He doesn’t have any interest in birds.”
So said the foster owner of our soon-to-be English Setter rescue, when asked if the dog had hunted.
I didn’t mind the response. We were looking for a dog to replace our beloved Labrador mix, which was my wife’s devoted “barn dog” for many years. With the passing of our old friend, my wife wanted another companion when she was tending to the horses. Neither our GSP or Weimaraner could fill that role. The havoc they unleashed in the barn was more than their companionship was worth. Personally, I was amused how my GSP turned into a mountain goat when confronted with a large stack of hay bales. But then I wasn’t the one who had to clean up their mess.
Nonetheless, my wife’s intentions were clear…this new member of household was not required to point and retrieve things with feathers. I could accept that, as I had my hands full with (what my wife referred to as) “the crazy short-tailed Germans”. And within a few weeks of entering our home, a six-year-old, beautifully tri-colored Setter named “Monty” was already settling nicely into his new surroundings.
We learned the hard way this docile, couch-potato-of-a-Setter can cover a hell of a lot of ground when he got away from us while hiking in the nature preserve behind our house. Never ones to take chances with a new dog, we had a 30-foot check cord and Astro 220 on him, which made quick work of locating him. But now we had a new priority, off-leash training was mandatory.
In a passing conversation with friend and professional dog trainer Justin McGrail of Black Creek Dog Training Center, I mentioned our new addition. Justin suggested bringing Monty in for a visit so he could provide some, er, pointers on his obedience in an effort to help control his inclination to bolt. The unusually mild Michigan winter and lack of snow made for almost fall-like conditions, so I took Justin up on his offer.
Equipped with a lengthy check cord and Garmin unit, Justin added a dead pheasant and two live pigeons to his vest. Just in case.
Keeping a grip on the check cord, we guided Monty around a portion of the 95-acre training grounds. Then came time to show him the pheasant. Monty displayed a mild interest, as one would expect from any bird dog. He even placed the bird in his mouth for a moment, but let go of it and turned his attention back to exploring. When Justin presented a live pigeon, Monty held his gaze on the bird as Justin let it go.
It was time to take it up a notch.
I took Monty in one direction and Justin went in the other to plant the remaining pigeon. Not speaking, we made a wide loop with Monty and moved downwind of the bird. It was obvious when Monty eventually caught the scent. His head dropped and followed an invisible trail. Then it happened. For a fleeting moment I assumed Monty simply stopped walking. I was wrong. He was locked-up. Several moments passed without a word being said. Still no movement. This damn dog turned to stone.
Justin and I traded glances, I shrugged, and we laughed. “I suppose I should take a photo with my phone to show Kay,” I said as I approached Monty, looking for a good angle. The only motion I noticed was his eyes darting back and forth between me and a grassy patch where a bird hunkered down, hidden, a dozen feet away. And my wife’s barn dog, the dog who “wasn’t birdy” stood as if in a trance.
On the way back to the training facility, thoughts raced through my mind;
Was this behavior only instinctive?
Perhaps he’d hunted before?
Can he be taught to quarter and retrieve?
Can I fit a third crate in the Suburban?
What in the hell do I tell my wife?
Ultimately Justin and I agreed to not read too much into this display. We planned to start working on off-lead obedience. A dog needs to be more connected with his owners no matter what its innate ability.
Upon returning home, I left Monty in the Suburban and entered the house alone. I jokingly told my wife I left her dog at Black Creek for more training as a result of the day’s events. I even showed proof of his hunting potential via my cell phone photo. After a quick run through a range of emotions, then retrieving her “barn dog/potential bird dog” from the car, she just laughed and said, “Maybe I’ll get a Lab.” Hmmm…..