Dog of a Lifetime
Pacific Beach hunter credits retriever with changing his life
Ed Zieralski, San Diego UNION-TRIBUNE Staff Writer
July 15, 2002
It all started in March 1998 when Garrett Schlief, an avid waterfowler, stapled a photo of himself and his trusted hunting Labrador, Sandee, to his resume when he applied for a position at Petersen Publishing.
The picture showed Schlief and Sandee after another successful hunt at Mystic Lake, an ephemeral lake in Moreno Valley in Riverside County.
But the snapshot also said much more than a thousand words. It showed a young man's love for his hunting dog and waterfowling.
"I believe I got that job because of my picture with Sandee," Schlief said. "It was just amazing how my life changed after I bought that stinky old dog."
Schlief eventually became a limited partner and director of business development at waterfowler.com. That led to his recent hire as an advertising representative for Outdoor Media Network Inc. He left for Seattle last week to join that company in another hunting-related job.
"That's how that little dog changed my life," Schlief said.
But this time, for the first time in 11 years, Schlief left without his beloved Lab. Illness claimed Sandee in the spring, leaving Schlief no choice but to put her down and marvel afterward how his life changed because of that "stinky old dog."
Where it really began for Schlief was in October 1991, three weeks before Halloween. That's when Schlief, then a sophomore at San Diego State, purchased Sandee from a Labrador breeder in Santee.
"I actually was looking in the newspaper for an aquarium, but I saw an ad for Labrador puppies," Schlief said.
Like most dog owners, Schlief can't explain why he picked Sandee out of the litter.
"All I know is I took one look at her and I said, 'She's coming home with me,'" Schlief said. "I was living in a frat house with four college roommates. I was playing lacrosse. I'm not quite sure what I was doing with a 9-week-old black Lab puppy."
He named her Sandee, for Sarah Jessica Parker's character in "L.A. Story."
It was about then that Schlief's life began to change because of his new four-legged friend. Schlief's dad, an avid hunter and sportsman who lives in Alaska, sent him "Water Dog," a how-to guide for training Labradors to hunt and fetch by Richard A. Wolters.
"At 12 weeks I started her walking on heel and giving her basic commands," Schlief said. "She did great considering she grew up in a frat house with five guy roommates."
Their early hunts took them to Black Mountain, where they chased quail and shot doves on BLM land before Schlief went to classes at SDSU.
But Sandee was built to waterfowl hunt, and just like other things that fell their way, a marsh and pond appeared, like magic.
One of Schlief's roommates, Chris Ribbel, was from Hemet, and his family had a 600-acre farm where they grew wheat and potatoes. The winter rains of 1991-92, especially the miracle March rains of '92, filled Mystic Lake. Schlief and Ribbel and one other group were the only hunters with permission to hunt the west side of the lake.
"It was directly south of the San Jacinto Wildlife Area, and we had a waterfowling paradise right there in Southern California," Schlief said. "It was common to see 4,000 to 5,000 birds on that lake, rafting. Teal, spoonies, pintail, and late in the season we'd get redheads and canvasbacks, and then the last couple of years, lots of Canada geese. We'd get flocks of 40 and 50 geese locked up on us. It was that good."
Their first hunt wasn't exactly textbook, however. Sandee was all trained to retrieve. It was in her genes to fetch. But her hunters had suspect marksmanship.
"I shot one duck and a goose, but that was the day I truly became hooked as a waterfowl hunter," Schlief said. "It's hard to explain, but it was the kind of thing where I shot a bird, and the dog I lived with, the dog I fed and trained, went out and got it for me. I'd often heard hunters say how waterfowling is more about watching dogs work than shooting ducks. And right there it hit me. I have a best friend who will go into the cold water and get the bird I shot."
For the next five years, from 1992 to 1996, Schlief seldom missed a Wednesday or Saturday at Mystic Lake, and they didn't miss many ducks or geese, either. They awakened at 2 a.m., slammed down some coffee and drove the two hours north to get to their dug-out pit blinds. By 4 a.m. they were setting up decoys. By 6 a.m. they were blasting, and Sandee was splashing after the downed birds.
"We were college kids with no money but a lot of time," Schlief said.
They became very proficient hunters. Sandee became a professional hunting dog.
"She remained very affectionate at home, but when she was hunting, she was all business," Schlief said. "She'd see the ducks first, lock her ears and let us know they were coming. And there was a definite turn and look when we missed. She let us know."
As Schlief reflects, he has memories and pictures to take him back to the day Sandee wrestled a wounded goose and got the worst of it. But she took it out on the next goose she retrieved.
"We both grew up out there on Mystic Lake," Schlief said. "I got through college, became a bird hunter and found a career in the outdoors. She became a great hunting dog."
When the Department of Fish and Game bought Mystic Lake in 1997, Schlief and Sandee moved their operation to the Colorado River and hunted the Cibola area, or farther south, at the Wister Unit of the Imperial Wildlife Area on the Salton Sea.
On Oct. 13 last year, Sandee hunted her last opening day. On Nov. 7, Sandee fetched her last duck, a green-winged teal, appropriate because that's the species she made her first retrieve on.
In April, Sandee was diagnosed with inflammatory mammary carcinoma, a terminal disease.
Schlief had no choice but to put Sandee down, and he did it in the most humane way possible, bringing in a veterinarian to do it. Schlief and his fiancee, Ginny Lasher, had dinner with Sandee the night before.
"I gave her a big old steak," Schlief said. "But I felt terrible. I felt like an executioner."
Schlief and Lasher slept on the rug that night near Sandee. And Lasher stayed home from work the next day to be there for her future husband and to spend the final moments with a dog she had grown to love as much as Schlief.
"It was miserable," Schlief said. "The absolute worst thing I've ever had to do. I do't think either of us slept. The night took forever."
As he retells the story, it's clearly cathartic for him now, very emotional still, as he talks about a dog that meant so much to him, about a "stinky old dog" that changed his life and gave him his life's direction.
After Sandee died, Schlief enlarged a picture of her from her last hunt. She's looking out over a marsh at an Imperial Valley duck club, looking very much like a seasoned hunter remembering past hunts, past successes. Schlief placed that picture in his Pacific Beach home above where Sandee's bed once sat.
"One day she was lying at my feet, and I looked down at her," Schlief said. "It dawned on me right there that I wouldn't be the person I am today or in the career I'm in today had it not been for her. She defined who I was. I wanted to tell her story . . . our story."
Ed Zieralski can be reached at (619) 293-1225 or email@example.com
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