feature By: Charles Fergus | August, 19
It is a sensuous thing, having a dog. The other day I was assembling a blueberry pie, wearing only boxer shorts because it was a sticky summer’s evening, when the spaniel came sneaking and surprised me behind the knee with her ice-cube nose. In winter, when I lie before the fire, she curls up in the crook of my body. I kiss here shamelessly on the dome of her head. I like the smell of her fur, dry or wet. Even though she is now middle-aged (come to think of it, I qualify as well), she loves to play, barking and sparring her paws at me, catching my hand loosely in her jaws. She goes berry-picking with the rest of the family (daintily plucking fruit from the stems with her incisors; none of it making it into the berry buckets), loves riding in the canoe, and escorts me up the hill to the mailbox every noon. Having a dog is fun. A dog is a boon companion in all of those moments when you are not hunting–and a helper and comrade when you are.
Hunting is the real occupation of my dog. She knows she is a hunter. It is her life’s focus. By allowing her to reveal her skill and character, it helps fulfill her. In turn, she helps fulfill me.
It is hard to describe the feeling of enrichment that comes from hunting with a good dog. Many factors are involved. The dog, with its sense of smell and its ability to cover the ground, puts the hunter into contact with more birds. It gives the gunner more and better shots: The birds, paying attention to the canine intruder, heed the hunter less. The dog fetches wounded birds that otherwise would die lingering deaths and feed only opossums and raccoons. The avidity of a bird dog is catching; the dog, descending as it does from predatory ancestors, helps us remember that we, too, descend from predators. Dogs clarify and intensify the urge in us to hunt.
I am never alone when I hunt with Jenny. I like the logistical simplicity of it: If I want to suddenly change directions and check out a certain patch of brambles because maybe, just maybe, a grouse will be there (on that south-facing slope, where the winter sun shines and the grapevines grow thick)–I just do it. I don’t have to consult. I don’t have to explain or justify. I give two pips on the whistle and wave my hand, and we do what the hunters’ instincts tell us.
When we are working in concert, when Jenny is combing the cover in front of me, when I am watching her, looking for her tail to speed up, her coursing to become more directed; when I am listening intently for the twittering flush of a woodcock, or the thunder of a grouse, or the cackling of a pheasant, or the splash of a duck: Through this filter of attentiveness and activity I pick up the beauty of my surroundings. The carpet of fallen leaves, more colorful and intricate than any Persian rug. The wind tossing the treetops. The way the rhododendron leaves curl in the frigid air and hang straight down like green cigars. The deep blue sky with wispy clouds. A raven kronking. The fecund smell of loam along the creek. Ice hanging in pendants and plates from trees that have toppled into the stream. But my senses are not simply resident in me: They are also out there, running with my dog. Searching, testing, checking. Through my dog, I see further, hear more sharply, scent more keenly, feel more fully the presence of game.
Jenny is now eight. At that age, I can’t hunt her too many days in a row. In the field, she has started to slow down somewhat, which gets me closer shots, but it makes me sad because it reminds me she won’t be with me forever. Before too long, I’ll have to start thinking about another dog.
Oddly enough, I sometimes feel that one should choose a dog solely on the basis of what it looks like. That sounds like heresy. The experts all say that one should select a dog from the breed best suited to the sort of game one wants to hunt, and the way in which one will hunt it. I only know that hunting is a seeking for beauty, a beauty that is embodied in the land and the game, in the gun, and also in the dog. If a hunter’s soul sings at the sight of a fleet hard-charging pointer, or a barrel-chested coal-black Lab, or a sprite of a cocker spaniel whose tail smacks it in the sides when it wags–then he or she should have one.
I have met an assortment of hunting dogs. I have encountered Chesapeake Bay retrievers lumbering bearlike through the game coverts of central Pennsylvania. I have seen, and in many cases hunted behind, Brittanys, pointers, English setters, Gordon setters, German shorthaired pointers, Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and American water spaniels. Once, at a public hunting area, I came upon a man who, observing Jenny, quickly bent and gathered up a gobbet of fur from the ground; he stood with his shotgun at port arms, clasping this small creature as it scrabbled against his chest and yapped at Jenny, who circled man and beast warily. It was a cockapoo. The man was hunting with a cockapoo, a cross between an American cocker spaniel and a toy poodle, both former hunting breeds now devolved into lap pets. I would have liked to watch this one in action, but it seemed too fearful of my dog.
There are many breeds that can successfully do the job of hunting. While I am not biased against any sort of dog (not even a cockapoo) that knows its task and does it well, the three basic types of bird dogs have long been the spaniels, retrievers, and pointing dogs.
The spaniels flush the game birds, hustle them into the air for the gun. They work thick cover willingly and are natural retrievers. By temperament, they are perky and bold, occasionally mischievous, often willful. To be effective, they must stay close to the gunner so that they drive up the birds within shooting range. (In open fields, this would be twenty to thirty yards; in thick cover, ten to twenty.) Spaniels are small- to medium-size dogs, twenty-five to fifty pounds, generally of a strong, sturdy build. Of the nine breeds found in this country, four are good hunting prospects.
The English springer spaniel, like my Jenny, is the most widely available. Colored liver and white or black and white, it comes in two versions, the pet-and-show variety (big-boned, blocky, with long ears and flossy fur) and the field type (smaller and leaner, more feral-looking). To have a chance of owning a gun dog, the hunter must select from the field stock. The closely related field-bred English cocker spaniel is a bit smaller and shorter-coupled than the springer. On those occasions when Jenny’s natural exuberance combines with her elongated running gear to yield a flushing grouse at thirty yards, I long for a cocker. However, in the duck marsh and the pheasant field, where the birds are big and tough and the conditions rugged, I am better served by my springer. The two other hunting spaniels that have escaped being turned into nonhunting ornamentals are the American water spaniel and the Boykin spaniel.
The retrievers are bigger, burlier dogs. Chief among them are the Labrador, Chesapeake, and golden. The sturdy Labrador comes in three colors: chocolate, yellow, and basic black. One hears more and more that Labs, like English springers, have diverged into pet stock (with undistinguished noses and little interest in birds) and field-trial specialists (high-strung, tough-minded canines designed to be trained with an electric shock collar)–which is bad news indeed. One used to be able to go get a Lab and have a good hunting dog. The Chesapeake is the biggest and the most independent of the retrievers; although more of a duck and goose dog than a performer on dry-land birds, it can and will hunt upland game. Chesapeakes are stern of demeanor, and some of them are downright nasty, apt to bite other dogs and even humans. The golden is the most spaniellike of the retrievers, biddable and good-tempered. Although the pet industry churns them out by the thousands, today it is hard to find a golden out of honest working stock. Other breeds include the flat-coated retriever and the curly-coated retriever (both basically pets and show dogs) and the Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, rare in the United States but unsullied by fashion and a good hunter.
Most retrievers do not work thick cover as thoroughly or enthusiastically as spaniels do. Which sounds like a condemnation but really is not. With touchy birds like grouse, a less-aggressive dog may actually produce closer flushes and put more game in the bag. The best of the retrievers are past masters at fetching fowl from land or water, which, after all, is their bred-in-the-bone task.
Pointing dogs cover the ground on a far grander scale than either the spaniels or retrievers. Their job is to reach beyond the hunter, check on widely scattered patches of game cover, find the birds, point them, and remain locked in an indicative stance until the hunter catches up. There are all sorts and grades of pointing dogs, from boot polishers that you want to kick into action, to racers who fly along in the far distance giving the appearance of migrating birds; from smallish dogs to large ones, in assorted colors, coat lengths, conformations, and temperaments. No fewer than fifteen pointing breeds can be had in North America today. The best ones, and the most commonly available, include the pointer, English setter, Brittany, and German shorthaired pointer. The drahthaar, or German wirehaired pointer, is a rarer breed but a renowned hunter.
Pointing dogs handle woodcock capably. They deal with pheasants and grouse (which have the nasty habit of running off once the dogs go on point) somewhat less effectively. They have little utility in hunting for doves and ducks. Few pointing dogs retrieve very well, because the act of running down and seizing a bird runs counter to their instinct–reinforced by training–to hold point. Pointing dogs require ongoing, stringent training to be effective. With spaniels and retrievers, one can simply teach obedience to voice and whistle commands, take the dog into cover, and start hunting.
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Last autumn a man wanted to hunt with Jenny and me. He stopped at our house en route from upstate New York–where one of his two English springer spaniels had just earned a placement in a prestigious field trial–to his home in Ohio.
He could hunt for only one day, and it turned out to be rainy. We tried his spaniels, one at a time, on woodcock. Each quartered back and forth through the dripping goldenrod and brambles beneath the dense crabapple and locust trees; each keenly explored the cover, turning instantly whenever her master shrilled two pips on his whistle. The dogs flushed several woodcock, but we did not manage to shoot any of them. When the rain stepped up, we retired to the house for lunch and to talk about dogs.
By late afternoon, the rain had ended. The wind swung around to the north. Rents appeared in the clouds, and the slanting light gleamed on the rain-darkened treetrunks. I figured that the grouse, having sheltered in pines and hemlocks all day, would now be out feeding, filling their crops before nightfall. We had not hunted with Jenny yet, and now was the time.
A covert just over the hill from home, a hollow filled with brushy cutover woods. The leaves lay sodden underfoot. My companion followed his springer, I mine. Although the dogs were of similar breeding, their hunting techniques differed. My friend’s dog ran in the hard, flat pattern that is rewarded in the field trials, quartering sharply, almost mechanically, her nose held high for body scent. By comparison, Jenny looked slow. She flowed through the cover, her movements intense but controlled. When quartering, she lacked the other dog’s precision and snap: Instead, she coursed from one likely looking patch of brush to another, her nose to the ground, sniffing over the rocks, beneath the coils of grapevine, on the tops of logs.
I saw her take scent: the momentary pause, the lashing tail, the body low and feral as she worked out the line and followed it toward a grape tangle. I pipped on my own whistle—a single blast–and she halted in a quivering crouch.
Hastily I got into position, upslope from the twisted vines. I gave a soft double-note on the whistle, and into the tangle Jenny plunged. The grouse clattered out, right to left and angling uphill. At my shot, the bird crumpled. She was on it quickly, hitching it up in her mouth and bringing it back.
Joining my companion, I showed him the bird. It was a male (revealed by the long tail, subtle markings on the feathers of the lower back, and a reddish cast to the skin above the eye), and a bird of the year (discernible in the wear and tear on the two terminal wing primaries). We fanned the reddish-brown tail and admired the iridescent green-black shoulder ruffs. Then, with daylight fading, we swung around through the bottom of the covert and hunted back toward the car. My friend’s spaniel was working closer to him now; finally she came in almost to heel. Trial dogs are accustomed to going full tilt for brief periods, and this bitch, although a fine performer and in excellent condition, was perhaps confused at being allowed to run freely for more than a few minutes.
We were spread out, my partner and his dog to the right, Jenny looping out to the left and swinging back in toward the gun. Neither dog actually flushed the grouse: It must have felt trapped in the pincers movement we were unknowingly executing. It flew straight up (an unusual move for a grouse), cleared the trees, and hurtled back over my head. I swung my barrels upward and shot with my body extended beyond the vertical, leaning back to catch the bird in the pattern. Down it came with a thump. Jenny fetched.
The field trial man was impressed. (I was impressed. I think it was the second time in my life that I had killed two grouse with two shots in under ten minutes, a fact I did not bother sharing.) The second grouse was also a male, another bird of the year, quite likely from the same brood as the first. By now the sun was below the ridge; I pouched the grouse, and we finished our hunt. Back at the car, my companion snapped a flash picture of Jenny, me, and the birds. He nodded at the grouse, a rueful half-smile on his lips. “I’ve got a yellow ribbon,” he said, referring to the prize he had won at the field trial. “You’ve got a brace of grouse.”