By Shawn Perich
On a sunny Saturday afternoon last September, Abby insisted on tagging along when the yellow Lab Tanner and I got in the truck to go grouse hunting. While Abby, a husky-shepherd, made hundreds of hunts, in recent years she’d been mostly content to stay home. Occasionally, she’d ride along in the truck and then curl up and sleep while Tanner and I walked the woods.
This day was different. I could tell she wanted to accompany us, so I parked on a gated forest road that offered easy walking. We hunted at a pace suitable for a dog with a stiff shoulder and wobbly hips, walking nearly a mile without flushing a bird. Then Abby paused, unwilling to go any farther, which was her cue that it was time to turn around.
On the way back, a grouse flushed from the roadside, thundering away unseen in the heavy foliage. Tail wagging, nose to the ground, Abby spent five minutes investigating the fresh scent the grouse left behind. That was when I realized we were, in effect, celebrating Abby’s 16th birthday. She was born sometime in September, 1997.
Abby wasn’t intended to be a bird dog. Vikki wanted a dog to stay home with her when I was off with our then yellow Lab, Casey. She heard about a litter of white German shepherds near French River, so we drove down the North Shore to check them out. Turned out the pups weren’t white and were only part German shepherd, but a happy pup tumbled to Vikki’s feet and looked up with half-cocked ears. She was named Abby before we got home.
Whatever her ancestry, some sled dog genes were included in the mix. Abby had marble eyes–half blue, half brown–and half of her tongue was stained blue. She had the long, upright ears of a shepherd, but they often tipped over, leading Vikki to call her “my flying nun.”
It wasn’t long before Abby was joining Casey and me on our daily walks in the woods. When grouse season began the following fall, it was clear to all, including Vikki, that Abby had no intention of staying home. When it was time to hunt pheasants, I ended up bringing both Abby and Vikki to South Dakota.
So began Abby’s long career in the field, both as hunter and, more importantly, as a companion in many long hikes through the woods at all times of year. About the only time she stayed home was when I went duck hunting with Casey, and later Tanner. Abby clearly regarded that wet and muddy business as beneath her dignity.
I never lacked confidence in her ability to find grouse and pheasants, though her competitive nature when hunting with the Labs often resulted in grouse flushing out of range. If she put up a rooster pheasant and I missed the shot, she’d shoot me a disapproving look that said, “I went through a lot of work to flush that rooster—and you missed.”
In the woods, Abby had an annoying habit of staying just out of my sight, although she always knew where I was at. Sometimes, I’d rush through the brush to the sound of her excited barking to discover she was holding a moose at bay. I still wonder if or how often she encountered wolves, but wouldn’t be surprised that nothing happened if and when she did.
I never saw another dog of either sex question her dominance. She wasn’t a fighter, but had a remarkable ability to quickly put other dogs in their place. I suspect she could have made a fine leader for a sled dog team. I sometimes wondered if her dominance extended into the wild. Even last winter, she was sure to pee on any wolf scat or sign she encountered.
In the woods, she seemed to regard me more as a co-captain rather than the boss. She’d pop out of the trees 50 yards ahead of me, looking back as if to confer on our route. Then, with a toss of her head that said, “Let’s go!” she’d bound ahead. Once, after walking had become difficult due to her aging hips, we came to a fork in a logging trail. Abby paused, indicating she wanted to take the left fork, which was open, but I pushed forward on the much brushier right fork. She didn’t follow. I looked back to see she was still at the intersection, looking at me. With that familiar toss of her head she started down the left fork. I turned around and took the left fork, too.
While Abby was my companion in the woods, she meant other things to other people. As a pup, she won over my father, who claimed he didn’t like female dogs. It wasn’t long before Abby was his favorite girl. Years later, when he was dying, she laid quietly at his bedside for weeks. Another one of her buddies was our neighbor, Tim, even though he’d accidentally run over her and Casey when they dashed in front of his truck. Every morning she ran down to greet him as he loaded his work truck. When Tim died unexpectedly one evening, she seemed to know. Certainly, she didn’t run down to see him after that.
For Vikki, Abby was an attentive companion. Because she is hard of hearing, Vikki relied on Abby’s ears to hear when someone was at the door. If she wasn’t feeling well, Abby would stay by her side. Although she loved to roam in the woods as my co-captain, she was very much Vikki’s dog.
When she was 9 years old, Dr. Kim, our vet, warned us that shepherd-husky mixes often don’t live beyond 10 years. When we discovered a fast-growing tumor on Abby’s tongue at age 12, Dr. Kim advised us to have it surgically removed in Duluth, because she was in excellent health. From then on, Dr. Kim would just smile and shake her in amazement whenever she saw the ever-older dog.
Abby had aches and pains that originated from getting hit by Tim’s truck. It was difficult to watch my walking companion, once as quick as a gust of wind, gradually slow down. The deep snow and bitter cold of last winter were especially difficult for her. By late winter, she wasn’t even interested in walking a short distance along the plowed county road.
She never lost her happy disposition. This spring, we were cautiously optimistic that she might make it to her 17th birthday in September. Then came the day when she no longer got up to greet me when I arrived home from work. Her strength was quickly fading and we knew it was time for once last visit to Dr. Kim to say good bye.
Wherever it is that dogs go, I’m sure Abby has human and canine friends who are happy to see her. Vikki says it may be awhile before we get another pup. As for me, I’ll always see Abby up ahead at the next turn in the trail, looking back at her co-captain. Then, with that toss of her head that says, “Let’s go!” she’ll disappear around the bend.