Lately the dogs have been getting nervous.
If I start mucking around the truck, especially if dog boxes are involved, Doll, my 2-year-old setter, starts running in circles chasing her tail and whining up a storm.
It’s always this way as summer winds down. Even though the heat of a furnace-like August has held its grip for too long, the dogs sense the change. They know we’ll be hunting soon.
Late summer and early fall can be a dangerous time for dogs. When I lived in Arizona we’d regularly, and sadly, hear about a Lab or two that went down in the early season heat chasing quail in the desert. Labs are great bird dogs but they’re not built for running all day in the heat. My slighter-of-build setters are designed for bird hunting marathons. But even they can be pushed to the limits of safety when the weather is hot.
I’ve learned there’s no reasoning with bird dogs. If they love to hunt, they’ll run until they fall over dead. It’s our job to not let that happen.
Depending on where you live, rattlesnakes can be another threat to bird-dog health. In Arizona we used to stay up high in the pinyon-juniper until the desert had a cold snap or two. The wooded country was marginal for Gambel’s quail, but fortunately for snakes as well. In western Montana snakes aren’t much of an issue, but in the East or in Wyoming chukar country or in the great valley quail desert of southwestern Idaho, snakes can be as big a threat as in Arizona.
A friend in Arizona has a bit of an obsession with snakes. He spends considerable time capturing the reptiles, which he defangs so he can use them for snake-aversion therapy for bird dogs. The oversimplified version of what he does is that he puts a heavy-duty shock collar on the dog, and then lets it nose up to a seriously agitated but harmless rattler. When the snake strikes he gives the dog full juice. As neighborhood lights dim momentarily the dog learns a valuable lesson: snakes are bad; stay away.
The Northwest has its own high-country alternative for early season dog safety: forest grouse. I’ve never spent much time on this one. For starters you can’t really watch your dogs in heavily forested grouse country and any bird-dog owner will tell you that watching the dogs is half the fun.
And there’s the whole thing about forest grouse being seriously unsporting birds. I get that flapping up off the ground to perch on a limb 15 feet in the air is a winning survival strategy if you’re avoiding coyotes. But if I have to throw rocks at a bird to get it back in the air so that I can shoot it in a “sporting” fashion I’m probably staying home. It’s almost enough to make me pine for those high-elevation Gambel’s and their wicked gift for putting the nearest tree between you and them before you’ve mounted your gun.
This time of year I try to find good, safe places for the dogs to run so that they will be in shape once the serious hunting starts. Good, safe places that also hold wild birds are especially valuable. When I lived in Idaho I watched my older setter Jack go from a knucklehead who endlessly chased meadow larks into a rock steady bird dog once he got his first whiff of Hungarian partridge.
The old boy now holds so tight that when we hunt Mearns’ quail in the Southwest we just let him go. If he gets on a covey we have to go looking for him. Mearns’ may be the tightest holding gamebird in North America. It’s not unusual to lose sight of Jack in the oak-timbered grasslands Mearns’ prefer, and then spend 15 or 20 minutes searching for him. We usually find him hard on point, giving me a sideways look that I suspect says, “It’s about time you got here.”
All this bird talk has got me excited. I need to go out in the yard and run around in circles.
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