Things My Dog Teaches Himself
In his fourth year of hunting, my German shorthaired pointer, “Rimfire,” learned how to pinch woodcock. Locked on point, his eyes would flicker back at me as I pushed my way through Vermont’s dense alders and buckthorn. Rim would wait until I got close, then back stealthily away, zoom a quarter circle to the left or right and point again, facing me. The woodcock would have no choice but to flush close rather than running or flying ahead through the thick trees. Rimfire has developed this into an art, and it usually works. (Note: It helps that well-behaved woodcock hold tight for pointing dogs.)
Hunting in South Dakota, Rimfire applies his skills to running pheasants. On point deep in the inner evergreens of a shelterbelt, he’ll wait for me, head turned slightly to hear my approach. Then he’ll dart out of the strip, race along its edge a ways and jump back in, through the outer shrubs, snapping on point facing me with the pheasant caught between us.
Our tag team strategy works in corn or sorghum plots, too. Unless, of course, it’s one of those days when Rimfire gets an overload of pheasant up his nose and becomes completely unglued. That happens at least once a year, and I’ve learned to be philosophical about the sight of eight or ten roosters rocketing skyward 75 yards in front of me. I watch the cornstalks twitching towards the horizon – the only way I know where my dog is – and remind myself that we’re all entitled to a little craziness now and then.
Rimfire’s bird pinching trick doesn’t work every time, but when it does, it continues to astound me. It’s something I couldn’t teach him, something he had to figure out on his own. And that makes me wonder what else he does that wasn’t part of his “formal” training. It’s clear that during the many hours he’s spent hunting, his nose, his movements, the birds, the wind, the grass and the trees all wrote chapters in his training manual.
I’ve seen him track a ruffed grouse in the wrong direction — towards where it landed – then stop, give me a look that says, “gee, am I dumb!” (the dog equivalent of smacking yourself on the forehead with your palm), then race back to where he started and track the bird in the direction it actually ran. I’ve also seen him search for a downed bird in a pattern I’d have no way of teaching him – loops in and out of a central point, circling that point like petals on a daisy.
What else have our dogs figured out on their own? Simply from the experience of hunting and understanding that our mission together is to produce game, I’ve no doubt my dogs work the cover in ways I don’t notice or can’t understand myself. That’s part of the magic that keeps us together.
Nancy Anisfield, an outdoor photographer/writer, sporting dog enthusiast and bird hunter, serves on Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s National Board of Directors. She resides in Hinesburg, Vermont.