Dogs make your life better - just ask any dog owner! For the unsure or the uninitiated, Giles Catchpole spells out the value of a dog in your life.
Dogs make your life better in myriad ways. From being a best friend and political ally to making you popular with the opposite, is there anything they can’t do? You’ll have your own thoughts of course, but here are our 10 ways dogs make your life better
Dogs make your life better because they like water more than we do
I’ll make this really simple. A number of years ago – actually, quite a few years ago – I was shooting some spectacular pheasants in Ireland. On one drive we lined out with our backs to the river Nore. There was snow on the ground and the river was swollen with melt-water, which crashed past us as we stood. Every bird we shot fell either in the river or beyond it. And it was not a short drive. And even as we were shooting there were dogs piling into the river after those birds.
They were going in behind the line and they were coming out a goodly couple of hundred yards downstream with birds in their mouths, ice in their whiskers and a smile you’d not get off with a chisel. They were mostly spaniels, as I recall, Irish springers; but there were a couple of labradors at least. I’d not have put a dog into that water on a bet but those guys had complete confidence in their dogs and the dogs knew no fear. We would not – could not – have collected a single one of those birds without the dogs. Damn, it was impressive.
And that is the first and principal reason why you should shoot with a dog. If there is water about, anything you shoot will fall either into it or across it. That’s the rule. And if you shot it, it should be retrieved and taken home in triumph. And if you haven’t got a dog with you, that is going to be a wet and cold retrieve and a weary plod home, let me tell you.
I used to flight a round pond. This was good because when things fell into it they would eventually arrive at the edge thanks to the wind and could be retrieved by me with a landing net. Any other shape and any water deeper than a welly and you have to have a dog. Wildfowling? Get a dog. Any undertaking involving water between say, September and June – get a dog.
Dogs make your life better because four legs move faster than two
Even where water is not the central issue it remains the case that most birds – even when wounded – can run faster than we can. OK, can run faster than I can. Probably faster than most of us can. Especially across fresh plough or a rain-soaked Fen drilling. But they can’t run faster than our dogs can. When something that you have shot plonks into the mud and then gathers itself together and begins to leg it for the nearest hedge, you really need a dog.
You can try shooting it again – I have no scruples in this regard; I will keep shooting things I have wounded for as long as it is possible or necessary – but sometimes they glide down just out of range and you know they’re not going to get airborne again, but you also know they are not going to wait for you to get over there. So you send the dog. Indeed, my dog is probably already on its way.
This is hunting…
For here is the thing, the dog is part of the hunting experience. If we are doing shooting then the dog will be tethered on the peg. It may be tethered by years of training, iron discipline and perfect self control, or it might be tethered by an enormous corkscrew that has been driven into the sod as if we are prospecting for oil, but it is tethered.
When we are hunting though, the dog is free. We want it free. We want it hunting. Not in the next county, I grant you, but some few yards ahead of us to roust out a pheasant from a hedge or a partridge from a bramble, or even a grouse from the heather. This is hunting. It is a partnership forged across millennia ever since a bloke in a squirrel jockstrap with a cudgel persuaded a wolf to go round one side of the bush while he went round the other on the promise that anything edible secured by their joint enterprise would be shared. This is hunting. And as anyone who has walked up grouse over pointers will tell you, it is the best fun ever. Mooching about lowland hedges and ditches with some mates and a few dogs is fun enough but, take it from me, shooting Highland grouse over pointers is a little bit of paradise.
Loneliness of the dog-less gun
If you ask anyone who shoots with a dog what they get from it, they will mostly stare into space for a bit and mutter something about runners and retrieving, but then harrumph a bit and announce that the dog is their best mate when all is said and done and that not shooting with their best mate just wouldn’t be the same.
And they’d be right. Shooting without a dog is fine. In formal situations on driven shoots there are hordes of dogs to do the picking-up and one more careering about between drives isn’t really crucial to the whole enterprise. But once you have shot with your own dog, shooting alone just isn’t the same any more. I grant you that this is hard to understand when you see some of the dogs that chaps bring out shooting but that is the very point I’m making. The dog is your best mate and regardless – almost, there are some limits, I venture – of how useful, or useless, it is, the ties of matedom bind nonetheless. In less formal circumstances, of course, that same comfortable companionship is even more important.
Dogs make your life better because they are a political ally
Spend all day in a pigeon hide with a gun behind a lot of plastic decoys talking to yourself and they’ll lock you away. But if you’ve got a dog with you, no one cares. Dogs don’t laugh at your jokes but they don’t argue with your position on Europe either and, as long as they get the opportunity to pick up a pigeon from time to time, they will probably agree that flogging is too good for them. Whoever they are. A good listener and a supportive friend. Where else are you going to find that, eh? It used to be said that if you want unconditional love, get a spaniel. That’s probably still reasonable advice.
Teamwork makes for the best meals
And that occasional pigeon is important too because it forms a vital link in the chain that goes from field to table. You network all season with landowners and keepers so that from time to time you might get the chance to sconce yourself in a hedge and see if you remember how to decoy. You shoot a few pigeons which the dog duly retrieve and which you take home and dress. And then you sear them briefly in hot butter, flambé them in apple brandy, slice thinly and serve to a select group of friends with a dressed salad, a few pickled vegetables and a robust red. All your own work, with a bit of help from the dog. It’s a team thing and it feels good.
A turn in the bushes
And speaking of teams, you and the dog could go beating from time to time. A dog is for the whole season not just for the beaters’ day when those who shoot regularly venture behind the hedge to see where the real work is done. Beating is good. You and the dog get some exercise; you meet interesting people and you get a beer at lunch and a few quid at the end of the day. What’s not to like?
Through good and bad
Now at this point I am going to veer somewhat away from the general and share with you a couple of reasons why my dog is an important part of my day. Rizla the Vizsla is getting on now. We have been shooting together for years. Rizla does not like it when there is nothing to pick up. I may be shooting poorly or we may have had a blank drive on an outlying peg, but the Riz will not wish to join the rest of the party with nothing.
So he will steal a pheasant. From somewhere. He will snatch one off a neighbour’s peg or he will nick one from the pickers-up. He has even been known to burgle them from the game-cart, although the fact they are tied together is a bit of a giveaway, but he will get something from somewhere and then he will bring it to me with all due ceremony and deliver it to hand just like it says in the book.
Sometimes this makes me look good and sometimes – such as when they are tied together – it makes me look less good. But, do you know what – after a decade of shooting together, looking good is the least of our worries.
Dogs make your life better because they are matchmakers
And after he has made sure that we have sustenance he will go looking for girls. These he doesn’t retrieve exactly, he merely leans against their knees gazing adoringly up at them with his slightly wonky expression and his strange, unblinking eye until I arrive to retrieve him and to introduce myself. At which point, his matchmaking efforts achieved, he pushes off to nick another pheasant from somewhere.
Oh yes, boys and girls, this is a truth universally acknowledged: a cute dog will work every time. The dog will get you a first date. After that you are on your own, obviously, but what did you expect? They are only dogs, after all. There’s probably an app for it. If there isn’t there should be. Anyone for retrievr.com?
The complete package
Most of all, however, we shoot with dogs because it completes us. Anyone can shoot. Shooting makes you a shooter. Add a decent dog into the mix and you become a shot. Take two dogs, lying just in front of your peg without leads or other restraints, marking the falls as you pull down soaring archangels from unfeasible heights and angles just waiting to dash out after the horn to collect your slain and you become a gun. And that, readers dear, is what you really want to be, isn’t it? And it starts with a dog.