Another hunter recently asked me, “What is the biggest challenge of having eight hunting dogs besides the feed bill?”
I don’t know what most people encounter when they come home. Maybe they open the front door, and the inside of the house appears like a furniture showroom. Everything is how it was left.
When I visit the homes of people without dogs, I marvel at things like undisturbed accent pillows and the number of breakable items arranged on low shelves.
One of the best things about the ordinary working dog is that they thrive at being a member of the family. Sure, some folks keep their dogs in kennels, and these dogs may perform exceptionally well in field trials or excel in ways that put our motley pack to shame. But kenneled dogs, as one writer expressed, don’t represent canine evolution.
Five of the English setters we share quarters with came from the same litter and grew up together.
Growing up as a quintuplet may have contributed to their personal space issues and a behavior we call “blocking.” If a setter sits at the foot of our stairs or in front of a dog door, another setter will not attempt to pass.
This blockage can go on for hours if left unchecked, sometimes resulting in whines or growls. Often, I find myself addressing the situation: “Colt, move out of the doorway,” or “Excuse you, please, Cogswell needs to pass through.”
When we brought Rigby into the family as a rollicking Labrador pup, he broke down many of the imaginary barriers created by the setters. The comedic dynamics of playing butler to fussy setters and a carefree Lab has resulted in endless entertainment.
When I come home, I am welcomed by a cheering crowd of happy faces. For all the trouble of packing so many quirky personalities under one roof, I know I’d miss the crazy dances and contented lounging around that happen every day.
The second biggest challenge is deciding who to take with us when we leave the house.
One way to ease the burden is to take more than one dog. This has worked out well when taking two or three setters ptarmigan hunting or taking two Labs duck hunting.
The setters are pointing dogs, so their job is to find birds and point them. When they work together, and one dog points a bird, the other dogs “honor” the point. Another term for this is “backing” — when one dog sees another dog on point, the second dog stops and points that dog.
The sight of English setters running a wide-open field and coming to a sudden stop, tails flagged, is one of those moments that make you understand their manners on a different level. Their overreaction, unnecessary in the living room, carries importance in the field.
For the most part, this behavior is natural, but steadiness training works toward consistency, resulting in greater safety in the field.
Retrievers, unlike setters, were primarily bred to help hunters bring back birds or other game without damage. The Chesapeake Bay retriever, golden retriever and Labrador, among others, are suited to work in the rugged environments and cold water typical of waterfowling. Two of our setters won’t go near water. Cogswell will side-step a puddle in the yard.
While a pointing dog locates the bird and waits for the hunter to flush and shoot, a retriever brings back the downed bird, something our setters are not required to do. The retrievers are not great at pointing but serve as great flushing dogs, meaning they “flush” birds into the air.
There are many factors to consider in choosing a hunting dog, and whether they are pointers or flushers and retrievers is one small part of the equation.
But, when you have both types of specialist dogs sitting at your feet pleading to go with you, you might have the same brilliant idea I did.
I don’t know who first had this idea or their inspiration, but it goes something like this: What if the pointing dog points the bird and the flushing dog flushes it? The retriever would then retrieve it.
It all sounds great in theory. I had seen it before in magazines, and I even knew someone who said it worked well.
Heck, I had even tried it before and forgot that it didn’t work out so well, so I had the idea again.
Despite knowing the two most hunting-est dogs at my feet — Hugo the setter and Rigby the Labrador — were an odd couple, I suggested to Steve that we take them both.
“Hugo can find the birds, and Rigby can retrieve them,” I said without needing to say that my faith in this plan was like my faith in all plans in which I unconsciously repeat the same mistakes.
Hunting with both a pointer and a flusher at the same time is perhaps like the movie in which a temperamental figure skater and a former hockey player are paired to win Olympic gold. Or, maybe even more similar, the film in which two rival figure skaters — one precise and one improvisational — get into a career-ending fight and wind up as a winning pairs team.
We loaded up the mismatched pair and headed to the hills.
Hugo dashed off in search of bird scent on the wind while Rigby struggled to keep up. I watched them jockey across a stream as visions of how it could all go wrong filled my head. Hugo might get territorial on his point. Rigby’s idea of respect is admiring your personal space by being in it.
Perhaps the challenge of combining reliable pointers and flushers is worth it if you go into it knowing you have dogs that can take direction given any level of distraction. Or planning for the reality that everything may not go as planned.
We were not successful in terms of finding birds that day, but were lucky to enjoy a day without the frustrations of Rigby ambushing a point or a flush too far out of range.
But, back to the original question. What is the biggest challenge of having eight dogs besides the feedbill?
I suppose it is like any variety of relationships complicated by communal living. Nobody is perfect, and some members fall on the extreme side with exaggerated characters. All of us are hunting for something, and if we do this in a meaningful way, aware of each other because we’ve spent so much time learning to read all the behaviors and trying to understand them, at the end of the day the biggest challenge is that eight dogs won’t fit into one recliner.
Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Kenai.