While doing some research earlier this week for an upcoming article, I discovered an interesting statistic. According to a report published by the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation, hunters throughout the United States spend a total of $493 million a year on their dogs. I'm not sure how much money that works out to per dog, but nearly a half a billion dollars is a substantial sum of money regardless.
Of course, dogs have always held a significant place in the hunting tradition, and that goes back long before hunting was a sport primarily for recreation as it is today. Early humans were subsistence hunters who undoubtedly domesticated wild canines to exploit for their own use the considerable skills of those animals as hunters and predators. Possessing keen eyesight and hearing along with an extraordinary sense of smell, dogs were capable of tracking and pursuing other animals for the benefit of their human masters. And that special partnership between dog and man has been tuned to a fine art in the thousands of years since.
In fact, most breeds of dogs can probably trace their heritage back to a point where they helped humans put meat on the table. Even some unlikely varieties such as poodles and dachshunds were originally bred as specialty hunting dogs. The intelligence and willingness to please their owners possessed by some gun dogs, such as retrievers and setters, are also traits that make them popular pets nowadays as well.
Over the years, I've had the pleasure of hunting with many different breeds of dogs for everything from squirrels to ducks and geese. For the past couple of seasons, I have enjoyed the opportunity to hunt pheasants, quail and chukars over a wonderful pair of English pointers owned and trained by my friends Shawn and Nancy Bernecky of Newry. A father-and-son duo, both dogs have won individual state championships in hunting-style field trials and are quite simply bird-finding machines.
As any hunting dog owner can attest, watching the dogs work is the most satisfying part of any hunt. Having followed Shawn's pointers afield many times, I've learned to notice when either dog is acting "birdy," because if they are, something good is probably about to happen. And if either dog goes on point, they have found a bird. Count on it.
That lesson was demonstrated in rather comical but decisive fashion one day last fall, as three of us were hunting pheasants together on public land. The dogs had been finding birds with regularity, and both my companions already had their limits of two pheasants, while I needed one more bird to complete the day. Soon, the dogs struck a point, but that rooster didn't stick around and flushed well before I approached to the dogs. In spite of that, I was able to get off two quick shots at the bird as it flew into a patch of woods and quickly landed in a tree.
That silly ringneck must have felt safe in the branches high above the ground, because it remained there as Shawn and I flanked the base of the tree. Not wanting to shoot a perched pheasant, Shawn fired two shots at the limb below the bird in an attempt to make it fly for me. It didn't.
Wanting to end this awkward situation and finish our hunt, I decided to put the bead of my over-under on its beak and shoot this darn pheasant, perched or not. I was stunned when I fired and the bird never moved. I opened the gun, loaded another shell and fired again. Instead of dropping, however, that cockbird vaulted off the limb and flew threw the treetops. A second shot rocked the fleeing bird, but it continued sailing across a large field.
Fortunately, we were able to mark its landing site, and with seven shots expended and knowing it certainly had been hit, we made a beeline for the bird, confident that the dogs would locate it. No sooner had we arrived at the spot and someone said, "It should be right here," when the younger dog locked on point just in front of us with the older one backing it.
I walked in for the flush, but nothing happened. Figuring the wounded bird might now be more apt to run than fly, we circled around the area in an attempt to locate it. But the young dog promptly circled back to the original spot and re-pointed the same tuft of grass.
"Dyson still thinks that bird is right here," I said. This time, however, I parted the patch of weeds with the toe of my boot, and there was the ringneck, still alive and curled up in a depression not much larger than a soup bowl. Not wishing to chase that pheasant any longer, I reached down and grabbed it, concluding the matter and the day's hunt.
And although it wasn't necessary, Shawn succinctly summed up that exercise, simply saying, "Never doubt those dogs."