Out of Bounds

The Curious Intelligence of Dogs

Setters, especially setters from hunting lines, tend toward inexplicable hardheadedness at times

By Rob Breeding

My English setter Jade has an aversion to wet lawns.

It’s a setter thing, at least that’s what my experience as a dog owner/partner has taught me. I’ve learned Labs don’t care about wet grass. Neither do golden retrievers. Or mutts, for that matter.

But all three of my setters have demonstrated a distaste for walking on damp turf.

I’ve run headlong into this problem because of the particulars of my residence, which lacks a fenced yard. So, in the morning, when canine activity serves as my alarm clock, I stagger out of bed to let them out.

Doll is free to leave on her own as she seldom meanders farther than the sidewalk. With Jade, however, I keep hold of her collar and walk her to her lead near the driveway. If I let go she’s prone to bolting, as has been the case with all my setters. 

Their desire to hunt is strong.

During summer the lawn is often wet in the morning. My sprinklers are programmed to run at night, and more recently, we’ve been hit by overnight thunderstorms. The rain is welcome and I’ve no doubt our game birds are thriving with the moisture, but it has brought Jade to a standstill. 

She’ll put one tentative paw on the grass, note the presence of H2O, then remain steadfast on the concrete.

Doll went through her “wet grass aversion” phase years ago. At 13 she’s now a purpose-driven pooch, proceeding earnestly to a preferred patch of lawn to do what just-let-out dogs do. Jade, however, is so mortified by the thought of pawing across wet grass she’ll just stand there, waiting to be let back in the house for a biscuit, intent on holding it until conditions improve.

If I’m not in a hazy, precaffinated state, I tell her “Get your business,” my longtime instruction for the dogs to relieve themselves, whether it’s in the yard or on a road-trip pit-stop. It usually takes two or three times, but eventually, Jade relents and creeps out on the odious dampness.

Mind you, this same dog, in this same yard, in frigid, sometimes below-zero weather, never hesitates to skate across the ice to take care of things. Nor has she ever needed urging to plow through damp, wet or snow-covered grass, weeds or woody shrubs during hunting season. She’ll finish the day wet from nose to tail, clearly in a state of exhausted euphoria.

But a wet lawn is another matter.

For me, the breed’s quirkiness is an attribute. I have friends with what you might describe as hunting dogs with a more serious temperament. They are great dogs for sure, but setters have a “manic pixie dream girl” vibe that appeals to me. My dogs exist only to help me along my journey to hunting self-fulfillment, I suppose.

This setter quirkiness seems also a sign of intelligence, intelligence of an independent sort. I’ve been reading up on dog brains lately, and while I’m still getting to Stanley Coren’s “The Intelligence of Dogs,” I have reviewed his list of the smartest breeds and wasn’t surprised to find English setters situated mid-table, tied at No. 37. Stanley’s list, after all, used data collected from dog obedience judges.

Setters, especially setters from hunting lines, tend toward inexplicable hardheadedness at times, as well as a mischievousness that might not square with the predilections of obedience trainers. Like many handlers, I don’t obedience train my setters as I think it interferes with the breed’s inherent hunting instincts. You don’t want your pup looking over its shoulder for reassurance while up ahead a bansheed rooster escapes.

Properly liberated, English setters are performance artists.

So, I’ll take our morning debates over the indecency of wet grass and the other quirks that come with these dogs. Watching my dream girls working fields of quail makes every bit of it worthwhile.

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