Rainy Would Not Want Us To Have Such Heavy Hearts

Hearts are heavy around here, but they should not be so.  We feel saddened that we have lost our beloved Rainy.  I know that in time we will smile, remember the good times and realize we should be happy that we had the benefit of his love and company for so long.

Rainy was a liver and white English springer spaniel who came to us by a wild chance that later proved fatefully rewarding for us all.  What follows is a part of his and our story:

It was a gray Saturday morning when I decided to stop by my office.  At the time, it was located in a large operations compound at the end of a gated road below San Vicente Reservoir.  After opening and closing the gate, I proceeded to my preferred parking spot under the sprawling limbs of a California pepper tree.  As I turned off the ignition, I spotted an odd movement in a distant corner of the yard, and then the sight of an unidentifiable object coming rapidly toward me.  Upon arrival at my feet, the object in question flopped over onto its back.

In near disbelief, I looked down to see a curious combination of what should have been unrelated parts.  They included some small tree branches, a tumble weed, some mustard weed, and a stretch of rusted wire that connected the vegetation to a dog that was looking up at me, wriggling wildly and peeing himself.

The tip of one end of the wire was stuck in the dog’s butt, and as I pulled it back, the rest of the material began to fall away amid even  more frantic wriggling and leaking.  Once free of the added burden, I could see that this was the same dog I’d nearly run over earlier in the week as it chased a cottontail across the road.  I recognized that it was one of a small pack for free running dogs that lived next door at the Silver Gait Horse Ranch, a small mom and pop boarding facility that was getting too large for the elderly couple that owned it.

About this same time, one of our employees arrived in time to prepare for his shift as a Ranger on one of our patrol boats.

“Kevin, I’m sure this dog got tangled up trying to root a rabbit or ground squirrel out of that junk pile in the corner. I’m afraid he is going to get hurt around here or cause an accident on the road, would you please take him back and tell the Barksdales that they are going to have to keep him under control on their property?”

Kevin agreed, loaded the dog into his patrol truck and headed for the Barksdales.  Ten minutes later he was back and told me that they wanted to talk to me.

They were friendly neighbors who always waved as I drove by.  Our staff picked up the trash and discards dumped at the end of the road – much of it on their property – and they expressed their appreciation by bringing us large tins of popcorn each Christmas.

As I pulled onto their property, Mr. Barksdale greeted me while his wife waved and tended to one of the horses in a corral.

“Mr. Brown, ” he said, “we’re sorry, we don’t mean to cause you any problems, but he’s not really our dog.  It’s just that he got dumped off here like the others.  We do feed him and he lives under the porch.  We don’t have the heart to tie him up.  I’ll call Animal Control first thing Monday morning so they can pick him up and he won’t cause you anymore problems.”

By now, the “problem dog” had joined us and sat down nearby as if to eavesdrop on our conversation.  I countered that it was not my intention to see the dog go to the pound, but Mr. Barksdale went on, “I think he’s a nice little dog, but we’re not a good match, he’s a young dog and we’ve gotten to be old people.  Now, I know you’re a birdhunter and he’s a Brittany spaniel, so maybe he’d make a good bird dog for you or someone you know, because he’s killed all of my wife’s chickens and brought them right to her.”

Still grooming the horse in the corral, Mrs. Barksdale nodded her head affirmatively, but otherwise without expression.

I stifled a laugh along with the urge to correct Mr. Barksdale by explaining that this was a springer rather than a Brittany spaniel.  I told him that I would begin the process of trying to find the dog a new home, and asked if it had a name.

“I named him, ” came the voice from the corral, “he showed up here on a nasty rainy day, so I named him Rainy, Rainy Day.”

Smiling at the thought of this dog killing and then bringing Mrs. Barksdale her chickens, I knelt down and gave his ears a good rub that was much appreciated.  I explained to the Barksdale’s that I would be back a bit later to pick up the dog and begin the process of finding him a good home.

I returned with Jennifer, our college age daughter whose immediate and foolish response was, “dad, he’s cute, why can’t we keep him?”

At the time, the truth was that we didn’t really need a third dog, a feeling that was confirmed by my wife.  We had Tap, a black lab and excellent hunting dog, and Shamoya, a fluffy white American Eskimo who ruled the house like a princess.

I figured I’d find a good home for Rainy among my friends and brought the dog by to visit two of the most likely candidates, both of whom declined adoption.

We drove home with plans to continue our search in the days ahead, but Jennifer persisted in her opinion that we really needed this dog.  I was weakening, but Andrea resisted.  Shamoya and Tap didn’t seem to mind the visitor.  Andrea was emphatic that Rainy stay outside and that if we were to keep him temporarily while looking for a home, he could not be allowed in the house.  These were reasonable points that I agreed with, particularly since he had never been allowed in the Barksdale’s house and I had no idea how he would behave.

I needed to go to the store, and when I left, Rainy was exploring the backyard.  When I returned, Rainy was nowhere to be found and for a moment I was afraid he’d found a way out.  I went in the house and up the stairs to find Andrea and Rainy snuggled together on the bed.

“Three dogs are probably too much,” she said, “but maybe we can give him a try and I think it is too cold for him to stay outside at night.”

The days ahead proved interesting.  First off was a trip to our vet whose examination indicated the dog was in good health and probably no more than three years of age and maybe as little as half that.  Two other things became clear, being in a house was a new experience for Rainy, and he was deathly frightened of boys – terrified to the point that he quivered at the site of them and became aggressive upon their approach.

His behavior suggested a hypothetical history for the dog we knew so little about.  I theorized that he was likely tormented by a boy or boys over a period of time, and at some point got his revenge with a bite and resulted in abandonment at the end of a road one rainy day.  It was a one-way ticket that in due time would change his life and ours forever.

Left to their own devices, dogs usually have an admirable way of figuring out a suitable pecking order that works better than those of their human counterparts.  Not much attention is paid to how much they have, their job, how big they are or even their pedigree.  It is just something that they work out, and given the time they spend sniffing each other, may have as much to do with the smell of their butts as anything else.

Small, but quick and extremely sharp – Shamoya maintained her royal position – proving that even princesses can be a little bitchy from time to time.  Bigger, stronger and extremely athletic – Tap was a good-hearted fellow who never needed to show his toughness.  As the new kid in the mix –  one who certainly knew abandonment and most likely abuse – Rainy Day was just happy to be a part of the mix and seemed genuinely appreciative of any part in our household and pack that could be afforded him.  Friends suggested Rainy seemed to know that we had rescued him.  Time would beg the question of who rescued whom?

The months ahead were fairly uneventful as the bond between our dogs and family members continued to strengthen and grow.  Rainy gradually overcame most of his fears as he was exposed to boys who meant him no harm and might even play with him or give him a good rub.  Instead, and as he grew more protective of us and our house, those fears were transferred to those he regarded as potential terrorists bent on doing us harm.  They included dogs he was not familiar with, door to door salespeople, missionaries, those who traveled in armored assault vehicles like Fed-Ex and UPS drivers – and mail carriers.  Always the mail carriers who could be found sneaking around the house six days a week looking for an opening that would allow them to attack.  Rainy considered Tap and Shamoya worthless when it came to repelling an attack.  If they weren’t sleeping they might bark or run around a little bit in response to Rainy’s call for reinforcements, but they were just followers and not likely to lead an attack in defense of the homeland.  Nope, Rainy made that his responsibility to us and he took the job seriously.

As the months were torn from the calendar, it soon became fall and time for the hunting season.  Given to me years earlier at the age of five months by experienced trainers who regularly qualified their dogs for the national retriever trials, Tap was a known quantity in the prime of his life.  Abandoned at least once and handed off to me entirely by chance to stave off a trip to the pound, Rainy was an entirely unknown quantity when it came to hunting, although I knew he was not gun shy after a cursory visit to a local trap and skeet range.

Rather than subject my human hunting partners to the unknown, I picked a day when there would be no one else at our duck club near the Salton Sea.  The waterfowl season had been on for a month and the pheasant and winter dove seasons had begun a week earlier.  It was mid-afternoon and I decided to begin with a brief dove hunt on the way to the club.  Making sure to avoid the dangers of busy paved roads and concrete lined irrigation canals, I went to a favored spot on a little used dirt road at the top of a ditch embankment. It ran under a decent flyway between some desert scrub where the birds roosted, and a recently harvested field where they fed on the waste grain.

With both dogs on leashes, I sat down on the edge of the embankment.  After a short wait, a mourning dove left the field and as planned, followed the flyway in the direction of the desert.  As it passed overhead, I fired and after a puff of feathers, the dove came down about 40 yards down the road.  Unsnapping the leash on Tap’s collar, I called his name and he bolted down the road as Rainy tugged at his leash.  Tap made a perfect retrieve as he sat beside me and released the dove to my grasp as I told him to “give.”

Moments later, a second lone dove followed the path and fate of the first and both dogs watched intently as the bird went down in nearly the same spot.  As I released Rainy, it was Tap who rose and tugged at his leash before sitting back down.  The scruffy little liver and white springer took a direct line to the dove, picked it up, raced back, came around behind me and sat at heel against my left side.  At the command to “give,” he released the bird to me.

To this day, I consider that experience to be one of the most miraculous I have experienced while hunting.  The doves flew exactly as I had hoped, and I hit both of them.  The seasoned black Labrador performed exactly as trained and expected and the little springer with the unknown history performed in a manner that was as perfect as it was unexpected.  I was at once amazed, awestruck and appreciative beyond reasonable belief.

The afternoon sun was on its way toward the peaks of the Peninsular Range, and I thought it best to complete the drive and introduce Rainy to the cabin and grounds well before dark.  Tap showed Rainy around while I opened a Pacifico beer and began the task of unloading gear onto the porch.  The sun was still up by the time I finished both.

For a reason I can’t explain, a small, sparse and weedy alfalfa field adjacent to our property beckoned me.  Though we rarely see pheasants in the area, we had heard a rooster greeting the sunrise while we sat in our blinds a week earlier.  With the field not posted and the knowledge that the farmer who leased it didn’t object, I hopped over the small ditch that brings water to our duck club and led the dogs to the field for the primary reason of seeing how Rainy would work.

The two dogs began quartering and working in tandem as if they had done so for years and I knew what I was doing.  As we approached the end of the field, Tap got “birdy,” raced to our left and to my surprise put up a rooster.  That I was able to react and drop it was an even bigger surprise.  As trained, Tap snatched up the cock bird and returned it to me, trailed by Rainy who got in a quick sniff and nuzzle before I put the bird in my vest.  With not much of the field left to cover and sundown near, I decided to continue across what little remained of the field with Tap again on the left and Rainy quartering on the right.  Just before we reached the corner it was Rainy who found scent and trailed the bird to a quick and cackling flush.  It was all so quick that I did not have enough time to think and screw up the shot.  I fired, the rooster fell and Rainy quickly found it followed by a proud retrieve.

As the sun finally went out of sight behind the mountains, I sat flat on my ass and squeezed both dogs with the grateful hug of a lucky man who knew he was unworthy of such great fortune.  We returned to the porch where I hung both roosters on a post and took a photo that I hope I can find one of these days.  It is to my greater regret that it did not include the two dogs that made such a memorable day possible.

After taking the photos, I poured myself a tall stiffo (Seven and Seagrams at that time, but the latter has since been replaced by the more economical and equally satisfying Black Velvet).  I sat down in one of the porch chairs and soaked in the view of Pond 1, the incoming teal and pintail, the skeins of snow geese high overhead, but going elsewhere, and the rapidly changing final shades of sunset.

With Tap and Rainy settled beside me, I savored the perfect stiffo (not too much Seven, plenty of whiskey) and the embarrassingly guilty pleasure of being so happy to be me at that precise moment.  I appreciated the fact that aside from the mosquitoes that buzzed around us, the bats that flew from the south corner of the cabin and the coyotes that yipped in the distance, we were alone, just Tap and Rainy and me.

Over and over again I recounted and relived the unforgettable events of the day, and counted my lucky stars as  day gave way to night and the eventual hiss of a Coleman lantern.

For the record, Rainy never made a better retrieve than he did on that first dove, and although I have seen a very few of them, I know of no pheasants shot in that area in the years before or since. 

Note:  I sat down to write this blog entry in response to the fact that our Rainy died Saturday, and to explain why our hearts are feeling so heavy.  As I have written and begun to recount the happiness Rainy brought us with his life, it has had a much needed cathartic effect that has begun to trump my sadness at his death – so I just keep writing and beg your indulgence.

I have barely begun to tell his story, but this entry is already long and destined to become much longer.  Bare with me, more later and thanks for coming along this far.

I am back in the saddle at my cluttered desk, but first feel an obligation to address an earlier interruption that occurred shortly after midnight.  At the time I was sound asleep before being rudely awakening to blood curdling screams coming from downstairs.  Nearly naked, I lumbered downstairs as fast as I could, but suggest that you not try to paint that picture in your mind.  The screaming and wails continued, along with Andrea’s semi-hysterical mumbling that I was barely able to decipher.

“I let the dogs out to pee before going to bed, and Jack came back and tried to give me a aaaaggggghhhhhh….rat!.  Aratarataratarataratarat…..he brought me a rat!”

And with that she resumed her screaming, bolted upstairs and began showering as if to remove something dreadful from her skin.  It was a scene so compelling, that I could not help but to think of Lady Macbeth.

I looked through the sliding glass door into the patio, and sure enough, Jack had a rat in his mouth by its mid-section and was trying to keep Gus from stealing it.  Jack demonstrated his admirably soft mouth by holding the rat firmly enough not to lose it, but not so tightly as to cause serious harm.  As a result, the rat was very much alive, its rear end and tail looping in circles in one direction and its front end and whiskers in the other.  A fishing rod builder would likely have described the rat as having a “parabolic” action.

Opening the door just a little bit, I called Gus into the house and ordered Jack to “sit!”  At first I began to reach for the rat, but realized that taking a nasty looking rat from the jaws of a dutiful hunting dog was considerably different than grasping the corpse of a harmless gamebird.  Plan B came to mind and I quickly retrieved some shredded chicken breast from the refrigerator.  As I returned to the patio door, I could see that Jack was very proud of his efforts and still hanging onto the rat which was wriggling like seizure stricken belly dancer.  The situation downstairs had remained stable.  Continued spasmodic screaming and the repeated on and off of the shower suggested a disconcerting degree of instability upstairs,

I cracked the door open just enough to reach through with my hand, but not wide enough for Jack and his rat to enter.  When I offered the chicken to Jack, he opened his mouth to take the late night stack, which was also enough for the rat to escape from his grasp.  I quickly pretended to offer Jack a second piece of chicken, which brought him inside immediately, and I closed the door to the terror that lurked on the welcome mat.

The rat was dazed, on its side and breathing irregularly.  I hustled back to the kitchen and pulled out a plastic grocery bag with the intent of grabbing and bagging the rat, but when I got back to the door, the rat had managed to right himself, was clearly regaining his strength and appeared to be getting MUCH BIGGER!

All of a sudden the rat bolted, but found itself between the glass door which provided us with a clear view, and the screen door which provided the rat with exceptional traction.  With no escape opening, the two doors reminded me of an ant farm I was once given for my birthday.  Innstead of watching ants at work, I was watching a menacing rat climb around the screen while Jack kept lunging at the glass door in a hopeless effort to regain hold of it.

Given the situation, and the knowledge that necessity is the mother of invention, I knew that I needed to give birth to something special – and fast.  Rushing to the garage, I retrieved a broom with the intent of inserting the handle between the two doors and bludgeoning the rat to death, but there were problems.  Inhibited by the doors, Jack’s fruitles but powerful lunges, and distracted by the screams and water still being run upstairs, I was unable to take a decent swing at the vermin.

In baseball terms, I was like a right handed batter jammed by nothing but inside pitches that resulted in a series of fouls and soft tappers to the right side of the infield.  What started as full swings full of malice were reduced to love taps that merely moved the rat around a bit between the doors as Jack continued to test the strength of the tempered glass.

Taking a deep breath, I remembered that good hitters are patient and will foul off a few until they get the pitch they want and their bat on the ball with some authority.  I sent Jack back to the dugout (kennel), closed the door, stepped out into the patio and waited until I got the pitch I wanted.  I’m not proud of this, and I’m glad there is no video, but I managed to raise my bat to the top of the void between the two doors just as the rat moved to a new location waist high between the doors and directly into my swing path.

I don’t like to brag, but I struck the equivalent of a walk off home run.  Game and interruption over!

And now back to the rest of the story, where we pick it up back in our cabin at Whistling Wings Duck Club….

I went to sleep after a day that could not have been better, or more surprising with regard to Rainy’s performance and my better than ever shooting.  I probably pinched myself a few times to make sure it all was not a dream.

The alarm clock rang well before shooting time which begins 30 minutes before sunrise.  As I got ready, I made the decision to leave Tap in the cabin while introducing Rainy to the club’s ponds and duck hunting for the first time.  I snapped the leash onto Rainy’s collar and we headed out into the darkness to take our seat in the second blind on the first dike.  I was filled with optimism that Rainy would be as terrific as he had been the day before, which was better than I could have ever dreamed.

Rainy instead presented me with a nightmare as he absolutely would not sit still or behave.  Intoxicated by the scents left in the grasses and cattails along the dike, his only interested was to root through them and hunt as hard as he could.  I could not make him return to me in the blind and it did not help that his unruliness was rewarded with several finds.  Once he discovered fresh scent, he relentlessly dug into the vegetation and almost invariably came out with a coot or injured duck that had sought refuge under the heavy growth of grasses that lined the dike.

Unlike Tap who would sit calmly to watch and then mark the location of any ducks that were shot before retrieving them, Rainy was intent on finding them himself, and to my chagrin, he usually did, which rendered my role in the hunting equation useless.  Additional trips and my feeble training skills failed to show any improvement when it came to duck hunting with Rainy.

On the other hand, I’d never before seen a dog with the drive that Rainy exhibited when it came to searching for game and that worked to my great advantage when it came to pheasant hunting, a pursuit that I have much more passion for than duck hunting.

While Tap fulfilled my duck hunting needs and was also pretty good when it came to pheasants, Rainy became a specialist when it came to the latter.  Mornings in the swamp belonged to Tap, with Rainy whining unhappily in the cabin or his kennel.  When we deemed the duck hunt over, we’d head to the fields and ditches with both dogs.  This arrangement worked perfectly for two seasons until Tap developed a cough that was a sign of lung cancer and died at the age of nine.

Continued efforts to use Rainy for duck hunting led to more frustration than pleasure.  Rather than try to deal with him in the blind.  I’d bring him out after I’d shot a few ducks and he was fine for retrieving them, but could never go along with the idea of passively waiting for something to happen.  It was simply in his DNA to make things happen – and he usually did.

When it comes to hunting pheasants, I’ve never seen a dog so tireless and fearless or with greater drive or a bigger heart.  Our approach to pheasant hunting evolved based entirely on his skills, instincts and intuition, and my good sense to follow him.  I was simply along to drive the truck and fire the gun.  Rainy hunted hard and quartered nicely in the fields, but it was not long before we determined that we were more effective in the ditches.  There were plenty of dogs that could work the fields as well or better than Rainy, but I’ve yet to see one that could work the ditches with anything near his passion and effectiveness.

Together, we killed birds in an area where few existed and people who knew me or heard of our success gave me undeserved credit that belonged entirely to Rainy.  A fair number of people asked to hunt with us and I did not deceive myself to believe that they sought my company or skill as much as they wanted a share Rainy’s – and we were happy to oblige.  There are people who never shot or even saw a wild pheasant until they hunted behind Rainy, and a few who have not shot or seen one since.

In singing Rainy’s praises, I’m obligated to make it clear that he was not what one would call a “finished” dog.  Such a dog is a sight to behold.  A finished pheasant dog of the flushing variety is trained to obediently stop or sit at the flush of a bird, the shot of a gun or command of its master.  It retrieves a downed bird when directed to do so, running in a straight line to the bird and returning in a straight line to its master, where upon arrival it obediently heels and sits and when give direction releases the bird to its master’s hand.  We didn’t do that.

Rainy was what might be called a “rough shooting dog,” or in the parlance of some, a “meat dog.”  Finished dogs display the benefits of skilled training and a capable handler in terms of both discipline and the field.  Rainy had only me, and I knew that if I wanted to put a rooster or two in the bag, my best course of action was to let Rainy do what he wanted to do and try to keep up.  More often than not, our blue collar approach worked just fine if not and better than most.  Some have even said we did better than anyone else.

In the interest of being forthcoming, a typical hunt with Rainy would go something like this:  I would drive until I found escape cover that pheasants might use as refuge from intensive farming activities, dogs, coyotes, and birds of prey as well as more sensible hunters and their dogs.  Such a covert would be reasonably close to food sources and additional escape cover.  More often than not, it would be a large, deep and steep sided agricultural drainage ditch, as opposed to the gentle swales of tall grass next to roads called ditches in the Midwest.  Their bottoms held varying levels of stagnant drain water and cattails at its bottom and deep grasses, salt cedar and arrow weed along its embankments.  In the worst of instances, it might include piles of household trash, broken furniture, discarded appliances and the occasional illegal immigrant hiding from the Border Patrol.

Once such a location was found, I would generally park a short distance away and quietly exit the truck with Rainy restrained by a leash.  Ideally, if there was any hint of a breeze, we would try to work into it.  Upon arrival at the ditch, Rainy would be released and immediately plunge over the side to begin methodically working through the vegetation on both sides of the ditch.  Because of his thoroughness, it was possible to keep up at a slow or at least comfortable pace.  In the absence of pheasant scent, Rainy would pause and look back to make sure the hunters were still following.  Upon our approach, blue herons and greater egrets would squawk and leave, gallinules, coots and rails would fly low down the ditch for more distant cover and roadrunners would quietly run out of the ditch and down the embankment road.  When it comes to pheasants, far more ditches had vacancies than occupants.

If there was a pheasant at home in the early part of the season it might hunker down, but after the first week the surviving birds would most likely begin running away down the ditch by the time we exited the truck.  In that case, Rainy would eventually find a trace of scent, and get “birdy,” which is to say that the stubby tail that was wagging becomes a blur, the nose goes to the ground, and the race is on.

Close watch of Rainy’s path, dictated entirely by the pheasant’s scent would clearly show where the bird paused as well as diversionary tactics such as figure eights, loops and backtracking.  As Rainy would close in on the rooster’s location, the scent became stronger, the trail hotter and the pace faster until the bird arrived at its final option – and flushes.  If a hen, it was allowed to fly away.  If a rooster, they often launched into the air with a raucous and scolding cackle, sometimes with Rainy springing into the air to snapping at their long tail.

If the stars were aligned for the hunt and the the hunters have kept up, a shotgun barks and a rooster falls.  If it fell dead, Rainy would find it, push his muzzle deeply into it and inhale deeply several times, as if the scent was the necessary and secret source of his powers.  If the rooster was only injured to the point it could no longer fly, it would descend clawing at the air and hit the ground running until it again found the heaviest cover it could find, dig in and hide.

In the interest of full disclosure, Rainy didn’t recover every injured bird and one of our hunting partners used to joke that they had found a hole with a trap door that allowed their escape.  Most however were found and some would not yield easily as Rainy would push in to get a grip on them.  For those that flailed at him with their wings or clawed at him with their spurs, he would take his revenge by pressing them harder against the ground and repeatedly tightening his grasp around their heaving breast, his canines digging into them until their breast heaved no more.  As always, he would take the time to inhale deeply to savor their scent before bringing them back to us.  While we know little about Rainy’s conception, pedigree or early history, it seems obvious he was filled with the genes necessary to hunt pheasants.

His passion and diligence were incredible.  Twice, I put my gun away while he continued to root around and refused to come out of a stand of cattails, only to see a pissed off rooster eventually fly out.  When one of my partners dropped a rooster that disappeared in the All American Canal, Rainy refused to give up the search along a bare embankment, until diving under it to pull out one very soaked pissed off cock pheasant.

Late in the 2009 season, at an age somewhere between 10 and 12, Rainy got his last rooster.  For the most part we were dove hunting, but the pheasant season was on and it was getting late in the day.  As we approached a treeline where we hoped to find enough doves to finish our limits, two hunters and two dogs were in the process of leaving a short and mostly clean ditch that ran next to the treeline.

It was Ryan’s opinion that I should hunt the ditch with Rainy while he waited for doves under the trees the trees.  I argued that two hunters and two dogs had just worked the ditch and there was no point in doing the same right after them.  Ryan was insistent that it might be Rainy’s last pheasant hunt given his advancing age.  Rather than argue about it, I decided that I would allow Rainy to hunt the ditch, while keeping some dove loads in one pocket of my vest and and an eye out for doves.

After we got out of the truck, Ryan drove to the end of the ditch and treeline, a distance of maybe 250 yards.  As I walked the road, Rainy dropped down into the steep ditch and went to work.  There were only a few small patches of cover deep enough to hide a pheasant in the entire ditch so I mainly looked for doves as I walked down its west side..  I was stunned when Rainy got “birdy” and flushed a hen from the base of a small salt cedar and flew over me headed west.  About 50 yards further, he again became animated and as I rushed to catch up, a rooster fkushed and I missed it cleanly with both shots.  Just as I reloaded, a second rooster burst from a small grass on the same path as the first, but was not so lucky and fell hard in the adjacent field.

Struggling out of the ditch, Rainy ran to the rooster, laid down, took a firm grip and as I was accustomed, inhaled deeply.  Instead of making any effort to retrieve the bird, he strengthened his grip and continued to savor the scent.  Upon seeing the scene and Rainy’s refusal to bring back the bird, Ryan picked me up in the truck and drove us around the end of the ditch then up the east side until we were even with Rainy and only 20 yards away.

As I continued to call to Rainy, he continued to savor the rooster, refusing to budge from his position.  By now Ryan had taken out his camera and was videotaping the scene with us laughing so hard, I could barely stand.  Still laughing, I staggered to Rainy, knelt down and wrestled him for the bird, which he finally and most reluctantly relinquished.

Nothing quite like this had ever happened before, but we knew this was probably Rainy’s last rooster and suspect that he knew it too.

While Rainy’s role as our hunting dog was important, it was not nearly the most important thing he did as a member of our family.

Long before Rainy’s last pheasant hunt, Ryan met Julia, who he will marry this summer.  In addition to falling in love with Ryan – Julia, who had never had a pet – fell in love with Rainy.  In time, Ryan and Julia moved in together and it was not long before she began asking to Rainy back to their house for weekend “sleepovers and play days.”  Soon, and with our approval they began keeping him every day which was perfect for Rainy who was showered with attention and affection.  On work days, they would drop him off with us for day care each morning and pick him back up after work each evening.

Along the way, Ryan began experiencing symptoms of vertigo that grew to become continuous and acute to the point he could no longer work.  Over more than a year and examinations by numerous specialists, no cause was found for his condition which continued to grow worse.  Some suggested that the vertigo was “all in his head.”

Ryan’s situation seemed to be growing hopeless.  He couldn’t function normally and there was no apparent explanation for his condition.  Julia went to work each day.  Ryan managed to slowly take the classes needed to complete his teaching credential, but otherwise he spent most of his time at home, much of it in bed – but always with Rainy at his side.  They basically took care of each other, but the situation was dark and grim, with no tunnel out or a light at the end of it.

There were more visits to doctors and more denials by Ryan’s health insurance company which he paid out of pocket since he was no longer working.  Finally, there was a break when Ryan found out about a doctor who specialized in vertigo and took all comers.  The doctor was not included in his plan, so more denials followed until there was finally an approval.

Months of examinations and tests followed, until a round high resolution imaging revealed that Ryan’s temporal bone, which separates the ear canals from the brain had eroded, resulting in a condition known as Superior Canal Dehisence Syndrome.  SCDS was not identified until 1995 and unknown by the specialists who because of their own ignorance, concluded that Ryan’s vertigo was imaginary, simply because they could not find the answer.  Worse, additional tests revealed that he was one of very few patients found to have the conditions on both sides of his head.

The only remedy, and it was far from a sure thing was a cranial surgery in which his skull would be opened from inside his ear to the top of his head in order to lift his brain so that his superior canal could be permanently closed, eliminating its prominent role in normal balance function.  The surgeries would have to be spaced a year apart, and the only place worthy of performing them at that time was Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland where the condition was first identified and discovered.

The battles that followed with the health insurance bureaucrats were awful and cannot be overstated, but with much time and persistence against what seemed like hopeless odds, both operations were completed.  After considerable rehabilitation, recuperation and certified disability, the darkness that was endured was replaced by a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

I mention all of this because through it all, and despite all of the understanding, patience and support we could offer – particularly by Julia – it was Rainy who was there and buoyed Ryan through years of struggle, disappointment, disillusion and depression for every minute of every day.  In large part, it was the bond forged with Rainy in the darkest of times that got Ryan through it all, and that is something we will always be grateful for and never forget.

If you have gotten this far with me, you are very patient or have nothing else to do – but there is more before the story is complete and I will try to be more brief in getting to the end of all this.

As Ryan was on the road to his own recovery, the story takes another detour with an ironic twist.  In 2011, Ryan and I went to Las Vegas for the Mountain West Conference basketball tournament won by our Aztecs, but the day before the championship game, Julia called to say that Rainy was unable get up or stand, and that when she tried to help him up, he just collapsed.

Although we don’t know how old Rainy was at the time, he was older than most dogs would ever live, and i surmised that he’d had a stroke and should be put down.  I told Ryan that I would take him immediately to the airport so that he could fly home to be with Julia and take Rainy to the vet and say his final goodbyes.

When Ryan phoned Julia she was already at our vet’s office and that he was counseling us to be patient as he felt Rainy had not had a stroke, but was suffering from canine vertigo.

If you have not been struck by the coincidence and irony of this, and can’t guess what happened next, you have not been following along closely enough or I have not done a very good job of telling the story.  After being cared for by Rainy while he suffered from vertigo, it became Ryan’s turn to look after Rainy as he suffered from vertigo!

Over time, Rainy regained most of his balance function, but with a decided leftward tilt and the two remained mostly inseparable.  As the time passed, Rainy, who was experiencing the infirmities of old age, and was at least 16, had increasing trouble getting up and sometimes walking in the direction he wanted to go because with vertigo, there aren’t many straight paths.

Ryan managed to find a specialty pet supply that offered harnesses with handles that aided immeasurably in helping to get Rainy to his feet when needed, and headed in the right direction.  Often that direction led to our vet’s office and plenty of loving attention from the staff.  Rainy was there six days a week and tolerated the regular injections of saline solution in return for the continuous flow of treats they showered on him as one of their favorite patients.

I won’t bother to argue with those those who feel this all went too far, but we were watching a remarkable and long story of love, which did not end when Rainy died this past Saturday.  While this story began with something of a “rescue” of Rainy on our part, the question that looms when the story is taken in total stands out.

Who rescued whom?

PS – As a post script, there is one last thing to add.  Remember how Rainy worked so diligently and so long to protect us from mail carriers and their ilk?  Just two weeks ago, his dream was realized when he finally managed to bite one.  With no injury or damage to his pants, the mail carrier kindly took the event in stride and with good humor which we are thankful for.


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