To the Rescue… My Love Affair with Rescue Setters Part I

By Sarge Collier

“Come get in the car,” Miki shouted from the garage with an irritating tone in her voice. I sighed as I got out of my chair. I was not looking forward to this trip one bit.

It had been a month since my beloved English setter, Clive, had died, and I was still in a terrible funk. If you’ve lost a favorite hunting dog, you’re sure to know how I felt. Gone is the truest, most loving friend one could ever have. Tears, many tears….

I have hunted English setters for nearly 50 years. I’ve owned so many I can’t recall all their names. So, when old Clive died I immediately started looking for a puppy. I’ve had some very fancy bloodlines in the past and Old Hemlock breeding sounded good to me.

Wife Miki had other ideas. Knowing that a top bloodline pup would be expensive, and our budget was tight, ever frugal, she set out to find a new pup that wouldn’t break the bank. And by surfing the Internet, she came upon an extraordinary organization that rescued only English setters.

There she found detailed descriptions and multiple photos of many setters that desperately needed homes. Some were too old. Some had health issues. But one tri-color chestnut stole her heart. Summarily she announced to me that we were going to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to have a look at the one she liked.

I was furious! “I will not look at a rescue dog, especially if it’s four hundred miles away,” I fumed. I still had my heart set on aristocratic blood. “Plus, Richard Wolters in my bible Gun Dog says that you should get a pup at forty-nine days old. These rescues are older dogs. Who knows if they’ll hunt?” After three days of complete marital silence, I finally agreed to the trip.

I made her drive and sat stony-faced next to her, convinced that this was a waste of time. I would do my best to make it as unpleasant as possible. So, after what seemed to be an eternity, we finally stopped in front of a narrow brick rowhouse on a busy street.

As we entered the house, I was determined to keep my mood as sour as possible. But when we came into the living room, there were two feathery old-timers lounging on the couch. My heart began to melt… just a little. Then, in from the kitchen strode a beautiful, big chested bitch. I guessed that she was two or three.

Young Patch on woodcock in Maine.

Without hesitation, she sniffed me out. Then, she raised her head for a pat. She gazed into my eyes with that “setter look” and I started to feel my icy mood melt. But there was still so much to learn about her – most important: Would she hunt?

I gruffly ordered my hosts and Miki into the adjoining kitchen and curtly shut the door. I wanted to be completely alone with the pup. I lay down on the floor to be at her level and she immediately came and started licking my face.

Reaching into my coat pocket, I took out a grouse wing to which I had fastened a string. I tossed it in front of her and jerked it twice. She excitedly pounced. Talk about an explosion of energy! Had she suddenly found her purpose in life?

We continued to play “jerk the wing” and her desire grew and grew. When the string eventually pulled out of the wing, she bolted upstairs with the feathers locked in her jaws. I finally caught her and tugged it away, much to her disdain.

I allowed our hosts back into the room. “How did it go,” queried Miki with a smile. “Not bad. I think she might do,” I stiffly replied, trying hard to conceal my glee! We made small talk while Miki paid the modest adoption fee. All I wanted to do was to start home with my newly found hunting partner. She had a black spot around her left eye and I’d already named her Patch. The grouse season was starting soon, and Patch needed training. I was anxious to start.

Miki started driving with Patch crated in the rear of the Jeep. We were headed to the interstate for the long drive home. Ten minutes from Harrisburg I asked her to stop. Without a word I got out, uncrated Patch and together we got into the back seat. She slept all the way home with her head in my lap. Perhaps adopting was going to be okay….

Not bad for a rescue dog!

Patch was very birdy and a fast learner. She already knew the basic commands. After a little quail training, I ran her with my experienced older dogs. In no time she was holding point and “hunting dead,” even retrieving woodcock, uncommon for this breed.

Each year we’d follow the flights down from northern Maine through New Hampshire to western Massachusetts. She turned out to be easily as good or better than my non-rescue dogs. If there was a woodcock or grouse within 50 yards of her, it better watch out. We shot our fair share of doodles and paa-tridge on glorious Autumn days. And as the years passed, the size of the kill stopped mattering as much. I’ve now started shooting with a little .410. Why? I’m in it just for the dogs.

I’m guessing Patch is 13 now and has recently slowed down quite a bit. She has arthritis in her front left leg and walks with a limp. And when I rub her chest I have feelings of foreboding as I feel the lumps growing under her skin. All the same, she did great last October in the three tiny coverts I saved just for her.

EPILOGUE: It’s been a year since I first wrote this story and another hunting season has come and gone. My beloved Patch passed in my arms on April 25, 2018. She’ll always own a piece of my heart.

Author’s note. Because rescue setters have been shunted around to various temporary homes, they desperately need a permanent home for life. You will sign a contract to this effect if you adopt one. I have been incredibly blessed with mine. However, many will not hunt. It is a big commitment and remember this if you plan to proceed.

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