As the fall months approach, the morning temperatures turn crisp. The sunlight changes. Leaves litter the ground until finally, early one morning, the dog’s master arrives, in the darkness. He opens her crate.
Maybe he gives a special command, like “Let’s go.” The dog knows what that means.
Maybe he wears a certain coat or boots. The dog knows what those mean, too.
Maybe a small change to the dog’s home environment clues her in. The presence of a certain pickup truck. A travel crate that’s been taken out of storage. A special Thermos. These are small changes to her home environment, but the dog recognizes them. She understands their significance. She can barely contain herself.
It’s hunting season.
That means it’s time to do the things she loves more than anything else. The things she was bred to do. The instinctive behaviors passed down across long lines of genetic code. The athletic tasks that give her immense energy, satisfaction and purpose. Her senses and memories kick into gear. She recalls the scent of quail. She remembers the sound of flapping wings. She longs for the excitement of a wide-open landscape. She quivers with anticipation.
“I can walk outside of my house with a shotgun in a scabbard and my dogs will go berserk,” says Ben Perry, the son of Amarillo hunter Bob Perry. A construction contractor, Ben lives in Georgetown, Texas, but spends weeks in the Panhandle every fall hunting with his dad and brother, Adam, an Amarillo firefighter.
“They are chomping at the bit to do what they were born to do and what they love to do,” Ben says of his English Pointers. Their names are Max, Joe and Thor. He also hunts with a pointing Labrador retriever named Bud. “We named him Bud Light straight off the bat,” jokes Ben. “Once he learned to do everything he was supposed to do, he graduated to Budweiser.”
Ben loves to hunt, but his dogs love it more. “Whether they’re dead tired or not, they don’t care. They are excited to get back out into the field,” he says. He compares them to elite marathoners able to tap into stores of endurance most people can’t begin to understand. These stores are visible every hunting weekend of the year. “They’ll run all day for three days and then I [still] have to lock my dogs up in order for them to calm down enough to eat,” Ben says. “They have to put some more weight back on so we can go again the next weekend. They are just that driven to go and find birds.”
Family Traditions Hunting has been a Perry family pastime for decades, and those hunts almost always include specially trained dogs. “Going back from my grandpa to great-grandpa to great-great, all have had bird dogs,” says Ben. “I’ve seen pictures of them with their English pointers. All the men were bird hunters. It’s in our blood.”
Ben and Adam’s dad, Bob, is a wildlife biologist who has spent his career working for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Bob’s career took the family all over Texas: McKinney, Borger, Hereford, Dumas, Amarillo. But Thanksgiving always brought the family together to Sadler, Texas, near Lake Texoma and the Sherman-Denison area. This annual weekend ranks among Ben’s favorite childhood memories, spent with an extended family of cousins, uncles, great-uncles, and Ben and Adam’s grandfather, Roy.
The family would eat dinner together.
They would watch the Dallas Cowboys game together.
“Then everybody had their dogs and trucks and they’d leave the women and kids and go quail hunting Friday and Saturday,” Ben says. “It’s something we just grew up doing at every family venture.” As an adult, he kept doing it. “I took on that role and continued the tradition of having bird dogs.”
Today, Ben has passed his love of hunting on to his own daughters, Mya (15) and Piper (9). Adam is teaching his son, Slade (9), to hunt. Every fall, the families join Bob Perry on hunts across the Texas Panhandle, from pheasant in Deaf Smith County to quail in southern Gray County. Always, they’re accompanied by the family’s dogs. Bob himself has two English pointers – 6-year-old Dot and 2-year-old Kate – plus a Brittany named Heidi.
“I think it’s just a clean way to have fun with the family,” Bob Perry says. “It’s a way to enjoy nature and God’s creation and get out on a good, crisp morning and get some exercise. We have some of our best times, one-on-one with me and my boys, just talking as we hunt. Teaching them what I know and watching them teach their kids is just a lot of enjoyment for me. Anymore I just watch them hunt and watch my grandkids hunt. And watch the dogs do what they were bred to do.”
Bred for Performance Few outdoorsmen in the Texas Panhandle need to be sold on the virtues of hunting, but not all have experienced the pleasure of hunting with a bird dog. Those who have almost always return with a deep appreciation for the animals’ innate skills locating or retrieving birds.
In fact, hunters like Bob Perry readily admit that bagging the Panhandle’s abundant quail or pheasant is far down the list of what they love about the sport. Much more important is the time spent with family, the time spent outdoors, and the sheer wonder of watching bird dogs work.
“Dogs can either be the best thing you’ve got going for you in hunting or the worst,” Bob Perry says. It takes a combination of instinct and good training to make sure they fall into the “best” category. Otherwise, an overly rambunctious dog may just scare birds away rather than help a hunter.
But when a dog’s innate senses and training combine on a cool November day, it’s magic.
“I’m just amazed at how the dogs can smell those quail,” says Perry. “It’s just built into their natural instinct and bred up through generations. We get about as much out of watching the dogs work as we do finding and shooting the quail.”
It’s only recently that humans have kept their four-legged companions as the kinds of pets who spend their days curled up in a lap, or chasing tennis balls, or sniffing the perimeter of a backyard fence. Generations ago, domesticated dogs were bred to work. They performed specific roles. Some herded livestock. Others, like terriers, were bred to catch rats or foxes. Blood and scent hounds tracked wounded game.
And over the last couple of centuries, gun dogs were primarily reared to find, flush and retrieve birds within range of a hunter’s shotgun. Each breed’s specific skillset – pointer, setter, retriever – became part of its name. Due to their athleticism and intense energy, these breeds developed a love for the outdoors. They became people-pleasers as fixated on their masters as on the birds they were bred to pursue. They became faithful and productive hunting companions.
“I’ve been hunting ever since my dad and grandfather would let me go, before I could carry a shotgun,” says Ben, who first helped his dad train a bird dog at the age of nine. Around this time, Ben was allowed to accompany his dad and granddad on hunts. “I fell in love with training the dogs and watching the dogs work,” he says. Today he hasn’t just trained his family’s pointers and Bud, the retriever, but also trains hunting dogs for clients. He especially loves English pointers. “Most people think they’re hyper, and they are,” he admits. “But that’s just their drive to go and find birds and please people.”
The Driven Dog Amarillo’s Paul Simpson, a staffer for Congressman Mac Thornberry, grew up in Pampa and learned to hunt with his grandfather, who also used hunting dogs. “As soon as I got out on my own and had the opportunity, I got a pointer,” he says.
Today, Simpson has moved on to another breed of gun dog, hunting with a 3-year-old Boykin spaniel named Audry. While Boykins are popular throughout the South, they’re far less known in this area. That didn’t deter Simpson, who was looking for a smaller, more manageable hunting dog than the usual retrievers and pointers. “They’re the state dog of South Carolina,” Simpson says of Boykin spaniels. “They’re a relatively new breed, developed around the turn of the century.” He says the earliest Boykins were used for duck hunting out of boats, where their smaller stature wouldn’t rock the boat like a larger dog would.
“She has incredible drive,” he says of Audry, who has been trained to flush and retrieve birds. “I can’t keep her out of the water. She just loves being out there. She knows when I’m packing up and about to go [hunting], and if I don’t take her, she’s upset with me. She’s not as long-legged [as other hunting dogs], so she’s not as fast, but with her energy she can get where she needs to go.”
Like most owners of bird dogs, Simpson lights up when the subject turns to Audry’s skills. In fact, what he loves most about hunting is watching her work. “It’s the way they get into the wind and get their noses out,” he says. “They pick up the scent and it’s incredible. I would almost rather let someone else hunt and I’d just work my dog for them. It’s that enjoyable to me to watch a bird dog work.”
Andrew and Lisa White are avid Amarillo hunters who own four German shorthair pointers named Vince, Sage, Blaze and Ellie. The owners of White House Pet Supplies, a mobile pet supply business, they breed pointers and hunt with their 15-year-old son, Brayden.
“There’s nothing better than to go out and hunt as a family,” Lisa White says, “without cell phones and the distractions of everyday technology.” A Borger native, she grew up hunting with her father, Mike Page, and grandfather, Woody Page. Both hunted with bird dogs.
White says she loves the excitement of arriving with her dogs at a farm or ranch at the beginning of a hunt. The dogs are always in the back of the family’s truck, secure in their travel crates. They know what’s coming. “When you pull up to a location, they’ll bark and go crazy. When you let them out, their drive is through the roof,” she says.
Part of that excitement is the sheer joy the dogs get from pursuing birds, but another has to do with their relationship to the hunters themselves, White says. “They want to do a job and please you. When you walk them into the field and let them go, the intensity of them running through the field and trying to do the best they can do to find you the bird is amazing,” she says. “Not only is it amazing to watch them, but you feel a sense of pride. Their tails are so easy to read. They’ll go from excited and wagging their tails to an automatic dead stop. It will just be pointed straight and not move again.”
Canine Teamwork “I often say after coming up on a brace of dogs locked up [on point], ‘Boys, if that don’t light your fire, your wood’s wet,’” says Bob Perry.
That unmistakable silhouette – a dog on point – still gives grown men like Wade Byrd a rush of adrenaline. The local attorney grew up hunting with his father and uncles but hadn’t encountered bird dogs until after Byrd graduated from law school. That’s when he and his dad hosted a hunt for some fellow attorneys. “We showed up and there were guys there that were pilots from American Airlines. They had English pointers,” he says. “The first time I saw one point, I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.”
Byrd was hooked. Today he hunts dove, quail and pheasant all over the United States, from the Texas Panhandle to Arizona and Colorado to an annual trip to South Dakota every October. While some of his hunting companions fly to South Dakota for the excursion, Byrd chooses to make the long drive. The reason is simple: He insists on bringing his dogs along. “I may forget my guns, but I won’t forget my dogs,” he says.
In fact, he says the South Dakota trip is as enjoyable for his dogs as it is for him and his son, Cade. The men’s usual hunting companions include a 12-year-old yellow lab named Butter and a 10-year-old German shorthair pointer named Dusty. Cade has his own dog, an English setter named Yaeger, which comes from jäger, German for “hunter.”
“The dogs love it,” Wade Byrd says of his hunting forays. “I love my dogs and I want them to have fun just as much as my family. It’s majestic. The neatest thing I’ve seen is the way they work together.”
He says the dogs have become a ruthlessly efficient hunting team. Pointers are faster and able to cover more distance than a typical retriever, so the lab will “walk the line,” explains Byrd. “That means he’s going back-and-forth in front of the whole group of hunters.”
Meanwhile, the pointer is further away. “If you’re around a bird dog for very long, just watch his tail. His tail will tell you what his nose is thinking,” says Byrd. “To see a dog on point is an adrenaline rush.”
When the pointer catches a scent and goes on point, Byrd instructs his lab to sit while the hunting party approaches the pointer. “Then I’ll tell my lab ‘OK,’ and then he goes in and flushes the birds. If you don’t tell him to sit [first] and he sees one of them pointing, he’s naturally going to go in because he wants to get that bird in the air.” Once the birds are flushed into the air, the hunters are ready to take a shot. Then the lab retrieves any fallen birds. “If a bird falls after a shot, 9 times out of 10 the lab will pick it up,” Byrd says. “The pointers will retrieve, too, but the lab just loves it.”
Due to Byrd’s connections within the hunting world, Wade and Cade and their dogs appeared on The Outdoor Channel’s “American Birdhunter” a couple years back, accompanying host Randy Lack on a hunt near Channing. A few weeks from now, in December, Wade will guide legendary Texas Tech University basketball coach Bobby Knight on a quail and pheasant hunt for charity in Tulia. The event will be covered by Quail Unlimited magazine. “He’s an avid hunter,” Byrd says of Knight. “People pay quite a bit of money to hunt with him.”
Hunting Relationships If the relationship between a hunter and his or her dog is a powerful one, it’s the bond between generations of Panhandle hunters that has kept the sport a family activity unmatched by anything else. “Me and Adam and Dad have a bond from being in the field together so many different times,” says Ben Perry. “We wouldn’t have it any other way. We don’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, but we do about hunting. The opportunity to forget whatever else is going on in our lives and get the three of us and our kids into the field, watch some absolutely amazing dogs work, and be able to have good conversation and good company – that’s what it’s about.”
His father, Bob Perry, wholeheartedly agrees. He says hunting with his boys provided more than just quality time while they were growing up. It helped him teach Ben and Adam – about the plants and grasses he studied in his career, about gun safety, about respecting property and property owners. “If you go through a closed gate, then you always close it behind you,” he says. “Teaching them, when hunting, to always look beyond the target for livestock or people, or property. Teaching them to pass up a shot if there is any doubt it is a safe shot.” Teaching them “to respect the gun for what it is and what it can do.”
Wade Byrd searches for the right word to describe his relationship to hunting. “It’s beautiful,” he says. He may be talking about the Texas Panhandle grasslands in the fall, or the time in nature with his son, or the way his dogs embrace their athleticism and instincts during a hunt. He may be talking about all those things.
“There have been times when I took the dogs to hunt but didn’t shoot anything,” says Wade Byrd. “There are times now when I take a camera instead of a gun. I like to take photos of my son and his dog.” Or maybe he just wants one more adrenaline rush, one more moment when Dusty catches a scent, when the hairs on the back of Byrd’s neck stand up, when time stands still before a rush of wings.
“You just want one more point at the end of the day, just to see it one more time,” he says. “Every time you see it, it’s new and different and exciting.”
The dog knows. The hunters who accompany them know, too.
Popular Gun Dogs
While several elements of hunting are instinctive for dogs, not every breed results in a perfect Panhandle hunting partner. (For instance, your Yorkie would rather hunt mice than quail.) But some breeds are absolutely built for bird season. Here are a few of the most popular:
Boykin spaniel A common sporting dog in the swamps of the Deep South, Boykins are rare in the Panhandle. This highly intelligent breed developed among duck and turkey hunters in South Carolina but quickly came to be used for dove and quail hunting. While smaller than many gun dogs, Boykins love to be trained and are able to flush as well as retrieve birds. “I wanted a dog that was easier to feed, house and transport,” says Paul Byrd about Audry, his Boykin spaniel. “She fit the bill.”
Brittany spaniel Known for being highly enthusiastic about life – “hyperactive” might be a better description – Brittanys were bred to be medium-size bird dogs who perform the tasks of a limited-range pointer. Their orange-and-white coats can be wavy but are resistant to the tears that come from dense cover. Comfortable on land and in the water, this friendly breed is known for being an instinctive hunter and an excellent first bird dog.
English pointer Like retrievers, these dogs are named for their primary job: to point. Upon catching the scent of a bird, this dog’s entire body comes to attention. The tail sticks out, a paw lifts off the ground, and a quivering nose points the way. Super-athletic and full of energy, pointers can run all day long and cover vast territory, stopping only to hold position when hunters take aim and shoot.
English setter An ancient breed, setters first worked with net hunters before the invention of guns. These dogs would crouch upon catching the scent of birds, allowing space for the hunter to throw a net at his prey. Gradually, setters learned to hunt alongside guns and are known today as lively, friendly sporting dogs. Independent and agile, they’re able to work an impressive distance away from the hunter.
German shorthair pointer One of the most popular bird dogs in the U.S., this breed is beloved for its boundless energy, kid-friendly demeanor, webbed feet, and a sleek, water-resistant coat that’s easy to care for even in rough conditions. They are highly intelligent and easy to train, and are versatile hunters who can perform as pointers and retrievers. German shorthairs work well with other dogs.
Golden retriever Though most often kept as family dogs these days, this affectionate sporting dog has its skillset listed right there in the name. Tough but eager-to-please, goldens are athletic and need plenty of exercise. The breed was first developed to hunt waterfowl in Scotland’s cold, wet conditions. Local hunters use them for ducks, geese and pheasants. Their loyal, affectionate personality and eagerness to work makes them excellent therapy dogs, too.
Labrador retriever Happy, energetic labs make for great family dogs as well as outdoor companions. Historically working alongside North Atlantic fishermen, they have become the world’s most popular dog breed. Labrador retrievers have an easy-care coat that handles cold temperatures and wet conditions while retrieving a kill. Labs have a great nose, too, and are often used as search-and-rescue dogs.
Training a Gun Dog
“Either they have a nose or they don’t,” says Lisa White, who grew up training bird dogs and generally handles the complex training process for her family’s dogs. Figuring out the efficiency of a dog’s predatory instincts – especially its sense of smell – is an important first step. “From the second you pick up a pup, I get a wing and hide it in an area of higher grass. Then we place the dog out and they have to use their nose to find [the wing]. That gives you a good nose dog.”
Puppies progress from there, and the training is arduous. They are taught basic obedience commands, introduced to water and swimming, trained to travel in crates, and exposed to loud noises to prepare them for gunfire – which they’ll soon associate with the best parts of their job. They are taught to retrieve dead birds but are also introduced to live birds, which flap their wings and flutter in front of the dog to enhance its drive.
Most importantly, dogs are taught the command whoa, which instructs them to stand still once they’ve scented a bird. “That’s one of the main steps,” White says. “They have to be able to hold when they smell that smell.” While training a dog, White puts a rope around its flank. “[You] place a bird in a holder and when they go up to it, you have to ‘bump’ them and pull the flank cord and make them start standing and stopping when they smell.”
Whoa comes in handy at other times, too. “I can stop that dog anytime,” says Ben Perry about the command. “If it’s getting too aggressive, I tell it ‘whoa’ and it stops dead in its tracks.” That gives Perry a chance to catch up with the dog, while allowing it to gather more scent until he releases it again.
Because hunting dogs often work together, pups are also taught to socialize with other dogs very early. Even if a dog doesn’t catch a scent itself, it has to learn to stand down – or “honor” a lead dog’s point – when it recognizes the rigid silhouette of a fellow hunting dog that has captured a scent.
by Jason Boyett
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.