February 21, 2012
When Hanna finally pinned the grouse, the bird was holding on one edge of a wet, boggy, depression ringed with alders and aspen. My buddy's dog, a young Brittany, had been romping around behind her, showing plenty of enthusiasm but, by and large, ignoring its owner's repeated commands.
On a couple earlier points, the youngster had crept past Hanna and busted the bird. That's not the end of the world; inexperienced dogs just don't know any better. Still, I wasn't going to let it happen again. As the youngster ran blithely by, I barked out "Whoa!" My command cracked through the silence of the woods like a rifle shot, and to my utter surprise, the dog stopped in its tracks and looked at me, wide-eyed. I didn't know whether to be elated or embarrassed.
I'd just broken one of my cardinal rules: "Never give a command to your buddy's bird dog." As it turned out, that particular grouse went out the back door and neither I nor my friend — who graciously never mentioned my faux pas — got a shot at it. But the reason for the rule is sound: Trying to control someone else's dog without their permission can create hard feelings and very often causes more problems than it solves.
So how, exactly, should you behave with your hunting partner's dog?
There are few hard and fast answers to that question, but since I've brought you this far, I'll tell you what I've worked out over the last 30 years or so of stumbling around the woods and prairies with a motley assortment of bird dogs that ranged from very well trained to not trained at all.
The first thing to determine, then, is exactly whose dog is trained to do what. Does your buddy's dog back reliably? Whoa on command? Return on the whistle? Does yours? Do both dogs retrieve or do neither? Is either one completely steady?
There's no right or wrong answer to any of these questions. All you want to do at this point is get an idea of what to expect, which, with a little maneuvering, will allow you to sidestep major problems in the field.
Here's an example. I train my dogs to be steady to wing, shot and fall. For the record, that's not what I recommend to the people who pay me to train their dogs, nor am I convinced a completely steady dog is necessarily better than a dog that breaks at the shot. It is, simply, what I enjoy doing with my own dogs, so that's what I do.
Yet I can count on the fingers of one hand the people I've hunted with who have trained their dogs to a similar level. That can create friction if a friend's dog breaks at the flush and tempts my heretofore steady bird dog to break and chase the covey. But knowing ahead of time what to expect allows me to work out a plan. And that means going in on the first few points with my thumb on the button of my dog's collar, not the safety of my gun. If my dog breaks, she gets a correction. In my playbook, steady is steady.
Some might question whether, given that kind of situation, I really enjoy hunting over dogs other than my own. Certainly there are people who don't. But I do. I don't expect perfection from my own dogs; why would I demand it from someone else's? As long as a dog is showing me the enthusiasm that any good pointer should have, I enjoy watching them do their job.
I take a similar approach to backing. My dogs usually back; some of my friend's dogs usually don't. If one of my buddy's dog's steals one of my dog's points, I'm not gonna lose any sleep over it.
Believe me, at least a couple of my dogs will do the same thing — and do — when they think they can get away with it. On the other hand, I don't want my dogs moving once I've told them to whoa, so if they do, they get a correction. Knowing what to expect ahead of time helps me make that call.
Although I enjoy hunting my dogs and my friend's dogs simultaneously, there are sometimes good reasons for keeping them apart. Twenty years ago, I struck up a friendship with a guy who owned a muscular, rangy setter. He became a good friend — he gave me the Fox side-by-side I hunt with to this day — but I don't have a lot of fond memories of his dog.
One afternoon, as the tiny Brittany I owned ran innocently in front of him, the setter spun, and enraged, grabbed her by the neck and shook her to the ground. Her terrified squeals brought me running, and I kicked the dog off her before he could do any damage. I think he might have killed her. I wouldn't hunt any of my dogs with that setter from that day on, and as that dog's reputation spread, neither would anyone else.
Dogs that fight upon an introduction probably aren't going to do well when hunted as a pair. A little snapping and territoriality — common when putting one dog in the other's "personal" crate, for example — isn't particularly worrisome. But an all-out dog fight leaves both animals on edge, and any incident in the field, such as a disputed retrieve, could trigger another war. It's not worth it. Serious dog fights are bad news. Don't take the chance; hunt them separately.
Much less serious, but still highly annoying are dogs that "trail" other dogs — that is, they follow another dog around, wanting to play, and by their constant harassment prevent it from doing its job. This is common among puppies hunting with older, more experienced dogs.
During her first season, my English pointer Tango simply wouldn't give the other dogs she was hunting with a break, and I was forced to hunt her by herself. It was the right decision, and she progressed nicely once she didn't have the option of annoying other dogs to distraction.
Now, halfway through her second season, she still has days when she'll spend the first 20 minutes of a hunt playing grab-ass with the other dog rather than hunting on her own, but I've unilaterally changed the rules. The minute I see her chase another dog, she gets a nick on the collar. Enough is enough. Usually, one or two light corrections are all it takes to get her to settle back down and work.
The same opportunities should be extended to your friend's dogs. If, for whatever reason, your buddy's dog needs to hunt solo, by all means give it the opportunity to do so. Hunt in the morning over his, in the afternoon over yours. Or split up the hunting party and agree to meet your partner again in a couple hours. A dog that insists on being a pain in the butt with the other dogs he hunts with is far more annoying to me than a dog who won't back or breaks at the shot.
A less obvious, but extremely important consideration is knowing where all the dogs are before you shoot. That doesn't mean that each and every dog has to be precisely pinpointed, but it does mean that you need to be sure you're shooting in a safe direction. When I began hunting Mearns quail a half-dozen years ago, I discovered that the cover — blue and Gambel's oaks growing on steep, grassy hillsides — was surprisingly thick.
One of my quail-hunting buddies, John Palmer, made it a habit of pointing out where his half-hidden dogs were before we shot. He probably comes by that through hard experience; he has horror stories from the days he spent as a guide. But it's good advice anywhere: if any of the dogs are on point but partially hidden, make sure they're in a safe position before you shoot. And never be afraid to point out the location of a dog to your friend if there's any question he might not be able to see them. It is far, far better to belabor the obvious than risk a tragedy.
I'm a stickler for obedience with my own dogs, but I try hard not to superimpose my rules on anyone else. Hunting with friends and their dogs is supposed to be fun, and I've learned it's a lot more enjoyable if I relax my expectations a little. Most of my friends are happy with their dogs, so why wouldn't I be?
So what if they stumble through a covey? Guess what — my dogs do too. So what if they steal an occasional point? Ditto for mine, the shameless little thieves. And how do I react when a friend's dog takes out a covey and chases it over the hill?
I bite my tongue, shrug, and then, what the hell, I forget about it. Tomorrow is another day. For tomorrow, my friends, it may well be my dog busting that covey.