The Best Girl

Violet and Leala: Sisters from Different Mothers

I’ve been delinquent in writing this story. Grief does that to a guy; makes things tough to wrap your thoughts around. It’s now been two months since our best girl died. It’s time I try to make sense of it all. Here goes.

She came to us on a whim. I’ve been a Lab guy since age four, when my parents bought me a black Labrador, a pup from famed Duluth dog trainer, kennel operator, and all around Lab whisperer, Joe DeLoia. Deuce I was a loving, unneutered male who never calmed down and never received any serious obedience or field training. I found him dead at age ten in his kennel. His replacement was a slightly less hyper black Labrador who died a tragic death I won’t relate here. Suffice it to say, that was the first time I experienced the loss of a pet at the behest of a vet’s needle.

After Deuce II, I had a plethora of other Labs; black and yellow and chocolate; some of whom were exemplary companions and extraordinary hunting dogs. A couple females were intentionally bred and gave our boys litters of pups to consider and love. Other Labs we owned were gun shy or bit kids or didn’t survive country traffic long enough to get acquainted with the family. There were circumstances of loss attached to many of those dogs; some perished in the night in their beds at the Munger Farm. Others needed to visit the vet to be mercifully sent off to the next world. Grief came and went, generally lasting a few months’ until a new Lab came to the farm and a new bonding experiment commenced. Truth be told, I wasn’t very good about training our dogs. It wasn’t until I bought our youngest son Jack his own black Labrador bitch, Kena (“Greatest Champion” in Celtic) that, fairly late in the game and life, I grew serious about training. Turns out, I’d matured over the six decades of living sufficient to be patient with a dog. Kena is an intelligent, kind-hearted, bear of a girl who takes to our grandchildren like the mother she wasn’t allowed to be.

In between all the pure-bred, AKC Labs we had at the house, our sons dropped off a couple of rescue dogs. Daisy, a Lab-sled dog mix who looked like a purebred black Lab but had no instincts for hunting animals with feathers came to us from a group home where Matt worked. She was the best rescue dog a family could ask for. Chris, when he was going to school in River Falls, brought home Kramer, a supposedly purebred chocolate Lab. He too was utterly useless as a hunting dog but a sweetheart who once got mauled by a bear and refused to enter the house.

But dogs age and they pass on, leaving holes in a family. René had to take Daisy in to the vet because I was out of town when the dog finally hit a marker in her life requiring mercy. Three of our four sons met my wife at the vet and said their goodbyes through adult tears. Kramer passed not too long thereafter, dying in his sleep on his bed in the garage. Kena was still with us but was showing signs of knee issues making it problematic whether she could make our family’s annual hunting trip to Ashley, ND to chase pheasants.

“You’re looking for another dog, right?” Matt asked one Friday night, the two of us talking on the phone.


“Have you thought of a Brittany?”

I was raised on Labradors. I was unfamiliar with pointers, which Brittanys are. Plus, I had this image of crazed, wild, untrainable Springer Spaniels I’d encountered over the years. Once upon a time, Brittanys were called “spaniels” and sort of remind one of Springers, But that’s in error. They are really pointers, not flushing dogs.

“Not really.”

“Well, there’s a litter in the paper. Just outside of Superior.” Matt paused. “Wanna take a look?”

Understand: René was not part of this discussion. She had no idea I was looking to begin anew with another puppy. I thought a moment: “Sure, but only if they have some females.” I didn’t want to have to deal with a male puppy marking every vertical space in the house.

Matt called. “They have one female left.”

I wasn’t put off by looking at the runt of the litter. Kena was the last female in a litter of ten and turned out to be one hell of a family and hunting dog. “OK. But you’re driving. Pick me up at ten tomorrow.”

We drove and drove and drove and drove.

“I thought you said this was right outside Superior.”

“It’s by Shell Lake.”

Since my four year old grandson was in the back seat with Kena, I held my tongue. An hour later, we were at the farm. I had a check in my wallet. One look at Leala (“Faithful” in French) and I was history. (Text photo sent to René from Matt’s truck).

Kena approved as well.

I learned very quickly that the stern tone one needs to train thick-headed Labradors doesn’t work with Brits. Brittanys are sensitive, loving, and energetic dogs who need constant reassurance and outdoor time. But that pink nose and those yellow and cinnamon eyes! No Lab I’ve ever had measures up to the emotional attachment I formed with that little pup. She became Jack’s buddy as well, replacing Kena in his bed. I’m not too sure what the Labrador thought of that.

I struggled to train Leala in terms of pointing. I went on the internet, watched all the YouTube videos of how to train a Brit to point, to “hold” and all that other stuff. Thing is, the damn pup was pointing chickadees in the bird feeder and holding her point long before I figured out she was self-taught. The dog was smarter than I was.

Of course, this meant she’d bring any manner of prey to the front porch. Mice. Song birds. Dead cottontails and snowshoe hares. She brought them all and proudly dropped them at the door for her master to see. A couple of

times she managed to sneak in the house hauling a dead bunny nearly as large as she was into the kitchen. One of the proudest moments in training, where she and I worked with the eCollar and learned sit, stay, come, and hold commands, was teaching her to water retrieve. I bought a small retrieving dummy for her and tossed it a few feet ahead into snow melt in a low spot in our pasture.

Once she got the hang of retrieving in that small puddle, she was ready for the Cloquet River, which she took to like a champ. She wasn’t quite as solid on grouse as Kena but in the wide open spaces of North Dakota, watching her work a field and lock up on point, man, that was some of the greatest hunting with a dog I’ve been privileged to enjoy over my long life.

You look at her compared to Kena, who goes about seventy pounds and is built like a brick, and you wonder, “How can that little dog retrieve a rooster pheasant?” I’m here to tell you that it’s not the size of the dog, it’s the size of the heart. Leala had no problem running down a winged male pheasant, tracking it, retrieving it, and looking at me as if to say, “What’s next?”

Upland hunters understand the spiritual bond between man and dog in the field. It’s a connection that I was reminded of last fall, when I made a solo trip to Williston, ND to see my son Dylan and his family. A few weeks earlier, our annual trip to Ashley had ended in bitter disappointment. One bird for five guys and four dogs over four days. Oh, I should add here that, given the uncertainty over Kena’s knees (she’s on Ibuprofen and supplements to ward off surgery and it seems to be working) I convinced René into bringing another Labrador to the Munger Farm. Violet came to live with us in July and by hunting season, was in the field with Kena and Leala. Violet formed sisterly bonds with both her canine roommates. But whereas Kena tends to be somewhat aloof and her “own girl”, Leala, despite the constant nibbling on her neck by the puppy took to Violet. The two pooches spent much time nuzzling and cuddling. When four Mungers and an Amborn hunted Ashley last fall, we had our three dogs plus Matt’s new Labrador pup, Greta. But with torrential rains, wet and muddy fields, standing crop, and Leala being sprayed in the face by a skunk (after being encouraged to flush what Jack and I were sure was a rooster pheasant), our trip to the southern edge of the state was dismal. Which is why I decided to use my second week of hunting in the northwestern corner of the state where my son Dlyan, his wife Shelly, and their kids live.

Leala came with. The two of us hunted two and a half days and had us a time. The crops were down. We found plenty of public and non-posted private land to hunt. Plenty of birds took wing. Some I was able to hit and Leala dutifully retrieved. Many more remained free unscathed. We worked our butts off, that little girl and I, averaging eight miles a day. Until. I’d never had it happen before but Leala found a barbed wire fence and tore her leg up something fierce. Thing is, she didn’t even slow down after it happened. I caught a glimpse of blood on her white fur from across the field, called her over, and knew immediately she needed a vet. I called Shelly. She gave me the directions to the clinic. 12 staples later Leala was on the mend. But she was done hunting. Matt was coming out with René and our eldest grandson, Adrien. He was supposed to bring Greta with. He didn’t. I learned, over the next two days of dogless hunting, how much a good dog means to the whole upland experience.

I was pretty sure that the ordeal Leala endured in Williston would be the worst of what she’d experience. I was wrong.

A few months later I got up to let our dogs out to pee in the wee hours of the morning. When I went outside to call the dogs in, the scene that greeted me is one that I will never forget. My best girl was stuck, her collar wedged between Violet’s lower canines, being dragged along by the Lab. It was pretty clear to me what had happened: Violet had been chewing on Leala’s neck and got her teeth stuck between Leala’s fur and the collar. I imagine that both dogs panicked: Leala, because her airway was compromised; Violet because she had a thrashing, choking thirty pound dog hanging from her jaw. I called Violet over. She came, dragging Leala with. (This is not easy to write but there’s a point to be made about what I witnessed and what both dogs endured.) I could not disengage the dogs. I screamed for René. She heard me and came outside. I screamed for her to get me a scissors. She did. Jack, hearing the commotion, rushed to help. Though I cut the collar off Leala and spent the next ten minutes trying to breathe her back to life, it was too late.

All it took was five minutes. It wasn’t Violet’s fault. It was mine. Ignorance is no defense. But in my sixty years of owning dogs, I’d never seen anything close to what I was confronted with that morning on the banks of the Cloquet River. Never had I suspected a collar around a dog’s neck could be the instrument by which a beloved pet died. Every dog we’ve ever owned has worn a collar with his or her rabies tag and ID. No more. I learned my lesson. If I can save one dog owner from the pain and agony and hysteria I went through that morning, if someone else’s best girl lives because a collar has been removed due to my revelation, I will have done something in Leala’s memory. Something positive can come out of the most negative of episodes in a long, long history of loving and raising puppies into companions.

Peace, little girl. Violet didn’t mean it. And neither did I.


About Mark

I'm a reformed lawyer and author.
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8 Responses to The Best Girl

  1. Nancy Gerber says:

    There’s so much great information in this article. Being a dog lover I can relate to this. I had Roni, who will always be my special girl. Your story made me smile and cry. I truly believe that there’s a time already determined when we leave this world. So it is with your pup. She lived a life filled with kindness and love. It seems you were both blessed to have each other.

  2. Deb Dreawves says:

    I cried. The pain is great because the love is great. I have a special girl too and there would be no words to describe going through that. But you’ve done her beautiful justice and care with yours, for both Leala and Violet. Leala is at peace, I hope that you and Violet may have yours. Exposing pain is not easy, but sharing her memory and message is a good thing, especially when she was right there writing it with you.

  3. John Myers says:

    Hang in there, it gets better. My older dog died in July yet all of my computer passwords still carry his name. I don’t cry any more, only smile when I type them in.

    • Mark says:

      Looking forward to the ride to Saxon, Wisconsin at the end of May! Even more, the ride home. Thanks for setting this in motion and for reading the essay.Your profile of the different breeders and breeds last in the Sunday DNT was shared with everyone in the family (except for my wife, who remains clueless as to this next adventure).

  4. Kristin says:

    Thank you for sharing the information about the risk, Brits are a truly special breed and they love back so hard. Our senatorial Brit Hoover got in rodenticide in a wood pile ( the mice bed moved it) and we lost that beautiful guy at 8. I didn’t know d-con was 100 times stronger than in past and that even eating a mouse who died of it could kill a predator. Innocence requires our knowledge and protection. I am so sorry about Leila.

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