There is a myth out there that the loss of a great hunting dog is psychologically as devastating as the loss of a spouse. Unquestionably, this originated in a posturing haze of scotch and testosterone around a campfire somewhere, but it speaks volumes about the relationship of a hunter and their dog. As to what it means about the institution of marriage is better left to others.
Talk to hunters about their dogs, and you will hear praise of such an effusive nature, one would think the canines were actual offspring, but even children seldom receive the plaudits reserved for a great dog in hunting circles. Conversely, the slanderous sarcasm of a less-than-stellar dog can be the catalyst for gales of laughter where hunters gather to talk guns, dogs, and days in the field.
Perhaps there is reason. Hunters and dogs have worked together for 15,000 years. For most of that time, the skill of the hunter and the prowess of the dog determined life or starvation. Were our dogs and we inept, the consequences for our families were devastating. Only recently in the span of our existence has this become unnecessary, at least in terms of sustenance, but in the souls of many of us, there is still a need to hunt, as we are only a millisecond in evolutionary time from the necessity of it.
When the winds of autumn bring the first hint of winter, there is a need to call the dog and step into the field – a desire to become for a moment what we were designed to be before science and technology sat us down and provided everything. Our dog is the connection to this genetic past. Together in the field we are once again hunter and dog in our most elemental roles. Perhaps our love of a great dog has much to do with our instinct for survival, an instinct that a few generations of progress have failed to remove from our DNA.
If there is a reason to live in New England, it is autumn. For most it is a time of spectacular color and crisp air, perhaps the most iconic season of any season in any region in the world. For the upland and waterfowl hunter, it is a palette on which they practice their art. Without the dog, there is little point, and most bird hunters, upland or waterfowl, wouldn’t hunt without a dog. Shooting a bird that you’ve stumbled upon is at best unfulfilling, whereas being led to a bird by a single-minded dog, shooting it, and having the dog retrieve it to hand is an incomparable moment of cooperation between man and beast. No less compelling is a retriever hurling himself into a frozen river to bring back a bird otherwise surely lost. Hunting alone is just time in the woods. Hunting with a dog is an honored tradition.
Most of us will have many dogs in our lives, but if we are fortunate, there will be one whose memory stands staunch while the others fade with time. If we are truly fortunate, that time is now. When it comes, there is only one dark reality, the disparity in our time on this earth. When hunters talk of great dogs, it hangs in the air like wood smoke in a cabin – palpable and understood, but tacitly ignored. The prime years are precious few, and invariably the moment will come when time will take our erstwhile companion and we are forced to search for another – a bittersweet search fraught with sadness, but tempered with the hope of another grand companion and treasured days in the russet hills.