By John Madson, Illustrations by Chris Malbon
The only time I ever saw Timothy John Lindbloom's full name was when his application crossed my desk. To the world at large, he was simply "T.J." The same brevity extended to his dog, the black Labrador retriever that was registered as "McGuffy" but answered to "Guffy."
Good call names should be short—easily yelled, heard, and remembered. And in the bleak marsh-world of wildfowling, where courage and loyalty are common virtues, the call names "T.J." and "Guffy" would stand for those virtues to an uncommon degree.
T.J.'s application was for the hunting preserve management training course we were running at Nilo Farms. He hoped to start a preserve of his own someday and figured we could teach him a lot of what he'd need to know. He was also deeply interested in Labrador retrievers and wanted to work with some of the best.
On both counts, the five-month training program filled the bill. Nilo Farms was a demonstration and experimental hunting preserve in southwestern Illinois, owned by the Winchester-Western Division of the Olin Corporation and run by W-W's Conservation Department. Dr. Ed Kozicky was director of the tight little outfit; I was Ed's segundo. Our assignment was to promote professional game management in general, and quality hunting preserve management in particular. Hence the job-training program on Nilo's 700 acres of timber, fields, and little lakes inhabited by game birds, gun dogs, and hunters using nothing but red shells. Some job. Not heaven, maybe, but close.
T.J. and his wife, Debby, came there from Oregon in 1976—a handsome couple in their mid-20s and looking years younger than they really were. Between them on the seat of the old pickup truck was two-year-old Guffy, who had been delivered to them as a small puppy on their first wedding anniversary. T.J. joined the Nilo crew on October 1, and Debby found a teaching job in the local school system.
They rented an old farmhouse not far from Nilo. It wasn't much but was all they could afford. Some of their furniture ran to recycled orange crates. Still, the place was cheap, convenient, and had seven acres of hills and water that T.J. figured was "just about perfect for training a dog."
Guffy's retrieving skills were already awesome.
At less than a year old, he placed in the first licensed field trial he ever entered. A year later he ran in the National Amateur and soon became an Amateur Field Champion. In mid-September, a few weeks before T.J. reported at Nilo, Guffy won back-to-back open and amateur licensed trials in Wisconsin.
One of the prime reasons for T.J.'s interest in our training program was Nilo Kennels, the domain of nearly a hundred Labradors and bird dogs, with four full-time dog handlers headed by T.W. "Cotton" Pershall, the dean of professional retriever trainers. The nickname derived from his shock of blond hair. He was never called by his registered name, "Theodore." Not twice, anyway.
Cotton and T.J. hit it off from the start.
The old pro was a rich lode of retriever savvy—but mining it wasn't easy. Cotton never volunteered information and would simply ignore foolish questions. Not that he was antisocial or arrogant; he just didn't choose to waste time on idiots. But if you knew what to ask, Cotton would tell you what you wanted to know. T.J. not only asked the right questions in the right way but had a young dog that deserved the best answers.
I can hear Cotton yet on the subject of one-dog amateurs like T.J.:
"Hey, they can be rough!" he'd say in his soft Arkansas drawl, shaking his head in mock despair. "Man, they can kill you in an open trial. Ain't got but the one dog and they spend all their time with it. I mean, all their time! Look at me. Fifty-sixty dogs to work with. Even if I get 'em culled down to a few, ain't no way I can get as close to any of 'em as a one-dog man can."
Still, he never let that interfere with helping T.J. with Guffy. Cotton soon saw that the dog was making an exceptional effort to communicate with his owner, and Cotton helped T.J. bridge the gap. That's what I remember most about those two: man and dog heading out into the field side by side, talking together in their special way, each understanding the other.
That Guffy was something to see. He really was.
I remember little things. Like T.J. and Cotton working their dogs late one afternoon over at Buck Lake and Guffy being sent on a long blind retrieve. Too long, as it turned out. Guffy took a beautiful line, but when T.J. tried to check him with the whistle, the dog didn't respond.
"He's never refused like that before," T.J. said. "What's wrong with him?"
"Nothing's wrong with your dog," Cotton replied. "He just outran the whistle, is all. Can't hear you. Get a louder one!"
By the time he came to Nilo, Guffy had accumulated 100 All-Age points in tough competition and had begun to gain recognition as a contender for the National Championship Stake. The 1976 National was being held near Albuquerque, New Mexico, that November, and T.J. figured it might be time for the biggest test of all. Cotton talked to Doc Kozicky about it, and Doc agreed that it was a good idea. He gave T.J. his blessing, some time off, advanced some travel money, and Guffy and T.J. headed for New Mexico.
The National Championship Stake usually consisted of 10 series of tests spread over five days of intense competition. Just being there as a qualified contender with some of the world's finest retrievers is a singular honor. Surviving through half of the 10 series is a star in any dog's crown—and Guffy completed seven series before he was eliminated. Cotton was there and saw it.
"Guffy did just fine," he told me. "It was T.J.'s fault, and you can't really blame him, either. That's an awful lot of pressure on a young handler."
T.J.'s disappointment was especially bitter, knowing that he had let his dog down. "It was a real sharp angle on a water test, and I gave Guffy a bad angle. I just kind of fouled him up myself." Heartsick and disgusted with himself, he left before the trial was over. Other owners and handlers wanted him to stay, but he couldn't. How could he hang around, watching dogs that were no better than the fine retriever he'd betrayed with his poor handling?
So he headed back to Nilo instead, hoping to get there before Thanksgiving. He was making time on a divided highway in the Texas panhandle when disaster struck.
"It was near Amarillo at dawn. I saw headlights coming, and then I saw this pickup truck sideswiping a car. There were sparks flying. The car shot straight over into the lane I was in. The people in the pickup were drunk. They were all going very fast, because the people in the car were trying to outrun the drunks."
Out of control and into T.J.'s lane, the car hit him head-on. He was thrown through the windshield and then back into the seat again, with broken ribs and a broken right femur. Guffy had been sitting in the seat beside him when the engine came through the fire wall and struck the dog. His injuries were remarkably similar to his owner's, with broken ribs, a broken right femur, and a smashed pelvis. The dog's broken leg was more serious than T.J.'s, however, for the femur's head was crushed.
When everything had stopped moving, T.J. grabbed the dog by the choke chain and Guffy pulled his owner out of the wrecked car and onto the ground, where they lay together in shock.
T.J. clung to consciousness, and to his dog. "I had to hold on to Guffy; I knew he was badly hurt and didn't want him running off to be run over by a car.
"Then people were stopping. Somebody came over and took my dog, and I remember giving that person my wallet and telling him to take Guffy to a vet, and not having the dog put to sleep. So Guffy was taken away while I lay there waiting for an ambulance. In the other car, a little girl was killed, and the mother was paralyzed for life."
There are good and honest strangers in this world. The next day, T.J.'s wallet was returned to him in the hospital—and shortly after that, a veterinarian called. Bad news: it would be best to simply put Guffy down. If the dog did live, there was no way he could ever be the same again. What was left wasn't worth saving. But T.J. was adamant: "No! Don't put my dog down! Do the best you can with him. But don't put him to sleep!"
T.J. was supposed to spend six weeks in the hospital; he checked out after only three. His father had flown down from Oregon, and together they went out to the vet clinic to get Guffy. It was a sight T.J. would never forget: "My dog was lying there looking like death warmed over. Shaved from the middle of his torso all the way back, and a mass of stitches where they had operated. The head of the broken femur had been smashed so badly that they simply cut it off, and the femur was no longer connected to the hip. There was that crushed pelvis, too, and some broken ribs."
Still—the dog was alive.
T.J. and Guffy went home to Oregon for Christmas and New Year's and then, badly crippled, they returned to Nilo and began the long road back. Through the rest of that winter the healing went on—T.J. on crutches and his dog limping painfully beside him. Spring came, and we would see them walking slowly down to a Nilo pond for the water work that was balm for Guffy's maimed hindparts. T.J. was on a cane by then, and Guffy was able to run after a fashion. Slowly, through late winter and into spring and summer, dog and owner mended—working and learning, and talking together as they always had.
Just to stay alive, it was necessary for Guffy to exercise every day and stay in the best physical condition possible.
"It had to be done," T.J. explains. "The only thing that kept Guffy's hind leg in place was a mass of hard muscle; there was no bone connection with the hip." When T.J. wasn't working his dog afield, Debby would take Guffy with her as she jogged. From the beginning, the young dog's agonizing rehabilitation was a bond of faith with T.J. and Debby. The simple act of standing was a triumph. From there he would learn to walk again and then, finally, to even run in a strange, shambling way.
The dog walked funny, sat funny, and was becoming arthritic. "He ran different," T. J. says. "His bad back leg wasn't quite in sync with the rest of his body. It slowed him down. Before the accident he was just running hard all the time; being crippled slowed him, and it may have made him think a little bit more."
But the things that count most hadn't changed—the heart, the brain, and the steady, honest consistency with which a fine retriever serves himself and his owner.
And just three years after the accident that crippled him for life, Guffy became the new national champion.
In 1979 some 5,000 retrievers tried to qualify for the National Championship Stake. Only 71 got there. Guffy was among them. The trial began on a crisp November morning near Redding, California, and Guffy ruled the field from the start. The tenth and last series of competition had been one of the toughest—a difficult quadruple water retrieve. Guffy was the first dog to run that final series. As T.J. waited in the holding blind, the tension was almost unbearable. Up to that point Guffy had worked beautifully. But could he keep up the pace?
He could and did. The dog seemed to think his way through that final test and needed no handling at all. He was judged "excellent," just as he had been in six of the 10 series of competition. (Only one other dog would score "excellent" in the last series, and that was Paladin VII—Guffy's brother.)
Guffy's triumph, T.J. has always said, belonged more to the dog than the handler. "I was once asked what I thought when people called Guffy a ‘natural dog.' My answer was simply that his achievements belong mostly to him and not to his handler or the methods of training."
The new champion would lead a good life, and a long one. He was nearly 15 years old when he died in February 1988, a beloved family member until the end. But for all the gifts bestowed on such a dog by the Red Gods, others may be withheld. From Guffy's national championship onward, he would sire no puppies—a sterility that may have resulted from the terrible injuries three years before.
T.J. will never forget the grueling field trial campaigns, of course. The victories, the trophies. The applause and honors. But through it all, one of the things he remembers best was how Guffy would look at him. Walking at heel, sitting beside him, or just lying at T.J.'s feet at day's end, the great dog would watch his master's face with unblinking love and trust. Here I am, boss. Ready when you are. What are we gonna do next?
"Way to go, Guffy. Good boy! Fetch 'em up!"
T.J. Lindbloom and Guffy, along with T.J.’s wife, Debby, daughter Melissa, and son Justin, after winning the National Championship Stake in 1979. Today, T.J. is enjoying retirement surrounded by his children, grandchildren, and dogs in Roseburg, Oregon.
The late John Madson was among the nation's most highly acclaimed authors on natural history and the outdoors. He wrote several books, including Out Home, Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie, and Up on the River: People and Wildlife of the Upper Mississippi. This article is reprinted from the November/December 1994 issue of Ducks Unlimited magazine.