Christine Cunningham is raising a beautiful brace of hunting dogs. We call her a puppy mama and we are delighted that she has shared her life with us at The WON. Alas, this is her last column (for a while), as she embarks on a new, secret (to us) project. We think you’ll love her tale of woman’s best friend, the hunting dog. We wish Christine all the best, and look forward to reading her stories in the future. We also want to thank Christine’s photographer, Steve Meyer, who routinely supports her beautiful words with equally gorgeous photography. ~The WON
At first he may need an invitation, and the simple word “go” will send him into hysterics. Later, it is the gathering of gear that will indicate an adventure is imminent. A single hunting dog can manage to be everywhere at once: underfoot, overhead, in the cab of the truck, on top of the gun case. And, although this is a stage I never imagined finding myself, it is now the needs of the dog, and not those of the hunter, that cause trips to be planned.
A hunting dog brings an important dimension to taking game. Dogs have been hunting with us for at least 20,000 years. Besides helping us in the field, developing a relationship with an animal gives us a chance to deepen our connection to nature and the game we hunt. This happens at every stage—raising them, training them, and hunting with them. Just as taking a new hunter afield helps us to understand better why we hunt, bringing along a dog is an opportunity to combine skills and add a new dimension.
Making the Decision
My first experience of a dog in the hunting arena came secondhand. He was a scruffy little British cocker spaniel who, at first glimpse, appeared an ordinary house pet. I ruffled behind his ears, and he grunted disinterest. When we unloaded the shotguns for the ensuing pheasant hunt, this mop of an animal bounded across the field with the pattern of a lawn mower—at high speed and bounce. He rocketed tight-sitting roosters out of the grass, cackling and in brilliant spectacles of orange. He flushed birds until he wore out our party of four. Our vests were full at the end of the field, and he stood at the edge of the grass, daring us to continue.
“I can’t believe that dog,” I said in amazement. I didn’t know at that time that he was part of a hunting tradition all his own, and that, whereas I had other things to live for, he had a single purpose. He was the hunting dog—a noble position in any hunting family. When he relaxed at the end of the day, it was without the chores of cleaning and putting away. He curled up with a full belly and the satisfaction of a job well done. There was no way we would have found the birds we did without him, and he convinced me to bring home one of his brethren, an obnoxious chocolate Lab named Jack.
The first dog I chose as a puppy was another chocolate Lab, Cheyenne. She’s proven far more expensive than her pedigree and dog food alone. Over the course of a year, she chewed thousands of dollars in equipment and home furnishings. This included an entire leather sofa down to the springs and an unopened box containing a skill saw, along with its cord. When she wags her tail, her whole body wags. When she has done something wrong, she dances around the room with a mix of caution and excitement that is nothing short of a cartoon image. Her ability to retrieve waterfowl, however, is natural-born.
With the same unbridled enthusiasm in which she tore apart home furnishings, she launches into every environment that might contain a duck. I had read somewhere that the time needed to raise a puppy is an equivalent commitment to night school. If you don’t want to study for a degree, maybe a high-energy hunting dog is not a good choice. But if you want to be endlessly entertained and have plenty of activity in the off-season, there’s no better motivation than “for the love of the dog.”
My decision to bring home an English setter came after the purchase of a 28-gauge shotgun, which determined the necessity for a proper upland hunting dog. Within months of imagining the possibility, Winchester was on a plane from a 70,000-acre ranch in North Dakota to his new home on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. When I opened his air travel kennel, his black and white spotted face peeked out; two black eyes were hidden in black spots. Even during his puppyhood, I knew there was something otherworldly about setters. It turned out that his lordly ways were only outweighed by his sportiness in the field. The dog was born to hunt.
After years of hunting behind him, I admit there are things I could have done differently as a trainer. I could have done less. It seems I had a whole lot to learn about life—and that I would learn it from a dog. His instinct about birds was often right when mine was wrong. It would be nice if he would retrieve, but I don’t have the heart to make him. The only time I ever needed him to bring back a bird, he did so…reluctantly. The moment was a perfect expression of our bond.
A Family (with more legs)
There was never a time in which I wished I would have children or a family of my own. I didn’t know what I would do to fill a lifetime, but I knew there was plenty. I’ve arrived at mid-life as a member of various outdoor-affiliated organizations and rabidly read literature on this year’s migration numbers. Stories about the purchase or demise of fine hunting dogs bring tears to my eyes. I own more gun-cleaning kits than sewing kits (actually, I don’t own any sewing kits). I have no children or excuses for my behavior. I love all things outdoors and spend most my time with Labs and setters who think life is about athleticism and breakfast; I agree.
Why get a hunting dog? Will it make you healthier? Will it challenge you? Will it further your involvement in your sport? Will it deepen your connection to the hunt you love? Yes, it can do all of that, but it can do one thing more. Bonding with the dog who shares the hunt with you is a chance to build a friendship unlike any other. A hunting dog reflects you in a new way and brings awareness, authenticity and shared joy into the things you do together. They are great teachers of patience, forgiveness, devotion and silent conversation. If you’re up for the effort, it’s worth it.