A lover of duck hunting, Brendan Donahue knew the value of a good retriever, and when at last he tired of slogging around picking up his quarry, he set his mind to getting one and training it himself.
“We had another dog for 13 years named Nestle that Brendan never trained,” said Donahue’s wife, Jessica. “He always felt bad about not being able to take him hunting so when he got Gus, he was adamant that ‘This dog is going to hunt!’ ”
The search for the perfect dog was harder than expected. The father of four couldn’t justify putting up thousands for a pup with the right bloodlines, so his had to favor pluck and price tag over pedigree.
“Brendan’s criteria was a puppy from registered AKC labs, he wanted to be able to see the mom and the dad and wanted to know both the parents were hunting dogs, not pets.” Jessica said. “I asked him once why he chose Gus. ‘He was the first one out of the house,’ was the answer.”
Brendan trained Gus until the next duck season and then took him out for his first hunt. The year-old dog was raw, but showed a spark that was undeniable, drawing praise out of his notoriously tight-lipped master.
“All I ever heard was, ‘[Gus] did everything I could expect him to do,’” Jessica said. “Still, I knew Brendan was very happy with his choice.”
Gus’ inaugural season proved to be the last shared by dog and master; Brendan died suddenly in June 2012, leaving behind a stunned and distraught family. Overnight, Jessica found herself saddled with mountains of final arrangements, grieving children and the question of what to do with a half-trained hunting dog.
“The first months after Brendan died, every time I looked at the dog I had this overwhelming thought: ‘What am I going to do with you?’ “ she said. “Gus was about 18 months old and hunted the one season. I felt something very strongly that I had to do something with the dog.
“My thought was I would find someone to finish training him so that my nephews and Brendan’s friends could hunt with him so every duck season I wouldn’t have to see the dog laying around the backyard and hear those words, ‘This dog is going to hunt.’ ”
It was a quest more difficult than she could have imagined; most trainers looked at Gus’ age and lack of bloodline and bowed out. Jessica got the name of Reese Hudson from Ozark Kennels, who agreed to take on the project — on one condition
“He said, ‘I’ll take him for one month, I won’t waste your money, I’ll know in a month if there is anything there,’ ” Jessica said.
Leaving Gus at the kennel was itself difficult, representing another part of Brendan that would be missing from the family circle, albeit temporarily. Jessica was comforted somewhat by the fact that at least Gus would continue something he and his fallen master had done together which, she reasoned, would introduce some normalcy back into his routine. Beyond that, she harbored no expectations.
“I figured Reece would call me in a month to tell me Gus was a very happy dog, but that I needed to come get him,” she said. “Instead, he called and asked me ‘Did you know that he can mark?’ My answer was ‘I don’t even know what that is.’ ”
That first month’s discovery turned into 18 months of intensive training in which the non-pedigreed Gus excelled. Between March 2013 and August 2014, he tested and passed nine times against zero failing marks, picking up AKC, HR and HRCH status along the way.
Impressive as it was to watch the bargain pup reach such elite status, it paled in comparison to the joy Jessica got in seeing Gus trundle along with hunting family members or Brendan’s hunting buddies during duck season; groups that eventually included her as well.
“After one of those hunts, a friend of Brendan’s called me afterward and told me that he remembered something after I left,” she said. “He told me he remembered standing in that same hole about two years before, with those same people and my husband saying, ‘Hey, I got a puppy and I think he’s going to be pretty good.’
“The 18 months Gus was training were filled with fun, excitement and hope; something to look forward to and fun in a time period that was not so very fun at all. He was a project I never thought would go as long as it did, a project that kept all of those conversations that I had with Brendan going in my head. This dog did, in fact, hunt and hunt well.”