A few days ago the news was full of a female governor’s story about shooting one of her hunting dogs. It flashed me back to 1978, the year I shot one of mine. An ugly episode that left its mark on me.

The Heartbreak of “Free” Dogs, part one

Bill Burkett
7 min readMay 22, 2024

My hunting-log entries of the previous couple years cast no shadow of the coming event…

June, 1976. The two new pups were eight weeks old April 3. That’s the age Richard Wolters, author of Water Dog, says is right to separate them from their litter to begin training.

We brought them home from Scatter Creek Game Range, Tom Knight telling us they were ready to wean. Tom, a bachelor, has a lot of pedigreed German shorthaired pointers and knows a lot about dogs — and about the falcons he hunts with. All his dogs are so well-behaved they line up to go in their separate kennels in the kitchen of the old house on the game range. Tom gets free lodging from the Game Department for keeping an eye on the property.

Why do I have such a hard time turning down gift dogs? I had to surrender Maud back to the pound in Tallahassee when she grew up to be a pit bull instead of an English pointer, hoping some hog hunter would adopt her.

Now Tip and Magic: their mother was a brown dog with Lab lines about Harry’s size, abandoned by hunters on Scatter Creek the end of pheasant season. It is a dirty little secret that some men will take dogs out of the pound just for the season and then walk away when the season is over and get another one next year. Tom said he has had to shoot abandoned dogs that raid the pheasant-rearing pens if he was unable to trap them for return to captivity.

This brown female was so well-behaved he didn’t have the heart to turn her in; she became a yard dog. No good deed goes unpunished; she went into heat and one of his prize shorthairs nailed her. Now Tom is looking for puppy homes. The pups have that delicate sculpting of head that marks a blooded shorthair; Tip brown with white markings; Magic is black and gray.

Tar, the first gift dog we took to save from the pound, was offspring of a spoiled house-pet Lab and a Shorthair-Lab cross father; no retrieving instinct at all. Then she developed an intestinal blockage the vet said would take hundreds of dollars to repair — with no sure outcome — so I had to let him put her down.

Lady was another “free dog”, a yellow/black Lab cross that looked like a Chesapeake. At ten months old, she was totally intractable, unwilling to accept training. People buy these dogs, can’t handle them, and if they know somebody that lives in the country, salve their conscience by talking us into taking them to avoid the pound.

It’s a fool’s game, and I’m a fool. I gave her to Wayne Kruse, who drove all the way down from Arlington for her. He recently had to put down his ancient Brittany and his children were in mourning. He told me at F&H News his kids instantly loved Lady — they named her “Friday” for the day she arrived — and she loved them right back. She barks furiously at strangers, and has found a happy home.

Harry is such a paragon in so many ways — barring his hatred of cold water — that I keep hoping to find a pup to learn from him. Here I go again, my heart still sore from Tar’s demise.

Now Tip and Magic: Knight said Tip was the best prospect — already retrieving a baby rattle at seven weeks — but I was too soft-hearted to leave Magic behind. Tip latched onto Heather’s fingers a little too roughly one day, I smacked him and he yelped — and yelped, like he was in awful pain. He sulked and then forgot about it to play with a mallard wing. Over the first month they settled in, learned the sit routine before eating, and played with duck wings.

I thought while I was writing this that I should devote my energy to recording things about Beau and Heather; Beau quite the young man at three, and Heather the cutie. But this is my hunting log, so I write about the pups.

Magic had a ball playing with a friend’s children today, socializing nicely. I settled on Magic after trying Georgia and Rainy; she is a Houdini at escaping her kennel. She retrieved happily for the neighbor kids; they found a cat-killed songbird and threw it and she brought it back. The pups got leash time, pointing time at a wing on a stick, and house time — Magic prancing in as if she owned the place, Tip afraid to cross the threshold. When he’s not afraid, he swaggers, those big white paws like the hooves of a Percheron.

At 65 days they were self-directed, not responding to their names, but flash-pointed a wing. At 69 days they loved house time, romping and secure. At 72 days, Magic was sitting briefly on command; both stopped balking at a leash. Each pup retrieved a mallard wing three times to hand, Magic actually prancing. They were ready for trainer- directed learning, a pleasurable jolt to see the change.

Speaking of pleasurable jolts, that day Beau answered the phone all by himself and we had quite a conversation before Mom came on. Not bad for a boy several months short of his third birthday.

I took Tip off in the truck by himself and he curled up on the seat and waited for me while I was in a store. At 74 days, Magic sat every time without a hand on the butt to remind her. I built more dog runs in the back, cheap 2x4 framing and chicken wire. At 80 days I lost my temper when Magic bolted when I told her to sit; then Tip followed. They tried to hide under the boat trailer. I grabbed each by the scruff. They both yelped. Tip tried to bite me. I raised hell and put him in solitary confinement in his run and brought Magic inside; she became frisky right away. When I brought Tip in after his time-out, he tried to hide under Wanda. They both sit promptly for Wanda and come immediately when she calls. Can dogs play parents off against each other like kids do?

Good response to come and sit. But off-leash they scoot when I tell them to do something. Tip limps as if, poor him, he’s hurt and can’t come. He sometimes forgets and limps on the wrong foot. He reminds me of that great Havilah Babcock story about an English pointer that did that, “Liars Should Have Good Memories.”

At 83 days Magic was best at heel and sit. Knight said females are precocious — “humans too.” Then both ran away when I blew the whistle for food and crawled all over Wanda on the couch. Tip finally came to eat, but Magic wouldn’t follow Wanda to the kitchen while I was there. Wanda says I’m going to ruin them and she’s probably right. Meanwhile Harry munched contentedly on his chow, ignoring the ruckus.

July 14 — Magic is dead, suddenly and shockingly. I went out to feed them and she was down, unable to get up, and had that thousand-yard stare. Ross MacDonald called it the Goodbye Look: watching death come for her, suddenly as old as she was ever going to be, trying feebly to hold it off. It was hopeless. The veterinarian gave her shots and intravenous fluids that failed to halt the decline. She was bleeding internally; but from what cause?

The doctor said something could have hit her very hard, like a horse’s kick or a car, but there were no external injuries. His next best guess was poison or ground glass — he had necropsied cases like this and found that to be the killer if the dog was a barker and some neighbor had enough.

Both the pups were incessant barkers, still unwilling to hush on command. Wanda said they barked all the time when I was away. I actually put three pumps of air in the Sheridan air rifle and popped them on the butts once as I yelled hush, to try to reinforce the command. The pellets didn’t even break the skin. But I asked the doctor if a pellet could cause this. He said absolutely not — a real bullet in the gut could cause this but there were no bullet wounds. And Tip remains just fine. The vet offered to do a necropsy but I couldn’t afford one. Her gums were white; worst of all was her flaccid, heavy limbs after her merry, prancing ways. He said it would be a mercy to put her down. She died quietly, with my hand on her poor head.

I keep getting my heart broken by dogs. I went home and hugged Harry hard. He combines all the dogly virtues you could ask for, except for his swimming antipathy. Tar, Lady, Magic — all tugged my heart strings, all are gone. Lady at least found a home with half-grown boys who love her.

Aug. 12 — now enter Paka, half-Lab, half-Golden, nine months old. Wanda thinks I am crazy to give my heart to another dog to tear. Harry on the other hand thinks she is just super, sniff-sniff-sniff, wag-wag. He has been lathered up and off his feed, sporting erections grown men could envy, since she came home with me. She teases him and he loves it, smirking in his prematurely gray muzzle and pissing in all directions like a rutting bull elk.

I was just turning into the Washington State University agricultural station in Puyallup where Wanda has gone to work to offset our lost income. The radio announcer said people in a local apartment had to let their dog go because they were moving to a new place, no pets allowed, and hoped to find a good home. “Sounds like a good deal,” he said after he described the dog. (They were actually facing a $100 non-refundable pet-damage deposit they couldn’t afford.)

Wanda went with me, resigned to my craziness. Paka retrieved a dummy several times in the parking lot. Julie, her owner, said she would retrieve anything thrown for her…

--

--

Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.