by John Musser
Whelped on January 2, 2005, one of five females, of Angus and Tess II, at Wildrose Kennels near Oxford, MS., beloved Musser family member and devoted gun dog….. lovingly put to rest July 1, 2016.
With retirement in sight, my wife, Melanie and I were actively discussing our respective bucket lists. On one occasion I announced that there was one thing I had always wanted. Melanie at once gasped, “oh no, you want a boat.” No, I said, I want a hunting dog.“ No problem she said, If you want a dog, why wait, get one now.” Just so we were clear I explained it wasn’t just any lab that I wanted. I went on to detail the attributes of the quintessential hunting dog I desired. When I finished we shared the understanding that this was going to be an endeavor requiring a serious commitment and considerable resource. You don’t have to call me twice to dinner! The saga had begun.
Researching the internet led us to the renowned Wildrose Kennels, but to be sure we made the trek from Michigan to Oxford to meet the trainer and see the operation first hand. We were extremely impressed. Their reputation for turning-out labs with the exemplary gun dog qualities I desired was instantly confirmed once Mike and Cathy walked us through the process and showed us around the operation.
We first met our Tess on February 18, 2005. She was distinctly unique among her four sisters due to her shyness, sleek coat and wagging tail. Thus the AKC registration, “Wildrose Ouin Tess n tail”. I remember Mike’s parting words to each of the new owners on pickup day, “Each of your Wildrose dogs are very special – don’t screw them up!”
Tess (or “wiggle-bum”, as she was affectionately called by my grandson) was certainly special. She was a very quick start with her obedience and basic training and showed an intense desire to please almost from the day we met her. Most who met Tess during those first few months expressed amazement at how well mannered she was around other dogs and strangers. Though sweet she was, when it was time to train she was all business. Ditto at dinner time.
Tess was a great traveler. On our first trip together while checking-in at a hotel the desk clerk was reluctant to allow Tess to stay in our room. I reasoned that Tess was less likely to make a mess than my brother who they were allowing in the room. All the while we were discussing the situation Tess sat at heel quietly. After peeking over the front desk to see how Tess was behaving, the clerk said it would be ok for Tess stay in the room but they might have to reconsider the decision regarding my brother. Just to show off, the next morning we went to the continental breakfast with Tess. She sat quietly outside the breakfast room until we finished and had checked out. Knowing her passion for eating, that episode told me a lot about whether she was steady enough for prime time in hunt South Dakota.
Before we knew it the time had come to return Tess to Wildrose for her next level of training regimen. Mike and his staff worked with Tess everyday for six months. When we came to get her after this training Mike took me on a walk to demonstrate what Tess had learned. I was so proud of her. This was my dog following each command without hesitation or fault. I was astonished when Mike brought her to the caged pheasant pen. Mike proceeded to throw the bumper into a dozen or so pheasants at the end of the pen. With pheasants flying every which way he sends Tess into the fray to retrieve the bumper. Holy Toledo, how could any dog stay focused, but she did. That little demonstration nearly popped the buttons on the front of my shirt. Somebody call South Dakota and warn the pheasants that Tess is ready and she’s coming soon to town!
Soon thereafter Tess and I were pheasant hunting in South Dakota for the first time. My dream had come true. This was the real world and Tess had some things to learn and so did I. Mike always said developing a Wildrose gun dog was more about training the owner than training the dog (right you are, Mr. Stewart). Despite my best efforts Tess turned out fantastic.
One lesson taught early on was when Tess learned about barbed wire, the hard way. A bird got winged and I sent Tess to run it down. Tess got momentarily snagged on a hidden fence but broke free and ultimately found and retrieved the bird to me. She suffered a gash above her eye and a slash on her leg. Fortunately the car and first aid were close at hand. It also helped that there was an emergency room doctor in our hunting party. After we cleaned her up we covered the dressing on her leg with duct tape as that was all we had. A bit later we called it a day and posed for pictures with the dogs and harvested birds. Unfortunately I sent a copy of the pictures to Melanie and within seconds she emailed me back wondering why Tess’ leg was all taped up. I had no choice but to confess she had been hurt. After reassuring Melanie we took Tess to the local vet to get stitched up. Tess never skipped a beat and hunted full-tilt the remainder of our trip. Lessons learned – introduce your dog to barbed wire before you hunt and be sure to crop pictures of the dog as needed before sending them to your wife.
After the first year of hunting with Tess and even though I was delighted with her performance I felt she could benefit from the advanced training offered by Wildrose. In the interest of brevity let me just say it was well worth it. What was good before became great and what was great became outstanding.
Before we could get to South Dakota the second time Tess was diagnosed with heartworm, despite having been on a rigorous preventative treatment program almost from birth. She became very debilitated and gained a lot of excess weight due to the steroid treatments. For months we couldn’t even let her play in the yard. The recovery was slow and at times we thought we might be fighting a losing battle. Through it all Tess was incredibly stoic and kept fighting, never not wagging her tail. Finally she started to improve but not enough to allow her to hunt. It hurt to leave her at home when I went to South Dakota that next year.
Tess and I spent the next summer rehabilitating. Amazingly, she made a remarkable recovery and was on top of her game as we returned to South Dakota. If there was a retrieve to be made she did it. If there was cover you wanted her to hunt she never balked. If other dogs couldn’t locate a cripple Tess would often make the retrieve. Her nose was her best asset and a marvel to behold when she would position herself to wind and locate downed birds. No question she really knew her business.
In the off season Tess and I would practice by playing hide and seek the bumper in the basement, which was half finished and half unfinished. I’d have her sit while I hid the bumper in the unfinished side and then I would send her for the retrieve. You could not fool that girl. The same was true outdoors as she demonstrated weekly her prowess by locating and retrieving the Sunday New York Times (the size of a snow goose) wherever in the shrubs it had been tossed by the delivery boy.
Tess’ troubles didn’t stop with the heartworm. As time passed chronic joint arthritis continued to worsen and the effects became more evident. While there was no indication of diminished interest in hunting even up to the end, you could see her losing mobility bit by bit. Increasing the type and dosage of various medications seemed to provide some comfort for her but after a few more years it was clear the meds weren’t doing enough. In good conscience I couldn’t hunt her any longer. Her obvious pain was hard enough to witness but It was truly heartbreaking not to take her hunting. At that point we decided to keep medicating her until such time she no longer had reasonable quality of life.
Near the end Tess was pretty sedentary, mostly staying to herself, but continued to rise whenever the other dogs rose to go outdoors. She often would take a short swim in the pond with our two other Wildrose labs. Sometimes we would toss a bumper into the pond for her. She always made the retrieve and returned to heel at my side until I accepted her retrieve. She had such joy in her eyes when she was making these simple retrieves. The same look I had seen so many times before when Tess was retrieving birds.
The only thing that rivaled her excitement for hunting was her passion for eating. She would literally lay in front of the bag of food to guard it from any assault by the other dogs. It’s the only time I have seen her bare her teeth. Without fail, each time she was going to be fed she would crank up the tail wagging and starting doing the rocking horse dance. You could always tell when it was time for Tess to eat because five minutes before or after her designated feed time she would come sit in front of us with her bowl in her mouth. Eating time, like hunting time, was happy time.
We knew our days were numbered with Tess and we often discussed what would be our sign the time was here to let her go. We decided that when she no longer rose with the other dogs or showed a lack of interest in eating we would know that was the end. One morning, wondering why Tess hadn’t come to roust us from bed, as she routinely did, we found her still in her bed, clearly not interested in getting up, not even to eat. That was Tess’ last day.
Tess was family to be sure and we were most certainly blessed to have known and loved her. What a sweetheart, what a devoted friend, what a brilliant huntress, what a stoic soldier……our quintessential Wildrose Tess.