A recent article in Smithsonian Magazine revealed that how dogs think about humans—and somehow know us—evolved from interactions over a million years. Anyone who has owned bird dogs knows the road to understanding their behavior runs both ways: We learn as much as we teach—and sometimes a lot more.
My setter Ragan, for example, barks as feeding time approaches, and then licks my hand when the food bowl appears. When he’s on point, Ragan’s body language tells me everything. A flagging tail says he smells the bird but is unsure of where it is. A straight-up salute is a pinned bird; a wavering or falling flag means the bird has moved on. Follow the eyes; find the bird. Ragan’s penetrating glare? It’s under my nose! A wandering gaze? It’s getting away!
Neither I nor his trainer taught Ragan these things, suggesting such instinctive behaviors stem from a desire to communicate and to please. These days I hunt more slowly than I did when I was younger, and I’m more likely to use hand signals instead of hollering at my dogs or ruining what’s left of my hearing from a shrieking whistle. Ragan’s hunting style complements mine, and he hunts close and checks in with me regularly. That’s because of the silent-command training he received in school but also because of his intelligence and our strong bond.
The best bird dogs of my life have been those I understood the most and, in turn, did their part to strengthen our connection. Now 11 years old, Ragan is my current champion—as was Sherlock, who gifted me with a brace of woodcock on his last hunt when he was 15. I have video from three decades ago showing Sherlock as a puppy, front paws hanging onto my backside as I plowed through heavy grouse cover and struggling to keep up until I gave in and carried him.
Before Sherlock there was Lady Macbeth, who taught me the penalty for hunting without her. I had flown solo to North Dakota for sharptails and upon returning home on a Sunday afternoon felt sorry that she had missed all the fun. Throwing on hunting clothes from my flight duffel, I took Macbeth to a local spot hoping she might find some woodcock.
Oh, she found woodcock—and deliberately busted each one! Disgusted, I returned her to the truck cab, slumped behind the wheel and fumed in silence. Anger finally subsiding, I reached over to pat her, and that’s when she craned her neck to sniff the cuff of the pants I had worn in North Dakota, smelled the birds and wild places she had not experienced and shrank back to her corner.
Whether with subtle hints or lightbulb moments, our bird dogs always talk to us.
Tom Huggler’s Grouse of North America and A Fall of Woodcock won national acclaim and are now collectible. His Quail Hunting in America is still in print. A Fall of Woodcock was reprinted recently by Skyhorse Publishing.