October 31, 2019
By Nicole Belke
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I’ll never forget the first time we went to “look” at puppies to obtain our first hunting dog. My husband Brian and I had only been married a month when we agreed to make the leap and take on training a gun dog. Zee has been trained as a retriever by my husband since she was just five weeks old and we worked together as a team throughout the process. Every day, Brian or I would walk her early before work, and I’d come home at lunch to run some fun drills or walk Zee and train basic commands. At night he would run drills after work. Our diligence and our time invested paid off with successful training, but caused our girl some issues with separation anxiety that led to her eating three pieces of furniture and a hallway.
We never expected to learn as much from her as we taught this dog, but did. She taught us how to be more patient, take it slower, and that things don’t always go as planned. We mastered other-worldly compassion and empathy, and how silliness and a wiggly furry body can make the saddest moments instantly better. Most importantly we learned how to love something more than you ever knew was possible; something that forever changes your soul. We planned for her to be just a tool, a hunting dog that lived in a kennel and never expected her to sleep in our bed—let alone make the impact she did on us and our life together.
We had a simple list of goals for our first retriever from day one, but one in particular always stood out as the most significant: We wanted to see her retrieve 1,000 birds in her lifetime. She was 11 months old when she made her first retrieve opening weekend of early goose season here in Illinois. Brian and I doubled up on a pair of geese and sent her for her first bird. Our excitement and joy was immeasurable as we watched her grab the honker in her mouth and make her way back to Brian for the handoff. Brian took the bird from her, and she launched out on the second retrieve. A cry rang out along the river bank, “we got a band! Her first bird is a band!” Experiencing the fruits of a year’s worth of love, labor and dedication culminating into one moment was something we would never forget. The fact that I had my camera there to document the moment was something I’m grateful for as a photographer. Little did I know how significant photographing this particular day would be seven years later.
When Brian initially invested in the thought, it seemed intangible, but by her seventh season as a retriever, she was quickly gaining on the milestone we had long anticipated. On Dec. 6, we were a few birds shy of the mark and the reality sunk in that if we got a decent public blind draw for the morning, Zee could retrieve her 1,000th bird on my birthday. It was a picture-perfect morning with singles trickling in. We took turns picking them off one by one. As bird 999 came in and expired, my husband piped up with typical blind banter, “birthday girl gets the 1000th bird. Don’t whiff!” As the next duck came flying through the decoys—a stud drake wigeon, a species I had never shot before—I took my time with the follow-through and pulled the trigger. The bird crumpled with a splash 30 yards out. Brian sent Zee on her retrieve and we quietly stood, taking in this long-awaited moment in silent admiration, watching her do what she does best...what she loves. As Zee brought back my bird, Brian handed it to me with a “good shot, Nick.”
I paused to admire the beautiful drake and my wet, wiggly friend nudged me, aware she did a good job. As I sat down to congratulate her, savoring the moment a little longer, I reflected on how far we all had come—how unattainable this moment seemed 7 years ago, yet, here I was, humbled, scratching the greying chin of an incredible dog I called my own. Being there to photograph this day—moments like these that we will be able to look back on and relive—makes being a hunter and photographer such a special gift. Between shooting Zee’s 1,000th retrieve, a beautiful first wigeon and sharing this together as a family, well, it would be hard to beat this birthday present, and I doubt anything ever will.
That night for a celebratory dinner we all sat around and drank good beer and shared stories as Brian grilled steaks. Even Zee got one; I’d say she earned it.
They say you only get that one good dog in your life, the one you will compare every other dog to, that one that will never leave you the same again, and without a doubt she’s it. This will be her ninth season as a retriever. We’ve seen it in her in more ways than just a progressively greying muzzle. She naps more, gets stiff easier, and has gradually started to slow down. It’s a sad reminder of how fragile, short and fleeting life can be. Over the years I’ve struggled with the concept of her fleeting time on earth with us and spent every birthday with her. I am now sitting here typing with blurry eyes, struggling to get through the words to describe how it feels knowing that you’ll eventually say goodbye to your best friend, one you waited your whole life for.
Our son started coming hunting with us last season, but being 5 he will unfortunately never get the opportunity to appreciate her for the incredible retriever he’s lucky enough to share a blind with. Yet I’m grateful he will get to spend the time he has.
Blessed are those who have experienced the joy of training, hunting over and loving a truly special waterfowl retriever.