Hunting Dogs photo
Labrador Retriever: the Utilitarian
By John Devney My long-standing love affair with Labrador retrievers is based on one simple dynamic: We have a job to do, let’s get it done. Indeed, when it comes to the game I pursue–doves, partridge, prairie grouse, ducks, geese and the elusive ring-neck–there isn’t a dog I’d rather spend a day afield with than a Labrador retriever, that do-it-all dog with a heart as big as a mountain. Photo by Bill Buckley
I have spent considerable time with a lot of fancy dog folk and studied their noble beasts, and while I am the first to acknowledge brilliance afield, I have yet to find another dog suitable to my wide range of gunning. My black Labs–Seamus, 5, and Finnegan, who knocked on heaven’s door two years ago at age 12 1⁄2–have demonstrated countless times over the years their ability to perform under any circumstance into which they are thrust. Labradors are the ultimate duck dogs. After all, how many other breeds could manage the toil and trouble of recovering mallards from tortuous cover and bluebills in heavy, listing seas? Or the flawless execution of a blind retrieve on a wing-tipped and sailing Canada goose? Photo by Tre Taylor / Images on the Wild Side
Yet, while Labs are clearly the waterfowlers’ choice, you would be hard-pressed to have a more dependable upland dog, deadly efficient in moving a gaudy rooster from the heaviest cover, quartering native prairie in search of Huns and sharptails or plucking a dove from a sea of standing sunflowers. While it is said that every dog has his day, I think Labs simply have more of them. Maybe your fancy-schmancy continental breed or other exotic dog can manage all of these feats, but I have yet to see it regularly enough to dissuade me from the opinion that the Labrador is the wingshooter’s ultimate companion–in and out of the field. Photo by Bill Buckley
The Lab is the Leatherman of the dog world, a canine handyman who can fix most of the problems you encounter, even if the execution is sometimes less than artistic. My Labs won’t lock up on the scent of a ruffed grouse with the grace of a setter, nor will they consume miles of upland cover quartering like a shorthair. But they will happily do the graceless, back-breaking work of retrieving a crippled, cranky sandhill crane. They will break ice in pursuit of a downed whistler. They don’t hold back hunting upland birds when deep snow and ice will promptly return lesser breeds to their kennels. And they will, day in and day out, pick up every manner of God’s winged creatures and bring them promptly into possession. But where the Lab is clearly peerless is in his personality. Unless you are living far better than I am, hunting seasons are but a fraction of our days on earth. We spend more time with our gun dogs without guns in our hands than with them. It is the Lab’s desire to please–his cheerful presence on our sofas, on motel beds, on den floors and in the front seat of the truck–that separates him from the rest. He is part of the family, and for most of us who have been graced by Labs, an inseparable part of our lives. Photo by Bill Buckley
German Shorthaired Pointer: The Five-Tool Bird Dog
By Bob St. Pierre Prior to taking a job with Pheasants Forever, I spent seven seasons working in minor-league baseball. As the scent of grilling wieners wafts through the spring air, the search for baseball’s Holy Grail, the five-tool prospect, begins anew. Scouts spend their summers in places like Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Toledo, Ohio; and Beloit, Wisconsin. Their hope is to find a player who is capable of hitting for power and average, is able to field his position, possesses a strong arm and is speedy on the bases. In baseball, five-tool prospects rarely live up to their potential and are considered near-mythical creatures. In the bird-dog world, I have found a five-tool superstar in my German shorthaired pointer. Photo by Denver Bryan / Images on the Wild Side
The German shorthaired pointer, or GSP, instinctively points upland birds, retrieves with enthusiasm, is eager to please, can sweep acres and has more endurance than any other breed. No need for “juice” or free agency–GSPs work for kibble, an affectionate hand and the promise of a hunt. My job takes me across America in search of ruffed grouse, woodcock, sharpies, chickens, quail and, of course, pheasants. I’m also often put on the proverbial “stage” to talk habitat, hunting and bird dogs with volunteers and the media. As the “Pheasants Forever Guy,” it’s important I handle a dog that meets those expectations. I’ve found the perfect, five-tool bird dog in my 3-year-old female GSP, Trammell. I even named my pup in homage to my childhood idol and a true five-tool ballplayer, former Detroit Tigers all-star shortstop Alan Trammell. Photo by Jim Levison
Pointing: I grew up a “Yooper” in the untamed woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Each autumn, my season begins with a ruffed grouse and woodcock adventure back home. In the early-season grouse woods, the leaves are thick and the grouse are bunched. A skilled pointer gives any wingshooter an advantage under these conditions. Retrieving: Pheasants are tough birds. Many a wingshooter has uttered, “I thought I hit that rooster hard–it looked like he dropped right here,” only to spend the next hour circling the spot and exhorting his pup to “find him!” Rarely does this scenario develop with the nose of a shorthair and the legs to outrun winged cripples.
Eager to Please: Some pointing breeds have a reputation of being high-strung and gruff, but not the affable shorthair. The shorthair is a lap lover in the home and a chick magnet away from it, because of its handsome good looks. Photo by Mike Barlow /
Big Running: Need to cover some big ground in search of sharp-tailed grouse or prairie chickens? The GSP has the wheels to gobble up acres of hill and dale, switchgrass and alders. Those wheels, combined with the GSP’s Hoover-like nose, make it pretty darn hard for a bird to hide. Endurance: Any pheasant hunter can tell you that the single best time of day to hunt is the “golden hour” of evening. And just like a workhorse starting pitcher, a shorthair will get better as the game goes on. There’s no quit in the GSP until she hits the kennel floor in the back of your truck. Willie Mays, Derek Jeter, Alan Trammell, Ken Griffey Jr.–and the German shorthaired pointer–five-tool athletes worthy of a plaque in Cooperstown. Or a place in your heart forever. Photo by Mark Palas /
English Setter: The Stylish Individualist
By Tom Davis Jacy and Ranger live pretty cushy lives. Their home is a ninth floor apartment (with a doorman, of course) just a stone’s throw from Central Park. In fact, if you’ve seen a couple of English setters being walked there, one a mostly white slip of a thing (Jacy), the other more darkly marked and ruggedly built (Ranger), that’s them. They’re accustomed to the lap of luxury. But don’t be fooled. Come fall, they’re all business. Jacy and Ranger are working gun dogs through and through. From Newfoundland to New Mexico, they’ve proven themselves in every kind of cover, terrain and weather, and, most important, on every variety of game bird. That’s not hype; it’s fact. Jacy and Ranger have pointed all 20 species of North American upland game birds, and their owner, Joe Augustine, has shot all 20 species over those points. To kill a white-tailed ptarmigan, they climbed above the tree line in the Colorado Rockies to an elevation of more than 13,000 feet. Joe lost his breakfast en route, but the setters nailed a covey as soon as he turned them loose. Photo by Bill Buckley
Versatility? Adaptability? Bird sense? The English setter exemplifies these qualities. Long considered the “classic” grouse and woodcock dog, they shine from the high plains of Montana to the piney woods of Georgia. There isn’t a bird the English setter can’t handle–and handle with style. A setter stretched out on point, his flag hoisted high and the breeze ruffling his feathers, makes every other dog look common. And yet, in many respects, the English setter is the most individualistic, the most resistant to generalization of the pointing breeds. Show me a setter that’s compliant, and I’ll show you one that’s a knothead; show me a setter that’s eager to please, and I’ll show you one that’s a renegade; show me a setter that hunts to the gun, and I’ll show you one that busts the horizon. Setters appeal to the romantic in us. Something about them harks back to the era of vanished abundance and gentlemanly propriety depicted in A.B. Frost’s iconic Shooting Pictures, the sportsmen decked out in bowler hats and tailored suits, their handsome setters not merely staunch on point, but steady to wing, shot and fall. The breed’s incomparable beauty is part of this, but beyond the silky feathers and the velvety muzzle and the high, merry flag, it’s the setter’s personality, ultimately, that we find so irresistible. You can see it in their eyes: a soulful intelligence leavened with a flashing joie de vivre and, often, a barely concealed capacity for mischief. Whatever its source, setters have a way of getting under our skin, stealing our hearts and never giving them back. ( Left: English Setter, Right: German Shorthaired Pointer )
Hound: The Merry Balladeer
By Vickie Lamb The sound of music is perhaps the resounding difference between hounds and other hunting dogs. To a houndsman, the song of a good dog–loose in the wilderness, tackling a scent track and attempting to end it–is unrivaled. Many clues are revealed in a hound’s ballad as he works toward a tree–sometimes laboriously, other times with ease–and he sings a different song each time out. Whether pushing cold paw prints, running moderate scent just hours old or electrifying fast tracks, the nuances of his song tell the lyrical tale of the chase. Once you turn a hound loose, whether for bears or lions or fox or rabbits in the day or raccoons at night, he’s on his own. He must unravel mysteries of scent amid all sorts of conflicts, unseen dangers and hidden distractions. When he strikes and commits to a track, he stays the course no matter what other odiferous trails he encounters. My hound, Durango, is vintage bluetick, with his long ears, deep brown eyes set wide apart and stout, strong build. His coat is short, dense and thick, and, yes, he has that voice–a deep, resonating baritone that drifts back to me as he seeks his quarry. With a quivering bawl on track, he changes to a resolute triple chop when he locates a tree, and immediately turns this over into a steady, convincing bark–an ancient melody of ringing tones. Different types of pitch tell different stories, like when he’s laboring through a cutover or drifting across a rocky creek bed, or working deep water. Photo by Mitch Kezar /
Contrary to popular belief, hounds tend to be personable and quite intelligent; they can be trained to exceptional levels, just like other hunting dogs. Durango is as smart as a whip and an all-around character. He’s enhanced my life as he’s taken his place among other special hounds over the years. A hound doesn’t seem to care whether it’s sultry and hot, windy and stormy, or snowy and frigid. He’s always ready to go. Sharing the pleasures of hunting with Durango have become lessons in living life; no matter the distractions, he’s focused on his game. He manages to handle all the elements in his quest for the end of his track. I suppose between my hound and me, it’s a love affair of sorts. He lives for me and I live for him, if you will. My hound knows I’m his ticket to adventure and I know he’ll transport me to ethereal wild places not many people experience. Of course, I remind myself of this when I’m neck deep in a black-water swamp, but overall his adventures become my special moments, too. To me, it’s like that with hunting dogs. They share with you incredible talents and take you with them, far from armchairs and the pressures of civilization.