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The Last Bird

Every sporting dog owner will tell you about their “One.” Well, this is my story of my “One” and how she started me on my journey with Wildrose.

Wildrose Bluegrass Dixie was born August 23, 2008 to Hamish and Susie. She went to hunt the fields of heaven December 12, 2020. And in the intervening years she lived a life 99.9 percent of sporting dogs would be jealous to live. If y’all will bear with me, I may get long winded, and I have no doubt I will shed a lot of tears reminiscing about our adventures all over this beautiful United States.

How it all began…I didn’t start any type of upland or waterfowl hunting until the mid-nineties while I was in the service. I had grown up hunting deer, rabbit and squirrel, the typical midwestern kid. I immediately fell in love hunting birds over dogs, and when I finished my time in service I bought a yellow female from a guy I found in the paper. She was a fantastic dog, but if there were 100 mistakes to be made training a dog, I made at least 3,487. I lost her in March of 2008 and couldn’t bring myself to get another dog for quite some time.

During the years prior I had watched Mike Stewart on DUTV with Drake and read every article he wrote for DU magazine. When I finally decided it was time to get another dog the obvious choice was Wildrose Kennels. I called Cathy, told her what I was looking for and she placed me on a litter. I was second pick out of two. Before I went to actually pick Dixie up, I decided I was going to take a motorcycle road trip and visit the kennel. I remember riding through the gate and my first thought was “This doesn’t look like any dog kennel I have ever seen!” And from that point on I was all Wildrose all the time. From the grounds to the staff to the dogs, it all just amazed me. I had known after training my first dog I wanted to eventually train dogs in my retirement. At this point I had no idea that waiting until retirement was not in the cards. Dixie was the perfect catalyst to point me in the right direction.

I raised Dixie until it was time to enter training, following the Wildrose Way to a T. Looking back I was so focused on not making a mistake that I was more Mussolini than Stewart. I have no doubt Mike and Cathy would see their email inbox and think “Dang, this guy again!” But every question I had was answered. I was running an industrial construction company at the time and I was very fortunate to take Dixie almost everywhere with me. I had estimated when she entered training at 6 months old she had ridden around 20,000 miles with me to different job sites. That exposure was fantastic for her as we worked on obedience and training drills at so many different locations that she easily transitioned to any scenario. I brought her in for training when she turned 6 months old and left her with Ben Summerall. While I wanted to train her myself I was working a huge model change for Toyota in Indiana with my normal day working from 10 AM until 1 AM while staying in a fabulous Quality Inn in Haubstadt, IN for over 100 days. There was no way I could give this little firecracker the attention she needed. Ben and I became great friends, and he would spend hours with me letting me work other dogs so I could learn to problem solve and anticipate what a dog may do in any given circumstance. During this time I was lucky enough to become great friends with Mike and Cathy. The two greatest people that have had such a positive impact on my life I could never repay with words. And this is where we dove in deep. I was at dinner with Mike and Cathy, I had already expressed interest in becoming an associate trainer, when I decided to just go for it. Uncle Sam had instilled in me a healthy dose of initiative, and I very bluntly asked what the transition plan was for the kennel going forward. Mike’s response: “Funny you should ask.” That was 2009. That’s when things went from nebulous to writing in concrete. And as they say, the rest is history. Now that I have laid down the foundation to where we are today let’s talk about Dixie.

Dixie has always been a client favorite and somewhat of a legend, fixture or character (depending on who you ask) around the kennel with her Hamish smile. She loved to carry anything and would “talk” to you if you started petting her. Grunting and moaning telling you she loved the attention. She was always the target of the IPA and those folks who live by Wildrose Law #37 “Not my dog!” Chris Wilke, Lanette Drewrey and Rachel Swatek being the main culprits! But, when it came time to hunt she was a different dog. Dixie loved attention, that was never an issue, but if I tried to pet her or show any affection when we were hunting she would actually look at me like I had lost my mind and move away from me. What the heck? When it was time to work she didn’t have any time for games. Shoot the bird. Period. I have work to do.

Dixie, and as I write this I think more me than her, was so very fortunate to travel the country with me to job sites, but more importantly all the states we were blessed to hunt. She has traveled to 29 states and hunted in 14 states plus Canada. Not bad for a dog born in Oxford, MS.

Everyone has stories about those retrieves that are the stuff of legend. I have a few. And luckily have witnesses to back me up. Not that any sporting dog handler, hunter or fisherman would ever stretch the truth……

What not to do with your young dog. Do not take your 2-year old dog to Canada where she will be the only dog to pick up for 4 guns! I’m like Nancy Reagan–just say NO. Dixie had never had an issue with birds. It was actually more keeping her in check. Bird crazy is an understatement BEFORE we went to Canada. I’m going to tell on myself (and blame Mike Stewart) about this trip to Canada. One of the tools of a dog trainer is sometimes you have to create a problem to fix a problem. About 2 weeks before I was headed to Canada I found out we would be hunting dry fields for geese. We thawed a big Canada out and Dixie did not like that big bird. Water was not an issue. And while she would pick it on land she was definitely not a fan. We worked and worked and worked, but she never did seem to really like it. So, create a problem to fix a problem right? Normally, we can do this and it works just right. Enter Dixie. There is always the exception to the rule and boy have I lived with that for 12 wonderful years. Mike told me to just let her break on the shot and get her crazy on those big birds. Well…that’s what I did. Did I ever get her totally steadied up after that? I will never tell, but I’m still blaming Mike. Just saying. While we may have had our steadiness issues at times I can promise you she never left a bird behind. She was the ultimate study in contrasts. The Wildrose Way is very adamant about if it is not right at heel it will never be right at distance. Again, enter Dixie. After the Canada trip it was time to steady her up. Or so I thought. Dixie was completely steady on any training drill with live birds or not. Real birds in a hunting situation maybe not so much. Again, our rule is if is not right at heel it won’t be right at distance. Back to the study in contrasts. Dixie always had to have a strong hand to keep her steady. But boy could that girl handle at distance. She was so responsive on the whistle whether at 30 yards or 300. I never had to hammer the whistle. Just a quick peep and she stopped and asked “Where to boss?” One of the best compliments she ever got was from Nigel Carville, winner of the Irish Championship and our partner for over 20 years, on a long, time delay memory. There was one bumper left out and everyone said it was to the left but after working her and handling her to every place the bumper should have been I decided to give her a long cast to the right and have her hunt a different area. She made the pick, and Nigel said she was one of the best handling dogs he had ever seen. Talking about walking on the clouds.

And then there was South Dakota. For those of you who religiously follow the Wildrose Way you know we are not about marks. Memories, memories, memories. And then we throw in mark by sound. We were on about an 8 person walk up through a bottom with cane about 6-7 feet tall. We were on the right side and a big cackling rooster got up on the left and the far gun shot it. Dixie had stopped on the flush and heard it crash through the cane. The guide, who was beside me, said he would go get it. Not to be outdone, I just said Dixie’s name. The guide was about halfway there when Dixie passed him coming back to me with the bird. He walked back to me and asked “What the hell did I just see?” I said its marking by sound. He shook his head and told me he wanted that explained later over a bourbon. So we did and he was amazed as he had never heard of such as thing. That 3-day trip was amazing. I had not done my due diligence and Dixie ended up being the only dog in the field. She picked 52 pheasants in 3 days. I do have to admit she slept for about 3 days after that hunt. But it was the sleep of the righteous hunting dog who knew she gave it everything she had on that hunt. One of my fondest memories whether hunting or her at the house is watching her sleep. The relaxation and contentment of a sporting dog sleeping makes my heart happy. I always tell my wife, Tina, I have never seen a cuter sleeping dog than Dixie. She’s like a United States military person. She never worries if she has made a difference in the world. She sleeps soundly knowing she did.

At this point I am going to turn over the narrative to one of my best friends, Dawson Cherry, owner of Wildrose Deacon, for his take on a retrieve Dixie made in Stuttgart, AR, about three years ago when she was about 9.5 years old.

The bird sailed on us. It sailed a long, long way. It was the type of bird we all dream of, a late season bull Drake Mallard in Arkansas. Fully feathered, round and ripe in its color, it had been hit, and as wild things do it fought death until it dropped almost 400 yards in the corner of the rice field.

There were three of us all on the dike, shooting into the rice field. Each with a different dog with different strengths and weaknesses. One, a golden retriever, Cali, lined like a straight arrow, a yellow lab, Dixie, never missed a bird and last a black lab, Deacon, steady as a rock. Each of us all good friends, and each dog a little different in their own way. We worked really well together that day. Alternating retrieves, under a crisp blue Southern sky, winter pin oaks, not a leaf on them, cold with a light breeze, dogs bringing in plump mallards to hand. We managed to scratch out a limit, smiles and back slapping was plentiful.

This bird was going to be extra tough to pick. Lots of water, several brush piles and a long, long way. My dog was good until about 150 yards out and we had never done retrieves that long nor had I ever had the grounds to try it so I knew this was not going be my bird. I looked at my buddy Bobby and he had just gotten a real nice retrieve on a crippled gadwall. We all turned to Tom and Dixie and said you’re up. Yet there really was no doubt that this was Dixie’s bird.

Tom had to get out of the blind after he sent her. It was going to be a really long hike and Tom did not hesitate, you could tell he knew Dixie could get it. Slopping thru the ankle deep water each time, a whistle and a cast. One cast out for a 150 yards then another for 200 yards. Each cast getting that soft white yellow lab closer to the bird. You could tell that Dixie knew that she was going to get this bird. It’s an attitude you see in your dog when they know the retrieve will be true. Finally, they reached the corner of the flooded rice field. A pop of yellow tail and patch of camo hat barely to be seen with a Mallard green head glistening in the mouth of ole yellow dog Dixie.

We could see them coming back to us. Tom with his “we got that bird look” and Dixie tail just a wagging, head high, feet marching in the air, water pushing in front of her. She was not the perfect dog, but this bird was right in her wheelhouse. Long and hard to get to. Any national class dog would have loved to have gotten this bird. But this bird was Dixie’s, all mine, proud as a rooster.

As waterfowlers, and especially the guys that train dogs. This was a moment. We all knew that. The dogs did and we did. Hours upon hours of training, hunt after hunt. This was the bird that did not get away. It was the very last bird of a really special hunt.

Dixie went to the rainbow bridge this week. She lived a full and happy hunting dog life, well over a 3000 retrieves. She traveled the country chasing migrations. She loved the hunt. Way too soon, she has left us.

Now, she is no longer at Tom’s feet, warm, soft and tired after a long hunt. Life is so short. Their love is so unconditional. We cannot bring her back. We are fortunate that these moments live on.

Damn, I cannot forget that long sailing bird, no way a dog could get that one. Well Dixie got it, damn she got it. She took our hearts with it.

God bless you and your dog. One can only hope you have this moment. Dixie did. Some of us will never forget it.

Go Dixie, go Dixie, get that bird!