The Woman I Live With called me at work a couple of days before Christmas. She sounded distressed from the start. Phoebe, our aging Brittany, was lying on the floor, unable to get to her feet, her legs splaying out whenever she tried to stand, she said. I told her I’d call the vet.
So it was time, finally. We’d struggled with this for a while. Although she’d been in decline for the last couple of years she’d suffer with neurologic symptoms periodically, she still seemed to have a pretty good quality of life, far as we could tell. She enjoyed her daily walk, almost prancing around the neighborhood when on leash despite her slow, tentative gate around the house. And she still never missed a meal.
I’d retired Phoebe from bird hunting a couple of seasons earlier after I’d noticed, on an Upper Peninsula grouse hunt, that she seemed almost totally deaf. She was in some thick stuff, not far away, obviously looking for me, but unable to locate me despite my hollers and whistles. She’d always had selective hearing to a degree; even to the end, it seemed like she would always hear the kibble hitting her metal food dish no matter where she was in the house. But later that fall, when I took her pheasant hunting and she got lost several times in the tall grass, I knew her career was over. She was not happy about it.
Phoeb was a good dog. She picked it up quickly. She had faults, of course, but she was my first pointing dog — before that I’d had a big, boneheaded Lab — and I ascribed many of her shortcomings to my own as a trainer. She was always kind of a soft dog; even as a puppy, in basic obedience, all I’d have to do when she misbehaved was tell her how disappointed I was in her and she’d hang her head. I didn’t want risk using an e-collar.
Phoebe never pointed a bird until she knew precisely where it was — right at the end of her nose — and you almost had to treat her like a flushing dog when she started getting birdy because if that pheasant, say, never stopped, neither did she. She’d sometimes cause problems when hunting with other more careful dogs that were staunch pointers as she didn’t care to honor them; she had to pinpoint that bird for herself. But when she did lock up, that bird was always there
Phoebe’s true talent was as a retriever. If you knocked it down, she found it. I remember once in South Dakota, when I’d wounded a bird and she took off after it, that I fretted how I was going to explain to TWILW where she was when I got home without her after she’d disappeared for more than 30 minutes. But when she returned, she had that rooster in her mouth.
That talent made her perfect in other applications. Often, in the West, when we’d jump-shoot waterfowl from small potholes surrounded by high grass, we’d leave Phoeb in the truck while we snuck up on the pond, then, after the shooting, go get her and let her find the ducks that had fallen in the thick stuff. She always did. Similarly, she was terrific in the dove field, though she didn’t want to sit there while I shot; she wanted to hunt.
She could be a brat. She was horribly jealous of other dogs in the house — when I brought my setter home, she pouted for weeks — and she acted out when she didn’t think she was getting adequate attention. More than once she helped herself to something on the counter in the kitchen and she wasn’t beyond munching on birds when left alone with them in the truck. But I suppose those things were on me for not fixing them.
Shortly after I retired her, Phoeb pretty much became my wife’s dog. (She’d always gotten on with TWILW, though Phoebe was definitely MY dog after the first time I took her West to hunt for a week.) She was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease (hyperadrenocortisism) which is the opposite of Addison’s disease, a hormonal thing that caused neurologic difficulties. It made her unquenchably thirsty and for almost the last two years of her life, she was getting us up several times a night to let her out to pee. It was like having a baby. Gradually she lost all of her bathroom manners. She was in diapers by the end, but TWILW — who is kind-hearted to a fault — refused to consider putting her down as long as she appeared to have some quality of life.
Ultimately, I thought I had to let TWILW make the final decision. Phoebe’d gotten back to her feet by the time I arrived home and ate like she always did – disappointed that the bowl was empty too soon – before we took her to the vet, who would be gone for three days for Christmas. If she had another — or even worse — episode we might not be able to get the job done directly. And I didn’t have the heart it do it myself. The hardest part was watching my wife cry when she realized it had to be now.
We’d had good times, Ol’ Phoebe and I. Traveled thousands of miles and pursued most all the upland game birds in North America. I think she enjoyed it even more than I did. Even to the end, when she was struggling, if she saw me take the gun case out to the truck, she wanted to go, too. What more can you ask from a best friend, eh?