A bird hunter is only as good as his dog.
I've been lucky enough to hunt with some good ones, but two of the best I've worked with recently ended their careers.
My parents gave my sister and I each a Brittany puppy for Christmas in 1995.
After a lot of training, those young pups -- Sarah and Brittany -- became an integral part of our bird hunting success.
We usually hunted pheasants, and while training them I was just as much of a dog as they were -- I learned to hunt with them and paid my dues, knowing that one day, I'd be one of the shooters.
While chucker hunting with our new dogs, my dad would sometimes send my sister and I out with some birds and orange cones. Every time we planted a bird, we laid down a cone to mark the spot.
The suspense would build as the dogs worked around the marked-off area, then soon one dog would come to a halt, with the other not far behind.
They'd creep up on the bird, but always stopped with a "whoa" from my dad or me.
When the bird finally flushed, my dad would crack a round or two with his 20-gauge shotgun, and I'd pretend to take a couple shots with the "Pirates of the Caribbean" long rifle my parents got me from Disneyland.
Not only were our dogs good at pointing, they were amazing retrievers too.
Each dog would race to snatch up the bird first and bring it back. Sometimes they'd each grab hold of the same bird and retrieve it together.
My dad would toss the bird in the back of my hunting vest -- it was a few sizes too big -- and we were off to find another. We'd keep on the hunt until the sun started going down. Then it was time to pluck and clean our haul.
It was exciting for my sister and I, but I think it was more exciting for the dogs.
They never slowed down -- for anything or anyone.
I can vividly recall one example when I was 8 or 9 years old. Both dogs ran up behind me. Each took out one of my legs and left me flat on my back. I wasn't sure what I'd done to them, but figured I deserved it.
Their energy was fun to hunt behind when we were able to keep up with them.
Our bird hunting has slowed down since Brittany died a few months ago at 14. Sarah, 15, doesn't have much hunt left in her -- she has two bad hips, bad vision and she can't hear well.
My dad and I have talked about what kind of dogs we'll get to take their spots. Maybe another set of pointers or maybe a breed that can hunt big game too, such as a German short-haired pointer.
Whatever dogs come next in line, there's no way to replace the two dogs that I grew up with. The two dogs who, with my dad, taught me how to hunt.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.