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  Comments (0) Total Saturday Apr. 19, 2014
Notes from the Border
Out Of Bounds
I like to migrate south for Christmas break. My usual excuse for the 1,000-mile journey is quail. But I had an even more important mission this year: retrieving my bird dog.

I sent my young English setter Doll to Arizona for bird dog finishing school with a friend, The Dog Whisperer.

Our first day back together in the field wasn’t really about hunting. Instead, it was a time for Doll to shift her allegiance back to me. It was odd watching her bounce out of the truck right over to me to get reacquainted, and then spend the rest of the day following The Dog Whisperer around like I wasn’t even there. I exaggerate a bit, but she was clearly someone else’s dog when I arrived in Arizona.

We didn’t move any birds, though the hillsides north of Nogales were covered with sign. That’s one way Mearns hunting is different from most upland birds: you follow sign, almost like you’re tracking big game. Mearns dig for a good portion of their diet, excavating the loose soil under oak trees in search of oxalis bulbs, which look like miniature pearl onions. The excavations are easily identifiable, and when you see fresh diggings you can usually expect dogs on point to soon follow.

For much of the day The Dog Whisperer’s focus was not Doll, but me. If the dog has the right bloodlines and instincts, the handler’s job is in large part to get out of the dog’s way and let its obsession with birds be your guide. You don’t control a bird dog, but you can destroy a good dog trying to control it. Good handlers set boundaries, but don’t expect to dictate a dog’s every move.

So it goes with young bird dogs, and Doll is no exception. Over the course of five days of hunting she was at times maddening, at times brilliant. What I learned is that I’ve got a smart young setter, who, with proper boundaries, will mature into a mighty fine bird dog. For me the challenge is to be patient, and learn to trust her.

I was reminded of this the morning of New Year’s Eve. Papa Bill and I were hunting with Doll in a birdy-looking draw near the Mexican border. Doll got on scent, then backtracked with her nose on the ground trying to find a covey that had grown wise to our pursuit. The birds flushed and Papa Bill dropped a pair. The first bird hit the ground hard, while the second was wounded, but still obviously alive. Doll pounced on the wounded bird, and we turned our attention to the spot where we’d seen the first bird hit the ground, expecting to find feathers and a dead quail.

We found neither, though we spent the better part of a half hour dragging Doll back to the spot and insisting she search the ground for “dead.” She showed no interest.

It’s always frustrating when you lose a bird, especially when your highly prized, trained bird dog shows no interest in the task. But toward the end of the day I dropped another bird just as it crested a ridgeline. I marked where it fell and moved to it, but didn’t immediately see the quail. Doll got birdy, then trailed off. She then came back and trailed off again, this time in the opposite direction. She came back to the spot a third time, got hard scent and found the dead bird in heavy grass.

That evening as Bill and I talked about the lost bird and Doll’s seeming lack of interest I told him how she’d handled that last bird. I realized what she’d been trying to tell us in the morning was that that bird wasn’t dead at all. It almost certainly was a wounded bird that hit the ground running. We just weren’t prepared to listen.

The trick is to learn to read your dog, and have faith in what she’s trying to tell you. Listen, and you won’t waste the better part of the morning searching a hillside where a bird used to be, when you can instead help your dog figure out where it’s headed.
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