That’s My Boy! A reflection on the bond between bird hunter and dog
Posted on 10 March 2008
By Nick Davis
Like any adage, “dog is man’s best friend” rests upon a bedrock of truth. As pets, canines are revered as loyal companions and four-legged alarm systems. These attributes alone elevate them, in the hearts of dog lovers, far above the me-first attitude of cats and the houseplant-inertness of fish, birds, lizards and the like.
And when it comes to cross-species relationships, few human-to-animal associations can approach the depth of those that exist between bird hunters and their dogs. For while a hunting dog, like a house dog, can be a companion and protector extraordinaire, the time and experiences shared by a hunter and his dog form a bond unlike any other.
I know this because for ten and a half years I reveled in the company—both in and out of the field—of Miles, a magnificent yellow Labrador retriever and one of the finest duck dogs that ever lived. When he died last fall, his absence left a hole in my heart and my life that remains larger and deeper than any I have experienced.
It’s hard to say exactly what makes the hunter-dog relationship such a rich one; like any transcendent emotional connection, it defies easy categorization. From my time with Miles, I know that it starts with the early training period, when our short, daily sessions became increasingly productive: first, the simple commands like “sit,” “stay,” and “come”; next, branching out to hand signals and whistle commands; and finally, working up to “blind” retrieves, in which the hunter directs the dog to a downed bird that the dog did not see fall.
By the time he was eight months old, Miles was capable of virtually any retrieve I could ask of him. Two sharp whistle blasts would send him charging after a bird in any direction I indicated. One sharp blast and he would stop in mid-stride—or, in case of water retrieves, mid-stroke—and turn back on a dime to look for further instruction. My outstretched arm, accompanied by the two-whistle command, would then send him, redirected, toward the bird I had made a top priority.
Aha! the uninitiated might say, it’s a control thing. And it is, indeed, a control thing. To watch a dog in the field flawlessly perform the actions for which he is trained is the ultimate reward for a hunter. It evokes surging waves of pride in the throat and eyes; it brings ear-splitting grins to the face. The dog’s glory in those moments is so great that it encompasses the hunter in its reflected radiance. More than once, as Miles delivered a bird after a particularly stirring retrieve, I found myself fairly shouting “That’s my boy!”, as if he were my progeny who had just hit the winning home run in the final game of the World Series.
But the joy of bird hunting with a dog extends far beyond the simple matter of the dog’s obedience. A well-trained and talented dog becomes something of an extension of the hunter’s will; the actions of the dog allow the hunter to hunt well, to hunt responsibly, to hunt humanely.
Bird dogs perform two basic functions: they find birds, and they retrieve them. In the pursuit of upland birds—landlocked species such as pheasants, grouse and quail—the dog is responsible for finding the birds in their natural lairs, flushing them into the air (more so for retrievers; upland hunters often prefer their setter or pointer breeds to refrain from flushing), and then retrieving the killed or wounded birds. Waterfowl dogs are more single-minded; their job is strictly to locate and retrieve downed ducks and geese. While certain breeds are more genetically suited to upland or to waterfowl hunting, many hunters use their dogs for both.
Bird dogs make their masters better hunters chiefly through two traits they possess in far greater abundance than their two-legged counterparts: endurance and the sense of smell. “Just looking at it from a utilitarian angle, the dog has a whole skill set that humans don’t,” says Ben Deeble, an avid upland bird hunter from Missoula. “They are much more athletic; I think for every mile I walk, my dog runs six or seven. They also have the nose. I’ve often referred to my setter as a rapid transit system for a nose. He can detect the smallest amount of scent at hundreds of yards in some cases.”
Deeble is an upland bird biologist who was given Boss, an English setter, 10 years ago to assist him in his search for a tiny, remnant population of sharptail grouse in the upper Blackfoot Valley. He became so enamored with his dog’s ability to track birds that their excursions to the mountain ridges outside of Missoula became a nearly year-round event, with shotgun during bird season, gunless during research trips.
Deeble notes that even though English setters are not renown for their intelligence, Boss displays a remarkable memory when it comes to birds.
“I would tell you that he doesn’t remember what happened a minute ago in most cases, but he’ll remember a place where he’s found birds before, one or even two years later,” he says. “He’ll often go straight to the spot where we flushed a bird the last time there.”
Where upland dogs are invaluable for their skill in finding birds that no human could, waterfowl dogs are equally essential for their ability to retrieve downed birds unreachable to their two-legged partners. A waterfowl hunter without a dog runs the extreme risk of wounding or killing birds that he will never find—a cardinal sin for ethical hunters, who make every reasonable effort to retrieve the game they have shot.
In Miles’ early years, we frequented a public-access area in the Bitterroot Valley, a place where duck hunters occupy a number of preestablished blinds in a relatively small vicinity. During that time we retrieved a countless number of birds for dogless hunters, usually accompanied by a plea to get a dog or quit shooting birds. One group, however, took top prize in unethical idiocy.
As we trudged back to the car after a long afternoon in the duck blind, we came upon a couple of men standing on a berm surrounding a pond. They were heaving rocks as far as they could into the water. I looked out to see a dead duck floating there, maybe 50 yards from shore.
Sure enough, they had shot a bird overhead, its momentum had carried it into the pond, and they were attempting to throw rocks behind it in the absurd hope that the ripples would wash the bird ashore. I brought Miles to heel, sent him after the bird, handed it to one of the men, and we walked off. A duck hunter without a dog is no hunter at all.
Any relationship worth pursuing is based on the principle of reciprocity; with the immense benefit to the hunter, what does the dog get out of it? Well, anybody with a passing familiarity with a dog who contains even a fraction of the hard-wired genetic code of retrieving knows that a thrown ball (or stick or pine cone) is enough to send the animal into the canine version of Shangri-La. In purebred hunting breeds, that instinct is often magnified to the point of obsession.
The desire to retrieve is so ingrained in the dog’s sense of well-being that it is often the most effective tool in a dog trainer’s arsenal. By the time I had reached the more technical aspects of Miles’ training, he was so eager to get to the training dummy that he would do anything—stop, sit, change directions—as long as those actions resulted in the reward of fetching.
Jeff Malinak, a Hot Springs rancher who hunts over pudelpointers (a so-called “versatile” breed, pudelpointers are known for their upland skills), can testify to the depth of a dog’s desire to work in the field. Malinak and group of his hunting buddies made several trips to the Snake River on the Oregon border to pursue chukar, a gray-and-white partridge typically found in steep, arid country.
The group would hunt for a week or so, rotating their dogs day-by-day to minimize the damage wreaked on their paws by the sharp rocks on the rugged slopes. Malinak recalls that Duncan, his first hunting dog, made his displeasure known when he was left behind.
“It was just amazing to see the kind of heart he put into it,” says Malinak. “He was so angry when he was left behind, even when he was sore and bleeding. And on the days when it was his turn, he would whine in the morning because he hurt so bad, and yet when it comes time to go he’d bounce around like a puppy, and the blood is running everywhere but he’d go anyway.”
Miles shared that keen anticipation of the hunt. When the alarm went off at some ungodly early-morning hour, he’d come over to my side of the bed and lick my face to make sure I was awake. As soon as I grabbed my shotgun and hunting gear, he’d wait at the front door, muscling through as soon as I cracked it. Then he’d sit by the car until I started loading up, and he’d jump in and wait. I’d go back inside for coffee and breakfast, come out 20 minutes later, and there he’d be, sitting in the car. He took every precaution to ensure that I wouldn’t forget him.
Once the hunt began, our relationship, like any that’s truly sublime, consisted of much more than mutual gratification. Our connection was a magical one because it created something greater than the sum of its parts, and it was only in the field that the equation realized its full potential. The hunt was the one place we could consistently go together, and realize that connection.
The convenience of modern times has largely made the practice of sustenance hunting obsolete; we no longer need to hunt to survive. But hunters will tell you that the experience of the hunt is anything but outdated. Bypassing the numerous middlemen in our complex food chain and going directly to the source provides hunters with an elemental link to the natural world, to the simplified order of things.
Bird hunters know that their elemental journey would be impossible without the twin efforts of hunter and dog. And despite the wide gulf between the species, most bird hunters believe that the dog shares that realization with them.
“I think the drive to hunt is really deep in both humans and dogs,” says Malcolm Brooks, a Missoula writer and bird hunter. “You’re both working towards the same end result, even though you’re two different animals who can’t communicate in a conventional sense. But there is a real understanding that develops there, and it is deep and profound. I think the fact that you’re both predators and working together has a lot to do with that.”
Robert Harris, a Bitterroot Valley bird hunter, echoes those sentiments. “I think what separates the hunter-dog relationship is that the dog knows that it has to perform in a certain way so the both of you can complete a shared goal,” he says. “Maybe I’m putting too much into that, I don’t know. But that’s what it feels like.”
That is what it feels like, and over the course of a dog’s life, those feelings accrue to the point that the relationship between a bird hunter and his dog becomes indefinable, even eternal.
“I’ve been saving my dogs’ ashes and when I die, we’ll all be scattered together,” says Harris. “I’m not sure where, but it’ll be somewhere birdy.”
Harris’ idea of commingling remains makes me glad that I still have Miles’ ashes for a similar ceremony. But I hold hope that I will see Miles in the flesh again—or a hint of him, anyway.
Before putting him down to prevent the cancer from robbing his dignity, I made a series of flurried calls to a company in Oregon that freezes and stores canine sperm for use in later inseminations. Next fall, I plan to breed Miles with a gorgeous, well-tempered Lab of whom he was very fond during his latter years.
My dream is that the pup will become an accomplished bird dog in his own right, the kind of dog that will make me once again a complete bird hunter. And if I’m lucky, maybe he will inherit a signature trait or two from his old man—the way he holds his head when delivering a bird, or the way he won’t give up on a retrieve, or maybe the way he waits in the car while I grab a pre-hunt breakfast.
And I’ll look at him and fairly shout, “That’s my boy!”