by Suzi Burton

Rabbit retrieve July 2012I have been asked many times why I didn’t have Chyna put to sleep. Over the last year or so she has gone from winning awards at Open field trials through chronic illness, glaucoma and blindness.

But the thing about my Chyna is her unwavering determination to get on with life with a happiness and optimism that is just inspiring.

Only twice since she became ill at just aged 4 years, did I think about the option of euthanasia – once right at the beginning when diagnosis was slow and she was clearly in pain, and latterly when her eyes became so painful that she became almost bedridden. Both times were the only indications from her that her life was draining of quality. Throughout all the other ups and downs, she never felt sorry for herself and so I resolved not to feel sorry for her either, but to go along with her as long as she wanted to fight on.

My devastation was for myself, the loss of my all-time best shooting companion just as she was coming in to her prime, a kindly soul who never wanted to do anything wrong.

For nearly a year, costing thousands of pounds of medical care beyond her insurance,  I fought hard to keep her overall condition improving and her eyes in, administering expensive drops several times a day, but in the end had to admit that my last option was to have them removed to alleviate her obviously increasing discomfort.

The veterinary eye specialists had told me soon after the glaucoma was diagnosed that it was better for Chyna to take the eyes out, and anecdotal advice from friends with experience of blindness and glaucoma nevertheless was considered and then dismissed. I couldn’t understand that life without eyes could be better…. But in the end there was no choice.

At the end of a busy day in her sheepskin lined bedThe improvement in her spirits came the night she came home with big stitches where her eyes had been…… I fed her alone where her bed had become in the living room, left her quietly and crept to the kitchen to feed the others. I turned around to see her at the door, wobbly from anaesthetic, wanting more food!

A few days later I took her, as always with the rest of the gang, to my shoot barbeque, parking a good way away so as to be able to keep her from knocking in to anything. By the time I had let the others out and locked the car, I turned around to see her about 100 yards down the field, standing next to the barbeque, having negotiated her way around cars, marquee lines and chairs, following her nose to the smells of sausages!

We have never looked back. Chyna is an amazing example of an animal’s survival instincts and her sunny, happy-go-lucky disposition reappeared in proportion to her disappearing pain.

Everyone who knew her as she was, a good-natured, active and talented shooting dog, is amazed by her. I make a point of taking her out in public for others to meet her so I can tell her story.

On pointI never worry about her meeting other dogs, she is still sociable with people and dogs, only twice being attacked for being too close to their humans and unable to read the warning lip curl. She backed off both times.

She has an uncanny knack of turning before she hits stationary objects like walls, doors and cars, although she can come crashing into humans at a rate of knots. She has made mistakes, falling down ditches or careering in to hedges but she hardly misses a step, just carries on regardless.

She has built on her armoury of words and corresponding whistle commands she knew from training before – ‘heel’, ‘sit’, ‘come’ ‘down’, ‘on’ to hunt, ‘fetch’ to retrieve and ‘back’, ‘left’ and ‘right’ plus the ‘hunt there’ to be able to handle her on to retrieves.

I have been able to add ‘stop’ to cut her dead in her tracks, if she is for example heading for barbed wire, and ‘step’ to indicate steps or stairs or a dip coming up.

Armed with this lexicon, she can now come out rabbiting (video clips of her retrieves have been posted on youtube:

 and she has started this shooting season as one of my picking up team - making retrieves and ‘sweeping’ after drives, bringing game back to hand in with her usual tenderness, guided in by my verbal praise to a sit and present in front of me.  She accompanies me while I am shooting and we will try her deer tracking this season.Relentless in the water

She is also relentless in water, refusing to come out until she has found, even on the most submerged plastic dummy or game. Sometimes I am training the others only to find she has already got in the water on my commands and is swimming around looking for the retrieves!

Her searching in water is fascinating to watch, honing in on the barest scent track, changing direction as she loses then refinds the drifting bird or dummy, aided by my verbal and whistle directions.

On land, when she first went blind her gait was a ‘hackney’step, not sure of what lay in front of her, so careful to lift her feet high. Now on local paths she goes lickety-spit in front of me, ‘bouncing’ off the bordering vegetation with no loss of pace or determination.

On open ground, I tell her ‘away’ and she hunts at speed away from me, often finding game, and when she pauses to check her orientation I call her, at which point she comes charging back like there is no tomorrow. I try to let her be as independent as possible, and often leave her to it, so she air scents her way back to where I or the other dogs are. In close woodland if she feels unconfident about knocking in to trees, she automatically comes to heel until I reassure her she can go ‘away’ again.

A while ago I substituted her at an obedience class when my other bitch was in season. Unknown to me that week was an assessment by hard-core Obedience judges! Chyna dutifully did the heelwork off lead, with all the sits, down, rejoins, recalls and stops in mid recall they threw at her – and come out with First Prize rosette!

A quick turn at full speedSince her operation to have her eyes removed, Chyna’s ‘migraine’ (as the pain of glaucoma has been described when at its most pressured), has gone. A measure of Chyna’s increased confidence is her cheekiness, sometimes ignoring my stop whistle or directions, thinking she can do it herself, but this I take as a positive sign, and just correct her as I would if she could see. She also knows by some sort of telepathy when I am about to go into the living room for the evening, going along the hallway ahead but always waiting to be invited in before making her way to her basket, standing like a starving child facing the feed bin when it is time to be fed, and making her way upstairs to sleep on the sheepskin by my bed at night, and down again in the morning but only when she is sure it is breakfast time. She takes herself accurately along the path in to the garden to relieve herself, where I have put a small bell on the corner of the lawn, so she knows where to step down but this is really her only ‘white stick’.


Part of the teamAnother indication of her wellness comes from the pack – while Chyna was ill, Delta, my 4 year old, stepped in to the role of Chief, a part which did not sit well with her. Chyna has now taken back the reins and peace is restored, Delta making a daily ritual of grovelling to Chyna and Chyna playing her part by growling in a bossy way, just to keep Delta happy!

And so Chyna’s story is not one of loss but full of positive lessons about trust, trying and teamwork. She is a big part of my life and a valued member of The Trubon Team, hopefully for many years to come. She is priceless in every way.