Crossing the Rainbow Bridge

Lessons from an old bird dog.  

Every experience we have in life is a lesson. Every person we meet, a teacher. Sometimes it’s hard to ferret out the lesson, but dig deeper, and there it is. Lately, I’ve expanded that theory to include not just people, but dogs—well, my dog Blitzen anyway. 

At this moment he’s sleeping soundly under the table, dreaming whatever bird dogs dream in the twilight of their careers. Actually, twilight is wishful thinking; every tick of his biological clock nudges Blitzen nearer the midnight hour. In the past couple years, he has strayed dangerously close to the Rainbow Bridge—that new-age euphemism formerly known as death. Each time, though, he recovered, maybe not to his old self, but to a reasonable facsimile, at least. For better or worse, old dogs are good at that, and it makes that final trip to the vet even more excruciating.

Last summer was tough on Blitz. Relentless heat and smoke knocked him for a loop. But the cool temps of autumn, perhaps coupled with the sight of me cleaning my shotgun and the odor of sharptail grouse from my game pouch, spurred a resurrection. Despite his thirteen-plus years, we had a pretty fabulous hunting season.

Blitzen’s eyesight had dimmed, his hearing was muffled, but his nose had lost none of its prowess and his semaphore-like tail (a characteristic of small Munsterlander pointers) functioned like a game bird Geiger counter.

While our forays were limited to a couple of hours (no death marches) and milder terrain (no blue grouse), we still got out there, found birds, and experienced rural Montana in all its funky glory. Recognizing that we were hunting on borrowed time, I savored every moment. I also learned a lot each and every foray.

For one thing, Blitz made up for his diminished endurance by hunting smarter. Rather than trying to cover the entire landscape as he did when young, he’d take a moment to survey the terrain, then zero in on what often turned out to be exactly where the birds were holding. How he knew they were there was a mystery, but I came to trust his instincts. We killed as many birds surgically hunting limited terrain as we had when we tried to traverse every square foot of ground. I have wondered if that approach to my work and other personal pursuits might also yield similar results. It’s certainly worth a try.

Blitzen’s off-duty behavior also changed. In his younger years, he had been a bit aloof with people. Now he gently engages everyone, conservative or liberal, on a city street or in a barnyard, rough cut or refined. No judgment. As long as they have a pulse, chances are they will feel his warm muzzle in their palm. From Blitz’s perspective, they’re all equal, and he is often rewarded for his egalitarianism with pats on the head, treats, and kind words, bridging the rural-urban divide with a wagging tail and soft hazel eyes.

As both hunting dog and housemate, Blitzen has served me well. Now it is my turn to serve him. He needs to be hoisted up to the car. At 50-some pounds, it’s a bit of a heft. He also needs to go out at night, often in the “wee” hours of the morning. When back inside he immediately conks out, though I’m often stuck wide awake, fretting over this thing or that. But there is pleasure in service, particularly if it’s for someone or something you care deeply about. Even if it’s hard to tell if it’s being noticed or appreciated, it’s the right thing to do.

It may sound strange, but these days I find it just as satisfying to take Blitz on a short, slow-motion stroll along the Livingston levee, as it was chasing after him mile after mile out in the hinterlands. Rather than watching the rear end of a fast-moving hunting dog, I’m now watching the clouds, the birds, the river, and the universe pass by. Get yourself an old dog and chances are you will finally be here now.

In the end, the abbreviated lifespan of a dog is a good lesson in mortality. At Blitz’s age, every day, every minute with him is precious and that seems to be spilling over into the rest of my life—it’s all good. Nowadays, when rushing out the door, I take a moment to kneel down next to Blitz, stroke his whitening muzzle, and thank him for being such a good teacher. And on those mornings when he has that certain forlorn look in his eyes, just in case, I’ll add, “Meet you at the Rainbow Bridge.”