Michael Coyle grew up duck hunting, a passion he continued to master while a student of occupational therapy at Gannon University on Lake Erie. On early mornings before class, he worked birds with Tocchet, his black lab — christened in honor of the hockey player. Tocchet, a certified therapy dog, even knew sign language. The lab was so well-trained that, for more than a year, he hid under a table in a guard shack while Michael worked as a part-time security guard. In a weak moment, Tocchet licked the hand of Michael’s boss, who theretofore had not permitted dogs on the premises. As you might guess, the employer immediately relaxed his policy regarding pets.
Once he moved to South Carolina and founded Charleston Pediatric Rehabilitation, Michael turned his attention to dove hunting. Though he had always hunted with labs, he acquired Gilbert, a tri-colored English springer spaniel, from a patient who breeds springers on Edisto Island.
As a parent of young children, Michael did not have as much uninterrupted time to train Gilbert. He and the seven-month-old springer hunted doves at Donnelley Wildlife Management Area and also at a private dove club. When his son, Finn ,began accompanying his father in the field, Coyle took Gilbert to Botany Bay Plantation Wildlife Management Area on Edisto Island for a youth-only dove hunt. The trip to the island of his birth was a homecoming for the springer spaniel.
Coyle considers it a sort of natural duty to train your dog. “In South Carolina, where more people hunt, it’s a bit different, but most dogs nowadays don’t do their jobs anymore. People don’t understand dogs have a purpose and love to do it. They’re like the ‘poor horses’ downtown pulling carriages that feel nearly empty to the horses; those horses want to work. It’s the same for dogs: It’s merely 100 years of breeding and their instinct; hunting is what they were born to do.”
When Michael was training Gilbert, he walked him over to other sportsmen to help them locate their harvest. On several occasions when leaving the field for the day, on his way out, Gilbert discovered dead birds lost to other hunters. “As far as locating birds, Gilbert would definitely find them!” Coyle recalls. “He had a great nose. When he caught the scent, he would almost trip over himself if he had to turn right or left and you would see how excited he was!”
One day at Donnelley, Coyle and Gilbert offered their services. “This guy had a dog and his dog couldn’t find a dove he had shot. I asked him if I could help. He said: ‘No, I must have missed that bird.’ I turned Gilbert loose and said ‘Dead lost, Gilbert’; he found that bird in 40 seconds!” The dejected gentleman was none too happy, empathic to his retriever’s wounded pride. Had he looked on the bright side, he would have rejoiced in his own fine marksmanship.
“One time I had Gilbert at a Ducks Unlimited dove shoot on private land,” Michael continues. “Of all those high-bred and well-trained dogs, Gilbert was the man! My dad was with me and I shot four doves in succession. Gilbert dropped the second two birds by my chair before I even realized I had hit them. Of course, Gilbert should have been sitting there until I gave a command for him to retrieve.
“But, I guess I would rather have well-trained kids than a well-trained dog. Gilbert wasn’t perfect; sometimes, he would move too soon and cause birds to flare, but he was a good dog,” Coyle declares with pride and emotion.
Besides his fine nose, Gilbert possessed a discerning eye. “What amazes me about that dog, he would know if a bird was a dove or not. If it wasn’t a dove, he ignored it. But when a dove flew behind you and you didn’t see it, he would start after it and look back at you” — wondering why you hadn’t fired yet.
Springer spaniels were hardly so named by chance. In dove fields full of water dogs, Coyle enjoyed watching his “born flush dog” leap. “The one story I love to tell about him looking for a bird: He was jumping through some tall grass at the edge of the field. I couldn’t see him, but every now and then as he jumped, I could just see the top of his long ears flapping above the grass.”
For the past several years, now-14-year-old Adelaide Coyle has been hunting with her father. As an eighth-grader, Adelaide — now a freshman at Bishop England High School — was a starting catcher and lead-off hitter for the Bishops; her batting average was .340 and her on-base percentage is .500.
Despite her busy athletic schedule, which also includes basketball, Adelaide is eager to go hunting with her father every time he invites her. On a trip to Botany Bay last year, so many birds filled the sky that the girl fired her 50-shell limit within an hour. “I love to go hunting because I am able to enjoy nature with my dogs and my dad,” she says.
Michael is likewise thrilled to go hunting with his daughter. “Hunting is more common in S.C., but even here, there isn’t a big father-daughter hunting tandem. Ads loves it. I think she should become a DNR agent!”
This year, the dove hunt at Botany Bay Plantation WMA is an adult/youth hunt. On September 7, Michael took Gilbert, Sid and Adelaide to Botany Bay. Sid is the family’s 20-month-old yellow lab, who has been more accustomed to following Gilbert in the field. “Even though Gilbert was excited and wanted to retrieve, he was getting tired. Adelaide was very worried about him and she really wanted to get birds for him to bring back,” since the Coyle’s were all too cognizant of the dog’s waning health. “Adelaide actually did make a fabulous shot and Gilbert ended up retrieving four birds on that first hunt of the year.”
The initial hunt took place only a couple of days after Hurricane Dorian. “One of the guys mentioned they almost didn’t have it because of the storm. Of course, we don’t know what the storm did to the birds. We had doves and it would have been an even better hunt if more hunters had been in the field,” Coyle says, explaining that more firing from dove hunters help keep the birds moving — preventing them from merely landing in the middle of the field to feed.
Coyle’s springer excelled in his different roles. “Gilbert was a great family dog. He was definitely a people-dog. He has to be around people; if you moved into another room, Gilbert was constantly moving with you to be with people. But, he definitely was in his element when he was hunting.”
Unfortunately, all great dog stories seem to share the same inevitable ending. Last week, Coyle had to have Gilbert, his 10-year-old English springer spaniel, put down. The family is sad, but grateful for the time during which Gilbert enriched their lives. Sid will have to carry the torch for his brother at Botany Bay’s next hunt on October 12.
Though Gilbert won’t be seen in the fields he hunted for the past decade, his spirit will continue to spring amid the corn, sunflowers and grass on his native Edisto Island. Shortly before Gilbert’s passing, Michael’s neighbor, Mr. Ray, remarked with profound wisdom: ‘You know what? Dogs just don’t live long enough’!”
No, Ray, they don’t; they sure don’t.
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at email@example.com.