Living with hunting dogs

The unique bond between working dogs and their owners
A Pheasant in a Plum Thicket
'A Pheasant in a Plum Thicket' — watercolor by Eldridge Hardie, 1989 (courtesy:

The guy’s name was Charlie, I think. The one time I met him, at the now long-defunct Gustav Pabst Invitational Hungarian Partridge Shoot (a.k.a. the One Box Hun Hunt), he showed up in a Jaguar sedan with his German shorthaired pointer riding shotgun. That was pretty cool, but what made an even deeper impression—and permanently endeared Charlie to me—was that after a full day of bird hunting in the fencerows and stubblefields of east-central Wisconsin, he opened the door of the Jag and let his wet, muddy, stinky dog jump right in.

It probably goes without saying, but the Jag’s upholstery was leather—white leather.

I’d call Charlie a man who had his priorities in order. As Gene Hill (who also had his priorities in order) might have put it, he was the kind of guy who, upon finding dog hair in his drink, wouldn’t have batted an eye. He would have raised his glass, said “Bottoms up!” and knocked it back. Then he would have smacked his lips and asked for a refill.

Speaking of dog hair in your drink, the story goes that shortly after the legendary King Buck (he of the 1958 Federal Duck Stamp) won the first of his back-to-back National Retriever Championships in 1953, his owner, the equally legendary John Olin, hosted a party in Buck’s honor at his duck hunting lodge in Arkansas. One of the championship trophies was a silver bowl, and at some point Olin poured a little champagne in it so the black Lab could enjoy a bit o’ the bubbly. Then, when Buck had had his sip, Olin filled the bowl to the brim, tilted it to his own lips, and proceeded to pass it around the room.

Eventually, though, someone balked. “I’m not drinking out of the same bowl that dog drank out of,” he sniffed.

Olin, who by all accounts could be a real s.o.b., let him have it with both barrels. “You’re not good enough to drink out of the same bowl that dog drank out of!” he roared. “Get the #$%@ out!”

That may not be verbatim, but you get the idea. The bottom line is that Olin showed the guy the door.

Insult me, insult my wife, insult my kids—but don’t you dare insult my dog.

If I couldn’t hunt with a dog, I wouldn’t hunt at all.”

How many times have you heard that sentiment expressed, or even expressed it yourself? It’s become a cliché, yet even with the new worn off it crystallizes something true and deeply heartfelt, something that resonates at an almost cellular level with those of us who share our lives, and our passions, with hunting dogs.

Dogs simply bring so much more to the party; it’s like going from two dimensions to three, from black-and-white to color—Kansas to the Land of Oz. Energy and excitement, artistry and athleticism, tenacity and courage, instinct and intelligence, drive and desire: All are embodied and made manifest in the dogs that point, flush, and retrieve for us. (And track, tree, bay, and course for us as well.) They rivet us aesthetically, engage us emotionally at a depth we can scarcely fathom.

I’m not speaking figuratively here. In the summer of 2000, when it became clear that my great English setter, Emmylou, was dying, I felt my soul come unmoored. It was as if a part of me had broken off and was drifting away, and I was powerless to steer it back. I began having episodes of disconnected consciousness, moments in which time seemed to stop and then skip ahead, leaving gaps in-between that I had no memory of. Driving at highway speed, the relative motion of the landscape rushing past induced attacks of vertigo that forced me to pull over and wait for the world as I perceived it to quit spinning and stabilize.

It got so bad that, driving back to Wisconsin after a trip to visit family in western Iowa, I had to stop at what passed for the emergency room of a small rural hospital. A nurse brought me a bowl of chicken soup—I’m not making that up—and when the doctor sauntered in he said “Are you the dizzy guy?”

My own doctor, unable to find anything obviously wrong, finally ordered a brain scan. But that, too, was normal. (What the MRI technician actually said was “There’s nothing there,” so I guess you should draw your own conclusions.) It took Emmy’s euthanasia for the fog to lift, and while that may strike some of you as odd I think it was only by letting go—and ending Emmy’s suffering—that I was able to become whole again. I believe that that’s what Emmy wanted, too.

Now, I don’t want to put too fine a point on this. But if it suggests to you that the bond between a hunter and his dog might be stronger (or deeper, or more intimate, or something) than the bond between a non-hunter and his dog, well, I’m OK with that. On second thought, let me amend that to include anyone who has a working relationship with his dog: hunter, stockman, musher, law enforcement or military officer, disabled person, and so on. I undoubtedly have a blind spot in this area, but it’s just hard for me to see how a “little yappy dog”—you know the ones I’m talking about—can measure up to, say, a pointer. Or a Lab. Or a border collie. Or a bluetick. Or pretty much any other sporting, working, or hound breed you can think of.

This doesn’t mean that we in the hunting camp love our dogs more than other dog owners do (although I’m sympathetic to the view that we love them differently) or that we’re more shattered when we lose them. What it means, I think, is that our dogs play richer, fuller roles in our lives. They occupy more of our bandwidth. We’re pals, yes, but even more than that, we’re partners. We rely on one another in ways that other dogs and owners typically don’t; we work together to complete highly complex tasks and accomplish mutually rewarding goals.

That has to count for something. And it helps explain why hunting without a dog feels as hollow as an empty shell.

If you’re like me, you get a ton of email, forwarded from far-and-wide, chock-full of dog-related material ranging from the funny, clever, and poignant to the silly, sad, and downright sappy. You know, stuff like “Why Dogs are Better than Wives.” To wit: “If you lock your dog and your wife in the trunk of your car, which one will be happier to see you when you open it?”

Heh, heh.

Of course there are any number of classic “dog quotes,” easily accessible online, from the likes of Mark Twain, Robert Benchley, and Groucho Marx, who famously observed “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” You can find George Graham Vest’s moving “Eulogy to the Dog,” too, and Ben Hur Lampman’s equally moving “Where to Bury a Dog,” with its devastating final line, “The one best place to bury a good dog is in the heart of his master.”

Still, my favorite dog quote of all is from perhaps the greatest dog humorist of all, James Thurber. “If I have any beliefs about immortality,” he mused, “it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons.”

That’s another thing our dogs give us, over and above their skill in the field and the joy they bring to our homes and their unflagging devotion whether we deserve it or not: an example to strive towards and try to emulate in the conduct of our own lives.

If we could only be the people our dogs think we are.


What a beautiful article! Thank you for sharing these beautiful words! So true - I always say our hunting buddies are an extension of our souls - not separate souls, but an extension! Extension of my husband and I! Thank goodness for the memories.

Kudos, Mr. Davis, and thanks to Hatch Magazine for publishing this.

I’m looking at two sleeping dogs right now—a deeply talented and athletic 11 month old Lab, who fills me with wonder, and a 14 year old Braque francais who is the strangest and most intelligent pointing dog I’ve known. The pup fills my days with training and easy pleasure. The old dog requires no thought or real work on my part. We anticipate each other’s actions and emotions without thinking about it. We know each other cold. And when the day comes, soon, when he stops taking pleasure in life and I need to walk him into a vet’s examining room for the last time…well, that will tear me in two.

“If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”
— Will Rogers,

Great article, thanks so much Tom. Have not bird hunted in two falls since one lab died young and the new yellow to young. four months to hunting this year with him so looking forward to that - as he is but might not know it yet. And quoting James Thurber is magical. Likely not many around that remember him!

Absolutely beautiful piece. Fishing isn’t the same unless my little Barry is there with me. He’s become apart of my soul and will always be my shotgun buddy.