“Rupert heel!” I barked as I brushed the hair back from my eyes. Rupert turned toward me at an angle, lowering his head below his withers and tilting his snout down toward the snow. Rupert’s golden brown eyes glowed back at me through the wiry fur partially covering his face. I immediately knew Rupert had no intention of heeling or doing anything else that would resemble the behavior of a well-trained bird dog.
When neighbors and friends ask me about Rupert, I often explain that he is the type that needs to run. When I say this, I’m sure they imagine a blonde-haired woman wearing pink Asics, Lululemon yoga pants, an athletic top with white earbuds connected to an armband encasing the newest cellular gadget. With a waist that adorns a blue nylon leash connected to 65 pounds of golden yellow lab running perfectly in step. As they move down the uncracked sidewalk flanked by perfectly manicured lawns the neighbors think… “That dog runs so nicely”.
This is not what I, nor Rupert, envision when we dream of running. Our vision of running involves a frozen swamp, cat tails, brush, burs and, if Rupert has his way, something dead to roll in. Rupert, despite his daily walks, was experiencing cabin fever so, as a favor to my best friend, I found a suitable piece of land and we loaded up my old Ford Ranger to go have a run.
When we arrived, Rupert jumped out of the truck and ran down the trail that cut through the thicket toward the swamp. About 100 yards ahead the brush thinned and we made a left turn off the trail. Rupert dove into the brush at full speed running a zig zag pattern specially designed to find every burr in the field and tangle deep into his coat. Rupert crashed into the cattails on a dead sprint making the grunting noises that only a griff can make mid-zoomie.
We made our way through the icy swamp and arrived at the partially frozen creek. Rupert placed his right front paw on the ice… then his left. The ice crackled as his paws touched the freezing water underneath. Rupert took a step back and carefully measured this scenario. I watched as he paused for several seconds looking at the paw size holes in the ice. “Urrrgghh!” a grunt.. a flash... Rupert sprinted onto the ice then circled back just barely outrunning the breaking ice beneath his feet. Rupert and I explored, like this, for the better part of an hour but before long is was time to go home.
Rupert and I have been working on some basic obedience such as sit, stay, come and heel. Considering he is a six-month old puppy, we have made progress to be proud of. In practice Rupert can perform with the best of them. But a dog wouldn’t be a dog without a bit of personality. I often brag about Rupert’s personality and what’s not love? He’s a trainable clown with tons of enthusiasm, a pinch of independence and an adorable Muppet face. But the line between independence and stubbornness is thin. I know because this is an area I have often explored in my own personal life. So when I stared into Rupert's eyes and he stared directly back I knew we were having a conversation. Rupert was letting me know that we were about to dance up and down this line and that he planned to lead.
The intensity in Rupert’s eyes glowed as we stood motionless. His body was rigid with determination. His nub tail was level with his back and remained unshaken. If he ever points like this at a pheasant I would consider commissioning an artist to memorialize the achievement. As we stood there I briefly imagined a 12x12-inch canvas expertly oil-painted and framed with a wide piece of dark-stained Michigan cherry wood hanging over the fireplace in my retirement cabin. I imagined sipping whiskey, neat of course, and telling a friend “That’s Rupert, he was the best bird dog I ever hunted over…” Then a low sound, my heartbeat, brought me back to reality and back to those eyes now slightly brighter than before.
I took a deep breath and let a few more heartbeats pass as I considered my next move. My right hand jumped out in front of my chest like a traffic cop signalling a car to stop. I firmly commanded “stay”. After reading this you will probably call me a liar, but I have personally witnessed Rupert hold a stay for 20 minutes, in front of a full food bowl while I waited in another room. Not only does he understand this command, he can perform it at an above average level. But today was not going to be an above average day… Cautiously, I stepped my right foot forward with my boot crunching the snow and ice underneath. This crunch must of sounded like a starting pistol to Rupert. Before I could react he had ran 25 yards up the trail toward the truck… and, much more worrisomely, the road.
The trail had a slight curve. The arc was enough so that so long as Rupert remained 15 yards or so ahead he couldn’t be seen. As I rounded the trail, I caught glimpses of his tail and I would scream “heel”, “sit”, “here” or “stay”. Not that Rupert could pick any of these commands from between the string of expletives that only a frustration boiling over can bring out of a person. As we got closer to the road my emotions started to swell. I was experiencing the type of vexation that makes you simultaneously feel a murderous rage and debilitating sadness. This death march continued until I caught sight of my tailgate through the brush. Then there were those eyes. Rupert sat behind my truck oozing an aura of pride and accomplishment.
As I approached, I was relieved that he was not in the road. As this calm rushed over me I was almost ready to forgive his transgressions. I approached the driver’s side door and opened it while Rupert watched carefully. I motioned for Rupert to get into the truck. Simultaneously the wind blew in Rupert’s face uncovering the hair from his eyes. GRRRRUUFF! A bark as the image of his eyes burned into my memory. A flash of fur and snow and Rupert was on the other side of the truck. Dejected I walked over and opened the passenger side door and again motioned to Rupert. GRRRRUUFF! and he was on the driver’s side again. I approached Rupert pleading for him to stay so that I could pick him up…. GRRRRUUFF!... he was five yards in front of the truck, his eyes piercing.
My anger and frustration culminated as I slung the Osprey day pack from my back to my chest. I grabbed the loop on the bottom of the bag and launched it with every bit of strength I could muster. It flew at Rupert who side stepped as if he already knew what was going to happen. About ready to give up, I regained my composure and gathered my gear now spread across the parking lot. As I did this, a sadness crept over me as I imagined explaining to my wife why I had left Rupert behind to fend for himself. I knew she would take it hard but I had reached my breaking point . My things gathered, I walked back to the truck and placed my bag behind the driver’s seat. Looking up, Rupert was in the passenger seat… I guess I had to bring him home.
I took my place in the driver seat and started the truck. I closed my eyes and rested the back of my head against the headrest. Taking a deep breath, I felt a cold snout and warm tongue gently kiss my cheek. I opened my eyes and staring back at me was the familiar golden brown. Another conversation… In his eyes was simultaneously an apology and forgiveness. I understood immediately, we had both made mistakes but we were best friends and one bad outing wasn’t going to threaten this.
It’s funny because in the moment, this experience was terrible and I couldn’t wait to bury it deep into the recesses of my mind never to be thought of again. But looking back I would give almost anything for an artist’s rendition capturing the moment our eyes met in understanding. That way late in life I could point to it and say “That’s Rupert he was the best bird dog I ever hunted over”. To some, that may sound confusing… but that’s training a bird dog.