Bird Dogs & Training  |  05/30/2023

Gateway Dogs


By Chad Love

I woke up a few days ago to a beautiful, sun-kissed, dead-calm spring morning (a rare combination in these parts), and so I did what any sane person would do: I went fishing.

I hit the road with no defined plan, and eventually found myself on one piece of water that — back in a former life when I had both pointers and retrievers and hunted both upland bird and waterfowl — I would sometimes use for training dogs. It’s also not a bad pond for fishing, so I broke out the fly rod.

Alone, I found myself in a contemplative mood. The turning of another year of life will do that to you.

This pond was the spot where, a long time ago, I first started training with the man who would — more than anyone or anything else — stoke my interest in gundogs, not just as a tool for hunting, but as a means to its own alluring and obsessive end.

And for many of us, that’s what it becomes; something that grows to be of equal importance with the hunting itself, if not more so.

Recently I was talking with a friend of mine about the chicken-and-egg nature of gundogs and hunting. Our basic question was what comes first? The interest in hunting or the interest in dogs? And how much does the one stoke interest in the other?

I suspect, for most of us of a certain age, hunting was the initial catalyst for our subsequent interest in dogs, and only over time did the dogs become the primary interest and reason for hunting.

That certainly was the case for me. My first real, purpose-bought gundog was a lab, bought as a pup off an ad pinned to my local tackle-shop’s bulletin board. My first pointing dog would come a year later.

At the time I was about as clueless on how to train a dog as a person could be, and honestly didn’t have a helluva lot of interest in dog training as a pastime. I just knew I was tired of wading for my ducks and figured a dog would take care of that nicely.

But something clicked. A switch flipped with that first mallard she dropped in my hand, just as something clicked the first time I watched that long-ago first pointer instantly transform from a flowing bit of grace into a quivering mass of instinct and intensity.

And that’s when I began casting off things which used to be of some importance to me in favor of things that still are.

I used to bowhunt, a lot. But dogs and birds took over, and my days of spending week after precious fall week in a stand are long past. I used to, as a young man, entertain the notion of becoming an itinerant, globe-hopping fishing guide.

And while my passion for fishing remains, I no longer think spending 250 days a year on strange water is a grand idea, especially in the fall. Dogs and birds keep calling me. But it started with hunting, not dogs.

However, the bird dog world — and the hunting world — has changed much since those days, and I suspect there are now as many people being introduced to hunting through the conduit of their dogs as there are people being introduced to dogs through the conduit of hunting.

Breed clubs, the popularity of organizations like NAVHDA, and the rise of the internet and social media have introduced a new generation of people to bird dogs and created the kind of knowledge, opportunity, and sense of community that simply didn’t exist thirty years ago.

I know many former non-hunters who initially chose a bird dog breed as their companion animal, and then, through the exposure and opportunity now available, slowly got hooked on hunting. All thanks to their dogs.

I wondered what my crusty old mentor would have thought about that. Dog man first and hunter only second, he probably would have been tickled.

However, he probably wouldn’t have been tickled with me wasting a perfectly good training day waving a wand in the prairie wind when I should be working on a young dog who needs the work.

He died a long time ago, that old man who once, when we were training on this very pond on a spring day much like this one, good-naturedly scolded me for thinking out loud about fishing when I should have been thinking about water blinds.

“Water’s for dog training and drinking, in that order,” he said. Classic Lyle.

So I noodled around that pond bank for a few more minutes, rod in hand, and then walked back to the truck, and back to that which has become my mainstay.

The dogs were there, waiting for me.

Chad Love, who often finds himself in contemplative moods, is editor of Quail Forever Journal.