The questions and comments always come: What is it like to have nine hunting dogs? It must be a lot of work. Is it like having a sled-dog team? How can you give them as much individual attention as they need? Do they get along?
We have seven English setters and two Labs. The Labs are predictable and dependable. The setters are as diverse as the seven dwarves. If they were named for adjectives instead of gun manufacturers, they might have been Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Dopey, Bashful, Sneezy or Doc – with a few substitutions.
My first hunting dog was a Labrador, and I expected the mischievous antics of lovable Labs more than the less-familiar charms of setters. I had been around plenty of retriever breeds – their hearty and gregarious character make them an excellent companion and social mixer.
In Alaska, their double coat and waterfowl-tested ability to endure cold weather and water make them capable partners for those of us who love the backcountry and a low-maintenance breed.
Setters, on the other hand, have single coats, and some have a feline disinterest in water. Their big lung capacities allow them to surpass other breeds as distance runners – so much so that they have been crossed with sled dogs for mushing — but their long fur collects snow and requires brushing.
A girlfriend once explained the difference in the temperament between Labs and setters best: "A setter or springer cannot stand a harsh word. If you must correct them, do it softly. 'Come along, little darling' works well."
Surely, I thought, she must be kidding. No matter how mild-mannered, they are hunting dogs, after all.
Winchester, an English setter who runs the mountains with the endurance of an Olympian and the grace of a great ballet master, took almost a year to house-train. A harsh word not only didn't work, it offended him and gave me my first glimpse at the haughtiness of setters.
"How dare you speak to me in such a tone?" he expressed with a tuck of the chin and side-cast of the eye. His back to the corner, he sat with the defiant pose of a child who refused to eat his Brussels sprouts.
I asked Steve, "Am I being anthropomorphic, or does Winchester appear to be annoyed with me because he peed on the floor?"
"Oh, he's annoyed," Steve said.
Winchester pointed birds naturally and he came when you called his name. But setters are known for their sensitivity and difficulty to house train. Our next setter shared the trait with a twist. Expecting a similar disdain for harsh words, when she went to the bathroom indoors, I said "No" as gently as possible.
She didn't like it. She didn't eat for two days, and her demeanor was – if human – a heartbroken mope.
"I'm not sure I don't like Labs better," I confessed to Steve.
Our septet has the run of the yard and the house via a dog door. There is no shortage of love between them or from us. At night, they lounge on the floor and furniture after a meal. Just as a candle can light an infinite number of other candles, the amount of love we afford our dogs is limited only by the fire code.
The most difficult job is choosing who gets to go hunting with us. We are fortunate that not all of the dogs, just as not all people, enjoy hunting. There are a few who favor their walks and dinners more than a day afield.
While we watch the weather to determine our plans, the dogs who love to hunt watch us. We are their weather, and they can forecast our plans in advance.
Winchester often knows the night before. When you know your dogs, you know behavior is communication. I know when he guards the door and paces he is onto a hunt plan. A few of the others follow us around the house at nose length. In the bird-dog world, getting to go is of utmost importance.
Cogswell is perhaps the most insistent. One morning Steve and I had agreed to take Hugo to the mountains with us to hunt ptarmigan, and when I got in the truck, Cogswell was sitting in the back seat.
"Why is Cogsy in the back seat?" I asked.
Steve looked sheepish. It turns out he had every intention of taking Hugo, who had run out in the yard at a crucial point in the decision-making process. While Steve called for Hugo, Cogswell took matters into his own hands – or, more correctly, took Steve's sleeve in his mouth.
"He grabbed my sleeve and pulled me toward the truck," Steve said. "How could I not take him?"
As we left, the eight remaining dogs howled from the yard.
What is it like to have nine hunting dogs?
It's a difficult question to answer without first saying that bird dogs are family. They have to have someone to keep house, wash and sew, and sweep and cook. But when they point a grouse or retrieve a duck, it means all the things leading up to that have gone right.
I can't imagine my life without the lessons and memories given to me by bird dogs. When they run the wide-open country, stand at the edge of a cliff and look back, or watch the sky for birds, it's not a question of what it's like to have nine dogs, nine lives or anything about the magical number of nine.
Having nine dogs is like having nine muses, nine reasons to be inspired, and nine stockings to hang by the chimney with care.
Christine Cunningham of Kenai is a lifetime Alaskan and avid hunter. She writes about hunting in Alaska on alternate weeks. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.