Out of Bounds

How Much Do Animals Know?

What I’ve learned from my setters is that they understand things like bird hunting more completely than I thought

By Rob Breeding

If you’ve spent time around hunters and anglers you almost certainly know someone who, as they grew older, chose to hang up their firearms or fly rods and retire from the sport. 

Especially hunters. Catch-and-release allows the illusion that fishing isn’t a blood sport, though it always will be so for fish, which after a terrifying struggle for life are allowed to swim free.

Trout, you see, don’t understand catch-and-release. You might be a tweed-wearing gentleman conservationist, but if you’ve hooked a cutthroat, you might as well be an osprey for all the fish knows.

Some older hunters retire because their bodies fail them before they lose their desire. But for others, the end of hunting is a voluntary decision as they become less comfortable with administering death and they decide they no longer need an active role in killing animals for food. 

But that doesn’t mean they become antis or vegans. 

I’ll probably fall into this latter camp. I’m nowhere close to retirement, though that could change in the next decade and I’ll reach the point where my English setter is around for the wonderful companionship it provides and not necessarily for how effective it is in the field.

If it’s an older dog that has had its time chasing birds, but now finds couch potato time more its speed, all the better.

I’ve learned much from my setters, including the first two who have now passed. During my 20-year journey learning to hunt with these dogs, I’ve seen plenty to teach me that there’s a lot more humanity behind those soft, setter eyes than I would have given them credit for back when this all started. 

Jack taught me that hunting dogs were more than just an amalgamation of instinct and training, that they were actively learning alongside me and coming to understand what it was we were trying to accomplish once I gave him his favorite marching orders: Find Birds!

That old dog was 5 or 6 before he learned to retrieve. He always found dead and was sure to capture the wounded, but his move was to point dead. We didn’t lose birds, I just had to pick them up myself, so it seemed not worth fixing. Then one weekend we hunted with the Long Walker and his retrieving-obsessed Brittanys. Jack watched those two sports retrieve every bird we put on the ground for two days, absorbing everything he saw.

On day three we went hunting, just the two of us, and the first Mearns’ quail I shot, Jack ran over, picked it up and ran back to hand it to me as though he’d just completed an arduous force-fetch training regimen.

Ultimately, I realized waiting for Jack to figure out fetching for himself was the best move of my dog training career.

I’ve seen similar moments of cognition and emotional growth with my next two setters, Doll and Jade. Once while being out retrieved all day by the Long Walker’s Brittanys, Doll made clear exactly how angry it made her that those dogs got all the retrieves. 

And now that Doll is gone, Jade is developing an interesting and complex friendship with the other animal in the house — my cat Laney.

What I’ve learned from my setters is that they understand things like bird hunting more completely than I thought. They learn exactly what we’re trying to do, and if they want some sautéed pheasant gizzards that evening, they need to fulfill their role in the process. They understand the game. 

If there’s anything that eventually puts my shotgun away for good, it will be the recognition that there’s a lot more going on in the minds of the birds I hunt than I’d ever considered. 

That won’t make hunting evil, but it might make me decide it’s time to spend my fall weekends doing something else for a change.