Diane Rehm was on WAMU last week bragging that her dog, an eight-pound Chihuahua, appears to have actual intelligence. Well duh, Diane. Let's see, you bought the house, you bring home the food and pay the vet bills, keep the place tidy, battle traffic to go to work every day. Exactly what does little Muffy do besides eat your food, beg for more, yap, lie around and go potty?
Sounds pretty smart to me -- and to plenty of others. The old television newsman Harry Reasoner, asked what kind of life he'd choose if he were reincarnated, said he'd be a dog, "so I could sleep 22 hours a day."
Not too long ago, of course, dogs worked. They pulled food wagons around war-torn London, chased rats, rabbits and foxes out of holes, herded sheep and cows, turned spits in cookhouses, patrolled dangerous streets, guarded homes and rousted out birds for sportsmen. Today, in the information age, your average dog has little more to do than provide "companionship."
As a two-dog owner, with one black Labrador in his glorious twilight at age 13 and the other enjoying the sunrise of her first year, I might be considered twice a chump. But this new dog has a job, by golly, and things are going to be different this time around. I think.
Nellie got her first test as a hunting dog Wednesday when Maryland's dove season opened. She'd spent the summer in the hands of the respected trainer Jack Jagoda at Deep Run Farm in Goldvein, Va., just outside Fredericksburg. I've bought perfectly good used cars for less than those three months of training cost, but she came home fit, smart and obedient. What more could you ask?
Jagoda wanted to keep her another two months so he could "finish the job," but I'm not looking for an automaton that can find a pinfeather in a haystack at 250 yards. I just wanted a dog that could save me from paddling a kayak through the ice to retrieve a duck in January.
Jagoda had me put her through the paces when I picked her up and she showed real talent. She'd heel, sit, stay, come when called and deliver a rubber training dummy to hand. But it was in a controlled environment she'd grown used to and Jagoda warned it might be different in the field, particularly with a lot of people shooting, as is often the case on dove hunts. "Be patient," he said.
We had three options on opening day. I picked the one that suited her best, ducking a couple of sure bets on the Eastern Shore for fear of the hubbub of a crowded shoot over relatively small sunflower patches. Larry Coburn, my longtime fishing partner, had access to a big Howard County farm where the feed corn was recently picked and doves were feasting on spillage. "Hardly anybody goes there," he said.
Indeed, we were all alone when we set up in the shade of a woods line at noon, legal starting time. The weather as clear, dry, breezy and relatively cool. It felt like autumn. Almost immediately a flock of 25 doves whizzed by, our shots rang out and two birds fell. Mine landed in the corn stubble 30 yards away. Perfect.
Nellie nuzzled up to my left calf and gazed up adoringly, as if to say, "Okay, boss, what now?"
I put a hand above her snout indicating the direction and spoke her name, which is her takeoff signal. Off she bounded, a bit too playfully, perhaps, and when a dust devil kicked up a swirl of dry corn shucks off to the right, she lost her mind entirely and took of in hot pursuit. Oh, lord. . . .
I tweeted on the whistle and got her back quickly enough but the moment was gone. In the end, we walked out into the stubble together until I found the bird, then stopped her 10 yards away and sent her to pick it up, which she did enthusiastically, bringing it to hand without a hitch.
So it went over the next few hours. The flights were spotty, leaving plenty of time for ruminating in between. If I downed a dove, basically I had to find it. The nadir came when a pair flew directly at me and I hit one, which fell into a blackberry thicket right behind us. Try as I might to get Nellie in there, she wouldn't go. I wound up busting in in short pants to fetch the bird, and came out bleeding in eight places.
"Patience," I reminded myself, and in the end it paid off. About 3 p.m., with shadows lengthening, doves started flying in earnest. A half dozen other gunners had set up around us by then and we could hear them beating and banging away. Mark Remely from Rockville, nearest us, downed six birds in a half-hour and his 81-year-old dad, Richard, dropped a couple more.
Soon enough Coburn and I were hard at it, too, banging away toward our 12-bird limits. At one point I downed two birds, back-to-back, in opposite directions. I looked at Nellie and she looked back with a serious expression. "Nellie!" I said, and off she bounded with a purpose, found the bird unassisted and brought it back. "Nellie!" I said, and off she went the other way to fetch number two.
"I've lost one," Coburn said from the far side of the blackberries moments later. I walked Nellie to where he was kicking around in high grass and in she went, emerging moments with a face full of feathers.
Be still, my heart.
In many ways, working a hunting dog is like playing golf. You go out with high hopes and spend most of the day futzing around in mild disarray. But somewhere along the line the planets align and all falls into place. You make one perfect drive or pitch; or the dog digs out a bird you'd never get on your own. And that's what you remember, that fleeting glimpse of perfection that brings you back, time after splendid time.