Pondering the necessity of bird dogs willing to put up with owners

Ralph Bartholdt —
Tuesday, December 4, 2018

I heard a story about a bird dog that couldn’t be trained, and usually ran off flushing pheasants and Huns a quarter mile away in the wrong direction. One day the dog, an English pointer, sprinted off after scent and its owner sighed realizing he would get rid of the darned dog as soon as he returned to the ranch. Maybe trade him for a weaner pig, a lame ewe or a one-legged hen.

Then, just when the dog was barely visible on the horizon it flushed a brace of pheasant. The roosters flew up, cackled and caught a breeze. They flew toward the man who was unprepared for this bouquet of good fortune. He kneeled by a fence-row of wait-a-minute vine and the birds kept coming. He jacked a shell into the chamber of his gun. The birds kept coming. They quit pumping their wings and set them instead, into a glide. They were heading directly toward the field edge and cover where the man kneeled and he shot both of the birds as they passed over like ducks coming into a set of decoys.

It was a good day.

He kept the dog.

Paging through gun dog magazines I am often attentive to the names of the canines and their ostensible cunning, pleasant demeanor and lack of flash. Just plain solid dogs, obviously well mannered, with instincts as sharp as razor wire and photogenic even at full leap into water bristling with fraggle ice. They are dogs my pals and I could hope to find maybe once in our lives for a season, if luck held out, until their real owners come to claim them.

We found a chocolate lab in a field once with a farmhouse a half mile away and hunted with it for the day before taking it home.

Poor lost baby. Not a bad pup. Fair nose. Par on the retrieve. We fed it cans of veal and liver Alpo and probably would have named it Lancelot, or Bruiser if the farmer hadn’t called to ask for his dog back. We awkwardly tottered in his driveway, hands in our pockets, moving in and out of that gray shade that seeks to decipher perverse or good intentions until the farmer generously adjudicated, “Feel free to come hunt with her anytime. She needs the exercise.”

A friend of mine named his English pointer for the first game it flushed. We hunted an overgrown logging road when the pup nosed into a stand of alder and kicked out a cow and calf moose that trotted our way on high legs, apparently miffed. “Moose!” My friend yelled, and the dog came running.

This scenario repeated itself and turned into a habit, He yelled, “Moose!” And the pointer, ears pinned back and tail tucked, beat a path to its owner’s side. As the owner beat a path for cover.

Moose, the pointer, grew up big and he liked to hog the front seat of the Jeep Wrangler that my friend drove to hunting spots in Eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana. Like a lot of dogs of this breed Moose became a nonconformist as a teenager preferring to range far from adults and he may have hunted all three states by himself in an afternoon, but we could never tell for sure. The practice continued into his later life. He usually returned to us worn out, dragging his tongue, but in good spirits. A few quail feathers stuck to the side of his mouth, and he slept the entire drive home.

This was before my buddy had children. Children consider a working dog a digit of their extended family, which prevents its sale no matter how inept the mutt is in the field. When my friend traded his dog for an over under shotgun I noticed the blood pressure pills disappeared from his medicine cabinet and he took a certain pleasure hunting over other people’s dogs. When their pooches displayed bad form, ate birds, failed to fetch or forgot their raison d’etre, he did not offer advice or critique. Without a dog he had become a gentleman, almost a squire, who held his gun gracefully at port arms ready for a flush, instead of swinging it about like a bull rider as he had when he used to scan the horizon for his errant bird hound. He now chatted amicably and astutely. Even his vocabulary changed.

But that was years ago.

When I spoke to him the other day, I noticed a sharper edge to his usually tempered demeanor and just a modicum of grit, hearkening back to the old days when Moose disappeared into the next county until suppertime.

I heard a whimper in the background.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Not a whole lot,” he pined. “Got a new dog.”

“Really? That’s nice. How’s it hunting?”

There was a pause like the one when we stood in the farmer’s driveway with our hands in our pockets.

“The kids really like it,” he ventured.

It’s a lab, he said. And it’s already become a digit of the extended family.