Education of a Dope

It was a good day for a darn good dog, and a hunter who still has a lot to learn

By Rob Breeding

My friends say I’m mean to my dog. Not mean in a sadistic, Michael Vick sort of way. Their criticism is that I don’t cut my English setter Doll any slack. She’s a great dog, but doesn’t hunt quite the same as my first setter Jack.

Jack needed very little training and was always focused on birds. That dog could lie on the couch for nine months straight, then the first time he saw me load the shotgun in the truck he’d be ready, hunting from the moment he bounded out of his kennel.

Doll’s not quite wired that way. She might be described as just a bit, well, distracted. Doll bounds from the kennel with equal vigor, but sometimes hunting seems to be the last thing on her mind. At times she’s the embodiment of the sage advice of one of my heroes, basketball coach John Wooden, who once said, “Never mistake activity for achievement.”

Doll covers country like nobodies’ business, but she’s often prone to hunting with her eyes and feet, rather than her nose. But to a large degree her problems in the field are really my fault. I know, she’s easily distracted, but still I let her run about randomly with no real direction on our walks during the offseason. So she starts playing her favorite game: chasing rabbits. I tolerate it, telling myself that once she sees the gun and the hunting gear she’ll know its time to focus.

That worked with Jack, but not Doll. With this dog I need to stay on top of things, constantly reinforcing good behavior while cutting out the nonsense.

We’ve been hunting for just a few weeks now as the season was significantly delayed by the warm fall and the abundant rattlesnakes on our nearby chukar grounds. Not surprisingly, Doll didn’t pick up on what I thought were the obvious clues that we now meant business. Despite that, our first outings were successful, but that had little to do with the dog.

Chukar are gregarious, noisy birds, and sometimes I hear them well before Doll picks up scent. In these instances when we find birds its because I heard them and kept her at bay with a “whoa” command.

She’ll help fetch ’em, but once the birds are in the vest she goes back to her high-speed pursuit of fun.

It was disappointing, but sometimes you don’t get great dog work on these birds even when things are going well. Chukar country is open country and the birds can see and hear you from distance. They also love to run and don’t readily oblige bird hunters and their pointing dogs.

Recently Doll and I had one of those days where I realized what a dope I’ve been. With interlopers hunting our favorite spot we traveled to a canyon where we’d hunted before, but usually with limited success.

Once out of the truck Doll was suddenly a different dog. She was alert and had her nose close to the ground, clearly working scent. At first I worried it was another rabbit, but then I noticed the heavy sign (chukar poop) scattered under the sage. The olfactory overload was the cure for Doll’s focus problem. She worked ahead of me a little fast and bumped a covey of maybe 30 birds. I dropped one, then watched as most of the birds landed just down canyon.

We were uphill and had the advantage.

Doll worked carefully. She went on point, but when I stepped in, nothing. I released her and 20 feet later she froze again. This time the covey flushed and I killed one bird headed straight down canyon, then rotated to my left and hit another bird that was trying a unusual tactic for chukar: flying uphill.

It was a good day for a darn good dog, and a hunter who still has a lot to learn.

Rob Breeding writes and teaches when he’s not fishing or hunting.

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