“You treated that dog really well and were patient with her. You did everything you could for her. I have a litter coming up and I would like to offer you my pick of the litter.”
The story of Hank starts there. Hank was sort of a gift. The owner of the “pick” is someone who had helped me a ton with training tips through the Ducks Unlimited Forum. There are a lot of people on there that just want to prove they’re superior. They just drag guys through the mud for no good – much like the rest of the internet.
Every once in a while, you find a good one though. Keith was definitely in that group. He never got involved with the drama, he mostly private messaged and offered words of encouragement. After talking it over with Amy, we were on board for a new puppy in a few months.
The day came to go up and pick our new puppy. I went with the rule, “pick the first one to come to you”. That’s how we ended up with Hank. He kept that attitude throughout his entire life; every time someone walked towards us, he ran over and greeted them. He was a dog that loved everyone. There were some, though, that were the apple of his eye.
I like to think Hank’s love ran so deep that he suffered from separation anxiety. He broke out of 6 plastic kennels, jumped fences to chase me down, went on expeditions when I would leave town and would bark his head off all night when kept in a kennel outside. There was nothing he hated more than being separated from me.
Socialization was poured on Hank. We went to work, fishing, swimming, family events and the Game Fair – all in our first 4 weeks spent together. That proved to be worth it in the long run. He was never nervous; he’d just prance around like he owned every place we went.
Being that Hank was going to be my first bird dog and the first one I trained all on my own, I took in any and all advice: either freely from willing people (typically from Keith and another dog training friend) or paid in the form of a library of books on training. I always felt like a pest back then. Now that I am in that position for other folks (not on the dog training side, but more for western hunting), I know they enjoyed helping me.
Hank was a breeze to train. Sure, there were issues, but in the grand scheme of being a first-time trainer, I can honestly say he loved working – especially for me. We had a genuine respect for each other. As silly as that may sound, I believe that to be able to train a dog you must gain respect from the dog. Hank would go where I asked him to without second guessing. If I was wrong, which happened more than I like to admit, I let Hank lead the way. He was right more often than I was.
The dog had a sense of when things weren’t ok. He would stay away when things were going good but if I was stressed, upset or angry he would always be at my feet, setting his head on my knee. We had so many adventures in his short life. If I needed to step out for a walk or cigar and whiskey at midnight, Hank was there to join me.
Recently I had to say goodbye to Hank. He was 2 months shy of being 10. This past year, he’d pull back to back bird hunts in the thickest cover you can imagine with ease. His physical shape couldn’t have been better but something got him.
The ride home from the vet Hank was in the back seat of my truck. It was just him and I once again. The sun was starting to set, it was a beautiful night. I drove slow and couldn’t shake the feeling that I was driving a hearse for one of the greats. I didn’t want the ride to end. I didn’t want to put him in the ground. I didn’t want to say goodbye. I’ve loved all of my dogs greatly and treated them all very well, but there was something about the bond that Hank and I had that doesn’t come around often. He’s buried in my backyard facing the rising sun, a creek and the flyway from roosting to feeding for the local roosters. I think of him every single day and coming home to house that doesn’t have Hank waiting for me still kills me a little every time. I still think I hear him barking in his kennel when I open the garage door. Every once in a while I catch a flash of him sitting on the couch looking at me. He’ll always be here in this house, in the backseat of my truck with his head out of the window and he will be with me on all my bird hunts to come.
“I have never seen a dog with so much drive”.
“He was absolutely one of kind”.
“I am proud that I can say I got to hunt over Hank”.
“He was just one of those dogs that you don’t forget”.
These are just some of the messages I received after word of Hank’s passing spread. He was a one of kind lab. I know we all talk our dogs up and eat our words sometimes for it, but I really believe it when I say it. Sure, I will probably have dogs that behave better or are more steady. I just don’t think I will end up hunting over another one with his drive and passion for birds. He was absolutely nuts for them.
I now live off of the memories Hank and I shared. There are retrieves I will never forget. They weren’t 300 yard blinds by any means, but they were milestones. His first cripple stands out the most for me. Hank swam circles with that duck for a good 5 minutes before the duck dove and didn’t come up. “Crap, that sucks!” was all I could think. Hank swam over where it dove one last time, then he dove himself – eventually popping back up with the cripple in his mouth! I couldn’t believe what I was watching. Another great one was his first trip to the game preserve. Hank ran off while we were standing there talking and my dad and I followed. All of a sudden Hank flushed a bird across the pasture road from our field. My dad shot it and we were a bird ahead before we even got started. Days like those are days I will cherish my entire life.
At home he loved getting into the middle of any ball or stick and puck games we played. Often he would be my defender while my son Cole was taking shots at me. He also made a phenomenal ball boy; if the puck went out of play or the field goal was kicked too hard, Hank was always there to help get the game going again.
What I am saying with those last couple paragraphs is this. Hank was a bird dog. Hank also was a family member, he wasn’t just a pet. Everyone who knows us, also knew Hank. He was my constant in life. Everyone and everything could change from one day to the next but the bond between Hank and I wasn’t something that changed. He was always happy to see me. He was always there to be my pillow, lap dog, snuggler, camp buddy, retriever and friend. He was the partner we all dream of having in life.
It’s impossible to write how I felt about Hank. This is the closest I can get. There was plenty more to Hank and more I wish I knew how to put into words, but I just can’t right now. It’s been a week and a half since he left and it still hurts like day one.
“He is my other eyes that can see above the clouds; my other ears that hear above the winds. He is the part of me that can reach out into the sea. He has told me a thousand times over that I am his reason for being; by the way he rests against my leg; by the way he thumps his tail at my smallest smile; by the way he shows his hurt when I leave without taking him. (I think it makes him sick with worry when he is not along to care for me.)
When I am wrong, he is delighted to forgive. When I am angry, he clowns to make me smile. When I am happy, he is joy unbounded. When I am a fool, he ignores it. When I succeed, he brags. Without him, I am only another man. With him, I am all-powerful. He is loyalty itself.
He has taught me the meaning of devotion. With him, I know a secret comfort and a private peace. He has brought me understanding where before I was ignorant.
His head on my knee can heal my human hurts. His presence by my side is protection against my fears of dark and unknown things. He has promised to wait for me… whenever… wherever—in case I need him. And I expect I will—as I always have. He is just my dog.” – Gene Hill