After twenty-five years experience raising, training and hunting English springer spaniels, I had the misguided belief that every dog had innate desire to bond with its owner, to become a loyal and affectionate partner, to work together as a team in the field, and to reminisce as a companion before the hearth. It took Annie, great teacher-by-example that she was, less than a year to disabuse me of that fallacy.
Annie – too much dog
Annie loved to hunt birds. She just didn’t like to hunt birds with me. If I were to admit an even harsher truth, I would say that Annie did not like me all that much and was tolerant of me only when we were afield in the fall and I had bird gun in hand.
Annie was a German shorthaired pointer, and she was possessed of all the irascible, obdurate, and contrary behaviors that characterize her breed. Plus the willful and defiant attitude specific to her personality. She rocked my confidence as a bird dog trainer and amateur canine psychologist. Over the course of eleven bird seasons, before I retired her, I recall eight or maybe nine great days of hunting together. Not a good percentage of our hundred or so ventures afield.
We were a dysfunctional pair. Actually, it may be stretching a point to say that we were a “pair” in the conventional meaning of the word. Our relationship was more on the order of work-release prisoner and parole officer. Like many a brilliant but sociopathic criminal, she thought rules and discipline were for chumps and marks. Released from heel, she would escape on a felonious rampage, heeding no call or whistle. Back in the travel box or kennel, she would look out on the world with golden, expressionless, insane eyes, unrepentantly awaiting the next breakout.
The confrontations and battles with Annie were of my own unwitting creation, of course. She was my first pointing breed bird dog. After twenty-five years experience raising, training and hunting English springer spaniels, I had the misguided belief that every dog had innate desire to bond with its owner, become a loyal and affectionate partner, work together as a team in the field, and reminisce as a companion before the hearth. It took Annie, great teacher-by-example that she was, less than a year to disabuse me of that fallacy.
Annie came from impeccable breeding. Unfortunately for me, that breeding was rooted in the genetic conversion of the once stolid, close-working German shorthaired pointer into a field trials racehorse. Hats off to the breeders who have mutated the GSP into a high-powered English pointer, in both body conformation and psychotic hunting desire, if that is what they wanted, but what I wanted was a pointing dog more disciplined than demonic, more manageable than manic. I hunt birds on foot. A horseback hunter, or perhaps two or three of them, could have kept pace with Annie, but only an Olympic marathoner could hope to match her afoot, and even he could not do it running through heavy cover, encumbered by boots, vest, and a seven-pound shotgun.
To complicate the equation, I did not take possession of Annie until she was almost fourteen weeks old. This violated my cherished “forty-ninth day” early training principle, but in my ignorance and arrogance I was confident that we would bond. I was wrong. Annie, until the last six months of her life, never exhibited one flash of desire for human affection, or even human companionship. She was a bird-hunting machine – a wide-ranging, hard-running machine – and anything that was not part of the bird-hunting world was simply beneath her dignity and beyond her understanding.
Good days: Hunting the shortgrass prairies of the Dakotas, she was a thing of beauty and efficiency. I could see her out there, two hundred yards, three hundred yards, sometimes farther, coursing through the grasslands seeking sharp tail grouse, prairie chickens, and Hungarian partridge. She would whirl around at first scent, lock into a classic point, one foot raised and the other three planted, as they say, on the coals of hell.
She would hold solid while I jogged the long distance between us. If I felled a bird, she would release from point the second it hit the ground, mark it down, and be on it with an intensity that would please a Labrador retriever trainer. She savagely bit each bird a time or two so that, in the event the bird was autopsied, it would be apparent that she, not I, had killed it. Early on she did not deliver a bird to hand but sort of threw it at me as she ran by so that she did not have to interrupt her return to the hunt.
After a year of force-training to retrieve and hold, she would grab the downed bird, stalk up to me stiff-legged, squat in a semi-sitting position, and we would engage in a brief tug-o-war before she surrender right of possession. Then she was immediately racing off to the horizon, casting out so far there was the possibility that Canadian border security guards would be scanning the owner’s information etched on her collar and calling my cell phone number to order me in to answer for numerous violations of international boundaries.
Bad days: All other bird hunts in aspen forests, Conservation Reserve Program fields, bean fields, brushy draws, and any other cover that required a bird dog that hunts less than a hundred yards away. I took her duck hunting one time. One time.
A hunting buddy once said of Annie, “That dog is a world class athlete!” True, but having a world class athlete on your team in the old men’s softball league does not add to the enjoyment of the season.
When Annie was six years old, I threw in the towel, admitted my failure, and acquired a French spaniel puppy: Sasha. After that, Annie accompanied me on every bird hunting trip to the Dakotas and Nebraska. Sasha was my dog for all other hunts.
As she approached her thirteenth year, Annie was still in incredible physical condition. On our early morning walks around the perimeter of my hayfields I walk a little over a mile; Annie ran at least seven or eight miles. Just a warm-up. There were mornings we set out and I did not see her until a half-hour after I had returned. We were both okay with that. She would lay on the deck the rest of the day, waiting, waiting, waiting for the trip to Dakota.
When age finally caught up with her, the end came unbelievably quickly. One July morning, she jogged the morning workout route. In August, she walked it at heel beside me. In September, she walked to the hayfield gate, looked over the waving grass, and turned back home. A week later she could not get up without help, and the vacant and utterly confused look on her gray face told us it was time.
If there is a heaven for bird dogs, Annie’s part of it looks just like the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, and she is running without limits. If someone is blowing a whistle to call her in, she is not paying any attention.
If you enjoy stories about bird hunting and bird dogs, take a look at my book: Hunting Birds – The Lives and Legends of the Pine County Rod, Gun, Dog and Social Club.