The Armchair Outfitter

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Hershey’s Kisses

December 7th, 2008 · 9 Comments


It is often repeated in sporting circles that we all ruin our first gun dogs. If that is indeed the rule, then my first dog was no exception. We did not own dogs when I was a boy. My Grandma Josephine had cats, but a cat won’t hold point or back, and they are crummy retrievers. I was grown and newly married when Hershey came into my life. Hershey was a chocolate Labrador retriever. He had no papers other than the ones he wet on, but both his sire and his dam belonged to a friend of a friend. It was January and cold. The litter was too large. These and other inducements persuaded me to meet the owner in a parking lot in Jackson, Tennessee, and exchange $70 I didn’t have for a four-week-old puppy I didn’t need.

He was a butterball mess, all belly and paws, and he had a worried look that he would give me from time to time throughout his life. He pulled one side of his bottom lip over his teeth and furrowed his brow as if he were ruminating on something. I have seen several artists’ renditions of this same expression, so I know it was not unique to him.

We raised Hershey in our home, as John Wolters recommends. I read Water Dog and tried my best to follow the author’s instructions. We were kicked out of our first rental house after six months because the landlady “forgot” I’d told her when we moved in that I meant to get a dog. She was an elderly woman who has probably passed away by now. God rest her soul, because she never gave us a moment’s peace in six miserable months.

Hershey had more natural desire to retrieve than any dog I have ever encountered. At five and six weeks of age, he could barely waddle. Nevertheless, every time I rolled a tennis ball along the floor, he would roll it back to me by pushing with his nose. My task was to channel this formidable drive.

As soon as he could pick up small objects, there was no stopping him. He would bring me any loose object he could hold, including Wendy’s dish towels. If we tried to leave toys in the yard to amuse him, he would stuff them behind a broken panel of the screen door for us to find. After one of his numerous escapes, he brought me two full cans of Natural Light beer as a peace offering. To this day, I don’t know where he got them. I didn’t ask. I’m sure he didn’t buy them: he had no I.D.

With a couple of years of work, Hershey became a competent retriever. Steady to the shot, he invariably retrieved thrown or placed bumpers to hand. He lacked only field work with live game to become a truly stylish dog. He was the dog for the lifestyle I wanted. In reality, I was far from the “Sporting Life.” In the first years of solo law practice, sixteen hour work days were not uncommon. Many months we borrowed money from credit cards so the receptionist would get paid when I did not. On the few occasions when Hershey and I went afield, he acquitted himself as well as he could given his lack of experience.

On his first duck hunt, I could not stop him from bringing in the decoys. I don’t think I loaded my shotgun that day; I had my hands full keeping my 120 pound “puppy” in the boat. His retrieving instincts were backed by a stubborn streak, and removal of one decoy from his mouth required the application of a boat paddle to his noggin. It hurt his pride more than anything, but the memory of the incident makes my heart heavy.

In all, I could probably count Hershey’s retrieves on game with one hand. My most vivid memory is of a blistering hundred yard sprint on the dove field. Unfortunately, I hadn’t shot the bird in question. Hershey ripped the handle from a cooler, to which we had leashed him, and went tearing across the field. He put a chop block on an octogenarian gentleman who was just bending to pick up his bird. There was nowhere to hide when Hershey brought his ill-gotten quarry to me as though I were reeling him to me on a line. I scolded him and sheepishly carried the man his bird. I proffered a sincere apology, but he was not mollified.

Hershey always suffered from a nervous disposition. He was what the field trial set would call “high strung.” A cop friend tried to get him for a drug sniffer. He said that boundless energy is the main criterion, and Hershey had that in spades. If Hersh had an off switch, I never found it. His temperament would not allow him to relax for very long, and he had bouts of upset stomach.

Sometime in the eleventh year of his life, he began having difficulty holding down his dinner. If we managed to get enough medication and antacid into him to keep food in his stomach for a few hours, he would wake in the night with crippling diarrhea. Wendy and I took turns missing work to care for him.

A chronic condition progressed into a debilitating illness. We were struggling to care for our new puppy, Pete, and Hershey’s weight plummeted from 118 pounds to a gaunt 68 pounds in a few months. It was ugly, and scary, and I prayed for an escape for him and us. Somehow, we nursed him through dietary changes that restored him to relative health. After about six months of living in a two dog household, I put both of “the boys” in the yard one afternoon and left to run some errands. When I returned, Pete got up from his nap. Hershey did not, nor would he ever again. I was shattered.

I got more years than I had a right to expect given his breed and size. His age in human terms would have been around 84, and I hope I do as well myself. Nevertheless, months passed before I could think of him without breaking down. Now I treasure those last six months with him more than any other time in my life. He lives still in my memory, in the best of my dreams, and in my hopes for the young dog who has taken his place, though he can never replace him.


- Hershey in a rare moment of repose. I’m sitting in the chair, and we’re watching soccer. He could understand people chasing a ball, but I never got the concept of Formula 1 across to him.

Tags: Gun Dogs

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Theresa // Dec 7, 2008 at 7:01 pm

    What a touching writing about your very special friend. I’ll never forget the time he came to visit us and spent his day playing in the pool and dragging Greg around the yard.

  • 2 armchairoutfitter // Dec 7, 2008 at 11:50 pm

    I will always think of Hershey as my special boy. It’s a vicious fallacy that those who participate in the blood sports have no regard for animal life. The loss of a pet can be more difficult to accept than the loss of a friend or a close relative. All human relationships are clouded by expectation, recrimination, and regret, but the love of and for an animal is pure, simple, and sweet.

  • 3 Simon // Dec 11, 2008 at 8:26 pm

    Hi.. I followed the trail from your experiments on, and just wanted to say thank you! This was just beautiful.

  • 4 armchairoutfitter // Dec 14, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    Thank you, Simon. As a fan of outdoor literature, I always vowed I’d never write the “sad dog story.” I understand now why so many authors have written them. When you lose a loved one, you just don’t know what else to do. If someone can take comfort from it, at least that’s something.

  • 5 Michael Todd Congiardo // Jan 17, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    As a father who has also lost a canine son, your story touched me deeply. After Count Basie (our 1st child) passed, I was heartbroken, depressed and determined never to have another pet.

    Rosie (an 80 lb. mixed breed) now sleeps in the bed with my wife and I…let me rephrase that…Rosie (an 80 lb. mixed breed) now allows my wife and I to sleep in her bed with her. In my defense, it did take about 3 months to get another dog.

    Great story.

  • 6 armchairoutfitter // Jan 18, 2009 at 12:52 am

    When Hershey passed, my friend Raimey said, “It takes many generations of their lives to span one of ours, and we don’t know why.” He left it at that, but I think that says it all.

  • 7 Simon's Mom // Mar 21, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    With a full heart after reading of your four-legged-friend….I remember Simon.
    117 lbs of black lab who became my husband’s best buddy.
    When others said he was crazy looking for a pheasant, he did his master proud….going to a fallen tree in a stream and tearing off the bark to “find” the hen pheasant hiding there.
    He was gone from us way too soon as medical problems made us do the right thing for our family member….his master, his friend with him to the end. Here is to Simon-the wonder dog that filled our hearts with joy. We have not seen a black Lab that was as big and with a blocky head as he had….they sure leave big footprints on our hearts!

  • 8 armchairoutfitter // Mar 21, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    To Simon . . . cheers! And to all dogs everywhere. We try our best to live our lives in such a way that we can in some measure deserve the time they spend with us.

  • 9 Ginger // May 11, 2010 at 10:16 am

    Mike– you touched my heart beyond imagination– a true pet person, you ARE–

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