Hugo and Winchester lit out ahead of us on the trail for 100 yards before crashing through the willows and emerging as white specks in the wide-open mountain valley ahead of us. It isn’t hunting season, and they know it. They cover 10 times the ground we will walk in a day and unveil secrets only transmitted in the language of scent.
We can never learn this language they translate for us. As I follow to keep up, I marvel at their range and gait — running on toes as if they balance an imaginary book on their heads. It isn’t always this way, but often.
My previous dogs were all Labradors, and their gifts for balancing an imaginary book were limited to water. With their webbed feet and double-coats, they are excellent swimmers and retrievers of ducks in cold water. When I watch Cheyenne, our stocky chocolate Lab, run, I imagine a yo-yo at her chin running out and returning as she jerks up and down on her short legs.
Each dog has a distinctive carriage and way of moving. Cogswell, another setter, stays so close that he is almost ineffective as a ptarmigan hunting dog, but in the offseason I enjoy his close-working style most. I never worry, “Where is Cogswell?” like I do with Hugo or Winchester.
When I meet other dogs on the trail, I enjoy seeing how different breeds go about their business. Some are panting alongside their people, some scout ahead and return in lanky loops, and some trot a consistent lead or lag as if they were just another person on the trail.
Although I’m not an expert on dog training, of all the things I’ve learned about hunting with dogs I think quality time spent with them not hunting is the most helpful on the hunt. First, a strong bond built over time results in more dynamic communication than a consistent response to one-way commands without the deeper connection. Second, there’s no better way to get to know what normal and abnormal is for a dog than becoming an expert in normal.
If I can read a particular dog’s body language in a variety of situations, I can tell if Winchester is having an off-day long before we are on the mountain. In the field, his tail tells me if he’s chasing a songbird instead of a game bird — it only “helicopters” for heavy game scent. I know if Cogswell is responding to a squirrel, rabbit or bird not just because I caught a glimpse of the critter but because I’ve seen how he acts around each.
Boss will dart after small game animals unless they are in a tree. In his book, if you perch and chirp like a bird, it doesn’t matter if you are a squirrel. He will point you. “Squirrel,” I will say. And Boss will not believe me. “No bird” is what we tell the dogs when they have it in their minds they have found a creature worth pointing.
A friend joined me on a hike this summer with Boss, and she was alarmed when he began to creep with purpose along the trail in front of us. She had no experience with bird dogs and a fear of bears so she asked me, “What does he see?” I told her he was just stalking a songbird.
“How do you know?” she said.
Because if it were a bear, he would come running back to me like a scared pup. And if it were a rabbit, he’d give chase. And if it were a squirrel, he’d be at the base of a tree.
By the end of the walk, I was delighted to hear her say, “No bird! Bossy, no bird!”
Boss looked back at her like, who do you think you are?
For those who criticize the anthropomorphic tendencies of dog people, there is some forgiveness in order. We are not wrong in assessing human characteristics in dogs because we share so much common ground with them. They are no longer wild, and many live lives as domestic as our own.
If humans suffer from too much civilization, dogs suffer from too much domestication. The shared escape for both is time outdoors — not just the nearby outside, but the great outdoors.
All of our dogs live in the house with us, and so we share the same variety of schedule. While I go to the office, they make their living in the yard. When I retire for the evening, they curl on various pieces of furniture around the same living room. There are eight dogs and two people in the house. We all want to go hunting in equal amounts, and we are all anxious in the offseason.
We also all need to stay fit enough to hunt. The Labradors benefit from practice swimming in a nearby lake, and the setters need to toughen their foot pads in the rocky mountain terrain.
I may step a bit too far in my view of the human/dog relationship, but I feel safe to say that after a dozen hunting years, a strong bond between a hunter and a dog is the most important aspect of hunting with bird dogs. There are good dogs — well-behaved and obedient — and there are “best” dogs — intense and charismatic in their pursuit of birds. But they are all improved with undivided attention.
I never met a dog I didn’t like. Every one of the dogs I live with has found its way into my limbic system. I feel attuned to them the way another might to a child or loved one. I follow them, and they follow me, and we won’t have as many days afield as we hope.
People sometimes ask what we do with the dogs in the offseason. I wonder how the question reflects on their understanding of the way bird dog people feel about their dogs. We do not put them in storage or ignore them when they are not useful. It’s like asking what you do with your children when school is out.
You enjoy the time you have together. You go to the beach, you go fishing, you hike. You get to know each other and enjoy each other’s company, because the best thing about a bird dog is not how good or bad it is — there’s no way to guarantee personality in a pup. It’s in those moments at the end of a long day when the tail still thumps against the floor at the sound of your voice.
Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan and an avid shooter. She lives in Kenai.