BIRD HUNTERS' BEST FRIEND
"Does it not betray itself by its odor?"
By Bill Rautenstrauch
Hunters know it better than anybody else: the dog is a creature of superior abilities.
Dogs are blessed with abundant energy, athleticism, stamina. And those are only the beginning of their gifts.
In some ways, dogs are actually superhuman. They hear things humans cannot. And their greatest natural gift, their sense of smell, is so powerful, so beyond the human ken, they can perform miracles with it.
Here's just one miracle to consider:
In a famous experiment, 12 men walked in single file, each stepping in the footprints of the man in front of him.
After some distance, each man took off to the right or left and hid. A dog was then commanded to find its owner, the first man in the line.
It wasn't a problem. The dog rooted the owner out easily, even though the owner's scent had been mixed in with those of 11 other fellows.
On national television programs, dogs do amazing tricks. They count to 10, and add and subtract. They correctly guess which card has been pulled out of a deck and reinserted.
How do they do it? With their noses. Scent is the secret.
There doesn't seem to be an end to what dogs can do with their noble nostrils. It's true: dogs are being successfully taught to use their noses to detect cancer in humans.
A dog has 25 times the smell receptors a human has. The receptors are specially designed to detect even the faintest of odors. They're specially located deep in the snout.
When he's breathing normally, a dog's sense of smell isn't working at peak efficiency. But when he's sniffing, the scent washes over those receptors, revealing things humans aren't remotely aware of.
Then the dog is at the top of his game.
Teddi Botham, a noted dog trainer from Cove, likes to say dogs have "a little brain in their nose."
How they use that little brain depends on what they're bred for.
"When it comes down to noses, it comes down to a dog's breeding," she said.
As Botham explains it, dogs operate on both prey drive and hunt drive. The strength of those drives varies from breed to breed, and from individual to individual. And a dog's drive is related directly to its sense of smell.
"Some dogs, if they come across a bird or a cat or whatever, they play with it, and then they forget it. Out of sight, out of mind. That's a dog that operates on prey drive," Botham said.
She added, "Dogs with strong hunt drive want to use their noses and keep smelling forever. They always believe there's one more bird out there, somewhere." Ideally, she said, a hunting dog will have something of both drives in his heart.
Botham is a longtime trainer of bird dogs, especially Brittany spaniels.
She knows the fine points of the trainer's art, can discuss hunt drive versus prey drive, air scent versus ground scent, and many other concepts related to a field dog's snazzy sniffer.
She can tell you which breeds are dependent hunters, and which are independent hunters.
And she knows the hunting experience varies with the ways dogs use their noses.
"Flushing dogs and retrieving dogs, you take hunting. A pointing dog takes you," she said.
The so-called dependent hunters, flushing and retrieving dogs, have a tendency to stay close or at least, closer to their masters. They also tend to track with their noses to the ground. They flush the bird when they find it.
The independent breeds, pointers especially, get way out in front. They don't need or want a two-legged critter telling them what to do.
Their tendency is to sniff the air with their heads up though they do utilize ground scent as needed.
Be in good shape, if you're hunting with a pointer.
"It's like they're shot out of a cannon. You can't hold them back," Botham said. "When we hunt with our Brits, sometimes they go 300 to 400 yards out."
That kind of arrangement works well with a pointing dog, which is trained to hold the bird until the hunter arrives to flush it.
No matter what breed of dog a hunter goes to the field with, there's a golden rule to be remembered:
Trust the dog.
Its sense of smell is nearly infallible. If it acts like it's on to a bird, the overwhelming chances are, it is.
Botham likes to tell a story about one of her Brits going into a classic point and holding it for an inordinately long time.
She and her husband were hunting together that day. They caught up to the dog and tried to flush the bird. Nothing flew.
They relocated the dog several times, but he kept coming back to the same spot and taking up that rock-solid point.
Just when the couple decided to call the dog off for good and go try another field, they heard a commotion from far away.
"A pheasant was roosting up in a tree, about 50 yards from us. We heard him when he flew off. His scent was blowing downward. The dog picked it up. He wasn't pointing at the bird up in the tree, of course, but he was pointing the scent."
Always remember. The nose knows.