House Wolf

Roxy grinned at me and retrievers aren’t supposed to do that. I had just touched an electric fence and completed a 180 degree herky-jerky cussing dance and it made her nervous. The grin was one of submission but I kind of thought she might be laughing along with my hunting companions so I told her to piss off too. Dog researchers have recently shown that dogs and wolves are almost identical except that dogs have some unique human-reading skills and some facial expressions, such as puppy dog eyes, that are lacking in wolves and the wolf-like Huskies.

Still, the call of the wild is just beneath the surface. We all know how dogs love to give a sock or favorite toy the violent head swinging “kill shake” that drives their teeth in and immobilizes prey. It is an instinctive kill behavior but interestingly, after they have killed something, they need an adult to teach them to eat it. Scout, a friend’s Weimaraner demonstrated the scent-drenching kill-shake on several skunks. Food was not on his mind at the time, nor on ours on the long ride home. In the clip below, Scout’s first enthusiastic but clumbsy retrieve on a Pintail duck shows his exceptional retriever potential but his pointed relationship with prey.

There are a few reasons I have settled on exclusively owning female Labs. First off, the scent-marking imperative of males makes going for a walk a slow proposition. My first male lab couldn’t go 50 meters without needing to claim territory. He owned, by signature, a six square block area. Once when skiing in an open field he even resorted to lifting his leg on my boss’ ski pole. Owned that dude!

Male dogs completely lose their mind when a receptive female is within scent range. Our neighbor had a Brittany spaniel named Ross, after my lawyer brother, claiming first, they were both pointed out things Lindsey really didn’t want to see and secondly, they were both parasites living off his hard work. Ross (the dog) was a notable Romeo however and with one sniff of love, he immediately clambered over his 2.5 meter chain link fence.

Eventually, Lindsey put an electric wire on top but Ross was committed and he hit that wire about five times. To avoid getting shocked, Lindsey would unplug the wire whenever he opened the gate and unbeknownst, Ross was watching. One day Lindsey found an empty kennel and noticed Ross had unplugged the wire, chewed the plug to a pulp, climbed the fence and then gone on a date. He had won but once he returned, he was rewarded with a wire-topped kennel.

Pointing is an odd behavior. A dog’s compulsion to point needs to be directed toward things like quail or grouse but I have also seen them point lizards, fluttering paper bags, blood scent on deer bones or sanitary napkins (embarrassingly while in use), porcupines and all sorts of non-game birds. There are many theories about the pointing instinct but my favorite is they are just a modified “mouse pounce”. Like foxes and coyotes, pointers freeze in a high tension pose to silently accumulate more information about the location, and availability of something scented. Even Roxy, an inveterate flusher, will occasionally point. A stern “Whoa” is supposed to keep them steady, preventing the next stage of leaping in for the kill; well, we try to stop them. OK, let’s be honest now, we almost never succeed in stopping them from hurtling after the flushing pheasant, but it is great to see them point.

The famous autistic animal behaviorist Dr. Temple Grandin described how we breed for dog behavior to meet our desires whether cuddly and purse-able like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Chihuahua, an assertive guard dog or a retrieving obsessive Chesapeake Bay retriever. Many breeds have been diminished or ruined for the hunting fields through selective breeding focussed exclusively on appearance instead of work instincts. There are many beautiful and silky red Irish Setters with noses like wind tunnels funneling scent to the empty air space between their ears. They are beautiful dogs but nowadays they specialize in prancing, collecting burrs, and leaving suspicious red silky hairs in questionable places. Dr. Grandin recognized the Lab breed has held up a little better due to a good mixture of being selected for mild manners, retrieval orientation, low aggression and hunting skills. Labs do suffer from oral fixations however, meaning they love carrying tennis balls, retriever dummies or game birds around. Oral fixation is also related to gluttony and mine will eat anything slightly resembling food on the premise it might be digestible.

We project foolish emotions onto dogs partly because it feels good to us. Dogs gladly reciprocate though not always with appropriate slobbery responses, yet, we both love the sense of bonding and interaction. We will never fully appreciate the four-dimensional world dogs occupy where scent is the most trusted sense right behind hearing. A nano-particle of salami hits the floor and Roxy comes upstairs, sweeps the kitchen, and ingests the particle. It is her job and she is good at it.

In the Fall, Roxy’s job expands when the waders and shell bag are set out by the front door; followed by a day of gunfire and retrieves; ending with to a warm truck pad by the heater and a few drive-through French fries.

Hard to understand the instinctive gratification of a dog on game

Recently, a commenter in a magazine challenged the “rightness” of sending dogs into cold water claiming it stressed them, aged them prematurely and led to early arthritis. Maybe he is right for humans too. However, I am not “sending” my dogs as much as holding them back from diving in prematurely and if the options are 12 years of hunting or 14 years on the warm couch as a house-sloth, I think they would choose the 12 glorious years. What is time to a dog? I can learn from this in terms of wearing out versus rusting out.

We make an informal deal with our dogs. We provide food, housing, medical care, training, exercise, and opportunities to exercise their instinctive skills. What do they do for us? Well, yes, they help us find and pick up a few dozen birds each season but their real gifts to us are more profound. They show us our better selves. They rarely sit in judgement; easily forgive our missteps; greet us every damned morning with gleeful excitement. They demonstrate the meaning of true loyalty, fidelity, interdependence, companionship, innocence and joy.

The line between retriever work and the simple joy of running in water is indistinct

Remember the prayer “Dear Lord, let me become the person my dog thinks I am”. They simply think the best of us, irrespective of our age, race, accent, education level, nationality, body composition, or moodiness. They dig deeper and see through us. Dogs save their attention for the really important things like curling up by sick owners, placing a reassuring head in the lap of anxious family members, posting a worried guard near crying babies, or positioning themselves between us and danger, be it wild animals, strangers at the door or vacuum cleaners.

Our dogs find satisfaction in staring at us for hours in curiosity and adoration. Of course we presume it is unconditional love for us and maybe it is but maybe they are just counting the moments until snack time. We do the easy stuff; food and vet bills while they carry the heavier loads of devotion, consistency, attentiveness and forgiveness. If we are to occupy the god-seat to our house wolves, we should at least hold up our end of the bargain and give them a secure life with as many endorphin-rich experiences as we can share afield. I am already looking forward to bird season, reminding me of another gift they bring: hope for the future. Can’t put a price on that.

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Lee Foote

Southerner by birth, Northerner by choice, Casual person by nature.