Quail were everywhere. In 30 minutes of hiking we must have seen a dozen coveys, each of 20 birds or more. Only rarely are Gambel's quail so abundant in the heart of Arizona's Sonoran Desert. Three of the last four winters had been above average in precipitation, and what we were seeing was the result of a succession of good hatches.
"We should have brought our shotguns," said my partner, Tim, anxious for action. I had to admit that shooting quail would be a lot more productive than what we were doing—hunting the bura, a type of mule deer that thinly inhabits the ironwood-, paloverde-and mesquite-lined arroyos of northern Sonora and southwest Arizona. For two days we had been trying to find some recent trace of these elusive deer without success.
Receiving no answer to his pronouncement, Tim continued. "I never thought to hunt quail out here. Do you ever do any bird hunting?"
"Not much anymore," I replied. Then, with some hesitation, I added, "I used to hunt birds a lot, but it hasn't been the same since I stopped hunting with Rosie." This ended the discussion. The resigned contemplation on Tim's face showed that further explanation was not immediately necessary. Some other time would do.
November 11, 1985
The sun was rising over the ridge, casting a marvelous golden-yellow light over the saguaro-studded bajada. We climbed to the top of a rock-strewn ridge, binoculars around our necks, and commenced searching the washes for bura. The trouble was, I no longer could concentrate on the task. I kept thinking of Rosie.
I had never been fond of dogs. Having grown up without one, I considered them bothersome, if not downright obnoxious. Although I often went afield after small game, I avoided fellow hunters with dogs. Too much time was spent searching for the wayward deer chasers, removing cactus from inexperienced paws and yelling a litany of commands and epithets for real and imagined offenses. That time was better spent bird hunting.
Still, I had to admit that my dislike of dogs restricted my actions. Some game, bobwhite and mountain lions for example, cannot be effectively hunted without a dog's services. Other species, such as pheasant, are more efficiently hunted with one, and a retriever comes in mighty handy locating a lost grouse or retrieving ducks from deep water. But it did not seem proper to hunt with someone who had a respectable hunting dog and to share the rewards without putting up with the time and demands required to train one.
It was my job that finally got the better of me. In 1968 I was selected as Small Game Supervisor for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. My work would be mostly with game birds. Studies of such species as Mearns' quail and masked bob-white required the services of a bird dog. Given strong incentives from peers and supervisors, I had to put my prejudices aside. But not just any bird dog would do. I didn't want a German shorthair or an English pointer racing about the country out of sight or hearing range; nor would a Labrador retriever that would neither point nor be able to take the desert heat do. If I was to get a dog, it would have to be a Brittany spaniel—one of those compact energizers that work close, point and retrieve.
Wendell Swank, a former director of the Game and Fish Department, had played a major role in getting the Mearns' quail declared legal game in Arizona. Wendell had seen how these birds held for a dog and realized their great sporting potential. As an avid quail fancier, he also knew the various breeds of dogs and had pioneered the introduction of Brittanys to Arizona. Almost all of the state's hunting Brittanys at that time had been imported by Wendell or raised by Ross Manes, a staff writer for the department. The word was out. The next time any descendants of these dogs had pups, I was interested. As luck would have it, one of the best of the line, Steve Gallizioli's Pepe, had sired an impending litter. For a mere $25 I could have the pick of the puppies.
Four of the six pups were squirming in their cardboard box. My boss said to select the most aggressive one. I had already decided on a bitch, having had some experience with the feistier and more hyper males. One pup tipped the box over to come up to me, and she was a good-looking little female. The choice was easy. All that was needed now was a name. My only requirement was that it be limited to two syllables. Because Brittany is a region of France, my wife reasoned that something French was called for. Somehow the selection came out to be Rosie.
Rosie was a classic Brittany of moderate size with a rust-over-white coat. Her yellow eyes, even at their most soulful, gave her a wily, cunning expression that belied her true personality. Not that she couldn't be a source of great mischief—she could. She methodically dug up all my wife's rosebushes before I had time to build her a kennel and a run.
Wolters' Gun Dog came highly recommended as a training manual, and I followed it religiously. At the appointed time, we began our schooling. Each morning and evening we had an hour-long session, and three to four hours were devoted to training on weekends. There was no play, and Rosie was not allowed into the house. She was never the family pet. Our relationship was a working one. Even her daily feeding was on a performance-reward basis.
"Come," "stay" and "fetch" were the only commands, and we concentrated on practical exercises—finding, pointing and retrieving hidden quail wings. My neighbors must have been amused at our daily forays to the park with a fishing pole and a paper sack containing the wings. Once in the park I would attach a wing to a fishing line and cast to imitate a swooping bird (another Wolters technique). After not too many leaps at the wing, Rosie soon learned that the trick was not to jump at the game but to hold her point.
Rosie took to hunting and pointing naturally and was as happy as I was at the conclusion of a good performance. She was quick and eager to please. More and more we came to look forward to these sessions. Soon the rewards exceeded the punishments. A bond developed between us, and by midsummer it was time to move on to high school.
I dedicated Rosie's life to hunting and had her spayed that first year, a decision I was never comfortable with, but never really regretted, either. She was not the least bit gun-shy but would run to the sound of a shot and look for birds in the air and on the ground. By instinct and by practice, Rosie learned what game was and how it was hunted, although meadowlarks always held an innate interest that never left her. She also came to appreciate the difference between which game was wanted and which wasn't. My behavior somehow told her whether it was doves or quail that we were after. If it was quail, doves were ignored.
My position in the department and Arizona's six-month bird-hunting season made for plenty of field training. After her first year Rosie performed like a veteran; she had spent her first fall continuously in the field working with real birds. What's more, the dog loved it. Her desire would always overcome the most adverse conditions. She was a hunting fanatic. When it came to a choice between retrieving a quail in cactus or avoiding the issue, the decision was always to go for the bird. After some initial difficulties even cholla was tolerated, and then expertly avoided—although its prickly joints were scattered ubiquitously throughout the landscape.
Rosie retrieved white-winged doves in 118° temperatures and hunted quail when it was over 100°. Rocks and cacti would cut her feet until she could hardly walk, but she would never so much as whimper. Once, while riding in the bed of an open pickup, rather than lie on the pad provided and not see what was going on, she burned her feet so badly on the metal that they blistered and the pads fell off. She never quit hunting of her own volition and was always the first to take to the field. I had me a hunting dog.
The field was her home. The kennel was an internment camp until the next outing. Somehow she sensed when a hunt was coming. So overjoyed would she become that she would race around the compound leaping and spinning in the air until the gate was opened. Rosie would dash around the house, circle the camper until the door was unlocked and then make herself at home. So eager was she to go, and so well-behaved in the truck, that I took her everywhere.
Unlike some dogs, Rosie retrieved all game, including doves and cottontails. That first year she learned that a crippled bird could be trailed and found. Later she learned to tell if a bird was hit, even if only slightly. Many a time she chased a flying quail over a rise on what seemed to be a hopeless mission, to return with a downed bird. Indeed, retrieving became Rosie's forte, and given 15 minutes for the scent to settle and a return to the area where the bird went down, most winged birds were eventually trailed up. This would take time, however, as Rosie was always a slow, deliberate worker. And, although she wasn't "hardmouthed," Rosie never gave up a bird without a firm squeeze to her lower jaw.
One of her greatest assets was the ability to find water on her own. Whenever she spotted a stock tank or irrigation ditch she checked it out. After a camel-like draught and a cooling swim, she continued the hunt. Unlike a lot of Brittanys, Rosie was an able swimmer. Ducks were among her favorite game, and she would even dive after cripples. I can remember her swimming out of sight in an effort to retrieve divers swimming away on large open bodies of water. She couldn't handle the cold, though. Rosie would break ice to bring in the first duck of the morning, but at least 20 minutes and a dry coat would be required before retrieving the next one.
Not that Rosie was perfect: On at least two occasions she ate birds after retrieving them. Once she fed on a mallard drake that I couldn't get to across the river, and another time she ate a brace of quail left in the bed of a friend's pickup. As always, when she misbehaved, the dog communicated her guilt by her actions. I never understood the reason for these transgressions, but I thought that the dog might be testing me. She had spirit enough.
Scaled quail, Gambel's quail and Mearns' quail were our principal domestic fare, with doves of secondary interest. Later we took to hunting blue grouse, bandtails and chickens. Each year we went farther afield. We chased down prairie chickens in New Mexico and Kansas, and hunted sage hens, blue grouse and white-tailed ptarmigan in Colorado. Pheasant, partridge and bobwhite—all fell before us. We were a team, Rosie and I. Together we covered the West and took more than our share of feathered game.
One night while grouse hunting we were caught in unfamiliar territory. Starless skies drizzled rain and offered no light. I built a fire in the duff under a large Douglas fir and cooked a grouse. We consumed all but the feathers. It rained off and on that cold September night, but the fire kept my back warm. Holding Rosie in the crook of my arms warmed my upper torso and chest, and we were as comfortable as the circumstances allowed. It was one of the longest nights I remember, but it was one of Rosie's happiest.
Hunting with Rosie became a delight. She always kept close, working slowly but effectively. Sometimes, when birds were scarce, we would work an area that was known to harbor a single. Over and over, in larger and larger circles, the suspected cover was searched and sniffed. Few birds escaped our net. Once scented, their only choice was to hold or flush. Rosie would eventually find them. Although Rosie would work with other hunters and even with other dogs, she retrieved only for me.
My camper was her home away from the kennel. Any predawn activity, any movement toward or around the camper, was somehow communicated immediately to Rosie. The jumping and the barking would begin. It was time to go hunting. Even now I occasionally awake in the middle of the night thinking that there's a dog in the truck waiting to be fed and let out.
By the time Rosie was nine, her age was showing. Gradually, the aimless racing that once had initiated the beginning of a hunt shortened, then ceased. Rosie conserved her strength for the task at hand. Still tireless in the field, she made every effort count. Experience replaced enthusiasm; Rosie was slowing down.
When she turned 11, the signs were unmistakable: the gray hair, the stiff walk after a hunt, the need to take a rest—all were reminders that the best days were over Mostly, however, it was her eyes that gave it away; they were larger and sadder. Oftentimes I would stop and clean the birds in the field to allow Rosie to recoup her strength. On our return, instead of preceding me, she would follow me to the truck. She began to look emaciated. My friends told me it was time to be thinking of getting another dog. Instead, Rosie and I went hunting alone.
One day Rosie could hardly get up. I took her to the veterinarian, certain I would learn what I didn't want to know. Still, perhaps something could be done. Not so. He told me that Rosie was simply old; her kidneys were giving out—a not uncommon malady in desert-dwelling Brittanys. There was nothing to be done for her. I moved Rosie into the house, but it didn't work out. She was uncomfortable in the unfamiliar surroundings, so I returned her to the kennel.
I'll never forget that last day. I went to the backyard to feed her and check the water. As always, Rosie got up to greet me, but now it was stiffly and with great pain. She looked terrible. She stumbled sideways and fell. I bent over to lift her up; the muscle was gone. I felt only skin, bones and determination. Her eyes cast downward, and we both knew that there would be no more hunts. Rosie's time had come.
I remembered John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and how a man should kill his own dog. I couldn't, though. I decided to take Rosie to the Humane Society. I had to carry her to the camper. She knew it was her last trip. For the one and only time in her life she fought me, and I could feel her breathing heavily in my arms as I retraced our familiar route to the truck. The trip to the Humane Society was quiet, with Rosie in her accustomed niche.
When I opened the camper door, the stimulus was too much. One more time Rosie rushed to join the hunt. Stumbling and falling, she made her way to the door. But then she must have seen in my eyes that something was terribly wrong. Before I could lay hold of her, she reversed her direction and crawled back behind the toolbox in the farthest recess of the camper. I had to go in and get her. She struggled against me all the way out. My hands turned clammy. I was close to panic.
Inside, the girl at the desk was sympathetic enough. She started to ask what was wrong, but Rosie's appearance was sufficient answer. I gave the donation. One farewell squeeze and Rosie was handed over. Everyone was staring at me. I had betrayed my dog. By the time I reached my truck, tears were streaming down my cheeks.
They say the best thing to do after losing a dog is to get another immediately. I tried that. She was a good enough pup all right, but my heart wasn't in her training the way it had been with Rosie. Jamie wasn't just slower to respond—she wasn't the same. It was about this time, too, that I moved to a house with a small yard and began working with big game; a dog wasn't necessary. I gave Jamie to a colleague who lived in a rural area and did a fair amount of bird hunting.
I have been dogless for six years now. Sometimes I find myself in the pet-food aisle of the supermarket. Instinctively, my eye goes to the shelf of Alpo canned liver—Rosie's standard field rations and posthunt reward. Scattered recollections of those many hunts kaleidoscope back as I trundle the shopping cart to other sections of the store. Maybe someday I'll get another dog and take up bird hunting again. I don't know. Maybe I was just a one-dog man.
David E. Brown is the game branch supervisor of the Arizona Game and Fish Dept.