Comeback Kid

Amazing. Incredible. Astounding. Astonishing. Miraculous. Or, maybe just plain unlikely.

Those are the adjectives that snugly fit my geriatric English springer spaniel gun dog Lily’s recuperative powers as she closes in on her 13th birthday. This biddable pet never ceases to amaze me as I observe her during our daily rambles that run deep. What a remarkable flush-and-retrieve companion she’s been, and what a comeback she’s made from the precipice of demise. I admit being shocked she’s still with us.

Less than a year ago, on May Day, I was seriously pondering her burial place, exploring peaceful places we both love, where an indiscreet grave could be dug. Now, though 90 in human age and not nearly what she was in her physical prime, the old lady’s chugging along just fine, thank you, on our daily morning romps. No, she’s not jumping up onto my pickup’s tailgate as she always did, but on a good day she still attempts it and may well have succeeded without a helping hand had I not recognized her intent out of the corner of my eye and intervened. That said, she’s jumping down without the hint of a stumble or stagger, and she’s running up and down steep slopes and through dense, thorny tangles without fear or even a hint of hesitation. She also displays no reservations when approaching frigid standing meltwater, even when a brief swim is required. Hell no. In fact, on warm, sunny winter morns, she even walks out up to her belly into the cold, swollen Green River for a refreshing drink. Yeah, of course I know this could and probably will someday end quickly. But that mortal inevitability in no way diminishes the resilience this spirited, former bundle of energy and enthusiasm has thus far displayed through trying times of growing old.

Doc Schmitt has evaluated a few canines over nearly a half-century as a vet, and he identified Lily as “a tough bitch” after she bounced back from a life-threatening pregnancy that required surgical intervention at age 8. Though he has never seen her trail and flush a pheasant or make what appears to be an impossible blind retrieve, truer words he could not have spoken. His assessment was right on the money. A tough bitch she is, and then some, not to mention an extraordinary yet fading gun dog and daily walking chum.

Back in October, just before bird-hunting season opened, I wrote that it was clear to me that Lily would be of no use as a gun dog and probably would not survive the winter. It was a poignant and painful admission, but one I believed. I had witnessed Lily’s second stroke-like event in six months – this one less severe to the eye but longer-lasting and more debilitating than the first. Although she did tediously regain her balance over time and never lost her appetite or joyful gait, she was unable to slice through dense cover during the six-week pheasant season, and was still often losing her balance and quickly tiring when breaking winter trails through fresh, deep snow. It was obvious to my eyes that Lily was playing her back nine, though not suffering, through it all eager to accompany me and her rambunctious son, Chubby, on our daily morning maneuvers.

When I described Lily’s symptoms in October, many sympathetic readers who’d watched their own dogs suffer similar problems reached out with a potential diagnosis of vestibular disease, often referred to as old-dog syndrome. Although I paid heed, Googled it and thoroughly reviewed the manifestations, I cannot say I was ever totally convinced that was Lily’s problem. All the material I read defined it as a progressive disease, which didn’t seem to fit Lily. Though temporarily encumbered, she continued to improve over time and now, after a few months, she displays no lasting effects. Zero. Plus, she has never shown any indications of associated ear discomfort or ear odor, both of which I learned long ago to keep an eye out for.

I am now convinced that Lily was stricken with two TIAs, or mini-strokes, which she eventually and quite remarkably overcame. A friend who breeds, raises and trains field springers and is a player on the national field-trial circuit believes Lily will eventually die from a stroke, and I’m inclined to agree. I trust his opinions, formed after decades in the company of high-test gun dogs, trainers and especially veterinarians. A man who intently listens to such expert discussion can absorb a lot of free wisdom by osmosis.

That said, I sense Lily’s not done yet. Who knows? At her advanced age, it’s a crap-shoot. She may soon fall on her side, go into tremors and expire. Then again, it’s possible, precluding another event, that she’ll flush and retrieve a few more pheasants this fall. We’ll see. Time will tell. Right this minute, I’m confident she’d flush pheasants from our familiar coverts.

I know better than to sell old Lily-Butt short, and would never question her resolve or resilience. She has been a truly remarkable gun dog with indomitable spirit and unusual recuperative powers. In her prime, say at the age of 5, she was an absolute powerhouse through thick, thorny cover. She literally made punishing coverts shake with her all-out enthusiasm, whether bulldozing through, bounding over or displaying an eye-catching combination of both athletic skills to locate and flush a bird.

Her best days will not be forgotten.





It’s time to start thinking about removing artificial, backyard food sources for black bears, which are now active and hungry. So, take down your bird feeders, which bears will often favor over natural food like skunk cabbage, and the same can be said about garbage and compost and beehives. MassWildlife estimates our bear population to be at least 4,500, with their range expanding eastward. Take action by educating yourself and your neighbors about proactive measures to avoid conflicts with bears.




As rattling brooks  flow into roaring rivers, nearly 500,000 brook, brown, rainbow and tiger trout are awaiting spring stocking from MassWildlife’s five hatcheries, including the four local ones at Sunderland, Montague, Palmer and Belchertown. The other hatchery is in Sandwich. These fish, coupled with holdovers from more than 80,000 trout stocked last fall, will provide excellent fishing in the coming months. Stocking was scheduled to begin this week in southeastern Massachusetts, with other regions of the state expected to soon follow. Anglers can get daily stocking updates at or by contacting district office for the latest stocking information.

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