My Dog, Rock – 1995-2009

Duck hunting has been hard for me during the last couple of duck seasons. As the Ducks Unlimited biologist here in Montana I have ample opportunity to pursue waterfowl in some of the most beautiful and challenging settings imaginable, and I am truly blessed. The downside has been that my favorite hunting partner Rock was getting older, and he just couldn’t put on the miles and brave the elements like he used to.

Rock came into my life the year I started working for Ducks Unlimited. From the time I was a little kid I had always wanted a dog. Circumstances when I was growing up didn’t allow me to have one and I knew that the obligations of military service and college were not going to give me the free time to train and hunt with a dog either. Finally, in 1995, I knew the time was right. At the age of 33 I had just started with DU as the state biologist and was stationed in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, one of the best waterfowl-hunting locations in North America. I needed a dog.

Bob Sanders and his dog, RockI can still remember the day I picked up Rock. I had looked at dozens of litters of Lab pups that fall and never quite found the right one. When I pulled up to Rick and Polly Beasley’s house near Bailey, Colo., and a fine-looking female yellow Lab and 12 healthy pups came up to the fence to greet me, I knew I was going home with my first dog. Having 16 pounds the most beautiful Lab pup I had ever seen curled up on my lap for the three-hour drive home made me the happiest guy on the face of the Earth that day. I still remember stopping on top of Kenosha Pass on the drive home in a full-blown blizzard to let him take a pee break and looking down at that little bundle of fur squatting in the snow, imagining what great times lay ahead for both of us. I didn’t know it at the time, but my life had just changed forever.

Rock and I became inseparable. I had always been what I consider to be a “dog nut.” I just love dogs, period. You always know where you stand with a dog and I believe that dogs know a “dog person” when they meet one. Rock and I did everything together, and I mean EVERYTHING. Eat, sleep, walks, travel, train – you name it. The DU program in Colorado was just getting underway at that time and I was traveling more than 70 hours a week throughout the state looking at wetland project sites. Rock had his spot in the passenger seat of the old Ford pick-up, nose out the window, sniffing out the next adventure. We camped out in all but the worst weather and I smuggled him into hotels when the temperatures got too low. Everyone knew Rock – agency partners, landowners, even the kids working at the local Wendy’s would see me pulling through the drive-through and line up a couple of burgers for him. He had it made…and so did I.

Rock was 10 months old when his first duck season arrived. We had trained from the day we met, first a duck wing and mini-bumper, eventually graduating to full-sized bumpers, multiple retrieves, blind retrieves, the works. Don’t get me wrong, we had our frustrations just like any other good partnership, but when the dust settled we knew we had a job to do, and Rock and I took our hunting very seriously. On opening day of the 1996 season we were in North Park, Colo., at my friend Bert’s pond. It was late afternoon and the area was thick with teal. I swung on the first bird, a fast, low-flyer, and crumpled him with a load of #4 steel. The bird skipped twice across the water and crashed into the cattails about 30 yards away. Rock plunged into the water on a direct line to the bird. He swam in and out of the cattails for about a minute before I came out to help with the search. No bird. I was sure I had hit the teal hard but try as we might we couldn’t find that bird. I knew we would have plenty more opportunities, but I didn’t want to start Rock’s hunting career off with a lost bird. We shot the remainder of our limit (I count lost birds as part of my limit) and sat and watched ducks work the pond as both Rock and I admired our four beautiful teal. I couldn’t have been more proud. In those days I had an old wheeled cart that I carried my decoys and gear in, so I gathered up the decoys as Rock sniffed and explored the area around our blind. We headed for the truck with the decoy cart bouncing over the hummocks. That’s when I noticed Rock with a bird in his mouth. At first I thought I had dropped a dead bird out of the cart and I was very pleased that Rock was able to make sure his buddy Bob didn’t carelessly leave a harvested bird in the field. I brought him to heel, gave him tons of praise then took the bird from him. I was startled when the bird nearly jumped out of my hand. It was our lost bird!

Rock on the retrieve

I could go on and on about the adventures that Rock and I had over his 14 years. Duck hunts in sub-zero temperatures, backpacking trips in the mountains, grilled elk steaks that mysteriously disappeared from the table a few minutes before dinnertime, almost losing him through the ice on the Rio Grande on a cold February day – the list goes on. Rock shared a blind with more people than I can remember and dozens of kids shot their first ducks over him. Rock even made it on an episode of the DU-TV show and had his picture in the Denver Post a couple of times. Of the literally hundreds of DU project sites that I have worked on, I can’t remember a single one that Rock didn’t visit with me. He sired 63 pups in his day, many of which turned out to be top-notch hunters. I could go on and on and probably write a book on our adventures, but sometimes those memories are best kept in a guy’s heart.

Rock died on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2009, 20 days short of his fourteenth birthday. It was really tough for me. Even now as I write this, I have tears streaming down my face. I have been in Montana for four years now, and even though I have some very good friends here and they all knew and loved Rock, none of them knew the young, hard-hunting, unstoppable dog that he was in his earlier years. My long-time friends that knew Rock and how close we were have been very supportive. They remind me that 14 years is a long life for a dog and I know they are right. Every one of us that has put our heart and soul into a dog, and had them give us the unconditional love and devotion that only a true friend can, knows the feeling. You can try to describe it, but sometimes things are just better left unsaid. All I know is that I gave Rock everything I had and he dedicated his life to me in return, and it just doesn’t get any better than that. Rest in peace, my friend.


8 Responses to “My Dog, Rock – 1995-2009”

  1. 1 Ray Scoggins December 30, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    Read your article about “Rock”. A great story that I could myself repeat. I lost my Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retreiver in June this year after almost 14 years of faithful companionship and I cried like a baby—So I know how you are feeling.
    After 6 months, my wife and I are now on the hunt for a new toller puppy. Aren’t dogs great.

    Ray Scoggins

  2. 2 Alvaro Barcellos Souza Mouawad January 5, 2010 at 11:55 pm

    Dear Bob

    As a “dog person” as you and a owner of two old female labs (12 and 13 years old) that are all time with me (I own a duck hunting lodge here in Uruguay) I imagine what I will feel in the moments that are getting close. Be strong and know that Rock will be always at your side. Please think in him in your great hunt this and next seasons!
    Alvaro Barcellos Souza Mouawad
    Lake Merin Oufitters – Uruguay

  3. 3 Russ Boudreau January 7, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    Dear Bob,
    I’m having a hard time seeing my typing through the tears rolling out of my eyes, and while your beautiful recant of your life and time with Rock got them started, many of these tears have other dogs tied to them. I’m remembering my first guy, Sarge, and my cherished boy, Thunder. Shoot, you’ve got me reminiscing about my buddies dog Shaeffer, and even my sister’s Lab Buddy. The list goes on and on. And you’ve put into words the truth behind loving your dog and your dog’s love for you. The scary thing is that I’ve got to face this truth once again in the not so distant future with my pal, Boomer. I’ve done it before and I know I’ll do it again, and thanks to you, I’ll feel a little more a ease with things while I make certain to reflect on all the good times.


    Russ Boudreau

  4. 4 Mac January 9, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    Great story my friend – I almost choked up myself – then I called my Chessie over for a good back scratch and while I hope to have many more years with her, I feel your pain Bro. . .

    Take Care,

  5. 5 Butler Strain January 9, 2010 at 4:01 pm


    Great story…I can relate as a military man and a dog lover. I am about to begin the search for my first hunting lab as I am a relatively new waterfowl hunter. I just hope that I can have half the experiences you had with Rock.

    Thank you,

    Butler Strain

  6. 6 Terry January 14, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    Dear Bob, as avid waterfowl hunter and Lab owner I can relate your to loss. I`ve owned four labs over the years and I can tell you that there is nothing more heartbreaking than to loose your hunting buddies (your lab) reguardless of how good or bad the retrieves may have been from season to season. You share everything in a duck blind with your dog and even learn to talk with them (they are good listeners)! Take plenty of pictures of them for when they pass on it`s always comforting to reminisce. Hang in there!

  7. 7 Ben January 22, 2010 at 3:15 am

    Bill Tarrant wrote a lot of beautiful things, among them was this: (or something close to it anyway) “Pup’s dying. So are you, but Pup will get there first.” From the moment they come into our lives, our dogs are dying. So are we. But we’re the ones who have to say goodbye most of the time. Every time we put a hand in that soft coat, every shot fired over a companion whining in anticipation, every retrieve, every boat ride, every dark morning he trembles while we sip coffee and collect our shells, he is slipping away. We can refuse to love and avoid the pain of loss, or we can drink up every moment with our best pals. It may not seem like it now, but I think the trade-off is worth it . . . I’m sorry for your loss . . .


  8. 8 Kevin Haynes January 22, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    What great memory and the timing could not have been better.

    As I write this, I have an old warrior (Narco) who has been through numerous goose shoots and pheasant hunts curled up at my feet.

    For many years, Narco was exactly like your Rock. Always with me, travelling with me to work sites, grocery runs, whereever I went, he was right beside me.
    As he entered his twelve hunting season this past fall, I started to notice that although his drive and nose were as exceptional as always…..he just couldn’t chase down those runners, or jump up into the kennel like he used to. It was official on Dec 31st, that was his last hunt. As the winter has progressed, it has not been kind, watching him walk, trying to get up a step, or even just moving from room to room, I know that he is struggling mightily…’s tough on him, absolute hell on me. I take some comfort from your memory and can only hope better days are ahead

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