Appalachian Grouse Dog: A Boomer’s Memoir is in fact three memoirs written by three people about one animal: a Ryman-bred English setter whelped in 1993 named Cokesbury’s Commander.
Part I is written by Dennis LaBare, the dog’s owner; Part II by LaBare’s friend and grouse-hunting/bird-dogging mentor, Bill Horn; and Part III by LaBare’s wife, Stacy, who became Commander’s “mom” upon marrying Dennis, in 2001.
The sections are arranged in chronological order, with Dennis, who these days would be described as an “adult-onset hunter,” taking us through his acquisition of Commander as a pup and the joys, rewards and, yes, frustrations of their first year together. Then a 40-year-old “boomer” (read: aspirational workaholic) with no experience as a dog owner, LaBare made the mistakes we all do. Thankfully, he learned from them.
It’s at this point that Horn picks up the narrative. His focus is the decade or so when he and LaBare followed Commander up and down the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia in search of birds—and along the way came to realize that Commander was a kind of genius, gifted with an uncanny ability to puzzle out tangled scent and pin even the wildest, wariest grouse. Writes Horn of those hallowed years: “Hundreds of contacts with the birds, his inherent intelligence, persistent gentle training, some overdue patience from Dennis, and sensible expectations had come together . . . . I was glad to come along for the ride.”
Stacy LaBare, for her part, sensitively limns Commander’s transition from star performer to “spot reliever” and to full-time family companion—a role he accepted with the grace, good humor and remarkable equanimity that seems to have always characterized him. All of us who’ve been blessed with a once-in-a-lifetime dog—especially if the dog happened to be an English setter—will recognize parts of him or her in this fine, heartfelt book.
The hardcover, with a foreword by Steve Smith and black & white illustrations by Gordon Allen, is available for $33 from sunburypress.com.