The introduction to my latest book, Coot Dogs – An Anthology of Dog Stories by a Crazy Old Coot, “The covenant” is my explication of the bond and the communion that bird hunters share with their dogs. It has been my good fortune in life to share this bond.
From the mists shrouding the dawn of mankind, the covenant emerged. This interspecies partnership was a symbiotic relationship: I will protect your clan, and you will protect mine. You will hunt and gather for me, and I will divide the bounty with you. You will aid me with your superior senses of scent and hearing and your savagery, and I will aid you with my superior reasoning and foresight and logic.
Man and dog. Dog and man. Did Homo sapiens initiate this partnership, enticing a camp-following young wolf with scraps of meat and bone to join in with the hunt and the community, the pack, of humans? Or was it the wolf, Canis lupis destined to become Canis familiaris, who enticed the human to follow him stealthily on the hunt and make the kill he could share in?
Little matter. Somehow the bargain was struck between humans and dogs, a mutually beneficial arrangement that has lasted tens of thousands of years. Mankind (Homo sapiens) could not have evolved to become the creatures they are without the dog, and dogs (Canis familiaris) could not have evolved to become the creatures they are without mankind. Throughout the course of this mutual evolution the pact, the bond, has persevered. Humans have always needed their canine companions, and dogs have always needed their hominin cohorts, in myriad ways.
The first animal domesticated by mankind, the dog did not become a docile servant so much as an untamed partner in Sapiens progression from hunter-gatherer clans to nomadic tribes to settled agriculturists to industrial laborers. Humans radically changed their social behaviors, livelihoods, and day-to-day occupations through the advance of increasingly complex and structured civilizations that required specialized duties and functions. And so, too, did Canis, mankind’s similarly evolving companion, the dog.
Humans and dogs have been living together for perhaps 30,000 years, according to archeologists and anthropologists who have excavated Sapiens’ most ancient prehistoric sites and subsequently analyzed hundreds of artifacts and DNA samples taken from bones. This creature we call a human being today is vastly different from the man who walked the Earth some thirty millennia in the past, and so is this creature we call a dog. But one thing remains unchanged: the ancient bond of partnership, devotion and love between man and dog.
We do not depend on our dogs for the protection of our clan these days, or for our survival as hunter-gatherers. But we do depend on them for the comfort of the genetic memory of those prehistoric times. Our dogs in the household are a sort of security blanket that guards against our fears of monsters that lurk threateningly beyond the hearth and outside the rock shelter.
We also realize a primordial sense of mutual protection and wellbeing by reciprocally caring for our dogs, feeding them, grooming them, giving them shelter, keeping them safe and healthy, and providing medical care when needed. Most of all, we share the bond of affection between species, a bond that we cannot truly understand but that is nevertheless real and more powerful than the bond we have with any other animal. I know this is true because our hearts are broken when they die. I know this because in times of floods and earthquakes and wildfires and other natural disasters, people choose to die rather than abandon their dogs.
For those of us who train and hunt bird dogs the bond is especially profound and devoted, it seems to me. Although the avocation of bird hunting is mostly symbolic in this Anthropocene era when wild places are wholly shaped by the workings of mankind, the visceral desire to hunt and the excitement of the hunt are deeply ingrained in both our hominin and canine genes, and the cooperative chase and capture of game releases some endorphin of pleasure and achievement that may be out of sync with this time and place but is fully in concord with the roots of our respective species.
In the same performance of hunting skills that brought us together 30,000 years ago, man and dog coordinate their free-form but carefully choreographed roles in pursuit of the bird. The dog contributes its superior sense of scent and its savagery, and the man contributes his superior reasoning and foresight to the joyful, intense, fanatical tasks of the hunt. Modern man may use a shotgun instead of a net, and the modern bird dog may hold its point longer and more staunchly, but the intimacy of their collaborative work bespeaks the same closeness and familiarity. We are a team. We have survived the trials of thousands of years of stifling civilization. We are hunters, together.
In the course of my life as a bird hunter I have owned a dozen bird dogs: pointing breeds, flushing breeds, retrieving breeds. Some of us struggled with the barriers of communication and understanding between species, but many of us reached a communion of mind and soul and spirit that surpasses the relationships I have had with most humans. To say that we were bonded falls short of describing the depth of the loyalty and affection and admiration we held for one another.
At the time of life when my bird hunting days are coming to a close, my greatest regret is not that of ending my days afield, the times spent in the few wild places that remain, the hours in hunting camps sitting by the fire, the dozens of friendships that were formed through the years, or the excitement and anticipation of a bird season’s opening day. No, the ultimate sacrifice for me will be relinquishing this bond, this communion, this fellowship, this covenant with the dogs that have shaped the course of my life, my personal evolution, as much as I have shaped theirs. I’m going to miss it so much.
Looking back, I want to share some of the stories about these bird dogs and the joys and occasional frustrations we have known. I offer this collection of stories, essays, and poems as a requiem to the days of laughter and tears and companionship they have granted me. If there is a greater wonder than this bond between hunter and dog I have yet to experience it. I am so fortunate, so very fortunate, that the covenant has been part of my life.