had days where it hasn’t gone to plan, and many times Kai adopted a Gun to be his new owner and sat patiently at their feet for the whole drive while completely ignoring me. We have to learn to look at the positives, even on those days when things don’t go to plan with our canine companions. As many have said before: “A bad day in the field is better than a good day in the office.”

The best part about the bad days are the stories that people will remember for many years to come over a shoot day lunch, or an old photo someone has found. It’s something that brings comfort in the hard times after the loss of a dog. I’ve had countless tales recalled to me about a particular moment or day and how they remember Kai, mischievous or well behaved.

Whether you’ve just finished your first season with your young dog, or have made the decision to either semi or fully retire your older dog, remember that next season is never guaranteed. Even after the bad days, always take a positive, no matter how small it may be, because one day when you look back you’ll find comfort in those memories.

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