Harlots, Gigolos and the Queen of Hearts
All dogs have personality quirks. I don’t think anyone would dispute that, although in these polarized times nothing is 100 percent certain.
Take my current dog, for example. Like all Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, he’s deeply loyal. I have no doubt that, like others in the breed, he would defend me to the death if need be. But it turns out his loyalty only goes so far. It pains me to admit that my otherwise devoted, handsome, upstanding, champion, hunt-test and hunting dog is a complete gigolo in the field, willing to consort with anyone carrying a shotgun.
I suspect his promiscuity afield is due to having hunted with me enough to know that even at my very best, I’m just a mediocre wing shot, although (quite) a few years ago, I’d advanced to the “decent wing shot” class. Those days, sadly, are gone, even if I had the time or – let’s be honest – the motivation to rehabilitate my shooting skills. And, equally as sad, the dog knows it. Which is why, on a family hunt at our local shooting preserve, when we arrived at the first grass strip, my nephews immediately appropriated Bo, who is an excellent upland bird hunter in addition to his equally fine skills on waterfowl. Without so much as a backward glance or even an apologetic tail wag, he happily trotted off to hunt with the nephews, and what’s more, he did it for free! So he’s not only a hunting gigolo, he’s a cheap one, too.
He comes by his easy virtue honestly, as Casey, his maternal great-granddam, also didn’t care with whom she “consorted” as long as they were in the heart of the action. Indeed, she had the uncanny ability to determine, even before the first bird flew, who in the party was the best shot. She latched onto that individual tighter than any cocklebur and concentrated her considerable skills on finding birds for that person. What I wanted her to do didn’t matter one whit. Like her great-great grandson, she was intensely loyal and pretty much devoted to me – except when the shotguns came out. Then I became something less than chopped liver in her view. What’s more, when I’d grouse about being summarily dumped by my dogs whenever better shots showed up – after I’ve gone to the expense of buying their food, paying their medical expense and providing them with three-inches-of-memory-foam beds as well as showering them with love – the Chessies’ response has always been best summed up in three words: “Tango Sierra, pal.”
Truth to tell, however, none of my Chesapeakes could hold a candle to my contrarian and tempestuous Brittany, Sparky, when it came to quirkiness. She was a master hunter in every sense, and she knew it. She was also the worst damned prima donna I’ve ever known. As a long-time investigative reporter and even in my “sideline” as dog writer/owner/trainer, I’ve had the opportunity to know more than my share of those divas, both human and canine. You’d never find a kinder, gentler, more loving doggy sweetheart around the house, but she became the wrathful Queen of Hearts from “Alice in Wonderland” whenever she hunted. Like her alter ego, when afield Sparky often went around in the same blind fury that Lewis Carroll ascribed to his fictional queen. Carroll’s words – “The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great and small. ‘Off with his head,’ she said without even looking round” – were a perfect description of Sparky’s attitude toward anything that offended her, and the list of things to which she took offense was long indeed. However, she reserved her special choler for whenever her human or canine partners failed to perform to her standards, particularly when that failure on the part of the humans involved a missed bird. Like the comment supposedly uttered by Queen Victoria after an equerry told a story with a hint of spice or scandal to it, Sparky was not amused.
A mortal sin in Sparky’s world was the failure to kill a bird that she had found, pointed and held long enough for her shotgun-toting partners to get within range. If she held the bird so well that one of those partners had to actually kick it out of its hiding place and then missed the shot, the phrase “in high dudgeon” would not come close to describing Sparky’s outrage. She made the late diva Maria Callas, whose firestorms both on and offstage at the Metropolitan Opera were legendary, appear easygoing and cooperative by comparison.
If you missed two birds in a row, the level of your sin immediately escalated from mortal to unforgivable. Although imposing the Biblical punishment for the wages of sin wasn’t possible, much as she would have liked to, back-to-back misses gave her the right, in her view, to find birds, point them with the style that belonged in a painting and hold them until you were roughly two gun ranges away. Then, with a canine smirk, she’d bust the birds. Only after she had administered this punishment several times would she finally relent and offer a chance for the gunners to redeem themselves. But heaven help you if you failed to take advantage of this one opportunity for redemption. The hunt was over, at least as far as her useful participation was concerned.
There were other times, however, when she’d get in a royal snit, and we had absolutely no clue as to what had set her off. This inability to fathom what, exactly, had irked her led to some strange reactions from the folks who hunted with her. Once when one of my long-time hunting partners, who was very familiar with Sparky’s eccentricities, and I were getting ready to hunt a wildlife-management area, Sparky jumped off the truck’s tailgate before I could get a bell collar or a locator collar on her, took off at speeds approaching MACH 1 and hit every objective on the management area. Only then could I finally get her attention and reel her in.
When she deigned at last to return to me, I picked her up and set her down rather firmly on the tailgate with the admonition, "Now STAY THERE," whereupon my partner grabbed my jacket, spun me around and pleaded, "Don't make her mad!"
Retrieving was also something that was not on Sparky’s list of regal responsibilities. Oh, she was a fine retriever – actually, a superb one for a pointing breed – but she would only consent to do that proletarian task with the kind of style with which she was capable if there wasn’t another dog present. If there was any other dog on the ground, pointer, retriever or spaniel, as soon as the bird hit the ground, she would look at her canine hunting partner and grant her royal leave for them to make the retrieve, followed immediately by her trotting off to continue the important job of finding birds. But God help them if they went for the bird before she had given them permission to do so. She would take off like she had been fired off the catapult on an aircraft carrier and snatch up the bird ahead of the other dog, all the while casting the most dreadful aspersions on the other dog’s character and ancestry – or so it seemed to those of us hearing these tongue lashings.
The same was true if any other dog had the temerity to refuse to honor her point or, even worse, try to steal point. Then the verbal upbraiding would be accompanied by the physical pain of corporal punishment for the offending dog. Whatever she did or said, however, made a lasting impression on the other dog. I never once saw another dog try to steal her point, fail to back her point or make a retrieve without her permission after having once been subjected to her royal wrath.
Why, you ask, didn’t I correct this behavior? Fair question, and the answer is simple: If anyone so much as told her “No” in what she deemed to be a disrespectful tone, she would flounce away with a “Well, I never” air and then proceed to start hunting for herself. As for using an electronic collar with her, forget it. While she viewed both a bell collar and a locator collar as part of her regal trappings, if she even saw an e-collar, she would refuse to leave the truck. In fact, she wouldn’t leave her crate. She’d never been abused with the collar, was collar-conditioned as a pup and wasn’t fearful of it. She simply viewed it as insulting to one of her aristocratic status, and she was having none of it.
She was a wonderful gun dog, a bird-finding machine in the field, and we shot hundreds of birds over her. Despite her belief that she had absolute monarchical authority and the difficulty that belief created, my hunting buddies all loved her, and every one of them wanted to hunt with Her Imperial Majesty. But, my God, she was a trial at times.