Spend any amount of time around me afield and you’ll likely hear me exclaim, “I like my dogs better than I like most people.” And there is a fair amount of truth in the statement. Even as nothing more than unpurposed pets, dogs are readily capable and willing to give you love in a manner so unconditional as they are often better examples of Biblical love than most any person living or dead. I would submit, however, the manner of bond between man and dog is even more magnified when the dog is of the hunting persuasion.
Hunting with a dog, whether across the grasslands for pheasant or through the marsh in pursuit of ducks, adds an element to both the human/dog relationship as well as the hunt itself. Though I’m a devout waterfowler, I can remember skipping an entire season in mourning for a hunting dog I lost in a separation. If you have hunted over dogs, you know the enjoyment to be had. If you’ve ever hunted over your own dogs, little in this article will be new to you.
Though the majority of my articles are purpose driven and focused, I feel any endeavour in which I was involved would be incomplete without a commentary on my own hunting dog experiences. To an extent, I feel I would be remiss in my duty as master (though the term is often laughable) of my favorite, four-legged hunting pals if their exploits were not at least touched upon.
My first experience as a gun dog trainer came almost accidentally. Fresh into a new relationship, a black Labrador female was given by my then-girlfriend to her seven year old son. As Morgan came to the age appropriate for training, I began to take her to a local pond to impart the various aspects of the job of gun dog. Thankfully, I had enough common sense to realize how very naive I was regarding training dogs. The first time I threw a bumper for Morgan, she patiently and without guidance sat motionless on the shore. At the “okay”, Morgan launched herself out over the water in a “Big Air Dog” type of exhibition. A short swim and a quick retrieve solidified my love of gun dogs and my understanding of one simple dog training altruism: Often, it is better to just let the natural ability of the dog come through.
Sadly, while I hunted pheasants, ducks, geese, and quail over Morgan for five years, I was forced to leave her behind with the boy who had grown to love her as much or more than I. To this day, she is the most talented gun dog with whom I’ve ever shared a home.
It was a few years later when my wife (then girlfriend) and I decided to bring a hunting dog into our home. We had already been blessed with a great mutt named Zeke, but I yearned for a dog to take afield. Admittedly, Remington was purchased on impulse after we made a random stop to admire the puppies at a local pet shop. The smallest of three litter mates, Remi showed a fair amount of prey drive, chasing a small toy around the floor of the pet shop. He was comical, sensitive, and completely biddable.
The month my wife and I were married, Remington went off to live with a local trainer for some “basic training” type work. Upon returning and inquiring regarding his progress, my trainer smiled in a way only he could. An education was to follow. You see, hunting dogs generally fall somewhere on an imaginary scale. On one side, you have biddability. That is, the dog’s desire to obediently comply with his master’s will and commands. A biddable dog will do what you want, how you want it, immediately upon your command. On the other side of the scale, you have instinctive or ingrained drive. Picture a dog in a frozen marsh, icicles clinging to his chest, launching himself into freezing water to drive ahead for yet another retrieve.
Great dogs generally rank somewhere toward the center of the scale, embodying an owner-compatible mix of drive and biddability. Stack the scale hard to the drive end and you generally end up with an uncontrollable, ill-mannered critter who, though beautiful to watch at work, will drive your blindmates crazy and likely cause you to grey prematurely.
Remi was to fall on the other end of the scale. He so very much wanted to do as he was told. The sacrifice therein was drive. Remi did not like cold water and had no interest in retrieving a bird from same. He was, however, perfectly content to hang out on shore with the other hunters, occasionally enjoying a strip of bacon or the crust from whatever sandwich he was offered. As one of my closest friends once said, “Remi is a hunting buddy, not a hunting dog.” And so, while his company is still enjoyed immensely at home, Remi rarely ever accompanies me afield. And I suspect he likes this arrangement immensely.
Shortly after Remi (who still occupies a place on the communal dog rug) came Belle. Technically my wife’s dog, “Thomsen’s Little Tinkerbelle” had the drive absent in Remi. Training a driven dog, of course, comes with its own set of unique and maddening idiosyncrasies. By the time Belle had reached hunting age, I had exhausted my own set of gun dog training skills. While the drive to find and retrieve birds was both natural and steady, Belle had a few issues. First, she was dog-aggressive. Not only would she make a direct beeline toward any other dog within a half-mile with hackles raised and tail erect, but she could not stay on a pheasant’s scent trail if any other dog had left their mark anywhere in the immediate vicinity. To compound an already substantial problem, Belle was so hard-mouthed each bird brought back had already been pre-tenderized. The look on her face was clear and easily read: You weren’t gonna eat this, were you? I’m no full-time gun dog trainer and, at the time, hadn’t the time or energy to fully work through all of Belle’s issues. As such, she’s still a treasured member of our family, but hasn’t followed me afield for years.
With a home full of wonderful and loved pets, I was still without a true hunting dog. With no small bit of luck, I received a call from Jim Fulks at Coyote Creek Retrievers (Eugene, Oregon). Jim had given Remi a month of basic training a few years prior and had helped me along in continuing his training through a few sessions monthly. Jim let me know he had one pup unspoken for from a Harley / Annie litter. With a Master Hunter title behind Harley’s name and a Senior Hunter title affixed to Annie, the odds of drawing a great dog out of a litter between the two was better than any you’ll find in Vegas.
My wife and I headed out to CCR to visit with the four week old pups. It was remarkable, even then, how much smaller “Gunny” (the runt) was compared to his litter mates. I wasn’t bother at all, as I prefer a smaller dog.
There is something about the promise found in a gun dog pup. Of course, it doesn’t hurt Lab pups are the cutest organisms on the face of this great Earth.
Gunny, now five, turned into a par duck dog. His drive takes considerable patience to control afield, even with four months of world class training from Jim and his wife, Maxine, under his belt. His true calling, though, is in the pheasant fields, where he routinely finds and flushes birds passed by high-brow pointers and spaniels. On one such hunt, Gunny actually brought more non-shot birds to my hand than the entire party managed to scratch out of the sky. There are few places in this world I’d rather spend time than following my runt of a gun dog from sage brush to juniper tree to fence row. He is truly remarkable to watch.
Several dogs share the home of my wife and I and while I love each of them unwaveringly, I must admit there is something truly special about my relationships with dogs who have brought birds to hand. You’ll likely never find a human hunting companion who will dive naked into a frozen pond for a wing-shot mallard, nor will you likely meet anyone who will hunt with possessed fervor for running pheasants after running face-first into a barbed wire fence. Stitches? Nah, Dad. . .just put me back on the ground and let me run.
May you be graced, at least once in your life, to know the feeling lived while watching your dog bring back his first bird.