Brothers in arms

It starts where it al­ways does, on the rocks. Ochre fig­ures on a stone wall, spears and bows poised. In some caves there are deer in front of them, in oth­ers wild sheep etched into the living rock. And around them are shapes with sharp muz­zles and curled


They still sing, these im­ages of our most an­cient part­ner­ship. Dogs threw their lot in with us long ago and it’s still the best broth­er­hood to bridge the gulf be­tween species. They will sit and watch a fire by our side, have hunted with us, guarded our homes, gone to war, served as will­ing com­pan­ions for the lonely and old. This thing runs deep.

You can say any non­sense you like to a pup and he’ll look at you like you’re a god. No won­der they’re so pop­u­lar. The charm and mis­chief of a puppy will al­ways raise a smile, but their real gift is to let us see the world through their eyes for a lit­tle while. Ev­ery­thing is a new dis­cov­ery and ev­ery dis­cov­ery is won­der­ful.

The ado­les­cent is an­other ball game. A hunt­ing dog with young blood in his veins feels life ris­ing in him like the com­ing storm. He can scarcely be stilled and in the first mo­ments after being re­leased might yelp for sheer joy. With the wind in his face he stops for noth­ing, save game. He is drawn by that breeze, the voice of a thou­sand gen­er­a­tions in his mind telling him to fol­low it ever up­wind. He loves to run, rev­els in the sim­ple >>

>> joy of speed, of hard mus­cle eat­ing up the ground be­tween him and the hori­zon. He’s a crea­ture truly born to seek, to find and not to yield.

An ado­les­cent doesn’t have many man­ners but was born un­der­stand­ing more about wind and scent and sound than I’ll ever know. At times that deep knowl­edge al­most seems to puz­zle him. A young bird dog work­ing game for the first time is a pic­ture of pas­sion and con­fu­sion. I’ve never known a gun dog that didn’t have some spe­cial tal­ent hid­den away, though I’ve met many own­ers who hadn’t worked hard enough to find it. Man­ners and in­struc­tions are fairly easy, but no­body can ac­tu­ally teach a dog to hunt. Much mis­un­der­stand­ing arises from that sim­ple fact.

That first bird — not in train­ing but the first real one of his ca­reer — might just stay with you for­ever. In the back of your mind one hope echoes over and over … please let him get this one. If he does, there’ll be no stop­ping him.

In full adult­hood he’s a pro­fes­sional, knows when to re­lax and when to turn it to full vol­ume. In the field, he’s a pic­ture of pure and ab­so­lute fo­cus. Con­fi­dent and com­pe­tent, he’s now at the peak of his life, but doesn’t know it. To him to­day was great, to­mor­row doesn’t ex­ist. Time means noth­ing un­less there is too much of it be­tween birds.

The fine bal­ance be­tween ex­pe­ri­ence and phys­i­cal stamina is now at its best. He’s as good as he’s go­ing to get and work­ing with him at this level stirs some­thing that’s hard to put a name to. More than any­thing dogs are born to hunt, and they know ex­actly what’s hap­pen­ing when we hunt with them. That team­work is a rare thing. For those who have ex­pe­ri­enced it no ex­pla­na­tion is nec­es­sary — and for those who have not, none is pos­si­ble.

There is no per­fec­tion that lasts. Gun­dogs are a se­ries of al­most re­alised hopes, in­ter­rupted by oc­ca­sional flashes of per­fec­tion. You have to grab those mo­ments and hold onto them or go crazy. There is no feel­ing quite like it, and it makes the hun­dred lit­tle cares that go into keep­ing a work­ing dog fit for the field worth­while.

It’s at this point his main weak­ness is likely to be the boss. The chief at­tribute of a great handler is that he knows when to shut up. The dog doesn’t tell you how to shoot, so you don’t tell him where the birds are. It can go the other way too. It’s easy to get ro­man­tic about bird dogs and to credit them with things they don’t re­ally have and can’t re­ally do, es­pe­cially late in the evening after a dram or two.

The truly great times with a field

dog tend to be short. By the time they’ve learned a few things, a cou­ple of sea­sons have come and gone. When they fi­nally come into their own they have a hand­ful of years — no more — be­fore old age starts to creep in. It passes in what seems like an in­stant. Like all of their kind, gun­dogs are brief. It’s their only real fault.

I do my best to be with them when they go into the twi­light, even though it’s some­times grim. It’s sen­ti­men­tal, but I pre­fer to be­lieve that if the ta­bles were turned, they would not aban­don me at the last. As they fade I hope they dream of run­ning, of the days when they were young and strong and the world was theirs.

We tell our­selves that it’s a mis­take to grieve for an old mate, that we should be glad that such a great heart ever lived. That’s true enough but soon — too soon — I’ll have to brace for an­other of these mo­ments, and the gallery of lost friends will be a lit­tle big­ger. When you lose a dog you dis­cover that there are two kinds of peo­ple: those who say “it’s just a pet”, and real peo­ple. It’s eas­ier if you ac­cept that you never re­ally stop miss­ing them, and that a cer­tain chap­ter of yours has closed.

Given the harsh price we must pay, why do we put our­selves through this minia­ture of our own life, this un­sub­tle al­le­gory of the span we too are given? Be­cause no other crea­ture in­vites us so freely into their in­ner world, and no other wants so fer­vently to be part of ours.

Be­cause when Odysseus re­turned to his palace dressed in rags after years of war, he was taken for a beg­gar. Only Ar­gos, his hunt­ing hound — now old, bro­ken and de­spised — recog­nised him with joy, and the sol­dier king turned so none would see his tears.

Be­cause to a dog ‘friend for life’ means ex­actly that, to the last heart­beat.

Per­haps one day when the hol­low­ness has faded, when the whis­tle hang­ing on its hook by the door and the empty ken­nel seems less for­lorn, there might be an­other pup with sweet breath, pounc­ing on your hand and stag­ing mock fights with your fin­gers. Not the same, of course, but you never know how this one will turn out. He’ll have his lit­tle pe­cu­liar­i­ties, to be sure, but right now all he wants is to be with you and the world is a brighter place for it.

When you bring a work­ing puppy home, you’re strik­ing a deal that will, with luck, last a decade or more. Dogs al­ready know in their bones what the con­tract is: it was writ­ten on stone walls long ago — brother, there is no ad­ven­ture too big for us, I will fol­low you un­til I can fol­low no more. The rest … well, the rest is up to you. We don’t own these dogs, we live up to them.

Here we go again.

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