September 23, 2010
Some dogs have traits that make them outgoing, interesting and just plain fun to be around.
Put a bunch of bird hunters in a camp, add a few drinks, and the chatter will soon turn to dogs and words such as "trainable," "biddable" and "adaptable" will make the rounds. As do lesser terms like "huntable" and "workable," which describe dogs that are "usable" but just barely--"Well, in a pinch he's huntable."
But one word we don't often hear is "likable." It's true that neither a high nor low likability rating has anything to do with a dog's skills. We've all known first-class hunters that were as standoffish as a wolverine. On the flip side are easygoing dogs that wander happily through life but can't find their food bowls, let alone birds. Then there are those delightful few that not only have bird sense but also make us smile when we see them. You know the types; you can't help but like them.
I admit that the longer I play the gun-dog and bird-hunting game, the more I value dogs with outgoing, interesting, and charming personalities. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy following polished hunters of any stripe, but if I have to spend up-close time with a dog, give me one that I can warm up to, one that is friendly and ready to have fun. Give me a dog that's easy to like.
And some dogs are, indeed, eminently likable. One that comes to mind is Flick, a French Brittany owned by Joel Vance, who so competently writes the Gun Dog "News & Views" column. I first met Flick when he was a youngster, and Joel and I and several others were working quail along a slash of Kansas creek bed. We had knocked down two birds from a small covey Flick had found, then got a couple more from his points on the singles.
Flick was hunting with a bounce in his step when he stopped and looked around with an expression as close to a grin as a dog can get--I swear I still can see it--that said, "I'm having a fine time. How about you?" But Flick needed more than singles to stir his soul; he arrowed into the creek bed and blew out a good-sized covey, though somehow he did it in a way that pulled laughter from each of us. Even from an embarrassed Joel Vance, who had words with him, of course. But nothing could put a dent in Flick's life-is-good attitude.
Joel told me that to the end of Flick's long and productive life he held on to his wonderful ability to make people smile. "He reminded me," Joel said, "of a canine L'il Abner--that splendid comic-strip character--kind of gawky and country and always wearing a grin." A perfect description; L'il Abner himself was a likable guy.
But where does likability come from? Is it genetic, or is it learned? Like many things concerning dogs, personality is thought to be a combination of heredity and environment, nature shaped by nurture. Which means that while we can take some of the credit for fun-loving personalities, we must accept a degree of blame for dogs that have less charm than a tree stump.
A few years ago, some friends and I were talking about this issue and agreed that many of the genuinely likable dogs we had known over years were Labrador retrievers and springer spaniels. Note that none of these guys, excepting me, was a Lab or springer fancier. Now we weren't saying that lovable dogs of other breeds don't exist; sure they do--Flick the Brittany is a case in point--we just hadn't met quite as many of them.
Although a case could be made that Labs topped this informal poll because there are a lot of them, Labradors, like springers, are people oriented. Given half a chance most of these dogs seem to honestly thrive on human company. But they don't act like royalty waiting to be adored. The bulk of them are "good ol' boys" ready to belly up to the bar and tell a joke. Like their human counterparts, they inject oddball humor into any situation.
For example, consider a Labrador of mine that couldn't draw a bead on a downed mallard floating in a patch of cattails. After giving him several lines to the bird, I caved in and--I rarely admit this--threw a stick that landed nearly on the duck. The dog delivered the mallard to hand, perfectly. Then he swam out and retrieved the stick but this time dropped it at my feet in a way that said, unequivocally, he knew the difference between a stick and a duck, but in case I wanted the stick back, there it was. In between belly laughs, my partner said, "Damn, I like that dog."
To this day, my old cronies can't speak of that Lab without smiles, tales of his exploits and, often, moist eyes in the telling. But that's the nature of likable guys.