Four women whose paths to the uplands began with a dog
By Marissa Jensen an Education and Outreach Program Manager for Pheasants Forever
There’s just something about a dog that forces us out of our element and into the unknown. What is it about our companions that push us to do more and be more? Do we strive to be the best owners we can be merely to see a reflection of our true selves in the eyes of a dog? Or perhaps it’s simply that dogs give us an excuse to step outside our comfort zone? Whatever the reason, it just so happens that bird dogs are one of the top reasons adult women decide to give bird hunting a try.
Photo by Phil Bastro
Across the country, the population of women upland hunters is growing, and rapidly. Here are four unique stories about women who became owners, then handlers, and finally, hunters, all because of a bird dog.
Iowa native Rose Danaher wasn’t expecting a life change when Brady came into her life. He was a wily and defiant German shorthaired pointer, and Rose immediately recognized the need to provide a job for Brady, to give him purpose and direction for his energy. Rose didn’t have much experience herself in the uplands, but that didn’t stop her from wanting to help Brady live his best life.
“Brady gave me an obligation to step past some of the barriers that were holding me back. I was uncomfortable around firearms at first and embarrassed by not being successful when social media kept showing me tailgates full of birds,” says Danaher.
That spring and summer the two bonded through training and preparations for the upcoming upland season. “I had no idea what I was doing, and certainly didn’t do the dog any favors, but by fall he was pointing wild birds,” she says. Having a dog to look after gave Rose the push she needed to make upland hunting a priority in her life.
That first year sealed their fate and the two became inseparable. Brady would tag along with Rose to work conferences, road trips, chapter events, banquets, and more. Rose helped Brady become the star through the eyes of many new hunters, as over the years more than 30 “first birds” were shot over him during youth mentored hunts and learn to hunt events alike.
Rose continues to find ways to support new hunters as conservationists. A chapter volunteer since 2011, Rose now serves as Iowa County Chapter President while also keeping her title as a hunter mentor. And if that wasn’t enough, Rose fills any available free time fostering and helping bird dogs find new homes and live their best lives, like Brady. “Not every dog will make an outstanding hunter, but many disruptive dogs in rescue just need a job or an excuse to use their brains,” she says.
Rose now shares her home with two German shorthaired pointers, Sawyer and Emmy, along with a pup on the way. “Owning working dogs has been the most rewarding experience of my life. The magic of watching your dogs slam into a point and honor will give you goosebumps every time.”
Washington resident Kelly Merrick grew up in a non-hunting home and would experience her first hunt alongside her husband in the late 1990s behind a Brittany spaniel named Jewel. At the time, Kelly didn’t have the knowledge or desire to hunt, but she enjoyed following along in the field, fascinated by Jewel’s natural instincts in finding and pointing birds.
“Words simply can’t describe the thrill of watching Jewel lock on point, fixed on something neither of us could see,” shares Kelly. Soon, Jewel would be joined by Sassy, a Labrador retriever puppy. And although Kelly’s husband continued to encourage Kelly into the field, the desire to walk with a camera instead of a gun was how Kelly continued to enjoy the uplands.
Time passed as Jewel and Sassy lived out their best days with the Merricks. Afterward, Kelly and her husband struggled to fill the hole left behind in their hearts and looked toward another bird dog for their home and outdoor adventures. Nelli, an 8-week-old pointing lab, would be the step Kelly needed that would change her life forever.
“Knowing I needed to honor Nelli’s breeding and genetics, yet realizing my husband still had a few years until retirement, I decided I needed to learn to hunt so I could provide my dog with the opportunities she deserved and was bred to do,” she says. Kelly was all in, from training to building pigeon coops and building an entirely new community of friends. “In a very short time, I went from high heels to hunting boots,” Kelly says. “My wardrobe changed from the latest fashion to hunting clothes, but to this day I feel like it is one of my life’s best decisions.”
Nelli, now six years old, holds a title as an American Pointing Lab Association Grand Master Pointing Lab, an American Kennel Club (AKC) Senior Hunter, and is working on her Finished title with the Hunting Retriever Club. The Merricks have since added Tre, a two-year-old Labrador retriever, to their home.
However, being an upland hunter wasn’t quite enough for Kelly, as she looked for ways to inspire newcomers to take that first step on their Path to the Uplands. After learning about Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s Women on the Wing (WOTW) initiative, she connected with her local chapter (Blue Mountain) in an attempt to do more. Kelly now serves as the Women on the Wing Program Chair for her chapter, alongside five other women on their WOTW steering committee.
“My role within the chapter is to help create opportunities and access for women who share a passion for the uplands — or want to know more — and to inspire conservation through community, connections, and education.”
Melinda Benbow, aka the Urban Uplander, has owned and operated a dog boarding and training facility alongside her husband Kyle, in Indianapolis, Indiana for the past nine years. However, in 2020 her entire focus and business would take an exciting new direction. Melinda grew up in Wisconsin and had an interest in deer hunting, but her family wasn’t sure she would enjoy the seeming contradiction of what hunting meant for her love for animals. In fact, for many years, Melinda’s preference for consuming meat was… none.
However, all of this would change in the shape of an English setter named Suge. Melinda has always stayed true to her passion for dogs and training. Suge would provide that steppingstone for Melinda, and together they found their love for the uplands. “I knew that if I had a dog, it would push me to do something different because I always do things for the dogs,” she says. Little did she know that alongside her new four-legged companion, Melinda would also meet her best friend through her life’s transition. “The bird dogs bring us all together.”
As her passion for the uplands and bird dogs grew, so did the direction of her business. Every day, Melinda turns on the lights of their thriving business, the Urban Uplander. From boarding to dog training, to helping owners and bird dogs live out their best lives, Melinda is working to change how people view hunting, especially in urban communities.
“I’m working toward normalizing your average dog mom throwing on an orange hat and following a dog into a training field with a starter pistol,” she says. Melinda has been an inspiration and a source of education for others, as she’s frequently stopped and asked about her dogs and training efforts.
“It’s so common to see wirehairs, shorthairs, and pudelpointers in the city with their owners all the time. I think people are struck by the beauty of the dog initially and then the idea of allowing them to use their genetics to hunt sparks something in them that, wow… they COULD do this.”
Suge is now on track to obtain her senior and master hunter certifications through the American Kennel Club. And although English setters aren’t always considered a “versatile” hunting breed, Suge has earned a prize III through the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA). Another setter quickly joined their home, and Jasper introduced Melinda to the world of field trials.
“Bird dogging has opened so many doors, many I never dreamed I would be doing. Dogs take you to the most awesome places.”
North Carolina resident Kata Miller was accustomed to city living far from a hunting setting, but she was always passionate about the outdoors and dogs. Shortly after marrying her husband, Charlie, they adopted a couple of dogs to start their family, and Kata’s passion for dog training began. However, it wasn’t until their third child was born that a bird dog joined their home, as Charlie enjoyed hunting with friends.
DiÓ, a wire-haired vizsla, would be the catalyst for Kata’s new life pursuit. Kata was envious of her husband’s hunting pursuits, so she took it upon herself to work with and train DiÓ to hunt. Carl, DiÓ’s trainer, helped Kata learn the intricacies of bird dog training and introduced her to AKC hunt tests and NAVHDA.
“Dogs are my passion. Helping them communicate with their owners was what I loved, but seeing DiÓ out in the field, hunting, finding birds, pointing and then retrieving and seeing his joy in all of this… that’s what made me change my career from working with aggressive dogs to shifting toward hunting dogs,” she says.
“Dogs were bred to have a purpose and in today’s world, most dogs are ‘bad’ because we take their jobs, their very purpose away. By giving them a purpose, we make them good dogs.” Kata believes that bird dogs are a wonderful way to encourage someone to try hunting. Understanding how hard it can be to find a mentor, Kata became heavily involved in NAVHDA, as well as Women on the Wing through their Broad River chapter in North Carolina.
“There are so many women out there who share a love of bird hunting with their dogs, but don’t know where to go and start. I’ve been there,” shares Kata. “It’s hard to find your people, and Women on the Wing is just that. A group of like-minded women who like to be outdoors, love dogs and hunting, and sometimes just hanging out to socialize.”
Kata continues to inspire others, including her kids. It’s important for her to connect the dots between dogs and an outdoor lifestyle. “When you’re out in the field with a bird dog and you see their joy, you want to make them happy. To pick up a shotgun and learn to shoot so we don’t disappoint them. This truly shows our unconditional love.”
Marissa Jensen is Education and Outreach Program Manager for Pheasants Forever.
To learn more about local opportunities and events for you and your bird dog, visit: pheasantsforever.org/wotw!