Many years ago when my first English Setter came down with a condition known as hypoglycemia she became a retired hunting dog. Oh, I could have hunted her again but with the risk of more seizures in the field, not gonna’ happen. So I began looking for another dog. My disabled dog, Mookie, lived the life of a charmed, pampered and loved house pet for fourteen years before passing away last summer of a stroke.
Mookie and Speck the pup, playing in our kitchen
I found my next setter, Speck, through the internet. A small time passionate breeder of English Setters near Lexington in eastern Kentucky promised pups from a fine line of grouse hunting dogs with direct lineage to the famous Grouse Ridge Kennels in central New York. Dogs bread for grouse hunting are the toughest bird dogs I know of, and they will enthusiastically hunt game birds of all types all day long.
After first contacting the breeder about twelve years ago he mentioned he would soon be in Warsaw Indiana for some softball convention, his other passion. He promised to bring his dogs along for my inspection in a few weeks. We met at a motel in Warsaw about forty miles east of Valpo. His setters were the type of classic gun dog I was after. He promised a dog from the next litter, ready in a few months. Months passed so I called him again. He forgot about me. The litter was sold. He apologized and promised me the first female pick of the next litter at no extra cost. First pick usually costs more.
He confirmed about six months later that another litter of pups were on the way. The following July 4th weekend my son and I drove to Kentucky to pick up our new pup. When we arrived he promised I was getting the female pick of the litter, the one with the best personality. How would he know? Reputable breeders have a way of knowing through experience. I trusted his judgment. As a result I allowed him to make the pick and we ended up with the best dog ever. We named her Speck after Pee-Wee Herman’s dog. I liked that name because this dog was white and had distinctive “ticking” of orange colored specks.
Speck was only five weeks old when we picked her up a week early, but the breeder felt it was fine. Six weeks is the norm. Damn was she cute. During the six hour drive home she sat in my lap alternately whining, squirming, biting and sleeping. I truly believe that holding my new pup on this long trip was what created a truly special bond. It was all cuddly mutual love from then on.
I have hunted over many fine gun dogs in my days and trained a few too but Speck was exceptional. She was so easy to train and eager to learn. While in the field she would rarely go over 20 yards away and would come back to me whenever I called or blew a quick two on the whistle. They call this a walking dog, a close-in hunter, a trait most wing shooters find extremely desirable, and hard to come by. She was a natural. The need for a remote training collar was short. And what a nose she had.
Speck on solid point a short time ago
All I had to do was put on my brush pants on a mid-autumn morning and Speck knew immediately what was going on. She would be jumping, dancing, spinning and following me everywhere until I packed her into the travel crate in the back of the old Jeep. When we pulled into a hunting area she would whine and squeal, demanding to be let out so she could point some tasty game birds for me.
Those with pets love and understand them to build a steady relationship. Having a feisty bird dog adds a special dimension to that relationship. Once trained a bird dog will always be there for you, ready to go. They don’t call you saying they’re sick on opening day. They don’t drink too much the night before. They don’t make fun of you when you miss an easy shot. They will fly through places rabbits dare to go. With Speck I could be by myself in the field, but never alone.
Professional bird dog trainers and experts claim a good field dog should never be a house pet. It ruins their nose they say and softens them up. They need to live outside. Speck proved all that to be wrong.
There were times after other hunters covered a field with 2-4 good gun dogs and buddies would urge me to turn and go in another direction. But I just loved to go where other dogs had been just to see her point out at least one bird and at times even more that the others dogs had missed. I was so proud of Speck. She met every challenge ever thrown at her. I can count on two fingers the times we were skunked and need a large group of both hands and feet to count the number of times we got our limit. If we didn’t limit out only my poor shooting was to blame.
Often I watched and listened out in the field as other hunters would be chasing their wayward Setters, English Pointers, Brittanies or German Short Hair Pointers screaming the dog’s name repeatedly. They looked foolish and I felt bad for them. But I was so lucky since I had Speck. If a strange dog approached Speck in the field or parking lot it didn’t matter how massive the horny male was, she bared her teeth with a snarl and they would quickly whimper away. Amazing for such an obedient and affectionate animal like her. She was only protecting her virtues.
Speck made me a few friends too. Once I watched as two hunters came back to the lot at Winimac Area 9 (my favorite local spot) with no dogs and no birds while I was slurping down my one cold celebratory Heinneken and Speck was busy lapping up her water. I asked them why they were bothering to hunt birds without a dog (I had witnessed this strange behavior before). One guy said they just wanted to get outside, walk the fields and maybe kick up something. I guess when you get the urge to hunt you just go and hunt. There’s so much more to hunting and fishing than bringing home a limit.
Hanging at Winimac, ready for more
So I told them that even though we bagged our limit my dog loves to hunt and if they wished I would take them back out with Speck and me as an unarmed guide. Well, within 45 minutes they had their four birds. I wasn’t as good of a guide as Speck was a bird dog. They were nice friendly guys and we met up another time or two that season. Speck appreciated working many more birds than just my limit of two. One of the guys, Scott, and I became friends and we’ve hunted together each year at Winimac since. He was so impressed with Speck that last year he went and bought his own English Setter. She’s also white, with orange ticking. That’s about as good a compliment a bird dog can get, right Speck? I gave Scott all my dog training devices, tapes and books to borrow while he trained his new pup. His dog Penny will be ready to hunt this season. I was looking forward to the time when Penny and Speck could experience time in the field together.
Speck hated cleanup time
Enough about hunting. Speck was the most affectionate, loving house pet ever. That sounds cliché but after owning a few dogs I am convinced. My family loved her for her gentle and comical ways and she loved right back. This dog had a personality like few I’ve met. She could communicate to us with her body language, eye and head movements and that nuzzle of a cold nose against my hand when it was dangling off the side of my leather chair. She craved affection. No, she demanded it and we obliged. This dog needed love from all of us, all the time. She got it each and every time.
In early March Speck came down with a urinary infection. It seemed like no big deal. Both the vet and a few neighbors told us these were common. Antibiotics would clear it all up they said. It did. She seemed better. A few days later the vet called and told us a blood test revealed she had e-coli in her bloodstream due to the infection. It appeared Speck was feeling better but more meds would be necessary.
Speck hated pills so much she could hear a medicine container being opened in the kitchen from the upstairs office. I was the only one who could open her mouth and make her swallow the pill…after finding her hiding spot. Years ago we would put a pill in a piece of food but she got wise. She would mouth the complimentary bribe and the food was swallowed followed by a pill being spit out.
The two of us, dog tired
Over the past few weeks something wasn’t right to us. Her eating habits changed and she appeared weak. She lost more than a step. When I would take her out for the morning walk she would leap three feet in the air many times on the screen porch before I could get the collar around her neck. Speck loved putting on a show. For the past three weeks she didn’t jump and could barely make it up or down the stairs.
She wouldn’t eat anything but chicken and rice and had frequent accidents in the house. About a month ago it was obvious something was seriously wrong. We took her in to the vet for a cancer test, the final resort. The blood was sent to the vet department at Michigan State where they have a national reputation for that sort of thing. A week later the test came back negative. It was a relief but our vet said there was nothing more they could test for. We would need to send her to special clinics and even then there was no guarantee they would be able to diagnose Speck’s problem or help her recover. Guess we just hoped she would get better here at home and whatever it was would just go away.
Steroids worked well. Once the vet gave us those prednisone pills there was noticeable improvement. But I knew deep down inside her hunting days were over. Worse, I felt she wouldn’t make it through the summer.
Late Tuesday afternoon my dog Speck passed away, here in the house in our arms after a months old illness. She was eleven years and five days old. We wept uncontrollably for hours and will do so for days I’m afraid. A loss like this is indescribable. It’s going to take a lot of time for this to pass. It all happened so fast.
Taken on Mother's Day, my last photo of Speck
I can’t think about getting another dog for a while. It’s hard to imagine hunting game birds next season at all. Since Speck was my second English Setter it is impossible for me to think of getting another one even though they are my favorite bird dog of all. Besides, the wife says no. She claims that Speck cannot be replaced and another setter would cause unnecessary family anxieties. We’ll see.
I have so many great Speck stories I could go on for a month or two and not run out. My intent is not to write a sad story or solicit sympathy. I am writing this because it is helping me deal with a deep personal loss and to honor in my own way a very, very special friend.
Her favorite spot to rest
So long little Speck. We miss you so much. We'll remember you and love you forever.