Fall brings its own rhythm and sounds. After the languid days of summer, it is almost a relief to enjoy the interim between summer and winter. The soft rustle of leaves gliding on chilly winds, the muted sounds of birds still hanging around before undertaking their death-defying migrations, and the tinkling sounds of bells all tell us of the changing seasons.
Our hunting dogs, too, sense the shift of the breeze and the scent of familiar woolens pulled out of closets, harbingers of good things to come. When the shotgun is being oiled and the leather case taken down from gun rack, a seasoned hunting dog knows his time is here. The well-worn collar with its familiar bell is a sure sign of good times to come. Even the puppies whose only experience has been training with a bird wing in the yard sense that adventure is here. Being fitted with his own collar and bell gives a sense of pride and purpose that every bird-dog hunter can see in a promising newcomer.
On the first day of hunting season, anticipation runs high as master and dogs set out for their fall adventure. Finding birds, whether upland game, prairie chickens, or ducks, is the goal. But the process of getting there is just as exciting for man and dog, as they set out by truck or boat for a day of hunting.
Autumn is the best time for taking a dog into the field. The days are crisp and the air redolent with the scent of pine and hickory. Different climates bring their own special tang, sort of like the difference between a gin and tonic and well-aged bourbon. Dogs inhale their own special fragrances, far more nuanced than we humans can detect, and what they scent is far more telling than anything we can imagine. So we follow their lead into the brush, along the fence lines or into the sage, relying on their instincts to lead us to the game.
Hunters have their own systems of calling game, just as birds, ducks, and “meat hunters” do. Duck calls bring down the flying migrants; game calls mimic elk, deer, and other wildlife to within range of the hunters’ guns and the dogs’ retrieves.
In our urbanized, suburbanized, and civilized lives, there are far fewer opportunities to go afield with a good hunting dog. Fortunately, there are those hunters and lovers of the natural world who have given us the opportunities to take our sporting dogs out for a chance to experience some of what their ancestors did to survive.
As regulated and regimented as today’s field trials and hunting tests are, they give dogs and their companions the opportunity to demonstrate the purpose for which these animals were bred. It is an amazing and thrilling experience to see a young puppy lock up on a bird, standing staunch and quivering with excitement that no one could possibly teach. In the formal world of hunt tests and field trials, there are rules of style and form which mark the differences among the contestants, but at the end of the day, the dogs win, whether or not they bring supper to their owner.
Competitions are not judged by whether dogs bring game to the table. That is for serious hunters, whose dogs must be trained and conditioned for work under any circumstances. That is what they were bred to do and what they must love to do.
In our former lives, dogs could make the difference between living and starving. Today, dogs have the best of both worlds. They do what they were designed to do, and they get fed whether or not they bring home the game. At the same time, taking a good bird dog to field is a fabulous experience for the hunters as well.
People who like to hunt, whether in formal competition or fun, must be in better physical condition than those who spend most of their time sitting down. Anyone wanting to participate in that type of outdoor activity must start months ahead to get themselves and their dogs into good physical condition.
It’s too late this year to begin learning, but it is never too late to work toward next season when the leaves begin to change, the days grow crisp, and dogs can sense autumn in the air. —C.V.
Connie Vanacore is a longtime breeder of Irish Setters, the author of several dog books including Dog Showing: An Owner’s Guide and Who’s Who in Dogs, founding member and chair emeritus of the Irish Setter Club of America Foundation, 2010 recipient of the AKC Outstanding Sportsmanship Award from the Irish Setter Club of America, and 2014 inductee to the Dog Writers Association of America Hall of Fame.
Top photo: English Setter