It started on a cool evening Memorial Day weekend in 2005. Ten small, brown puppies ran around the grass chasing each other in Wheeling, WV, smelling everything, and all vied for the attention of the three men who watched them. As I tried to figure out which was to be my new companion, the breeder talked about the achievements of the parents and my father talked about his days pheasant hunting as a young man in Michigan. By all counts, this was a perfect evening, but I had no idea how to choose and what to do next. I read countless articles on picking the perfect puppy and characteristics to look for, but all I really knew was that I was watching chaos and somehow out of this wagging herd of puppies, I was to pick my hunting partner and a new addition to the family. I had just decided to pick the next one that ran up to me looking for attention, when a pup that had strayed from the group caught my attention. A few feet away from the group, at nearly 8 weeks old, stood a puppy locked into a picture perfect point. His head was slightly lowered focused on his prey, one paw was lifted off the ground and tucked under his belly, and his fuzzy brown tail was as straight out behind him as it could be. The silver gum wrapper in the grass in front of him didn’t stand a chance. The choice was made and that was the night I fell in love with my new best friend.
Kilbuck’s Logan Keiko Landrith (we called him Keiko), was a pure bred Pudelpointer; part of the group of breeds known as versatile hunting dogs. Known for their drive, keen nose, and love of water, this slightly wire-haired breed was a perfect fit. I’m a dog-lover, but I am allergic to most breeds. I searched for weeks looking for a dog that was hypoallergenic and not what I refer to as a “fufu” dog, or a squirrel. While the Pudelpointer is not classified as a hypoallergenic dog, I seemed to have less of an allergic reaction to them than most dogs. In regards to hunting, I enjoy hunting most anything so adding a dog that liked to hunt would only give me reason to spend more time in the woods and on the water. I’d like to say I read all of the books and trained a wonderful dog, but in many ways Keiko trained me as much as I trained him.
The expedition that started that night became more than a decade of fun, frustration, adventures, and memories that will stay with me a lifetime. When the puppy reached our home 800 miles away, he was greeted with the love and attention that you would expect for a first-born child. By many counts, he was my first child and while a die-hard hunting dog that lived for his time in the field and the duck blind, he instantly became part of our family life, too. Likely, this is where the devoted and by-the-book dog trainers and hunters will stop reading, but in our home, we treat our dogs as family, not just a hunting tool. When it is time to hunt, we hunt hard and when it’s time to watch television, we snuggle. Keiko spent his entire life as a central part of our family. He enjoyed the beach, the boat, hikes, watching football on the couch and being dressed up by my wife and daughter in everything from Halloween costumes to princess attire.
Training started right away with Keiko as I wanted to be sure to do him justice and teach him everything necessary to be a champion. We played with feathers and he learned to follow scents through the grass, sit, stay, heal on a leash, and retrieve. While I introduced it gradually, the sound of gunfire came as a shot of adrenaline to Keiko. There were times as a young dog that Keiko would sit by the front door during thunderstorms looking out the window to see who was hunting without him. As weeks turned into months, it came time for his first field trials and I was quite nervous. We arrived early and Keiko was selected to go first in the Natural Ability tests. Keiko pointed birds, showcased his skills in retrieving and swimming and tracked and caught a cock pheasant all in the rain and fairly strong wind. I watched many handlers much more experienced than I struggle with their dogs and become very frustrated with the results their dogs achieved. While we had worked hard together in preparation, I credit his success to his bloodline and his love for hunting as he aced every portion of the testing and walked away with a prize 1 perfect score of 112.
As the weeks continued and Keiko’s first hunting season arrived, my focus shifted and we spent less time on training and more time in the field finding birds and waiting on ducks. It was during these months that our hunting relationship changed. At first, I was the captain and he was supposed to follow my orders. I was hung up on having a perfectly trained dog, a “National Champion” and I was going to make it happen. That was a great way to become extremely frustrated. Training my dog like I knew what was best and it didn’t matter what he wanted to do, his role was to bow to my commands, worked very poorly. I learned that to me it was more important to work with my hunting companion and have a great time, than it was to have a dog that executed every command to perfection. I chose a dog that was much like me: Keiko lived to hunt, but didn’t want some stuffed shirt yahoo that had read a bunch of books and articles to tell him how to do what he was born to do. He shined when we were partners and as time went on, I learned that if I paid attention to my dog while still keeping him under control, we had a lot of fun and our success improved dramatically. This evolution of my hunting style led to 10 more hunting seasons full of stories, memories, amazing points and retrievals as well as botched opportunities and missed shots. It seemed each year was different and we spent time combing the edge of blueberry fields in search of ruffed grouse, crawling through grass fields stalking Canada geese and sitting in blinds watching our decoys, but together we had a blast and I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. Rain, cold, wind, sun: hunting together was fun and I think we both enjoyed it equally. Prior to Keiko, I was an avid bow hunter and never missed a chance to be in a stand, but that brown puppy I brought home lived to hunt and be with me. While I still love hunting whitetail with my bow, my life changed and instead I rarely passed up an opportunity to be in camo alongside my best friend.
It was the fall of his 10th hunting season when I noticed that Keiko began to change. He was slower than he used to be and I had to lift him back into the duck boat after a retrieve, but that’s to be expected. What I saw was much more patience in the blind and more methodical work in the field; expending less energy, but still driven to hunt. This was the season that we introduced a hunting companion to Keiko’s trips. A 10-month-old Chesapeake Bay retriever female named Ragged who was just learning to hunt and they hit it off quickly. My friend’s young dog had little idea what she was doing when they first began to hunt together and there were certainly some entertaining times early in the season as Keiko would point a bird and his new companion, Ragged, would blow right by him to see what he was looking at and flush the birds. As the season went on, the two began to work together covering more ground and working shorelines together on difficult duck retrieves. It seemed over the course of the three months they hunted together, the torch was carried at first by Keiko then they carried it together and he handed on to the next generation as the season came to a close. Ragged became the leader, whether by design or shear drive and pure fitness, and Keiko was content to work with her, cover the ground she missed and still keep her in line with a growl when she got a bit too playful. It was far and away one of the most fun seasons we spent together, and had hoped to continue this upcoming season.
This summer, we lost Keiko and a piece of me went with him. It’s the most difficult thing about having pets and close companions, but I was lucky to have him be a part of my life. My boy that learned to hunt birds along side me, laid alongside me on the couch watching football, and allowed my young daughter to put tutus and sun glasses on him left us with great memories. We spent countless hours on the beach in the summers, playing in the snow in the winter, and he even loved fishing with me in the spring. The first night he spent away from his mother, I slept on the floor of the hotel with my fingers through his kennel door to calm him and Keiko slept with his little head resting on my hand. His last day was spent limping up his favorite beach still trying to stalk seagulls and I held him while he took his last breath. Looking back on the 11 years we spent together, I wouldn’t have changed much of anything. I never continued to pursue field trials and hunting perfection with Keiko, instead we achieved something much more important to the two of us. We were buddies that had fun doing most everything together, and we did that really well.