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Going to the Dogs

Orion Board Members Jan Dizard and Eric Nuse take a look at the ethics of hunting dogs.


“To make every attempt within legal limits to recover game and waste no animal taken.” Boone and Crockett FAIR CHASE Pledge


Every hunter has faced the loss of an animal he or she has wounded. Most of us go to considerable lengths to avoid this depressing loss. But losses happen—a bullet is deflected by a branch; the animal moves just as the arrow is released. Searching begins and sometimes it ends in failure. Though there are no reliable statistics on this, it stands to reason that this scenario is more commonly encountered by bird hunters than by big game hunters. The reason is simple: in a season, a big game hunter rarely has more than a couple of opportunities to shoot at a deer or an elk. By contrast, a bird hunter has many more opportunities to shoot at birds in the course of a season. For the avid bird hunter, having fifty or more opportunities to shoot is common. As opportunities increase, the odds of crippling and not recovering the wounded bird increases.


The challenge of tracking a deer is daunting under the best of circumstances but there is usually a blood trail to follow and if there’s snow on the ground, even patches of snow, the odds of recovery can be good. But birds don’t leave blood trails and, because they are small and devilishly good at concealing themselves in even sparse cover a wing-tipped bird can cover a lot of ground and disappear. So what’s a bird hunter to do? What does “make every attempt” mean in practice? Does this mean that bird hunters should hunt with a dog bred and trained to find and retrieve birds?


The obvious answer to this question is “No.” Hunting ethically only requires that bird hunters try their best to retrieve a bird they’ve wounded. Frequently this requires considerable time searching. Disappointment is often the result. There are occasional articles and even a book or two that discuss strategies that increase the likelihood of successfully retrieving birds without a dog. That said, there is no question that a trained bird dog significantly increases the odds of finding birds to shoot at. Of course, this also increases the opportunities to cripple birds and increases the likelihood of a difficult retrieve. But that’s precisely where the dog helps the hunter to feel he or she has done the “right thing” in honoring the bird.


Actually, in the case of hunting with a bird dog, “every attempt” begins long before the hunter and dog begin hunting. The dog has been bred to hone in on bird scent and some dogs are “naturals”: with little training they instinctively trail and flush or point and retrieve. But most require training, encouraging the behavior that their breeding has prepared them for. Investing hours in training is like putting “every attempt” in a bank account to be drawn on each time the hunter goes afield.


Apart from the companionship and the delight in seeing your dog work through a field or a wooded grouse cover, the importance of a dog is made clear in those instances when the hunter isn’t sure if the bird shot at is wounded. Pheasants can fly off apparently unscathed. In thick cover where grouse and woodcock are found, it’s often the case that the hunter can’t tell if the bird has been hit because the bird disappears into the cover. Again, there are no systematic data on this but we both on more than one occasion have thought we missed only to have our dog appear with the bird cradled in its jaws. It’s good practice, as responsibility really, to follow up a shot, just to make sure or to hope for a reflush, but without a dog, the prospects of either a find or a reflush are slim. We’re likely to give up and move on.


Jan’s current German Shorthair, now three years old could not find the first two woodcock he had pointed. Both of the birds flushed from the edge of an orchard into tall swale where Jan’s shot caught them. The young dog plowed into the swale where Jan had marked them down and he and the dog went back and forth repeatedly. The young dog, just six months of age at the time, began to lose interest and Jan had to call him back again and again. All to no avail. Every other bird shot that dog’s first season was found and retrieved but those two losses are still vivid memories. On the up-side, in the same orchard cover, the following year, Jan’s dog went on point deep into the over-grown orchard. Jan picked his way toward the dog, looking for shooting lanes in the tangle of vines and branches. The woodcock flushed and, as they so often do, took an unexpected sharp turn. Jan turned with the bird and his foot caught a fallen branch and as he began to fall backward he got off a shot. Now flat on his back, he began to laugh at his clumsiness, thankful that he landed softly. He forgot about the bird but before he got up, there was his dog with the woodcock in his mouth. He dropped the bird right next to his cheek. Jan would never have found that bird without him.


Bird hunting without a dog tests our ethical responsibility. Like everyone else, the dog-less hunter needs to choose his or her shots carefully, but must also be extra careful to avoid taking low probability shots--for both a clean kill and finding the bird--and carefully marking the flight path after the shot. Attempting a double makes this doubly difficult. A wing-tipped bird will run so it’s important to mark the spot where the bird fell and get to it quickly. An otherwise good hunt can be ruined by failing to recover a downed bird. The lost bird won’t be “wasted,” a scavenger will take care of that. But the remorse can linger.