My first gun dog, a pudelpointer I bought fresh out of grad school with almost no research into other breeds, pedigrees, or breeders, has made a wonderful family dog. She’s gentle with our toddler, keeps my wife happy with her minimal shedding, and has been a serviceable companion both in a duck blind and in chukar country. Her start was anything but ideal, as her early upland hunting was largely limited to planted pheasants at the wildlife refuges and pay-to-play preserves near our home in the Willamette Valley. While I have some fond memories and glimpses of brilliance on epic retrieves and staunch points, I can’t help but feel like I failed her with a lack of time training and exposing her to the kinds of experiences that make for a solid gun dog. As she approached her eighth birthday, my thoughts turned to the next dog that would join or family, the lessons learned and the mistakes made, and what I’d change with our next pup.
Those thoughts all came to a head two years ago, with a much-coveted invite to join the MoF crew at a chukar camp comprised of four setters and two shorthairs in the wilds of the Great Basin. Often described as elegant and stylish, my impression of the camp’s setters reminded me more of a Rage Against the Machine mosh pit than some old white guy in tweed and a necktie. Those dogs absolutely ripped through the sage and bitterbrush in search of birds and after five days of following them around, I was firmly sold on the English setter as my new breed of choice. I went home and put down a deposit on a litter that shared pedigree with Tom’s Mabel.
The following November, on my second invite to the MoF annual chukar camp pilgrimage, Tom and Greg were both cool and encouraging as then five-month-old Sadie romped around without much interest in birds or scent. “These dogs train themselves, all you’ve gotta do is take ’em hunting,” was the constant refrain back at camp as I returned time and again with an empty vest and the nervous edge of a drug addict in need of his next fix. I couldn’t bear the thought of failing another gun dog. With a three-year-old son and a full time job waiting for me back home, intrusive thoughts on my own ability to give Sadie the future she deserves were with me on the lonely drive home to the Willamette Valley.
Sheepishly, last winter I began researching gun dog trainers. Much like the feelings I’ve long harbored over guys who only fish with hired guides or pay others for home improvement projects rather than admit their skills aren’t up to the task, sending Sadie to a trainer felt like cheating. I wavered whether or not to even tell my hunting partners of the decision I’d made. So I wasn’t surprised by the guilt mixed with excitement that washed over me as the hood of my Ram crested over Santiam Pass en route to a mid-point visit to see Sadie, after her first five weeks at a bird dog trainer outside of Bend.
After some small talk with the trainer, he brought Sadie out on a long lead and directed her to a couple of pigeons strewn about his training grounds in launchers. A light breeze bent the field’s tall grass as she quartered back and forth, nose held high into the wind. As her saunter slowed and she froze, tail rising skyward, any feelings of guilt or remorse I had were far from my mind.
I look forward to the day when I’ll have the time, space, and freedom to train a dog on my own. Much like tying flies, reloading ammunition, or refinishing your own kitchen, there’s a sense of pride and accomplishment that comes along with figuring things out yourself. But unlike a fly, or a shotshell, or a kitchen cabinet, there’s no do-over with a gun dog. The choices I’ve made over the last twelve months of Sadie’s life will be with both of us for the rest of her life, and will echo across my memory until my time comes as well.
I’m kid-on-Christmas-Eve excited about the career Sadie and I will have together and I can’t wait for the lessons I’ll learn about training and companionship she has to teach me. And as for the rash of shit I’m bound to get from the chukar camp crew, I’ll take my lumps a little easier with a few birds in the bag.