This Pup Just Needs More Birds
One of the most common laments heard from owners of young dogs is the fear that their Chosen One is not going to work out; the dreaded “I just don’t think this dog gets it” syndrome. And one of the most common retorts to said lament is the maddeningly trite-sounding “Your dog’s fine. You just need to get him/her into birds.” Which does nothing, absolutely nothing, to allay your rampaging fear that your dog, the one you had so many sky-high hopes for, the one you paid so much money for, belongs on the short bus.
Well guess what? It’s true. Your dog’s fine, he/she just needs to get into birds. And of you don’t believe me, just use me as a cautionary tale. My youngest setter, “Ozzy,” recently got, just shy of his first birthday, his first real, honest-to-dog, rock-solid, no-doubt, “this-is-it, boss!” point on a genuine, non-pigeon, non-planted, non-poultrified, buck-wild Oklahoma quail. And I even managed to shoot it. The quail. Not the moment. With a gun. Not the camera. So, just like my other setter Jenny’s first point last season in Kansas, the moment will live on only in my mind. And hopefully his so he’ll know what to do the next time.
But for a long time this season, I harbored deep, dark fears that the moment would never come to pass. Early in the season, on a trip to Montana, Ozzy had me thinking he might be a little too laid back, perhaps a little too chilled-out to be the dog I needed (“I wanted a balls-to-the-wall firebreather!” I lamented to a friend at the time, “and what did I get? Jeff Spicoli! Or maybe Towelie from South Park!”).
Even taking into consideration his puppiness, I was, to put it mildly, a bit frustrated with Ozzy’s drive, his seeming lack of intensity and boldness in the field. Couldn’t ask for a sweeter, more personable dog, but sweetness doesn’t bust through thickets and brush and creeks. Sweetness doesn’t brush aside weariness and pain as it eats up miles of prairie to find birds. Only fire and toughness does that. Bird dog tough. And Ozzy, well, Ozzy was just a big, goofy, soft, loveable baby.
And then, about midway through the season, Ozzy suddenly discovered that he had a pair. He started running harder, longer and with purpose. He busted birds, which was fine. Anything to stoke his fire. I let him bust birds. I let him chase birds. I even (pro trainers please avert your eyes) shot a couple busted birds just so he’d possibly start making the gun-bird-walk connection. And all this time he was getting a bit bolder and more confident every time we went out. He started ranging ahead of my older, slower setter, “Jenny,” leaving her behind. I nearly wept with joy the day he charged across the North Canadian river without so much as a second thought or flash of hesitation (he had a thing with crossing water…)
Ozzy had flash-pointed a rooster on a trip to South Dakota, and he’d been flash-pointing a few birds here in Oklahoma, so I know he was beginning to use his nose, but the awful scenting and hunting conditions we had for most of the season (combined with a depressing lack of birds) certainly wasn’t doing his nose confidence any favors. But a few weeks ago we finally got some moisture and colder temps. And on a foggy, misty afternoon hunt, Ozzy suddenly, for one, brief, glorious moment, (actually several: he was staunch until the bird flushed) became a bird dog.
So color me guilty. Never again will I prejudge my dog, because yep, I think he’s gonna be fine. Just needs more birds. But then again, don’t we all?
Chad Love writes for Quail Forever from Woodward, Oklahoma. He is a lifelong quail hunter and “bird dog guy” who also writes for Field & Stream, including the magazine’s “Man’s Best Friend” gundog blog.