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Outdoors/Adventure

Manuals help you train dogs to point and retrieve, but where’s the chapter about keeping them off the couch?

Cogswell, with a shotshell casing he found and should not have. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

A co-worker asked for my advice regarding a friend’s bird dog. It makes me nervous when someone asks for my help with dogs, especially secondhand. My only qualification is that the four-legged creatures far outnumber the bipeds at my house.

Lucky for me, it turned out it wasn’t advice he needed as much as for someone else to have a story worse than the one he was about to share. I am better qualified in that regard.

“My friend’s dog is the worst,” he said.

Although the owner adored his young Labrador, this friend was like a parent of an unruly child, and social rules do not permit a harsh word for another’s darling, no matter the species. Sure, other people liked the dog — as long as it was kept at a distance and in constraints, which never seemed to hold.

A group had gathered near the river during the hooligan run where a kind, older man had just shown them a cooler full of fish he planned to take home to his wife for Mother’s Day. That’s when the friend arrived and unleashed his beloved pet.

The Lab, possessed of the breed’s uncanny ability to sense where to direct enthusiasm for the greatest effect, ran directly to the man’s cooler and hiked his leg.

He didn’t, I said. (He did.)

Hugo chases a ptarmigan, which he knows better than to be doing at this point. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

One response to this story might be to give the kind of advice I have sought myself. Many online articles or dog training manuals start with the obvious statement: “Basic obedience training is the foundation in avoiding bird dog problems.”

The literature then proceeds to pretend that the biggest bird dog problems one can expect is for their well-bred creature to fall a hair short of perfect. Several times I have scanned numbered lists of problems and solutions and not found anything close to “how to train your dog not to pee on another person’s fish.”

Many bird dog people will echo the well-documented idea that “most bird dog problems are the fault of the trainer.” There are steps to solve each of the referenced complications. For example, if a pointing dog is “busting birds” — which means that it does not hold “steady” in a variety of scenarios — an owner can work with the dog on a check cord. The result, trainers would have you believe, is a dog that is steady to wing (it does not break point until the bird is in the air), steady to shot (it does not break until the gun goes off), or steady to drop (it does not break until the bird is on the ground).

Sometimes it works, some of the time. But there is no mention of the dog that is steady to urinating on that corner of the couch that someone else’s unsteady dog marked as its territory years ago. There is not a bulleted paragraph to address what to do when your revered canine companion is drawn hypnotically to roll in a rotting moose carcass. These things fall under natural tendencies and are dealt with separately, at length, elsewhere.

Another bird dog problem that makes the list of proper things to worry about is the incomplete retrieve. The dog might go out to the bird but not pick it up. Or, it might pick the bird up but then drop it in favor of some other activity. Or, it may not bring the bird “to hand.”

I have never been too concerned about a dog bringing a bird “to hand.” I am happy with “close enough to grab” and do not mind it if I have to walk a few feet or the dog takes a restroom break somewhere in between.

My biggest problem with retrieves was when a little English cocker brought me a bird I didn’t shoot on a rare day when we had a limit of birds. He was a little game violator.

“Hard mouth” is another issue that gets a lot of attention. This is when the dog damages the meat while retrieving with a hard bite. Some owners will avoid the game of tug-of-war with retrievers for fear that it will be too tempting for the dog to want to play the game with a bird. My only experience with “hard mouth” was when Gunner, a chocolate Lab, managed to eat four grouse — feathers, feet and beak. He never did it again, and I am not sure why he felt the impulse that day. Labs are funny.

The so-called common things that can go wrong in the field with dogs that are just short of perfect hardly compare with the far-worse ordinary things they do almost every day.

Even as fishermen are known for their lies about the size of their fish, a bird dog owner may be worse in their over-estimation of their dog’s ability. Some of us may swear we only enjoy a “well-trained” dog afield, but many more are familiar with the mercurial nature of the hunting dog breeds that are more like family than equipment. Maybe it’s easier to admit to minor technical shortcomings afield if only to accept the whole rascal of a creature that has taken over your furniture.

Cheyenne, the most misbehaving bird dog in our family, who knows better than to take food to bed. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

There’s no doubt bird dogs have changed my life — more so because of their actions at home than in the field. There is no “Please remove shoes” sign at my front door. I insist as soon as possible that guests stay in their footwear lest socks become covered in dog hair and shoes become a new chew toy.

All food and objects of my affection are kept out of reach. The top of the refrigerator has become the new kitchen counter. If it can be cleaned with a water hose, it might survive in my house.

Sometimes, I lock myself in the bathroom to eat a snack, and thanks to my little darlings, I know what the inside of a couch looks like. I suspect their destructive behavior in the house is part of a plan to make our home so uncomfortable that we must leave it often for adventures in the field.

Whenever someone tells me a story about a misbehaving dog, it makes me smile and remember all my own stories. I don’t know what to say for myself or my dogs, much less what advice to give. All I can think of in response to the person with a friend whose pet urinated on another man’s fish is to recall that I once read that urine from an un-diseased bladder is sterile and to suggest paying the man.

Christine Cunningham of Kenai is a lifelong Alaskan and an avid hunter.

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