Take Your Dog Hunting
Almost all the state departments of natural resources in the United States and most of the provincial game and fish departments in Canada have implemented programs designed to encourage parents and other family members who hunt to take the kids along when they go hunting. Several of these programs, in fact, are titled “Take a Kid Hunting.”
In addition, more than 39,000 high school students nationwide in 2021 participated in their state’s high school clay target shooting programs, making shooting sports the fastest-growing high school sport in the nation. These programs, along with each state and provincial youth firearms-safety program, are designed to provide much-needed knowledge of gun safety and the responsibility that goes with owning and shooting firearms. They all, either directly or indirectly, also encourage young people to hunt.
Something similar is perhaps needed for the owners of all the Sporting breeds, including the Lagatto Romagnolo (except those dogs would have to hunt mushrooms instead of birds), Standard and Miniature Poodles and Airedales. The owners of hounds and the vermin-hunting terrier breeds should also probably be included in this program, which would have as its objective taking your dog hunting.
Why is this important? Aside from giving the dogs the opportunity to do what the breed was meant to do and preserving that ability in the breed, it can be very rewarding for both the dogs and their owners. For some, it can also be very valuable to the breed as a whole.
Several years ago, while judging a Master Hunt test for pointing breeds, an absolutely stunning Irish Setter was running in the test. While she was smaller than the behemoths that were fashionable in the show ring at the time, the setter was correct in every way, including having proper angulation instead of the extreme angulation that was also the current show-ring fashion. In the field, the setter lived up to her physical appearance as she simply flowed through the field, finding, pointing and retrieving birds. While she didn’t point with the 12 o’clock tail that field-trial judges want to see, it was close enough so that when she found a bird, it was a lovely picture.
Since the only Irish Setters that my co-judge or I had seen in the field, prior to this impressive dog, were either “field-type” setters that were fine hunters but painful to look at from a conformation standpoint or “show” dogs that were lovely physical specimens but painful to watch as they pottered about the field, now and then stumbling on a bird more or less accidentally, it piqued my curiosity as to how the setter’s owner had been astute or lucky enough to get the best of both, as the dog was a conformation champion and had her Senior Hunter title.
When asked, the owner said it was a deliberate effort. She was tired, she said, of hearing about “Irish airheads, show setters that can’t hunt and have empty heads. By the same token, I’m not enamored with field dogs that are so butt-ugly they’d scare a buzzard off a gut pile. While I realize these are exaggerations, there is an uncomfortable amount of truth in both assertions. So I took my birdiest conformation champion and bred her to the nicest-looking, soundest field dog I could find.”
Pointing to the dog we had just awarded an orange ribbon, she added, “This girl is the best that mating produced, although there are a couple of her littermates that are champions and have their JH titles, including one I own. She also has a daughter from her first litter who is just 18 months old and has her JH and 13 points, including both majors, in the show ring. I admit it has given me immense satisfaction to show the doubters that an Irish Setter that looked like what is written in the standard could do the job the breed was originally developed to do. It has also been very rewarding to me personally to watch her and now her pups develop as both show dogs and hunting dogs, as well as — at least in my opinion — being good for the future of the breed itself.”
The elegant Irish Setter on point is Raisin, a dual champion in both the U.S. and Canada and an AKC Master Hunter owned by Cassie Allen.
Aside from the personal pleasures she had experienced with her dog, she also noted that there was a practical reason: Even then, puppy buyers were beginning to get a bit more sophisticated and had started looking for dogs that were capable of doing more than prancing around a show ring smiling at judges. Also, being a breeder, she had discovered that having the titles to prove that her dogs were not only “pretty” but could do the breed’s intended work had increased the number of people wanting pups from her breeding. In turn, that had enabled her to demand a higher price for them.
Clearly loving his work is Standard Poodle Tye owned by Lynn Gelbmann.
But there are other pleasures involved in hunting with a dog that are less practical and more sublime. Most people who hunt with their dogs don’t go into the field to shoot a bunch of birds or bunnies or raccoons. Shooting is just a necessary incidental to the pleasure of watching their dogs in action. I also very much doubt that the dogs much care what you do in the field. What they really do care about is whether you are taking them with you. Their excitement is boundless when you, dressed in camo or blaze orange, grab the whistles, pick up the shotgun and say, “C’mon, boy/girl, let’s go!” That enthusiasm alone should almost be enough motivation to get busy and hunt with the dog.
I’ve shared thousands of hours in the field with my dogs, and every trip was special in some way or another. I can recall days when a dog performed so brilliantly it brought tears to my eyes, while there have been others where I have called down curses on a dog that were so vile they would have required a full-scale exorcism to be cancelled. But I’ve been lucky to have had many really good days in the field. There have even been a few rare occasions when my shooting has approached my dogs’ abilities to find birds and fetch them.
On those occasions when everything comes together, the hunting experience goes from a mere workmanlike session to something that approaches art. It’s hard to explain to someone who has never hunted with a dog the spine-tingling sensation you get seeing a dog you’ve trained from a baby puppy find and flush a bird in an impossible jungle of switchgrass or brambles. Or when a dog makes a spectacular retrieve pursuing a diving crippled duck or goose or does a one-whistle blind retrieve on a bird that finally fell 200 yards away across three cover and two terrain changes. If you don’t hunt with your dog, you’ll never know the heart-stopping thrill when your dog locks on point in tough cover so tightly you couldn’t move him or her with a D5 Cat. These are the times when it becomes clear why the fever of the chase for birds or critters with a dog is so strong, so persistent, so contagious and keeps flaring up in everyone who hunts with a dog.
If you eschew hunting with a dog whose raison d’etre is hunting, you’ll never experience the sheer excitement of seeing your dog do exactly what he or she was meant to do and how much the dog loves doing it. You’ll never shake your head in wonderment as I did last season when I shot at a duck through the overhanging leaves of a tree and was certain it was a clean miss. Even though there was absolutely no way he could have seen or heard the bird fall, somehow Bo, my Chesapeake, knew there was a bird down and refused to take “no bird” for an answer. About the time I was ready to direct language at him that would fuse asbestos, he came trotting over the hill behind us with a beautiful, fully colored, drake mallard in his mouth. He gently delivered it to me like a precious gift to a loved one. After I told him that he was, without doubt, the finest gun dog ever, my only comment to my hunting partners was, “How the hell did he know?” They had no answer.
This English Springer Spaniel flushing a pheasant from a switchgrass jungle is Jake, owned by John Pidde.
On another day, later in the year, at the shooting preserve where we are members, when almost all the waterfowl had sensibly skedaddled for warmer climates, we were hunting pheasants. My Chessie is an ecumenical hunter in that he’ll hunt for anybody in the party, and he flushed a rooster across the field from me. When my partner missed the shot, the dog went back to looking for another bird, so he didn’t see the bird fall when I shot. Seconds later, another rooster flushed wildly in front of me, and when I fired, the bird feathered into the same tree line in virtually the same spot as the other.
I called the dog and sent him into the tree line, where he quickly found and retrieved the first rooster. When I sent him to the same spot again, I got a very quizzical look. But since I insisted, he humored me. To his great joy, there was another bird there, and, glory be, it led him a merry chase down the tree line and back up again before he finally corralled it. Panting but wagging all over, he had an unmistakable look of triumph on his face as he put the still lively bird in my hand.
Bo's magic moment.
It wasn’t just the two roosters that made this such a great experience. On the way back to the truck, it was late in the day, that time professional photographers call the “magic hour” when everything is golden. Above us, a bald eagle spiraled and soared on the thermals with the setting sun, creating a 24-carat aura off its white head. As Bo trotted happily along ahead of us in the silence that sunset always brings, his deadgrass coat, the few remaining leaves on the deciduous trees and the switchgrass in the field turned golden in the fading sunlight. It was a perfect end to a perfect day of taking my dog hunting.