Pay Attention, You Dope

Listening is a skill I’m still trying to master

By Rob Breeding

I don’t always listen well.

My listening problems extend beyond my own species. If she could speak, my English setter Doll could probably contribute a chapter or two about my cognitive failings.

Years ago, when I was still getting the hang of bird hunting over pointers, the Dog Whisperer told me I needed to learn to listen to my dog. We’d had one of those moments when the dogs wanted to go left, yet I insisted on right. When I said the country on the right looked birdy, the Dog Whisperer responded with the bird hunter’s mantra: human eyes are no match a dog’s nose when it comes to all things birdy.

The canine nose has about 300 million olfactory receptors, compared to about 6 million for humans. And the portion of a dog’s brain devoted to smell is about 40 percent larger than ours, proportionally speaking. The result is a gulf in olfactory power so vast that if we were talking taste, a pooch could discern a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water. That’s about two Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Humans have put these powerful noses to work ferreting out hidden drugs, explosives and the bodies of the deceased. Heck, there’s a Lab at work in Puget Sound with a nose so fine it can identify floating orca poop a mile away from the bow of a boat. If you’re an orca poop scientist, I suspect that dog makes you a heck of a lot better at your job.

The dog and I finally worked out the chukar business last week, getting into some especially large coveys south of the Montana-Wyoming border. I killed a bird out of the first covey we found. Doll pointed in some heavy sage and held tight until I flushed the birds.

I hit one and Doll ran to the area where it fell, then pointed dead from the uphill side of some brush. Then she broke around to the other side, searching.

As I watched, I spotted the dead chukar. Doll had stepped right over the bird, never seeing it but instead remaining transfixed on the lingering smell. Those molecules of scent fooled her for a moment, but only just. She quickly reinterpreted the chemical message in her nose, turned around, and picked up the bird.

Later I followed as she zigzagged down a hill chasing another covey. We had four birds and one more would finish us for the day (the chukar limit is five in Wyoming). She caught up, pointed, and a good 20 birds rose as I stepped in. I hit one, but not hard. I marked the spot where it landed and led Doll over, but she wasn’t interested.

Instead, she wanted to work down canyon and was trying to explain what I should have understood. I’d only winged the bird and it was running. Like a dope, I forced her back to the spot I’d seen the bird land a couple times, repeating the command “dead” and looking at the ground. She finally just sat down and refused to move. Her message: If I wasn’t going to let her follow the runner, she wasn’t going to participate in a pointless search.

I wish I could say I got a clue soon enough to allow Doll to track down the bird, but that’s not how the story ends. Chukar are tough birds. Despite being wounded, this one was long gone.

If I’d listened the first time while the trail was still hot, however, we might have finished our limit.

If I’d only listened. It’s a skill I’m still trying to master.

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