I like them all – pointers, setters, retrievers, spaniels – what have you. I’ve had good ones and bad of several kinds. Most of the bad ones were my fault and most of the good ones would have been good under any circumstances.
– Gene Hill (1928-97), hunting and fishing writer
Bells and whistles
New puppies come with bells and whistles. Literally. When each new puppy comes into our home, I celebrate the event by buying a new training whistle and a new collar bell.
It seems ridiculous, I know, to place this bell-and-whistle set in the box with a newly weaned puppy that is barely larger than the bell, but it has become a tradition. What I’m doing, symbolically, is making a promise to the pup that I will raise and train it to become the best bird dog it has the potential to be. I’m also making a promise to myself that I will open my heart and go through bird-dog-and-bird-hunter cycle of joy and sorrow one more time.
The same whistle and bell do not always accompany the dog through its entire lifetime, but often they do. And a few sets of bells and whistles were buried with their owners over the years when Zeke and Suzy and Pete went on to their rewards in that bird hunting heaven the spiritual part of me wants to believe in. Urns of ashes are the resting places for the souls of more recent dogs, so their bells on tattered collars and their whistles on stained and frayed lanyards hang on the clubhouse wall.
If I take down a whistle-and-bell set in the quiet of the evening and handle them gently, bringing them to my nose in imitation of a bird dog’s scent-information gathering, my mind is flooded with memories of times shared with Molly or Herco or Annie… Good times, bad times, hard times, easy times, happy times, sad times, angry times, joyful times. All the experiences and emotions of a lifelong friendship with a beloved hunting companion.
Bells and whistles have it all over the fading photographs tucked into seldom-opened albums, photos which for some reason never show the dog as it really was, and reveal nothing of its character or personality. A dented brass bell or a plastic whistle with mouthpiece cracked from where I bit down on it hard in raging frustration – these present a much more accurate and vibrant picture, at least to me.
But we are talking about the joy of assigning new bells and whistles to seven-week-old puppies, the promise of days ahead, not the remembrances of days past.
My bell-and-whistle tradition is based in part on craft and mysticism, and in part on hope and sentiment. The craft and mysticism part has to do with the dark corner of my ego that refuses to admit that failings in bird dog training could be in any way my fault. Obviously, if I had the right whistle its tone would reach into the depths of the brain of the most obtuse and stubborn dog, turning on the light and opening the channels of communication so that it would understand and accept my every command, conform to my every instruction in the field, even anticipate my thoughts and whims.
Attention, devotion, obedience – all to be had by a pip on the whistle. If only I could find the right whistle.
I have tried at least a dozen makes and models: plastic, metal, horn, wood; high pitch, low pitch, blended pitch; loud, moderate, soft; even two types of silent whistles. Despite decades of dutiful and disciplined whistle-training lessons I have still not discovered “the one.”
But I have not given up. The perfect whistle is out there, and hope springs eternal that I may someday discover it. (Reality knocks this theory down regularly when I realize that my dogs respond equally well to any of three or four different models of whistles, and perhaps listen ever better when I whistle through dirty fingers stuck into the corners of my mouth.)
The bell plays a similar function except that I, not the dog, am the one being sound-trained. Through the years, as my hearing loss has steadily worsened from thirty to seventy percent, the bells attached to my dogs’ collars have made an opposite progression from jingling sleigh bells to ringing goat bells to clanging cow bells. I have now gone back to the smaller “tinkling” sheep bell size because I cannot hear any bell, regardless of tone. The bell is for cosmetic reasons only, although I think the dogs like it because it is an icon of the hunt and a good excuse to tell me, “Hey, if you can’t hear the bell and keep track of me, it’s your own damn fault!”
Some of my hunting cronies have wisely decided to equip their dogs with those GPS locator collars, but I beg off this concession to high-technology hunting equipment, rationalizing that my dogs hunt pretty close and I always know where they are. And I’m convinced the ringing of the old-fashioned brass bell triggers some set of synapses in the dog’s brain that remind it to hunt to my range and check back every few minutes. Usually.
Hope and sentiment are the other motivations for the bell-and-whistle tradition. It’s like placing a softball in your granddaughter’s cradle, I suppose, or a baseball in your grandson’s. You’re not expecting them to become professional players some day, but you want to pass on your passion for the game and hope they love it, too.
A special bell-and-whistle set hangs near the container that holds the ashes of my tough-minded, strong-bodied English springer spaniel, Herco. He’s waiting for me to join him so that we can be scattered together in the Nebraska Sandhills. Maybe someone will honor our passing with one last blast on the whistle and one last ring of the bell. I’d like that.
Was he my best-ever dog? I don’t know. All of them were good, and I liked them all. But in our rough, masculine way Herco and I knew each other and loved each other better than any of the rest of my canine partners. If there is a happy hunting ground waiting on the other side of the fog, I could spend a few millennia shooting pheasants and grouse over that muscular little springer, sharing a hamburger with him at day’s end, and going to sleep each night in camp with him sprawled on top of my sleeping bag.
For now, when I take his bell and whistle down off the wall and hold it against my face, I can imagine how it’s going to be.