North Fork Outdoors: Rescue animals come with histories

The death of a family dog can be tough, even when anticipated. When our 14-year-old rescue Brittany, Bandit, (registered under “Becasse Bandit” — becasse is French for woodcock) had a severe stroke that left him paralyzed a week ago, it concluded a long period of circulatory problems. Despite the heartache of putting him down, we nevertheless consoled ourselves knowing his years with us had been good ones, even with all his challenges.

No matter which pet you rescue: dog, cat, horse, etc., no manual or service record comes with the animal, although you often deduce, through experience, some of the issues that caused the original owner to give up the pet in the first place. Bandit had been a field dog with terrific potential: strong run, good nose, and lots of drive. Unfortunately, his field manners (staunch pointing without breaking or chasing when birds were flushed) required a lot of time and training because he had an affinity for “running trash” (i.e., chasing deer). An early trainer made the fatal mistake of punishing the dog after he had returned from a chase. (You must never take out your temper or frustration on an animal that’s come back to you after a heinous act. Punishment should only be administered during the act.)

After that the dog not only looked for more deer; he kept on running, even after losing track of what he was chasing, afraid of punishment on return.

When you could get Bandit around a field trial course cleanly, with a good run and a couple of birds, he was often “in the ribbons,” but so much snap and pop were taken out of him, he never had any big wins. A bridesmaid often, the big dog had a lot of red ribbons (seconds) but no blues (firsts).

Finally, when Bandit turned seven, his owner stopped paying kennel bills, and he wound up as our “adoptee” with a good, patient trainer. He had a few more placements and endured one heart-breaking trial experience toward the end of his career that summed up his life. After a number of excellent finds and a terrific run, he had finished his course with a couple of minutes left. Most judges at that point will tell a handler to “pick up,” but, in this case, the fellow in the saddle (a friend, in fact) asked for the dog to run one more edge along a big woods. Predictably, Bandit dug in, found his deer, got lost for two hours, and was disqualified. We took him home and tried him on grouse upstate. That failed, too. He would find his birds beautifully then take off looking for deer; he was finally relegated to pulling a dog sled in the winter and working off a check cord.

Another rescue for us was a standard-bred bay pulled from a slaughter pen. People we knew thought he would be useful as a stable mate for a walking horse we were using in field trials at that time. As nearly as we could tell, he had probably been a “buggy horse,” perhaps for an upstate Amish family because, although registered as “Willow Playboy,” he had never been raced. His legs were in terrible shape, but we nursed him back to health, thanks to good diet, patience, and good veterinary care. Jan fitted a saddle and taught the horse, re-named “Lucky,” to carry a rider, and, although Lucky was not your standard walker, a good rider could post a trot and use him as a spare.

He came to trust Jan and served for a number of seasons in trials, often for long judging assignments. Trouble came when he had to ride with other horses in a large group, a “gallery.” He disliked the unfamiliar and would become agitated. When that happened, he would rear forward and buck suddenly. The rider could sometimes anticipate this, but not always. Three years ago we were riding comfortably in a big gallery at the National Gun Dog stake in Michigan when Lucky went off violently without warning, pitching the rider high into the air and putting an abrupt end to his career as a field trial horse.

One guess with Lucky is that he was kept by himself for much of his life. Around our other horses, he insists on being “alpha” when it comes to hay and space, and it’s no wonder, looking back, that he was unpredictable in a strange group. You always wonder whether different early training or different upbringing would have changed his behavior. There are stories of standardbreds routinely used by field trainers; maybe those animals were different. In any case, the little bay, perhaps the prettiest of our horses, now takes his meals as leader of the pack and “pasture pet,” never to be ridden again.

Such are typical stories of rescues. Adopting an animal is surely a kind thing, but you’ve got to be prepared for the unexpected.