Most of the dogs I have owned have been mutts. They were rescued from some animal shelter. But I do appreciate dogs that were bred for a specific purpose. Now that I am back driving the mule wagon, I have a ringside seat to some of the most enthusiastic sporting dogs on the planet. Every morning, after we load guests and guns and we ride out to the hunting ground, the first order of business is to stop and get two dogs out of the wagon. They are the pointers, muscular short-haired dogs with names like Buck and Gabby, Bud and Pearl, and Ike and Dot. The American Kennel Club calls them the “unquestioned aristocrats of the sporting world”.
They are taken out of the wagon in a male-female pair and positioned side by side in the middle of the road, with a gentle tug on their collars and an equally gentle command to “whoa.” Once released, they run up and down the dirt roads and in and out of the grassy lanes. By all outward appearances, they are running aimlessly at a brisk lope—aimlessly, that is, until one of them catches the scent of quail in the thick grass. Then it looks like the dog has come to the end of some invisible leash. His head snaps toward the birds and his body jerks sideways. He remains immobile with head down and tail up.
This is the heart of the hunt: the dogs on point and the guide positioning the hunters; followed by the moment of truth when the birds fly, the guns boom, and the birds fall. This is when another enthusiastic sporting dog comes into play. The little English cockers on the wagon seat next to me, stop whining and jumping around. They stand at full alert and go silent as they await the dog-handler’s call to help find a bird.
Most of the birds fall in an open area where they are easily picked up. Occasionally, however, one of these well-camouflaged birds falls into the deep grass. That takes a little more looking, even when the hunter knows where the bird fell. After a few moments of fruitless searching, the call goes up from the guide as he looks back to the wagon and hollers for me to send one of the English cockers, Millie or Shep.
The cocker scrambles down the steps at the side of the wagon and navigates the lanes to where the hunters and guides await. The guide points and says, “bird in here,” and the dog goes to work. She scrambles back and forth, nose to the ground in ever-shrinking circles until she homes in on her target. Finally, she dives in and emerges with a bird in her mouth. She looks to the guide who says “wagon” and back she comes to deliver the bird to me and then turn her attention back to the action in the field.
These young pups have picked up the art of finding birds with amazing quickness. It must be in their genes. But they have helped me appreciate the talent of Joy, my original wagon-dog, who died in December 2020 at the age of fifteen. These young dogs don’t release the bird into my hand like Joy did. They want to hang on to their prize. And, unlike Joy who would never leave until called, they must be clipped to the wagon, so they don’t rush out and spoil the hunt.
Millie and Shep are doing well for a couple of young dogs that in their first season on the wagon. They obviously love what they do, much like another gun dog I know—a yellow Lab named Penny.