Some people have Burning Man. For the last two years, I’ve cleared my schedule and made the 17-hour drive north to a certain repurposed mine-foreman’s house in North Dakota. On the agenda for the week: pheasants. My editor recently asked me if I was really taking a vacation and driving cross-country just to kill things—again. To be fair, chasing ditch parrots, as the Nodakkers call them, makes at least as much sense as driving to a place that’s good for riding bicycles or kayaking down a freezing rocky river where you could drown, or any of the other things we do for fun.
The simple explanation, for the uninitiated, is that bird hunting is actually more about the hunting dogs—British Labradors for most of us—than anything else. Here’s an animal endowed by nature to run faster, jump higher, and smell more acutely than any human. And through years of selective breeding, patience, reinforcement, and, who are we kidding, the occasional profane outburst, a good Lab will put those inhuman abilities to work for the handler. Occasionally, when everything aligns perfectly—bird and gun and scent and dog—it can seem like the connection between retriever and handler is plain English.
It’s that connection that brings this same crew—most of them from Alaska—together ever year. We all have dogs out of Mike Stewart’s Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Mississippi, and we all do our best to train using the low-force, positive-reinforcement ethic that Stewart promotes. Getting together means getting a lot of good dogs together. When you turn 15 dogs loose in the same pheasant field, there’s either chaos or there isn’t. Mostly, there isn’t.
Here, then, are the (unofficial) rules of dog etiquette for people who take their gun dogs seriously—but not too seriously.
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