As the season unfolds, my thoughts turn to dogs and their troubled association with hunters. It seems to me that for every time a hunting dog does what it's supposed to do, there must be 100 times it fouls up.
Labradors swim over the horizon in pursuit of ducks that could be retrieved in minutes with a small boat; pointers and setters romp through fields, flushing coveys or catching birds in their mouths before they fly; beagles spend the day in rabbit-land sidling along at their master's heel, refusing to enter the brier patch; coon dogs and fox hounds disappear on a deer trail and turn up three days later, eight miles down the road.
The root problem with hunting dogs is that few people today have the time or access to enough land to hunt several times a week, and a dog that is not worked regularly soon turns into a liability in the field.
Still, some hunters persist in the notion that a hunt without a dog is like the "Hallelujah Chorus" without sopranos.
Once upon a time hunting was part of daily life. Those were the days when dogs gained their hallowed place in the sport.
Country gentlemen turned their pointers and setters out every day or two for a hike along field edges after quail. After a few years man and dog knew each other's foibles and became inseparable.
Before daily limits were established by law, duck hunters might bag 25 or 30 mallards, redheads, canvasbacks and scaup on a stormy day. The retriever that fetched those ducks kept the hunter off cruel, cold waters, increased the day's bag and might have saved his master's life. That dog earned its keep.
Today a duck hunter often fills his legal limit with two or three ducks, and the act of retrieving them is not burdensome. The dog is usually extra baggage.
The modern quail or grouse hunter might get out three or four times a month. He ends up knowing his accountant better than his dog.
One day the dog decides not to hunt at all.
What do you do with a dog that won't hunt? It used to be simple. The dog was a tool; if it didn't do the job it was dispatched, either given away or put away. If it sounds heartless, it at least was efficient.
Today the typical hunting-dog experience goes this way:
A man learns to hunt and one day sees a fine dog in action. He decides he must have one. He buys a dog, trains it or has it trained and brings it home to a pen in the backyard. He has the best intentions. He will work with the dog, train it to retrieve bird wings, teach it to quarter across the park, exercise it and keep it lean and ready.
But he goes off for a week's business trip and when he comes back the dog has been offered a new place to sleep under one of the kids' beds.
The dog spends more and more time curled in front of the fireplace or next to the air-conditioner duct, nibbling biscuits. It learns to bark at the mailman, beg for treats and follow the children to the store.
That fall on a hunting trip the dog hunts a half-hour and then inexplicably retires, a piece of equipment gone bad.
If it were a gun that habitually misfired, the hunter would sell or repair it. If it were a pair of leaky boots, he'd ditch them. But it's a living, breathing dog, and as smart as it is, it has insinuated itself into the fabric of the family, where it will stay a dozen years or more. He's stuck.
But ah! How the vision of that dog when it did right hangs in the mind. It might even be worth a lifetime of remorse for the memory of those few moments when things were just as they should be.
The old hunter sits back in his patio chair and remembers Peggy, the setter, running lickety-split down a woods road, buoyant, frolicsome, head high in search of a scent.
In his mind's eye he sees the dog screech to a halt, her body quivering, nose locked on point to a place where a covey of quail hunkers in terror. The hunter stomps up, flushes the birds, brings two down and the dog bounds off into the thicket to retrieve them. Perfection.
Last week I spent a morning at Dean McDowell's game preserve, Merrimac Farms, in Nokesville, Va., hunting over a chocolate Labrador who was receiving the first lesson in upland hunting. Labs haven't the nose to point game, but they will flush birds and retrieve them after they are shot.
A maxim of dog training is that you discipline yourself before you can discipline your dog. Meg's master was gritting his teeth to control his temper as the Lab bounded through the feed plots, jumping clean over horrified birds.
"She doesn't have any idea what's going on," McDowell confided.
But by day's end she had managed, by dint of some careful placement of the bird, to find a pheasant, bludgeon it into flight and then retrieve the carcass when the pheasant was shot.
The look of satisfaction that suffused her master's face was complete.
Now if he can just survive the disappointments, he might have three or four memories like that to reflect on in his old age. One way or another, his kids will get a pet.