Out of Bounds

All Dogs go to Heaven

I haven’t found the words to describe the loss I’ve felt since Doll, at 13 years old, passed in October

By Rob Breeding

On a cold Christmas Day in Kalispell more than a decade ago, I made a decision that would consume big chunks of my life in the ensuing years.

The transfer of my teenage daughters to their mother — as per our agreement — had occurred at noon. I then found myself confronted by something I hadn’t encountered on Christmas Day since the twins were born.

I had the whole afternoon in front of me with nothing to do.

Naturally, I loaded the dogs and we made our way south of town to Blasdel Waterfowl Production Area. It’s a lovely spot to run the dogs, and on rare occasions, a place you might shoot a pheasant.

My dogs then were Jack, my first English setter, and Doll, setter No. 2. She was barely more than a puppy. 

We had the joint to ourselves so we set out for a long walk around the cattail-crowded wetlands. We didn’t immediately see birds but the scenery was inspiring. There were breaks in the gloom over the lake and while the shafts of sunshine never fell upon us, knowing they were out there somewhere on the water, lifted my spirit.

As we moved south along the eastern edge of the wetlands it occurred to me that my dogs and I needed a mission, a mission to leave Montana’s winter gloom and head to the Southwest where we’d hunt all six species of U.S. quail. We’d do it the following winter, leaving Kalispell and ranging east just far enough to find bobwhite, then looping through Arizona toward my family home in Southern California, picking up the remaining birds before New Year’s.

That was “our” plan. By the following Christmas, however, I’d moved to take a teaching job in Wyoming, making our plan impractical. A year later, cancer had taken Jack and I can’t remember what I did for Christmas. 

These were unforeseeable complications, unknowable in the winter gloom that Christmas Day.

I could see Jack was out some distance, as usual, but young Doll was still reluctant to range too far. Then, as we cleared the southernmost point of the wetland, near some cattails ringing the dry pan, Doll got birdy. She went into a low crouch, cat-walking in the direction of the cattails.

Jack and I had hunted Blasdel many times and these data suggested that if my youthful bird dog was trailing a pheasant it was a hen. Doll slowed and looked about to point, but the scent led her beyond the cattails where I couldn’t see her.

Then a bird busted out of the cover, cackling like a rooster. 

Dragging an absurdly long tail … like a rooster. 

Flashing gaudy color despite the muted light … like a rooster.

Time toys with memory, slowing moments that pass in an instant so that they seem to have stretched out over time. My recollection suggests I hesitated, expecting a hen, then worried shooting a bumped bird over my young pointer might spoil her for life. 

In retrospect, that was awfully silly of me.

I also remember something flashing through my head about it being Christmas, and I hesitated a moment longer. Then the bird was out of range, making my decision for me.

It took the better part of a decade, but Doll and I eventually got all six quail, though not in one trip. We learned that dozens of hunting trips are better than one and that the quest is more than just reaching your goal, but more importantly, the steps you take along the way.

I haven’t found the words to describe the loss I’ve felt since Doll, at 13 years old, passed in October. Maybe I never will. But I keep finding words to describe how wonderful she was in life. She was as good a bird dog as I’ll ever know. 

For now, remembering that, seems the important thing.