Living with bird dogs

by Jennifer L S Pearsall

From "office hours" in the field to "down time" on the couch, our four-legged wonders are the real fabric of a gundog owner's life.

The first time I ever took a poke at live birds I was amazed by the work of two pointer bitches in the sparse cover of late-January. Our family always had some sort of mixedbreed pound-hound around the house (the kind that gladly humors throngs of neighborhood kids), but these pointing dogs were not of that ilk. These dogs had a job!

Halfway through the morning the four-legged machine working the stubble row in front of me swapped ends in mid-air, landing in a crouch, front-end low, back-end high, as her brace-mate oozed in like molten lead to honor from the right. The clouds parted and the sun hit the hoarfrost on the stubble, lighting the steam curling from the dogs' noses in one dazzling, breath-taking, cover-shot moment.

I don't remember what birds got up just then. I do know I was the only one who owed money for extra birds when we regrouped at the preserve's clubhouse. I was hooked. Hooked on the surprise thrum of wings bursting from a scant clump of frozen fauna. Hooked on swing-through, recoil, and tumbling featherdusters. Hooked on warm, newly dead bodies pressed against my kidneys in my coat's game pouch.

And in the way the fervently religious feel and heed their calling, I was hooked on bird dogs.

It took a year. The first six months I talked to anyone who would listen and might know something about bird dogs-breeders, hard-core trialers, hobbyists. I scoured American Field, the weekly publication of field-trial historyin-the-making, memorized bloodlines, read tales of tweeds, golden autumns, and handsome dogs that found covey after covey all day long before riding quietly home on the front seat of some wood-sided relic of American tin.

I wanted an English setter. The trial winners in the Field were overwhelmingly pointers and English setters, but the former appeared austere and too businesslike-a look that said something like, Put me in a kennel run, take me out to find birds, put me back when you've shot your limit. I needed something I could live with. So it was a setter I wanted, a big, broadheaded, aristocratic male, long-feathered glossy coat ticked perfectly, uniformly, in short streaks of rust or black. He'd lie at my feet before a crackling fire and gaze up at me adoringly.

Norman Rockwell, grab your brushes. So I had this vision of the perfect setter, but also knew it had to find birds. I'd read just enough to know about "boot-polishers," dogs that never got out from under your feet and rarely found a bird. No way was I going to have a dog like that; but by way of overcompensation I went the other direction. I found the breeder who trained and handled the winningest open-prairie pheasant trial setter ever and ordered a pup from him. That oughta do, I thought.

Five months later, the tiny, 10-weekold, nearly pure-white puppy that showed up in the cargo area of Dulles Airport would prove both the answer to-and undoing of-my dreams.

I set him down on the grassy edge of a flood-control plain next to the gunshop where I worked. He pointed a flower, then a butterfly, nosed all sorts of interesting places before falling asleep in my arms. I took him to work the next day, waking him from the back of my station wagon every hour to air. He never howled, never complained, relished in typical squirmy puppiness all the hands that stroked him-but I was his savior. I could tell by the way he had eyes only for me every time I went to the back of the car to hold him. And on our last walk before the ride home that night he picked up a spent Federal Gold Medal paper shotshell hull lying by the dumpster. I know the heady ambrosia of those shells. This dog was destined to be a star. I named him Fergus.

The first six months were idyllic. He housebroke in days, and crate-breaking proved no challenge, either. I read everything about molding a young pointing dog I could get my eyeballs on, so I knew I was doing all the right things (cocky amateur!). I didn't teach him to sit or heel. In fact, the faint idea of running him in trials let me teach him to pull constantly on his 20-foot check-cord, so that if I ever got serious he could be roaded from an ATV.

I let him wander (once his legs grew long enough) with the check-cord attached. He ran miles while I tooted on my whistle to gain his attention, quartering my body in the next direction I wanted him to go, always into the wind, always keeping him in front of me. He even got to search out a few planted birds, though he showed a disdain for pigeons, preferring penraised quail instead. He even knows what a game bird is. I buried my nose in his soft fur, in love with the way he smelled of the sweet, late-summer timothy fields where he ran. It will always be like this. I couldn't wait to take him hunting.

At six months I met a friend atop a steep, rock-strewn knob in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We had private property at our dis- posal, rumored to be pollut- ed with grouse. I assured my friend that Fergus worked within a hundred yards of me, had a good nose. If there were grouse, he'd find them. I let him out of the crate ...

He was gone. All we could do was stare in uncomfortable silence as my sweet, wonderful setter with the orange eye-patch disappeared down the ridge and headed for the distant valley. Throughout the day, as grouse flushed wild around us, we'd catch glimpses of a white speck far below, running like a track star as he scared up deer and songbirds and all manner of other mountain creatures. Near evening I finally intercepted one of his wide, checking-in loops near the top, his sides heaving, tongue at his knees, covered in burrs, and blood dripping from his thorn-shredded ears and nose.

I've never seen a happier dog.

This wasn't the first time Fergus had surprised me, but before it had all been pretty amusing. Like the Sunday afternoon I sat on the couch watching a bad movie. Puppies, most will vouch, are like small children. When they've been quiet too long they must be up to something. So I snuck upstairs, hoping to find a sleeping Fergus on the bed. Oh, he was on the bed all right, but he was standing in a pile of turkey feathers, pulled systematically one by one from a bucket in the adjacent fly-tying room and trailing in a neat line to the bed where he'd collected the mother lode. He stared at me without shame, cocked his head, wagged his tail, and belched.

I swear a smile crossed his face. There were other, little things. Like the chewed corners of each and every pillow-back on my two, then-new couches. Just the corners; he didn't destroy the pillows, and you'd find him curled up between them in all the puppy-calendar cuteness imaginable.

Likewise for comforter corners and bed pillows. The sleeping pad in the crate got shredded-and replaced with 11 nibbled sheets and old towels. And then he outgrew the habit. (More or less-forget to shut the bedroom door in the morning and it's a guarantee I'll be buying a new comforter over the weekend.) He didn't eat shoes (dirty socks, but they were cheap), didn't gnaw the legs off the antiques, and by and large was a pretty easy keeper. Easy on the road, too: He took to being kenneled or staked on a chain gang like he'd spent his life on the trial circuit. And he was clearly all about birds--even the bird-hunting outdoor shows on the television had him sitting front row at rapt attention, head cocking from side to side to catch duck, goose, and turkey speak in stereo, and (I swear) he actually points the television when it's a flushing-bird show.

I couldn't wait to hunt him.

I laughed off that first "hunting" experience, telling myself, Well, he's found his legs! I hit the bench, doing 11 whoa" drills till we were both dull as butter knives from the boredom. He hated it, sulked through the entire procedure. I set him on the ground believing he understood "whoa" even if he didn't like it.

He was gone. Dashing across the fields, he'd stop a couple hundred yards out and turn to flip me the paw before continuing on his way. He did not know "whoa."

We went back to the bench again, repeating the drills on the ground with planted birds and a long check cordat least the birds made him happy, put his tail in the air where it belonged. I let him off the cord.

He was gone. Dashing across the fields ... .

Somewhere during all this "training" I set him loose on a preserve to see if we'd made any real strides in "whoa." But the bird handler had gotten lazy that day, putting 20 chukars in one 50-yard strip of milo. Fergus nearly had a stroke. He'd point, and we'd rush in and flush and shoot, birds falling all around like a strange hail. Fergus would run to one downed chukar, scoop it up (where did he learn to retrieve?) in time to see the next bird get up and fall, run to it dropping the first, scoop up the next one, and on and on until he became his own game of pong, running back and forth between warm piles of feathers, scooping up and dropping each one as he remembered and went back to the last one he dropped. He looked like he'd backed his tail into a socket, his eyes bulging, his hair on end.

We finally stopped laughing long enough to gather up 18 dead chukars and save the poor dog from himself.

Future exploits in the grouse woods through years two and three left me with an undiminished supply of No. 6 20-gauge shells, a well-exercised dog, and a sore throat from yelling "FERGUS!!!" and "WHOA!" and "HERE!" all day long. He routinely ran an easy 1/2-mile out from me, checking in from a hundred-yard distance every 45 minutes or so. I was at my wits' end. Every local trainer I'd taken him to told me discipline was not an option: "He's soft," they'd say, shaking their heads as he sulked during whoa drills back on the bench. "He can't take the pressure. And with his bloodlines, he won't settle down until he makes his fifth birthday anyway."

I couldn't wait that long. Besides, I lived with this dog. I knew all about this sulking thing. Yell at him for getting in the garbage and tail and head drooped to the floor-turn to go and he was wagging his tail with his nose right back in the trash. Soft? Spell "soft" O-s-c-a-r-N-o-m-i-n-a-t-i-o-n. So I found another pro, got an intro to ecollars, and life with my bird dog gradually got better.

About this time I acquired my second dog, a black Labrador. Noah is remarkable for being the Websterdictionary definition of what it is to be a Lab: smart, loyal, enthusiastic, lives to fetch, can't get wet without shaking all over you. He is a lovely, big dog who always knows when it's the right time to get off the bed in the middle of the night (the very antithesis of Fergus). But he is not the hound my stories come from.

There are times I think even Noah rolls his eyes at his playmate's nonsense-sure, that's anthropomorphic and denies anything anyone knows about dog psychology. Then again, I believe Noah is also awed sometimes, as I am constantly now, by the job Fergus does in the field. For instance, just before his fourth birthday on a pheasant hunt with friends in Pennsylvania: Fergus was on a wide cast-we kept Noah at heel for flushing duty-and since the e-collar kept him in the same county and its beeper kept his location pinpointed, we were making a rather leisurely pass through one large field. He'd been out of sight for five, maybe 10 minutes, when I realized the collar was beeping in point mode; had been for some time. We crested a rise, and there he was, in the middle of a small draw, locked up tighter than Fort Knox.

Somebody else had to shoot. I was near tears he was so beautiful, so perfect. I couldn't have cared less about shooting anything else that day. So the bright cockbird got up, cackling like a broken barnyard rooster, and was saluted with an appropriate amount of lead. Down he came. I ordered Noah to "back," but he remained at heel while Fergus made the retrieve (and I assure you Fergus doesn't know the command "back" from "fold the laundry"). Certain of you will laugh, but that black Lab knew, knew, that point, that flush, that entire moment belonged to Fergus.

Fergus is now in his fifth year, and we have had many moments like that last one. He's been routinely fabulous on woodcock, pheasant scent turns him to stone like Lot's wife to salt, and we've had help from a certain pro trainer so that, glory be, he actually finds and holds grouse now. He also still points birds on TV hunting shows, still takes up too much of the bed, and still begs for junk food like an evangelist for alms. But mostly he's my No. 1 source of laughter. Fergus really resides in his own little world. Occasionally he lets others init's kind of like living with a friendly alien. I think my mother (my favorite free dog-sitter) summed it up best one day when I called from the road to check on the dogs. Distracted by dinner boiling away on the stove, she said offhandedly, "Well, Noah is sitting here beside me in the kitchen like the good dog he is, and Fergus is ... Fergus is off somewhere chasing clouds, I guess."

That's Fergus-Sweatpea, CircusDog, Frecklehead. Despite the sometimes-arduous road to get there, the working dog in him is everything I'd ever hoped for: brisk fall days, a white setter streaming over the land, visible only as a ripple in the long grass, the tip of his tail whipping above the seed heads like an upsidedown eggbeater; staunch points, eyes rolling back as if to warn, Watch out, boss, they're gonna blow any minute now; a dog that is all business when the truck hits a dirt road. But hunting takes up so few actual days that it's the living with this dog those other 300-odd days a year that counts as much, maybe more. I'll never get over that one, raised, skeptical-professor eyebrow he gives me when I speak to him. The way he springsproings like Pepe LePew through a sorghum field-Whee, Mom, look at me! The games of tag he plays with my father when they think no one else is watching. His habit of howling, grinning, every time the phone rings. And his look of absolute contentment lying on the couch next to me as he leans his head gently against my chest and closes his eyes. Those will be the cornerstones of my memories of this dog. Those are what it means to live with bird dogs.

By Jennifer L. S. Pearsall, Associate Editor

Copyright National Rifle Association of America Oct 2002 Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved