SPORTSMAN'S GUIDE | Canine-human bond is strong; hunter-dog bond stronger still

Even retrieving dogs are happy when ducks are falling to hunter's guns. (Dennis Anderson/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)
Even retrieving dogs are happy when ducks are falling to hunter's guns. (Dennis Anderson/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die, I want to go where they went." - Will Rogers

At Game Fair earlier this month, nearly 3,000 dogs attended. Some were big, others small, and most were at least as smart as their human partners - partners being a more accurate descriptor than "masters," because it's the furry, four-legged end of a leash that usually calls the shots, and rightly so.

I was thinking about this because the temperature was expected to moderate significantly, with a high last Saturday of 73. This welcome change will stir the souls of people and also canines, particularly those who, sensing the seasonal transition, are eager to retrieve waterfowl, roust pheasants or point ruffed grouse.

Such dogs revel with their handlers in acute forms of symbiosis, from which stories unfold that sometimes are heartwarming and other times sidesplitting.

In the former category, a couple years back at Game Fair, Jeff Shie was overseeing an exercise in which a training dummy was thrown on land a moderate distance from a starting point, after which a handler was directed to send his or her dog for the retrieve.

A long line of blue-ribbon dreamers and their charges awaited their turns before, finally, a young boy who appeared to be physically challenged stepped forward with his dog.

"When the boy was ready, I signaled for the dummy, which was tossed, and the boy sent his dog," Jeff said.

"The dog raced toward the dummy. As he did, the boy bent forward, clenched his hands and said just loud enough for me to hear, 'Go Remy, Go! You can do it!'

"Quickly, the dog raced to the dummy, picked it up and ran back to the boy, who fell to his knees, hugging the dog. The dog licked the boys' face excitedly. Finally, the boy turned to me, handed me the dummy and said, 'My Remy loves me.'

"Then he walked back to his parents, hugged his mom and said, 'We did it, mom!' while his dad gave me a thumbs up."

The first dog known to be buried with a person disappeared 6 feet below ground at least 14,000 years ago. The canine in question likely was favored more for its herding or other work rather than its cuddliness, which is the hallmark of many of today's couch snoozers and one reason half of America's 128 million households are home to at least one dog.

Research has shown some of these canines take on their human partner's personalities, for better, worse or both.

"Quite a few years ago at Game Fair," Shie recalled, "we were running a timed water-retrieving test and I was keeping the top scores on a blackboard. A guy walked up, grabbed my blackboard eraser and said he and his dog were going to beat everyone.

"I called for the dummy to be thrown and the dog jumped into the water and swam toward it. But when the dog reached the dummy, he wouldn't pick it up. Instead, he swam circles around it.

"The guy called and whistled to his dog, but the dog wouldn't come. A pretty big crowd was gathering as the guy took off his shoes and socks and walked waist deep into the lake. The dog still wouldn't come to him. Finally, I threw a dummy on land, the dog came out of the lake, retrieved the dummy and brought it to me. I held the dog for the owner, who emerged from the lake to the crowd's applause carrying his shoes and socks.

"The guy and his dog are persistent, however. Every Game Fair since, they've come back and run the same test. They do it well."

Some years ago, my pal Willy Smith and I hunted ducks at The Pas, Manitoba, which is about 850 miles north of the Twin Cities. Also on the trip was Willy's big black Labrador, Jake.

With a 3-horsepower outboard pushing a Grumman Sportboat, we didn't travel very fast in the pre-dawn dark when on our first morning we chose a spot to hunt in a miles-long by miles-wide marsh.

We had our decoys set up and guns loaded when, just before shooting time, a big airboat carrying four Illinois hunters blew onto the lake and to our amazement set up a much larger spread of decoys about 75 yards from us. Calling and gunning, they soon downed their limits while scaring everything else with wings into the next province.

Willy and I were angry about the hunters' inconsideration. But Jake seemed even more disconsolate, because he didn't get any retrieves.

Later that morning, when Willy and I pulled up to the landing, we saw the Illinois hunters down the shore, cleaning their birds. Nearer to the boat launch, their airboat was trailered behind a shiny new Suburban, with a veritable catalog's worth of snazzy Orvis gear bags stacked alongside.

We beached our boat. As we did, one of the hunters ran toward us, saying, "Control your dog. My dog is highly trained and cost me $10,000. I don't want anything to happen to him."

"No problem," Willy said. "I trained Jake here myself. He isn't a fighter."

But Jake had other ideas. Apparently still nursing a grudge, he leaped in a single bound from our boat onto the back of the pricey Illinois pooch, its neck nearly disappearing in Jake's mouth.

"Oh Jake, bad, bad dog," Willy said, pulling Jake to heel.

A short while later, while loading our boat onto its trailer, I noticed Jake standing alongside the hunters' Orvis bags with one rear leg cocked.

I waited 10 seconds, then 10 seconds more before elbowing Willy to take a look.

Heading down the road soon thereafter, we waved to the Illinois bunch, wishing them the best.

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