Everything I can say about dogs has already been said.
To try and craft some grand monologue about the history of our bond, man’s best friend, etc. etc. would be trite. I don’t have to tell you how reassuring it is to feel an old dog lay its head on your lap at night and let out a sigh that matches your thoughts on the day perfectly. You already know — their splendor is universal.
Bruly and I have spent the last four months lying on the couch watching YouTube videos of migrating ducks and Netflix documentaries about exotic birds. She’s partial to “Dancing with the Birds,” which details the mating rituals of species like the Greater Lophorina and the Black Sicklebill. There’s lots of wing flapping and wild calls. She sits next to me and watches it wide-eyed, like Squints watching Wendy Peffercorn in The Sandlot.
I marvel at the hundreds of years of selective breeding that makes her sit up and watch any time she sees a bird or hears wing beats. I didn’t teach her that, it’s deep down inside of her — see the bird, find the bird, bring the bird back. She was created by us to do a very specific job, and she loves that job more than any human has ever loved anything in the history of the world. I woefully envy her dedication and eagerness to please.
She’s always staring at me, sometimes to the point that it makes me uncomfortable. I’ll be sitting on the couch watching TV and feel a pair of eyes burning a hole in the side of my head. I glance over and she’s sitting on the other side of the couch looking at me, as if to say “what can I do for you now?”
Her ultimate joy comes in doing what she was made to do. I heard a saying once, “A dog in a kennel barks at its fleas, a hunting dog does not feel them.”
When I turn her loose, whether it’s on pheasants or in the duck blind, her focus is absolute. She’d run head first through a brick wall if there was a dead mallard on the other side, and what a gift it is to watch that kind of uncensored loyalty.
Again, none of this is because of me. I’m no dog whisperer and God knows there’s a million labs out there who’re more highly trained than Bruly. My gift to her is pure appreciation, and in return she gives me the very best she has.
That’s not to say we don’t invest a significant amount of time into training. Bruly and I have spent a good portion of the last two years in the backyard, figuring it out together.
She’s my first lab, and although we’ve already surpassed what I thought we’d be capable of, there’s always another level. This spring we’re working on improving her blind retrieves.
There are two basic kinds of retrieves, marks and blinds.
A mark is a retrieve a dog sees hit the ground and thus knows the location of.
A blind is exactly what it sounds like — a bird or bumper in a location unknown to the dog, which the handler guides his or her dog to using a combination of hand and voice commands known as casting. The basics of casting include “left overs,” “right overs” and “backs.” These are also exactly what they sound like. A “left over” sends your dog to your left; a “back” sends them back. At least in theory.
I’m not sure anything has ever tested my patience more than sending Bruly on a blind retrieve and watching her stop, turn around and look at me like “there’s nothing out here you moron.”
But I learned very quickly that losing my temper is about as useful as trying to teach her algebra. If your dog isn’t doing something you want them to do, it’s your fault, not theirs. She’s trained me to laugh at our mistakes, focus on the root of the problem and simplify what we’re doing until she gets it. And there’s nothing sweeter than watching it finally click.
I suppose that does speak to some kind of ancient bond, or whatever you want to call it. We’ve been working together since man was sitting around a fire in some ancient village, flipping leftover bones to a raggedy old dog at his side, who was looking at him as if to ask “what can I do for you now?”
C.L. Sill can be reached at email@example.com