By Tom Huggler
The worst thing that can happen to your dog may depend on what you fear the most. Getting accidentally shot, bitten by a rattlesnake or blundering into a coyote snare are possibilities. For me, experiencing a lost dog tops the list of horrors, because if I don’t know where my partner is, I can’t fix the problem. Nothing in my canine first-aid kit will help. Neither will the nearest animal hospital or the world’s best veterinarian. All I can do is worry until the dog finds its way back or someone finds it and calls my phone number on the collar.
One of the longest nights of my life occurred a few years ago when my setter Ragan was only a few months old. It was a snowy December afternoon in northern Michigan when my friend Tom and I decided to hunt grouse along a narrow trail through thick conifers. With the light fading and time running short, I released Ragan along with my older setter, Blake, and Butterscotch, my female yellow Lab.
Because of the cloaking evergreens, we didn’t see the only grouse we flushed.
Turning back, I realized Blake had separated from the group. We waited until nearly dark, and then trudged on through the snow, hoping Blake would follow our tracks to my pickup. As we neared the gravel road where I had parked, Ragan suddenly raced ahead, and I knew why: Earlier we had noticed a deer carcass half-eaten by coyotes, and the young dog was more interested in venison than hunting birds. When I caught up and tried to leash him, Ragan broke free of my grasp, ran into the road and was struck by a car.
In slow-motion agony, I watched a Jeep Grand Cherokee traveling perhaps 10 mph hit my dog. Yelping, with his tail between his legs, Ragan bolted into the dense woods and disappeared.
Now I had two dogs missing and one might be severely injured. Tom agreed to talk to the driver, a panic-stricken older woman, while I plunged into the woods to find Ragan. I half-expected to spot him lying in terrible pain—a broken leg or back—unable to move. But the woods were so dense and dark that I could have walked within 10 feet and not seen him. I called, whistled and pleaded, but Ragan made no sound.
Tom lived nearby, and when he went home to get firewood and a sleeping bag, I kept searching and calling. The snow eventually stopped, and the stars came out—and so did Blake, which solved half of the missing-dog scare. Our hope restored, Tom and I built a roaring fire and waited until nearly midnight for Ragan. After adding the last of the wood to the fire, I laid out my hunting vest and a pan of food and hoped the coyotes wouldn’t find it—or Ragan. Then we went to Tom’s house, where neither of us slept well.
The next morning the fire was out and the food was gone. The snow under my flattened vest had melted. Ragan was alive! But it was Butterscotch, Ragan’s kennelmate, who found him later that morning.
The instant Ragan playfully chased her from the snow-covered woods, I knew my worst fears were over.