When do you retire a gun dog?
Benny was going to get one more retrieve before being officially retired.
That’s what I thought as I was at my desk working to catch up on e-mails that had accumulated during my busy fall schedule of weeks on the road filming. Working on the North American Upland Slam has made this my busiest fall in the field. Sitting there, I looked at my napping 14-year-old lab, Benny. Benny has long been removed from field work. Like all bird dogs, as he aged his joints and his hips weakened and now has substantial arthritis pain.
But something about that morning was different; Benny looked at me with his old lab eyes and something inside of me said “He’s got one more in him.”
So, I got up, grabbed my shotgun and changed into my hunting clothes. My work would have to wait one more day. Today was going to be “Benny’s Day.”
Benny hadn’t hunted in years…
The last time Benny had been in the field hunting was during the fall of 2017. His hips had weakened so much that he just couldn’t get through the grass or wade the water.
Anyone who has had the pleasure of hunting in the field with Benny, knows that it was not my training that made Benny so good.
I’ve been blessed that Benny is the smartest dog I’ve ever known; Benny made me look like a heck of a trainer while I’m average at best.
Thinking back to Benny’s early days, I remember this little chocolate lab running around in circles as I was trying to teach him to sit and stay. Eventually the simple commands were mastered by Benny and we moved on to retriever training.
Background on Benny & our jump shooting–
At the age of 22, I drove to Mississippi to pick him up. Although I had grown up with my father upland hunting with our dogs, waterfowl hunting with my own retriever would be a new experience for me. As a young hunter, I had spent some time with friends and relatives at the river marsh and had fallen in love with watching a good retriever work.
With Benny, I found the most rewarding part of waterfowl hunting was not the shooting but watching the retrieving dog with us. Much like upland hunting, I fell in love with watching the dogs work.
At that point, I wasn’t in the outdoor industry so my time in the field was limited by my day-job. We were limited to a single week long hunting trip to North Dakota each year, a combo trip of upland and waterfowl hunting. We hunted mainly on PLOTS land available to us in North Dakota. The cool thing about hunting PLOTS in North Dakota was that you never knew what you would find. One of my favorite things was to hunt the thicker grasses and cattails around the ponds for pheasants, but I soon learned that these ponds also held a bunch of ducks.
Benny was my perfect sneaking mate as he would stay slightly behind me as we edged up to the ponds. The ducks would fly, I would make my shots and Benny did both easy and tough retrieves with equal brilliance.
Thus, my love for jump shooting ducks was born and Benny was right there by my side. Now I like blind hunting, but with my personality I prefer to be moving, and jump shooting ducks was perfect for me.
Back to where it all began…
Back in Michigan, we still did blind hunting, but the best memories I have with Benny are of us sneaking up on ponds and river banks to surprise a group of ducks. With those memories fresh in my mind, I knew that this was how we would have to get Benny’s last retrieve.
I live along the Lake Michigan shoreline, which means that we have a bunch of little ponds and rivers in the area that are perfect for jump shooting. I knew just the place; it was one that Benny and I have hunted many times. This was the same place that my father took me to duck hunt for the first time. This was the place I also took my first grouse, first turkey, and first deer.
As we pulled into our family’s hunting cabin, there were a couple of inches of fresh snow on the ground and the temperature hovered around 30 degrees. But looking down at Benny as he walked along with me, I saw that twinkle in his eye. Benny wasn’t a 14 year-old retriever today; he was in his prime.
Yes, he did walk with a limp. Yes, I did have to help him into the pickup. But in his mind he was back as a much younger dog at my side, jump shooting ducks.
Expect the unexpected.
Benny and I, like so many times before, started for the river slowly sneaking up to the edges and areas we knew trees had fallen across.
It didn’t take long before Benny started limping pretty badly. We would walk a short while and then stop to rest. At the rest stops, I had tears in my eyes as I thought of all the great times the two of us had in the field together.
As we continued on and slowly moved around a downed tree on the curve in the river, I was shocked to see a group of gobblers only 20 yards away. As it was Michigan’s fall turkey season, I had a tag in my pocket. After a quick hesitation, I set my sight on the nearest long beard and touched off my Benelli. The turkey dropped and slid down the bank and landed right where we were walking along the river.
Wholly smokes; did that just happen? As Benny and I stepped up to the turkey, Benny stared up to me with his eyes asking, “What the heck am I supposed to do with this?”
Knowing that my shot would have scared up anything in this part of the river, I grabbed the gobbler. Slinging him over my shoulder, Benny and I started our walk towards the truck, with one more unforgettable memory together.
“We’re not done”
Back at the truck, I was petting Benny. He nudged me with his nose trying to say, “Let’s go, we aren’t done”.
I loaded Benny up into the truck and we drove about a mile upriver. This was the last spot I could think of that might hold, with this nasty weather, a couple of mallards.
We got out and approached the spot from downstream. As I looked to the sky, there was a pair of bald eagles circling above. I closed my eyes taking it all in. This was it; it was just perfect. We approached and snuck up to the bank of the river.
A pair of mallards exploded into the air. Startled, yet ready, I rose and dumped the drake on the shore. When the drake hit Benny was off, quickly swooping the mallard up and bringing it to me. He released in my hand, and I sat there holding the bird in my right hand and petting Benny with my left.
At this point there was no controlling the tears. I looked at Benny, gave him the duck back, and told him, “You can carry this one back to the truck.” Which he did.
If a dog can smile, Benny had a smile on his face the entire way.
I’ve always loved writing and photography, but journalism had started to lose its luster when the recession hit a decade or so ago and newspapers began to struggle to stay relevant and survive.
One of the best things my Father passed on to me was my love for hunting and my love for bird dogs.
Since I was 12, I’ve always had at least one bird dog of my own. My parents watched my shorthairs when I attended college; I couldn’t wait for the weekends to get back and hit the woods with them.
Today, my children join me in caring for our family’s bird dogs. Through the years, I have hundreds, if not thousands, of great memories of my dogs in the field.
I’ve been lucky to have many great dogs, but none quite like Benny. He is loving, yet all business; he is loyal yet passionate. We have had many memories together and at the same time, we have learned many life lessons together. While Benny may now be officially retired, I will continue to tell his stories for years to come. With each story I will get the chills and my eyes may get a bit watery.
For that I want to say, “Thank you, Benny.”
Mark documented this day on video, too. Head to @gunnerkennels Instagram story to watch.
About Mark V Peterson
In early 2013, I decided to leave my family’s fruit farming and processing business to turn my passion into my full-time job. I now spend about two-thirds of my year out in the field. When I’m not in the field, I’m building my businesses. I’m currently the Co-Owner & CEO at Worldwide Trophy Adventures, Co-Owner of Rusted Rooster Media & Hatch Marketing Group, Co-Owner of Salt River Outfitters, Co-Owner of Goose Haven Canada, Co-Owner of Safari River Outfitters, Owner of Yukon Peak Outfitters and part-owner of The Wildlife Gallery. I’m also the Host of Mark Peterson’s Expedition Series & Mark Peterson’s Triple Threat on Pursuit Channel. In addition, I’m currently working on my Super Slam and I aim to complete it in a few more years. I continue to hunt with my father, who has appeared on my television shows. And soon, you’ll see 3 generations of Petersons out there, hunting and enjoying the outdoors together. Follow Mark at the aptly named @markvpeterson.
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