30 Minutes Till Shooting Time

30 Minutes Till Shooting Time

Let's get dressed and we can go'¦

It was 6 a.m., and the north wind was rattling the windows of our hunting lodge. Ebby, my Labrador retriever, was cowering in a corner, giving me that look dogs get when they know what's next and they don't like it. No, she wasn't dreading the coming hunt -- next to rolling in stinky stuff, retrieving ducks is her favorite thing. The object of her disdain was the neoprene vest I held in my hand.

I knelt on the throw rug in the narrow hallway, knowing it is best to perform this unpleasant task in a confined space so the victim has less of a chance to escape. I made a mental note to do it before putting on my chest waders and parka next time. I'm a little past my "use-by" date, so it is hard for me to kneel in chest waders. It is even harder to get back up.

I spoke softly to Ebby, telling her the vest was for her own good, that it would protect her from the cold, while urging her in a calm, soothing voice to come closer to me. She looked at me out of the tops of her eyes. Her ears drooped lower, but she reluctantly inched toward me.

Now it was time to make my move. I stroked Ebby's big black head and spoke softly to her, reassuring her I meant her no harm. While leaning against Ebby with my chest and holding the vest in my left hand against the rug on the floor under her tummy, I gently lifted her right foreleg -- the leg farthest from me. After much effort on her part to keep the foot on the floor, I pulled it up and put it through the far leg hole. OK, so far, so good.

I pulled the far side of the vest up along Ebby's rib cage and held it there with the inside of my right elbow while glancing at my watch. Only 30 minutes till shooting time. The walk to the blind would take 10 minutes, and I had three-dozen decoys to put out. I like to get set up early so I can get in the blind before daylight and watch the darkness turn to dawn. I love the feeling of excitement when a little flock of mallards drops into the decoys before shooting time, and then Ebby whimpers with excitement until she can't stand it any longer and bolts out of the blind, sending the startled ducks skyward.

I placed her left foreleg through the near leg hole. As I did it, Ebby lifted her right foreleg, taking it out of the first hole.

Dang! Now I had to start over.

I was working up a sweat. I thought about taking off my parka, but I would have to turn Ebby loose and cajole her into coming close to me again. Bad idea.

I told myself to be patient, and then coaxed Ebby into putting her right foreleg through the far hole again. This time, I gripped her leg below the vest -- what we might call her ankle -- with my right hand so she couldn't take it out. Human ingenuity trumps canine instinct every time. Well'¦ some of the time.

Now it was once again time to get her left leg through the hole nearest me in the vest. While whispering soothing words in Ebby's ear, I held her leg gently in my left hand and quickly placed it through what I thought was the other leg hole. Now all I had to do was pull the vest up tight around her body, connect the two sides of the wide Velcro strip along her back, and Ebby would be dressed and ready for action. I took a deep breath, pulled both sides of the vest up along Ebby's flanks and mashed the two sides of the Velcro together along her back. Success at last!

I stood up and walked around my sulking dog, looking at my handiwork from all angles. Something didn't look right.

Finally, I saw it. Both front legs were sticking out through the same hole. No wonder she was giving me a funny look. I slumped against the wall as sweat trickled down the small of my back. Obviously, I would have to start over, and now it was only 20 minutes till shooting time.

Resigned to my fate, I got down on my creaking knees once more, pulled the two halves of the neoprene apart along Ebby's back and allowed the vest to fall away beneath her. She stepped out of it immediately -- free, at least for the moment.

After much cursing and sweating, I once again managed to get both of Ebby's forelegs through the holes in the vest. This time, her right leg went through the right hole and her left leg went through the left hole. Before anything else could go wrong, I pulled both halves of the vest up around Ebby's sides, but this time, one side slipped out of my grasp and curled over as it landed on the rug below.

I'll say this for Velcro: It's a wonderful invention, right up there with bungee cords and duct tape. I don't know how we outdoor types ever got along without it. But it not only sticks to itself, it sticks to any textured surface it comes into contact with. So as I pulled the vest upward, the throw rug, now firmly attached to the vest, came with it. I found myself hugging an irritated Labrador retriever partially wrapped in a camo neoprene vest and a throw rug. She was essentially a 75-pound canine burrito. And it was only 15 minutes till shooting time.

The Velcro gods were definitely not smiling on me. I grasped the rug firmly and pulled it away from the vest. Ebby shook herself and stepped out of the vest, then stared at me with a look of "What did I do to deserve this?"

I pulled myself up, staggered into my room and collapsed on the bed. Ebby, now relieved of the camo torture device, curled up on the floor beside my bed and was snoring before I started breathing normally.

Now it was only 10 minutes till shooting time, but I no longer cared. We would go to the blind when I regained my strength and sanity -- like maybe this afternoon. Or tomorrow. Or next season.

It's probably too late for Ebby, but my next Lab will be trained by someone who can take retriever training to the next level. Hand signals and blind retrieves are fine, but I'll chip in a few extra bucks, no, make that a lot of extra bucks, to a trainer who can teach a dog to dress itself.

Humorist Bruce Cochran dresses himself for the hunt in Prairie Village, Kan.

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