by Randy Lawrence
From the beginning, description of gun dog performance has cribbed some of its vocabulary from the world of horses. Perhaps that is rooted in fox hunting, where horse and hound are inextricably tied. But even we boot leather bird dog aficionados have been known to steal an expression or two.
Dogs and horses with unusual stamina are said to have "bottom." A canine or equine that goes off script, that is, becomes unresponsive to handler or rider, is described as having "the bit in his teeth." Much of what we value in a bird dog's gait comes from the free-flowing examples of the class saddle horse on the move.
A word to describe the most charismatic of horses is "brio," a term with Italian origins that my dictionary says stems from the early 18th century. That same dictionary defines "brio" as "enthusiastic vigor; vivacity; verve."
That belongs in the lexicon, for I like that in a dog.
One of the much ballyhooed virtues of the throwback type of English setter is a calm, low-key demeanor by which we set great store. The notion is that such a dog is much easier to live with than the high-wire hijinks of so many of the more modern bloodlines.
But some dogs are "calm" to the point of being phlegmatic. Doltish. "Drooling goobers," as a close friend has characterized them, seeming not to care whether school is in session or not. If it wasn't for the occasional tail wag, we might be tempted to put a palm to the rib cage to see if the dog is breathing. That kind of dog likely stays within skeet range while hunting, makes for a great fireplace andiron, and an easy pose for the family Christmas card.
But a Drooling Goober has nothing for my soul.
A dog can have spark, a big personality, an obvious enthusiasm for life beyond the feed pan, without being a wacked-out Odie from the Garfield cartoons. A dog with "brio" is one that is fun to live with, to school, to hunt over, because everything he does is done with a bit of dash, a measure of joy. That kind of dog is lovely to look at on the move, or in repose. He simply catches your eye just standing there.
A thoughtful gun dog breeder once wrote that we gravitate toward certain dogs for the same reasons we gravitate toward certain people. I like people who are upbeat and expressive. People who are quirky. Original. Happy in their work and play. People who understand when it's OK to be playful and when it's time to get down to business.
That's Firelight Seth. He is, as the young folks say, "a good hang."
When Seth is in the room, I have trouble not watching him. Not hall monitor watching, as with some of my other crew members, but watching to see what he's doing or thinking...because Seth is no poker player. I know where his head is at most of the time. He gets all sober and thinks. He laughs. He is also a bit of a worrier, Seth, and right now, his concern that Luke or the puppy Patch will cadge a toy that he might want has him lying near my desk with a plush buffalo, a Kong, and one of those thick rope do-hickeys between his paws where he rests his head and watches his housemates, also making sure where he is lying conveniently keeps Luke and the puppy from being closer to my chair.
Seth bogarts all the Good Stuff that he had to do without in another blighted period of his life.
He is also incredibly patient with younger dogs. When called upon to babysit the pointer puppy McNab, Seth put on a brave face, but his eyes were pleading. "What manner of fresh Hell is this? Can you please help a brotha out over here?"
A freakishly mild February has the woodcock back in our home covert on the earliest date in recent memory. I have watched different dogs take on the thickets of cane briar in and around our several acres of black alders for 33 years. Most of my dogs slow down and pick their way through; even some of the most confident pointers and setters we've run on this farm - Riley, Doc, Fancy, Dusk, Deacon, Moxie - have gone at that covert with a measure of, shall we say, "discretion."
Not Seth. His SOP is, "Where's the first tee? What's the course record? Hand me the driver!"
His tail cracks as he pushes cover, juking like a cutting horse on a cow, skirting the meanest parts on the down wind side, slowing only slightly when his nose catches Something Different.
For a big dog, Seth is cat footed. I don't hear him pounding the turf. He flows through the meanest cover with a big flowing gait that is both powerful and agile. When he is solo, especially here on his home turf, he is wider, stretching his range to the very edge of his collar bell because he knows where the birds (and I) should be.
He checks in without coming in. He knows his business, and I try hard to stay out of his way. I will sing to him- "Heeeeeeeeey, YEP! Yep, Yep!" - the way the field trialers do, like my old friend Bob did on this farm for 40 years, whenever we want to change directions. A dog like Seth will retire a fella's whistle.
The only thing hotter than the unseasonable air is one of his signature points, tail up, head slightly down, ears forward as I wade into the thick 'n' thorny to get his bird in the air.
He bulls in at the flush, and, shame on me, I let him, the blank gun's report a sort of benediction/exclamation point. If he swings back, I'll call him in and set him up where he pointed. If he doesn't, well, today, I am not inclined to play a game of Wannabe Trainer With An Old Dog Who Knows Better.
Later, when I sing him around toward the brushy draws on the hillside, he's like a kid being pulled off the best roller coaster at the county fair, glancing back over his shoulder as if all of those spindly alders are going to pack up and leave before he gets another ticket to ride.
But he's grinning when runs by, head up, happy to be working, happy to be into birds...happier still when the slip lead stays in my vest and he knows we're simply regrouping for another go.
His white and orange silhouette flashes in the pale late winter sun, slicing up those hillside thickets with "vigor, vivacity, and verve."
With brio. I like that in a dog.