Sensory Overload and the Suburban Bird Dog Owner
(or, "Damn, that traffic is loud!")
Can't change the weather, the sidewalk, or the noise level?
Try changing the time,
and share something new with your dog.
Suburban bird dog owners are, well, suburbanites. Most of us live in a semi-urban
area, or near enough to a large population center that we regularly overload -
and have essentially numbed - most of our senses. But adding a gun dog to the
family can be a real eye, ear, and nose re-opener.
Flushing and pointing dogs, ultra-specialized bundles of DNA that they are,
exist specifically to extend a human hunter's own senses and physical reach in
the field. That capability and drive isn't switched off back at the cul-de-sac.
The pup's equipped for the job whether or not she's ever encountered an upland
game bird, and she's stimulated by everything around her, whether or not it's
the game she was bred to point, flush, or retrieve. Long-time bird dog people
pick up an acute awareness of, if not what their dog is sensing, at least when
their dog is sensing something particularly interesting. New bird dog owners,
or those that haven't had a chance to work their dog at length in the field,
sometimes miss the subtle cues and fascinating insights that can come from
really tuning into Rover's Radar. Picking up early on the signals being sent
will make for a better hunting team, but will also head off some of the predictable
unpleasantness of living with an energetic predator in a suburban setting.
Luckily we don't have to do any time travelling to see and understand
our gun dogs' ancestors and the source of their primal DNA.
It's helpful to sometimes remind oneself just what an upland bird dog is.
A purebred hunting dog is the distillation of some very carefully cultivated blood.
All domestic dogs descend from a scant few flavors of ancient wild species, and for
most northern hemisphere animals, let's just keep it simple and call those
ancestors what they primarily were (and still are): wolves. If you can get past
some of the more sensational or sentimental presentations, spend an occasional hour
watching something from the Discovery Channel or National Geographic. "Wolf"
shows are never more than a few weeks apart on cable somewhere (though not as frequently
as the myriad shark-related shows!). As you watch footage of those wonderful, primeval
creatures hunting and socializing, look for the things that still echo in your own
animal (and, for us enthusiastic amateur anthropologists, watch for the stuff that
you can also observe in any group of teenagers roaming the mall). Replace those
wolves' wiry coats with something silkier, replace the natural perk ears with a
houndy set of dropped ones, adjust a bit for size, mellow the killer instinct only
a little bit... and there's Rover, more or less. Wolves are supreme generalists,
adapted beautifully to their wide range of prey and circumstances (hunting everything
from mice to mule deer in terrain from deep woods to tundra). But like all generalists,
you won't see them routinely exhibiting the sort of highly specialized behavior for
which purposefully-bred modern bird dogs are famous. But the hints are there.
Tuned into Animal Planet, really watch that wolf pack hunting behavior. In
your mind, replace one of the wolves with Uncle Harold, carrying that new
Browning he bought himself for his birthday. Replace another with Uncle
Harold's flush-crazy Springer spaniel, and yet another wolf with your trusty
pointer or setter. In a wolf pack, each animal has essentially the same
wiring and basic set of skills as the next. But because of the deadly-serious
social hierarchy in the pack, different animals will take on different roles
while hunting. With jumpy (never mind dangerous) game, wolves are very cautious,
methodical hunters. Some will flank, some will set up a skulking ambush,
some will drive, and some will even point. Of course, they're accomplished solo
hunters as well (especially on small prey like rodents or nesting birds),
but it's their native teamwork, and their capacity - with maturity - to recall
and anticipate the payoff of that teamwork, that makes our favorites of their
domestic descendents such great upland hunting companions.
Our more specialized modern breeds have been groomed for specific tasks.
With some obvious exceptions such as bloodhounds, there's room for debate
about whether individual senses have or have not been significantly altered.
Sight hounds certainly see well, beagles definitely operate on the tiniest
whiff of rabbit trail, terriers clearly deal well with subterranean complications,
and so on. But in the subset of upland-oriented dogs, what separates a flushing
dog from a pointer or a retriever?
A spaniel wants to charge in and stir the pot, while a setter wants to
stylishly show her hunting partners where to carefully send in the flusher
(whether human or spaniel). Certainly spaniels, setters, pointers, and
retrievers can be said to have broadly different body types, but that only
helps them better handle a long day of what they're specifically asked to
do. The most significant difference is in their programming. Ranging,
flushing, pointing, and retrieving are behaviors that are all found in the
original lupine (wolf family) DNA, but which, through breeding, have been
amplified or suppressed. Of course, a barrel-shaped Lab is more buoyant, a
short-legged beagle is closer to the footpad scent he's following, and a
long-legged (but short-haired!) pointer can elegantly dance through and
over their favorite game's cover. Body type matters, but means nothing
absent the specialized behavior it's meant to support.
But there is no new behavior among our carefully selected canine
bloodlines, only specializations and amplifications of
what the wolves and coyotes and foxes have done for untold thousands of generations.
A wolf will, on entering the scent cone of hiding prey, lock up just like a pointing
Vizsla. If she's alone, she'll use that ominous pause in her stalk to induce
a little stationary panic into her prey. Watching that electric moment between
pause and pounce will remind many a pointer or setter owner of walking up on
the scene of a glorious point and muttering under their breath, "Come on,
sweetie, please be steady good girl please be steady it's ok please be steady
I've got the shotgun not you please be steady what a good girl..."
But the drama that unfolds after a wolf or a domestic hunting dog becomes
aware of game is always exciting. Sometimes a little too exciting if you're
trying to keep a big male Weimaraner that's all hopped up on rabbit scent
out of the suburban traffic or the poison ivy. Making it a contest of speed
and strength is just unworkable for most handlers. And making it a contest
of senses means that the human (with his pathetic nose and lackluster hearing)
will lose every time. Rather, it needs to be a matter of wits. Aside from the
fact that we've all met dogs that are far, far more clever than their owners,
it's possible for a thoughtful handler - even a non-hunter - to anticipate
the circumstances that will fire up Rover's prey drive before it gets in the
way of a manageable walk.
Here's an interesting experiment: walk Rover at about 2:00AM, on the
calmest moonlit fall night you can find. For a lot of latitudes, 2:00AM
is a lot more "midnight" than by-the-clock midnight is. With any luck, you'll be
outside when the ambient noise level is at its lowest, and there's a gentle,
ground-hugging breeze rustling the leaves. First, this is just fun because
it's something Rover doesn't always get to do, so it's mentally stimulating
and adds experience. And since one of Rover's top responsibilities as a hunting
dog in suburbia is to continually shake up his family's routine, every new
adventure that wouldn't otherwise happen further validates Rover's place in
the household. So, out there in the quiet moonlight, you have a chance to
experience some things that you might otherwise miss. Mostly, start the walk
calmly, and just use your ears.
If you're walking a routine path, now's your chance to ignore what you're
barely able to see in the dark anyway, and listen for changes in Rover's
breathing. Long before you might normally register Rover's interest in an
upcoming hedge or pile of brush, you'll probably hear the air start to
really whistle through his flaring nostrils. Then will come the quick
change of tone as he opens his mouth a bit, to huff the air over his tongue,
as well. If you've kept the walk peaceful, he's not panting from any exertion,
and you'll get to hear his olfactory radar going into overdrive.
Of course, Rover is also listening to things he doesn't usually get to hear.
His (quite literally) super-human hearing will be picking up the stirring of
nocturnal rodents and the yowl of two dueling Tomcats half a mile away. If
there's a neighboring strip of woods or park, the two of you could easily
hear the eerie chatter of a vixen fox still coaching the summer's kits (probably
on the topic of those same nocturnal rodents).
Other than the always-useful and nearly fruitless opportunity to remind Rover
how to walk at a pleasant heel, such a non-standard outing is a break
in your routine and a chance to reflect on the nature of the dog. He's not
a Lasa Apso that, more than anything, simply wants to be with you. He's a
hunting animal, with those instincts very much in the foreground of his behavior
and motivations. The companionship you share is priceless to both of you, but
Rover doesn't think of things quite that abstractly. Especially when he's still
in his doggy teenage years (say, under four years old), new sensory stimulation
will absolutely rule his attention. Learning to anticipate the circumstances
that will flip on that hunting switch, and being ready to shape his response
to what he senses will make everyone happier. Make a habit of having fewer clockwork
habits, and both you and Rover will become more adaptable, worldly, and able
to make more of the unexpected - on the neighborhood walk and in the field. Plus, a
midnight stroll can undo much of what the more frantic daylit world
can make you do to yourself, and don't think Rover doesn't know it, too.