A beautiful, but poignant tribute written by my father about a beloved spaniel – a working dog and key member of our family.
We first met when she was two years old. Her father was a famous field trial champion with similar achievements going back all down the sire’s line as far as the pedigree reached. On her dam’s side there were one or two field trial awards sprinkled about, but mostly, there was clear evidence of a gamekeeper’s faithfuls like Jenny (no Kennel suffix) or Flikka. Anyway, her dam was a really cracking small springer who had the trick of keeping one eye on her boss however far out she seemed to be going. Her boss was one of the nicest gamekeepers I’ve ever met.
This small, 2 month old chubby chops was lent to me to try each other out. With my elder daughter I slowly walked and talked her up along the edge of one of the release woods near the keeper’s cottage: she followed with some hesitation but no attempt to break back or into the wood. When we got back (carrying some of the way, because small legs get tired) we popped her down by a likely looking wood pile and encouraged her to seek! She gave that rat and rabbit smelling wood pile such a combing, with her fat little bottom and docked tail showing fully her pleasure in the work.
My daughter and I took her back to the outdoor run with her litter brothers and sisters who were just about to have their evening meal, as they were being weaned from their dam. Food, the most important event in any healthy dog’s life. Slurping and jostling each other with their backs to us, ‘our’ little bitch ignored the food. She sat facing us, looking unwinkingly at us with that peculiar intentness that is a gift beyond price. It was that which decided me to have her.
I left her with the gamekeeper for one more month as I had a rather jealous, stern Weimaraner bitch that I did not want to tyrannise her too much. My elder son came to collect the puppy with me and sat with her and the Weimaraner in the boot to see fair play. Within 24 hours of arrival she proved she had a memory. I had bought a rabbit skin back too and hung it in a tree for a later use as a dummy. In the night the wind picked up and blew the skin down. When I turned the pup out for early morning penny-worths and a run, she made straight for the shrubbery, where, unknown to me, the skin lay under a tree. She ate it whole and ran back mighty pleased with herself.
From then on her training was a pleasure. She had her mother’s trick of always keeping one eye on me whatever she was about. I found I did not have to bother about hares or rabbits. She would course them for about 20 yards, then return as she early found they were much quicker than her. Maybe she would not have ever reached a field trial, but she was a mighty putter up of game, quickly learning to get down-wind of bits of cover to save pushing through everything, she could also gauge content by nose.
She had the usual particular stance and ‘yip’ when onto a rabbit. She loved water and swam quite flat with no fuss or tenseness. She played in the rubber boat with the children in the pool learning to trim to the set of a boat: anticipating its movements and shifting her feet. One of her favorite games, as a puppy, was hiding in the rubber inflatable boat on the grass with her two eyes peeping out of the top. She’d then run to nip my younger son’s bottom as he crept up, starck naked, to try and get in the boat too. Gales of laughter as this game went on for hours.
When she retrieved duck to me, she threw them sideways out of her mouth and turned back to the water. In this way I had to set her onto one or two runners that slipped straight into the reeds and had to be retrieved again. Once she realised this, she brought the duck to hand. She was always chancey on cock pheasants. On her first full working day she had a cock torn from her mouth by an aggressive labrador, one of a team of three worked by a gun’s wife; the bird spurred her in the mouth. I spent the rest of the season gentling her back to retrieving.
On the last day of the season, our very last push through cover, I realised from the behaviour of both the Weimaraner and the young springer that a bird had drawn ahead of them down a ditch and hedge. I asked permission to follow up and set the dogs on again. Their eagerness increased each yard and from beside a pond at the hedge junction they pushed a cock pheasant. I shot it as it crossed the plough towards a wood and the springer was sent to retrieve. She had just collected it and was returning when the same black labrador rushed across the field and snatched the bird from her.
She adored wildfowling, starting at 18 months when she picked her first pinkfoot: a beautifully proportioned half-sized mutant. Even that was big for her at the time. If I was cross with her and swore at her (which I did I regret to say – having a low flash point and hot temper) she would not look at me for a while. She’d sit, back to me and very still, with her cheeks sucked in. All the family loved her dearly and if I or my wife had to scold the children, particularly the younger two, they would go and sit with the springer, resting their heads on her til they felt better. The Weimaraner accepted her and, latterly when I found my springer dog on Liverpool Street Station (nobody ever claimed him) he doted on the springer bitch, as did my wife’s grand little rough coated dachshund.
Sadly, all good things come to an end, and with tragic suddenness for the little springer bitch. She ran, as she thought, after me towards a road behind a sandy beach in Northumberland. My wife and younger son had just crossed, but I had stopped to watch a bird. I whistled and called but the noise of an old banger with three tearaways in it drowned my calls; with a sickening foreboding I thought “she’s going to be hit by the car”. I ran as fast as I could towards the road and heard the bang of the impact. My wife and younger son saw her turn to try to get back to me when she realised I was still coming from the beach. My younger daughter saw it all from our caravan. Lady died quietly while my wife and I stroked and talked to her. I knew she would never leave that Northumberland beach.
The children chose her name, Lady, which always seemed so opposite to her playful nature. As my younger daughter said to her mother: “When Daddy can bear to think about it, Lady was 10 years old and she had just had her most full and successful season. He would have hated seeing her getting gradually older ‘til the Awful Day.”
They say each man deserves one good dog in his life, and I believe in Lady I may have had mine. All I know is how much I still miss her.