The Suburban Bird Dog
An occasional series of items addressing the joys, tribulations,
and approaches to a happy life with your suburban bird dog.

An Introduction
The Suburban
Bird Dog

Recent Additions:

October, 2006
Make The Most Of That Preserve Trip It's expensive, and may be some of the only hunting you and your dog get to do. So, listen to the folks that run those preserves and you'll be set for a better time.
July, 2006
Combatting Surban Sensory Overload That droning road noise that serenades your 6:00PM ritual walks with Rover can keep you from enjoying some of your dog's subtle behaviors. Set your alarm clock and read along.
April, 2006
Don't Wait For Bad News If you're a bird hunter in suburbia, don't wait for awkward news to give you a reason to educate your non-hunting neighbors about the upland lifestyle.
December, 2005
The Retractable Lead: A Potetential Deal With The Devil (or, Flexi Leash as
Physics Lab)


Somewhere out there are bird dogs - and their owners - living The Perfect Bird Dog Life. That idyllic existence has as many variations as there are dogs and people to imagine them, but certainly there are some common elements: A natural upland setting, surrounded by fields, woods and creeks filled with game (but without snakes, ticks, badgers, rabid cats, rusty barbed wire, and poison ivy). Perhaps a spacious country home away from roads and noise. Maybe some neighboring households that "get" bird hunting, don't let their own animals run wild on your dogs' turf, and which have bright, interested teenage kids that love to help train and groom field dogs (and which consider the opportunity to do so all the payment they could ask in exchange for clearing the snow out of your half-mile driveway). Of course, a well-equipped 24-hour veterinary practice just down the road. Invariably, a local climate known not for its bitter winters or suffocating summers but rather for its fresh, dewy spring mornings and crisp, bracing fall afternoons. As a bonus, at the mouth of the property's creek, a freshly fed, sandy-bottomed lake that's never seen a broken bottle, and which mysteriously devours any trespassing craft with a noisy engine.

If you know the dog that lives like that, say hello for the rest of us and give him a wistful pat on the head. Whatever you do, don't darken his bit of waking heaven by confessing how the majority of his cousins live.

In the U.S., every upland lifestyle aspirant knows, or can imagine knowing the apocryphal Gentleman Hunter and his Extended Family. If not common (or not yet entirely extinct) in real life, they're certainly a familiar icon, with their swaths of carefully conserved countryside, their financial resources, and a multi-generational family tradition of wingshooting over a long-nurtured bloodline of champion bird dogs. He's got his collection of classic guns and fleet of vehicles for every quarry, season and terrain; his gourmet kitchen, guest rooms, wine collection, domestic help; and his capacity for a good night's sleep before each day of enjoying all of that... yes, he and his circumstances are so rare as to make him essentially fictional. And yet, that image is so strongly engrained in this little corner of our culture that it actually causes a lot of silent torment. After all, what do most of us suppose separates us from the lifestyle, the beloved dogs, the hunts, and the opportunities to enjoy them? Money. Lots of it up front, and a continual flow of it thereafter. And what single feature best characterizes the typical U.S. citizen, other than not having such disposable income? The sure (or at least sporadic) belief that such circumstances will at some point come to pass. Thinking that life as a Certified Country Gentleman Family is right around the corner, what's a more modest upland-ish household to do in the meantime?

When it comes to fairly exclusive lifestyles, western civilization has a ready answer, and an ancient tradition for those long on longing but with less cash cached: if one can't completely inhabit the desired lifestyle and its expected pleasures, one can at least wear the clothes and get some of the accessories. An over simplification, certainly, but it does cover the gist of it. Whether it's avid sports fans wearing their team's logo all season, NASCAR fans dressing their cars with a touch of their hero's trappings, new employees at a prestigious college in a tweed arms race with the tenured professors, or opera devotees who actually have cloaks to hang in the opera house's cloak room - many pursuits we love have certain on-the-surface paraphernalia that none the less bring some satisfaction and deepen the connection with the activity. To the extent that the nature of an activity drives its visual identity, adopting some of those features can indeed bring one closer to the goal. You have to start somewhere.

There is a difference, though, between an embarrassing affectation (the large SUV that - given the particularly absurd trim package and bling-bling rims - will clearly never, ever be driven anywhere but on dry pavement) and the true adoption of a culture from the outside in. The difference is the actual, informed appreciation for why cross-country skiers, or professional divers, or serious boaters, or pheasant hunters wear what they wear, use the gear that they use, and - in the uplands - love the breeds of dogs they keep. That true appreciation can only come from actually doing those things.

As it relates to upland bird hunting, a novice simply can't appreciate the utility of a blaze orange hat until he sees it on his wife's head - five rows of corn over in the last half hour of daylight - as the team pushes those wily pheasants towards Grandpa and his poker buddy. Those two senior blockers, who are chatting and propping up the fence another hundred paces down the field, would likewise be completely invisible but for their choice of garb. Academically? Anyone reading this can understand why that sounds reasonable. But the truth of it - the personal sense that the color of your shirt and hat might truly be what spares you from spending the evening in a rural clinic having number six shot plucked out of your scalp - only walking a line with a hunting party will convert that Handy Information into Personal Truth. The same is true of purebred bird dogs. No matter what one reads, the special utility (and maddening joy!) of a spaniel, a pointer, a setter, or a retriever may be found every day in simple home companionship, but will only be profoundly understood when those dogs show their magic in the field.

So, does this amount to criticism of city slickers who, on stumbling across the Filson web site, immediately sense that they've been missing something all these years? No. Does this mean that someone who simply likes the way a Barbour hat looks on her head, even though she's unlikely to ever wade through a briar patch, is being silly? Never. Is the person living in a townhouse - someone lucky to meet game birds in a bird field once or twice a year - crazy for loving (and thus, despite the trying circumstances, owning) a birdy, well-bred gun dog? Well, maybe a little. But the real objective for those folks should be to explore why those things seem to call to them so persistently. And if those elements of the culture continue to whisper in their ears, it's a sign that they should do something about it - to know themselves more wholly (perhaps the better to understand the boundaries of their own interests), and if the passion is real, to help preserve and expand that culture for future generations. When it comes to wardrobe, shotguns, and vehicles, a short-lived dalliance with the uplands may be a bit of a financial mistake, but it's easily all sold or put away in the garage. But when one is infected with the contagious call of Bob White, and brings into the family a rambunctious animal that lives to hunt and retrieve Mr. White to hand, "getting over" a hunting hobby can be a cruel thing. Certainly a bird dog can live in suburbia, never to scent another partridge after achieving that AKC Junior Hunter title at the nearby gun club, and still lead a happy life. But it's real work to replace that dog's central purpose for existing with enough thrown tennis balls, doggy day care, weekend Frisbee with the neighbor's kids, and the occasional hapless squirrel twitching his tail and scolding Rover from atop the garden shed. That nice 4x4 in the garage won't care if it never goes beyond the soccer field and the hardware store, but that lovely Gordon Setter in the back yard will wake each morning thinking, "Maybe - wag wag wag - today - wag wag wag - is the day we go back to doing that thing with the birds."

Those folks born into an upland setting - along side farming as a business, or into the embrace of a family that always takes the youngsters out in the fall to help hunt pheasants (kids don't scent and point, but they're steady to shot and have been known to retrieve) - will wonder what all the fuss is about, here. Why wonder why, and how, to adopt a "lifestyle" that is already built into their lives? Wonder if the family's bird dogs are happy? What? They chase rabbits every day, bump into coveys of quail or feeding doves in season and out, and know where every pigeon roosts in the barn. The only interests such folks will have in a discussion about all of this will be to better understand their more urban buddies (and their buddies' greenhorn dogs). But here's a suspicion: while the folks who live it every day don't much talk about the nitty-gritty details of life with their bird dogs, the folks who love the dogs - but who aren't immersed in practical bird hunting - aren't sure how to even start such a conversation.

Our hope, with the "Suburban Bird Dog" area here at Upland Life is to introduce some of those nitty-gritty details, and to explore some topics that seem, in other venues, to be glossed over. This area is edited by a team that does live in suburbia with a couple of live-to-hunt-to-live dogs. The perspective is that of folks who understand the frustration of digging through books, magazines, and web sites about bird dog training - all of which seem to skip over the fact that, as they leave behind a day's hunting or training in the field, not every team will be returning the next day. Or the next week, or even the next month. Rather than castigate those dog owners for keeping a bird dog when they can't let them be a bird dog every week, we'll try to provide some solace and share some experiences that might make everyone involved a little happier. Are you sitting in your townhouse or condo right now, thinking seriously about getting a pointer or a setter, and hoping for some encouragement? You probably won't find that here. Dedicated bird dog owners are such because of a willingness to navigate the (in the case of more urban living, huge) obstacles, definitely not because of the fun and easy bits in between. In that regard, happy suburban bird dog owners are, like their dogs, driven and always on the lookout for what they most crave. But unlike their dogs, those folks hold onto their daily frustrations, know abstract gloom when then see another vacant weed lot getting paved over, and feel the pressure of zoning, cranky neighbors, fuel costs, and even social friction over their support of hunting. If all of that cannot be overcome with those few fleeting moments with Rover in his own element, then it's just not worth it, or right.

The stamina required is measured in years and thousands of dollars. The priorities needed will seem crazy to one's family, boss, and veterinarian. But those possessed of that slightly crazy streak, despite living in asphalt-lined, hive-like density with too many other superficially sane people, will get it and will hopefully both enjoy and contribute to this space. Share - here and everywhere - your dilemmas, your successes, and any wisdom you can pass along. That beautiful animal sitting on the couch, watching the songbirds out the window, is hoping that today's the day you put down the newspaper and make that sacred drive out to the sticks. It's what you're both really living for, and life is too short not to. And for that dog, that short life is seven times shorter. A decent dinner out and a show? The cost of those numbing, sedentary hours would take a good bite out of the cost of a day at a private local preserve, and you'll remember that day afield for the rest of your life. The movie will come around on cable anyway, and that home-cooked plate of family-hunted quail breasts will taste better than anything a churlish chain-restaurant waiter could ever offer. Those inertial suburban rituals, sacrificed in celebration of a gun dog's rich genetic heritage, are completely eclipsed by the indelible memories of a golden day in the uplands.

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