Always Bet on the Underdog

Ten lessons from the pheasant camp that is actually a dog camp

Some people have Burning Man. For the last two years, I’ve cleared my schedule and made the 17-hour drive north to a certain repurposed mine-foreman’s house in North Dakota. On the agenda for the week: pheasants. My editor recently asked me if I was really taking a vacation and driving cross-country just to kill things—again. To be fair, chasing ditch parrots, as the Nodakkers call them, makes at least as much sense as driving to a place that’s good for riding bicycles, kayaking down a freezing rocky river where you could drown, or any of the other things we do for fun. The simple explanation, for the uninitiated,  is that bird hunting is not about birds but dogs—British Labradors for most of us. Here’s an animal endowed by nature to run faster, jump higher, and smell more acutely than any human. And through years of selective breeding, patience, reinforcement, and, who are we kidding, the occasional profane outburst, a good Lab will put those inhuman abilities to work for the handler. Occasionally, when everything aligns perfectly—bird and gun and scent and dog—it can seem like the connection between retriever and handler is as plain as English. It’s that connection that brings this same crew—most of them from Alaska—together ever year. We all have dogs out of Mike Stewart’s Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Mississippi, and we all do our best to train using the low-force, positive-reinforcement ethic that Stewart promotes. Getting together means getting a lot of good dogs together. When you turn 15 dogs loose in the same pheasant field, there’s either chaos or there isn’t. Mostly, there isn’t. Here, then, are the (unofficial) rules of dog etiquette for people who take their gun dogs seriously—but not too seriously. 1. You might have the best dog in the field back home, but that likelihood lessens with each mile driven. 2. Undersell your dog—always. He's a better shower than you are a teller. 3. Everytime you’re about to brag about your dog, stop yourself and complement another dog’s fine retrieve from the day, instead. Don’t worry, this is not a selfless act because... (see number five) 4. Only the underdog can overachieve. The best the overdog can do is meet expectations. 5. If your dog breaks and steals a retrieve from another dog, you must berate your dog loudly. This is for the benefit of the other hunter and will have no effect on your dog’s behavior whatsoever. 6. OK, now put a leash on him. 7. Never give another guy a hard time about his dog. Believe me, he knows. 8. Instead, refer to number 3: Acceptable: “That dog sure has the eye of the tiger.” 9. When your dog honors, then makes a long retrieve through heavy cover, and returns with a lightly wounded bird, you’d better sound at least as happy as an eight-year-old girl who’s been given a pony for Christmas. (Not saying my dog has ever made a retrieve like this. But man, Jay, Duke sure makes those long falls look easy, don’t he?) 10. When your dog leans against you, it either means that he’s trying to dominate you or that he has an itch he’d like you to scratch. Your call.