A Dog's Life

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A celebration of what has been and what will come

Story and photo by Michael L. Neiduski
 
Conservation wasn’t on my radar in the time before the Brachial Plexus dog, named after the dark spot on her shoulder that marked what would be the nerve complex that controls the human arm. Before that dog — a German Wirehair who we called Plexi for short — I didn’t care. There she lay, ten years ago, curled in my wife’s lap asleep the whole ride from Rockford, IL to St. Louis, MO, and like the farmers plowing their fields along the interstate as I drove, I wondered what lay ahead in the growing season to come.
 
Little did I know that I too would grow alongside those gangly legs and long ears and peanut butter-covered whiskers. A decade ago, I knew nothing about birds or dogs or the people and places that hold them dear. Yet here I am, ten short years later, working for "The Habitat Organization", all because of a dog.
 
I didn’t know about sand spurs or dog boots or plum thickets then, and likely never would without Plexi to bring me there.
She took me to the panhandle of Oklahoma where we hunted for two days only to bring home empty shells; my feeling of guilt so strong that I ordered her a cheeseburger at the drive-thru on the way home. She lay in the passenger seat of my truck and looked at me skeptically as I undid the wrapper and held it in front of her nose. After two nibbles she about took my fingers off trying to inhale the rest of it. Sins of missing forgiven.
 
That was my first introduction to sage-and-sand country, and I’ve gone back as often as I can since. A sprig of dried sage sits in my vest from a group trip the year later where I watched a dance between birds and dogs and my friends play out along a sandhill ridge like something from an Instagram reel as they all finally stopped and the covey exploded in front of my friend’s pointer, the rest of the dogs locked into honoring points. I didn’t know about sand spurs or dog boots or plum thickets then, and likely never would without Plexi to bring me there.
 
That memory, like many others on the trips we’ve taken over the years, seems like both ages ago and just yesterday, vignettes on a time parallel instead of a continuum. Isn’t that how it goes with bird dogs, though? One minute they’re all potential and passion and pedal-to-the-floor, and the next they’re gray eyebrows and shorter runs and a reluctance to acknowledge the reality of time.
 
The inevitable writing on the wall that we as bird doggers know started to show itself this past fall, the number of pages in the novel of her life running shorter with each point, each retrieve, and each sunset where we sat and watched and celebrated the day. Every time that orange orb hid itself under the horizon, I pondered her impact and her legacy. I have all these stories and lessons, all this passion for dogs and birds and conservation. She might as well have been the drip torch that lit a fire in me and paved the way for my regeneration, an unknown catalyst in the alchemy of my life. What could I do to ensure her memory and love, her spark, would be carried on?
 
...it was like she mainlined whiskey and feathers and ran amok bird drunk for the rest of the hunt.
When I came on staff with Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever I considered her Dog Life Membership, but I put it off. Life gets in the way so easily when you’re pretending the end isn’t coming and there’s still time to celebrate, even though the sand in in the hourglass never stops sifting from top to bottom.
 
I’m proud to say that she is now our newest Dog Life Member, even if she’s not here to sit dutifully for a photo with the plaque showcasing her newfound status. But that’s ok. She wouldn’t have liked the pomp and circumstance much anyway. Like me, she’d rather be hunting than doing just about anything else.
 
One afternoon in Kansas this past November, Plexi had a bad day. Looking back, it was comical more than anything. There she was, my go-to ol’ reliable, but that afternoon she possessed nothing related to reliability. She wouldn’t point or retrieve, wouldn’t take direction, nothing. A covey tore out of the treeline in front of the up-and-coming puppy, with Plexi honoring, and from there it was like she mainlined whiskey and feathers and ran amok bird drunk for the rest of the hunt. I sulked on the walk back to the truck thinking this might be it for her. There was the sand in the hourglass staring me square in the face and I wasn’t happy about it.
 
The next day my partner and I hit a piece of ground we treasure, one we hold close to the vest and save for the near end of the trip to savor the magic it unfurls when we visit. Sure enough, enchantment followed that morning as Plexi ran and pointed and backed like nothing had happened the afternoon before. I want to tell you she looked at me as she ran by with a face that said, “What? I still got this,” but she was too engrossed in doing what she loved - chasing birds with me in tow.
 
I think about the love in her eyes as I scratched behind her ear and that last wild quail she brought to my hand.
We should all be so lucky to work with a dog whose love for their people is only outweighed by their love for the birds and the wild space they call home.
 
That’s what I think about now as I lean back in my office chair and see her name on that plaque, a favorite tailgate photo of her with a favorite canine hunting partner, Tine, tucked in the corner. I think about the ups and the downs and the misses and the hits. I think about the love in her eyes as I scratched behind her ear and that last wild quail she brought to my hand.
 
And I think, because of her name up there, emblazoned for conservation, there will only be more yet to come.
 

Mike Neiduski is a development officer with Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever.
 

 Double your impact with a Dog Life Membership during our Bird Dogs for Habitat campaign
Not only do you get all the perks of celebrating your bird dog and your collective commitment to conservation, your contribution counts in the race to this year's most beloved bird dog breed. Every dollar donated equals a vote, and every week during the month of May our generous sponsors will be giving away fantastic prizes to those who participate. All contributions will support our wildlife habitat conservation mission — and the places where you and your bird dog love to roam — because good bird habitat is good bird dog habitat!