Just Leave Me Alone!
Last week my son Wade came down for a few days of chasing wild Montana pheasants. We had a great time, as late season wild pheasants are always a challenge. On Wednesday we were hunting some very dense riparian cover along the Missouri River. The vegetation varied from mature cottonwoods to cattails, plenty of buckbrush and willows, with grass that was shoulder high in many places. We had four dogs: Duke and Elle the veterans and rookies Quinn and Sunny.
Wade and Quinn had emerged from the heavy cover into an area that lacked the cover to hide anything especially multicolored bird like a rooster pheasant. However, defying the impossible a rooster flushed at Wade's feet. It headed for the thick cover and Wade made a great shot through trees to bring it down. Quinn marked the bird perfectly and ran to make the retrieve. As he put his nose down to pick up the rooster a hen flushed right in front of him distracting him from his purpose and causing him to look around with that "why do you shoot some of them and not others" look. After the distraction he was unable to find the rooster.
As I had marked the rooster down from my angle I made my way directly to the fall through the thick stuff. Arriving at the site I could not find the bird. I called the other dogs and none of them came up with anything either. I suggested that Wade call Duke over since he is a wizard at finding crippled birds. Wade called him over and he made a quick pass through the area of the fall and headed off without showing any interest at all. This frustrated Wade and he called him back and insisted that Duke hunt the area more thoroughly but he would not show any more than a passing interest in the area of the fall and clearly wanted to get on with hunting. There were lots of birds in the area and he acted like he was more interested in hunting them than in coming up with the bird we were looking for.
My son was clearly upset with his dog and proceeded to tell Duke what a useless animal he was using some very colorful language to express his feelings. He told Duke to just go ahead and do his own thing since the dog apparently was not interested in hunting for us.
No one wants to loose a cripple bird. We stood there for about ten minutes assessing our options and taking a break to collect ourselves before proceeding with our hunt. As we stood visiting I noticed Duke coming from the area where we had already hunted. In his mouth was a very alive rooster, obviously the "dead" one that we had sent him for originally. I drew Wade's attention to his dog with the bird in his mouth. My son's expression was priceless. I couldn't stop from laughing as Duke delivered the bird to hand as if to say, if you'd just leave me alone I'll get it done. I told Wade he better apologize to Duke for all the things that he'd said because his dog obviously knew what he was doing, more so than the master.
I've seen this repeated over and over through the years. Our dogs have tremendous capacity to do the things that we expect them to do in the field whether it's field trials, hunt tests, hunting or a number of other pursuits. The senses and innate skills they possess to accomplish the things we ask of them are much keener than our senses. However, we are constantly second guessing them. Instead of trusting them to accomplish the task we think we need to "help" often to their detriment rather than an improved outcome.
I remember an occasion when I was hunting late season pheasants in a dense stand of cattails in Alberta many years ago. I was hunting with a seasoned veteran named Kelly who was very good at what she did, a regular pheasant hunting machine. As we made our way through the stand of cattails she was very focused on a particular area. I waited impatiently for what seemed a very prolonged period (probably five minutes but it seemed like a life time) until I was convinced in my superior mind that the bird had moved on and I insisted that she move on. I lost track of her in the cover and discovered that she had made her way back to the area which was the source of her focused hunt earlier when a rooster flushed out of range from that area behind me. I owed her an apology and she knew it.
Many times I have watched handlers in field trials fuss with their dogs at the line trying to "show" their dog a bird that they thought the dog did not see or remember only to have the dog go directly to the bird, which was not where the handler was trying to send them. I have also watched handlers try to help their dogs using secondary selection not trusting that the dog knew what it was doing only to have a disasterous outcome because they succeeded in confusing their dog.
We choose to go afield with these wonderful canine companions because they enhance our experience and make us more successful because of their innate skills. A couple of years ago Wade and I were pursuing a covey of Hungarian Partridge (Perdix perdix) with Duke. A single flushed and I fired a shot at the bird apparently missing. Duke never chases birds in flight but he took off after this one and disappeared over the hill which the bird had flown over. He was gone for a prolonged period but eventually returned with the partridge in his mouth. The dog somehow detected the fact that the bird was hit. How? I do not know.
The longer spend in the company of these wonderful canine friends that more convinced I am of their tremendous capacity to "pull one out of the hat" at just the moment that you think you've seen everything. After nearly fifty years of training, competing, breeding and hunting with many great dogs I can honestly say that my experience it totally enhanced by my time spent with them. I would not consider going afield without a dog at my side. Even when there are no birds flying just the experience of sitting next to a dog that loves the whole game as much as I do is priceless. With that said, sometimes we just have to leave them alone to let them do the job they love and are best suited to.