Man’s Best Friend

All his life he tried to be a good person. Many times, however, he failed. For after all, he was only human. He wasn’t a dog.


– Charles M. Schulz

By Katie Faulkner

It has been suggested that dogs live shorter lives because they fulfill life’s purpose – to learn to love unconditionally – sooner than humans can. While this is just a fable, it seems accurately insightful. Dogs love their owners more than they love themselves. This whole-hearted, sacrificial type of love is not only what makes them ideal companions, but also what makes them impressive hunters.

Combined with sharp, natural instincts to find, track, and retrieve their prey, hunting dogs’ determination to please their owners pushes them to produce remarkable results. “All they want to do is please you,” says Fox Johnston, Eve’s owner. “Their instincts are spot on,” Kelly Felix says, describing his two German Shorthaired Pointers. “They know exactly what they’re doing out there.” A hunter must trust his dogs, and they must trust him in return to have a truly effective partnership.

“Our trainer told me, ‘I can train her for you, and you’ll have a good dog. But if you train her yourself, you’ll have a great dog,’” Fox shares. These hunters realize that the bond built during training sets the tone for the rest of their relationship. That’s why they’ve invested hours into training with their talented canine companions. And for a great return – not only did they build resilient hunting buddies, but also loving bonds with best friends.


“She’s a member of the family. She sleeps at the foot of the bed
and snuggles on the couch with us.”

– Robert White

 


Robert & Isaac White

with Dixie, Black Labrador Retriever

“She’s actually Isaac’s first dog,” Robert explains. The father-son duo hunt together often, and Robert helped Isaac navigate the training process after picking the perfect pup. “He worked all summer to save a lot of money. His mother and I tried to convince him to buy a truck, but he was determined to buy his first dog,” Robert says.

When they went to choose a dog, one little puppy came over to Isaac and began tugging on his shoe strings. Isaac picked her up and knew he wanted to take her home. “The breeder told us, ‘Oh you don’t want her. She’s the runt!’” Isaac recalls. So they decided to go home and think it over, promising to return in two weeks. As soon as they came back, the same pup ran to Isaac and tugged on his shoe strings again. “That was it,” Isaac laughs. They took her home that day. “She really kind of chose me, I guess.”

Robert and Isaac have trained and worked with Dixie, taking her on long road trips to favorite hunting grounds. She’ll sit in a tiny two-foot by three-foot duck blind for up to eight hours. Isaac says, “She’s so attentive. We can just watch her slowly move her head to the left or right and know it’s almost time to shoot.” One particularly interesting trip, Dixie was in the blind and began fidgeting, whining, and yelping. “We got onto her for making so much noise. But when it was time to leave, we saw exactly what she was trying to tell us. She sits right in front of where we keep the ducks, and one of them wasn’t dead. It had gotten away!”

Hunting mostly mallards, pintails, and teals in flooded Arkansas rice fields, Dixie has retrieved over 620 ducks in her career. Her excitement shines through on the way to each hunt. “One of her favorite traditions is, on the way up to our spot in Arkansas, we stop about halfway and go through a drive-through. She gets a double cheeseburger every time, and she always knows when it’s coming,” Robert laughs.


(above) Photos by Lanewood Studio

“The only thing wrong with dogs is they don’t live long enough”

– Jim Thompson

 


Jim Thompson 

with Hootie, Jorge, and Natty, French Brittany Spaniels &  Luke, Black Labrador Retriever

The three French Brittanys belong to Jim and his wife, Margaret. Luke, the Labrador, is their son Fletcher’s dog, but stays with Jim and Margaret and receives ample training, work, and love. Hootie (just over five years old), Jorge (three years old), and Natty (one year old) all receive field training too, and were chosen for their docile and affectionate nature.

“I used to have German Wirehairs, but they are just a little more territorial; we live in a neighborhood, so we were looking for something that might be more of a house dog in addition to a great hunter. That’s how I happened upon the French Brits,” Jim shares.  He says they are lovable pets at home. “Oh, Hootie is a pillow hog – he loves clean sheets. If we let them, they would all get in bed and curl up with us,” Jim laughs.

As affectionate as they may be at home, they are instinctual hunters, well-trained and eager to work in the field. Mostly hunting upland birds such as quail, pheasant, and grouse, Hootie, Jorge, and now even young Natty spend days seeking hidden homing pigeons which Jim places around in remote traps. “The dogs track them and hold their points. Then I release the pigeon, and it flies home. I use pigeons year-round and have had great results with them.”

An avid competitor in field trials, Jim and his ‘Brits’ have accomplished amazing feats. For instance, last year Hootie and Jorge took first and second place, respectively, in the Dixie Region NSTRA field trial. “To my knowledge, no one has ever won every competition with a French Brittany, so that is still my goal.”

Traveling all over the world, Jim takes numerous hunting trips from Alaska to Oklahoma to Texas and beyond. His three sons will accompany him for a couple of trips each year, but for the others, he has four beloved, talented companions. “All four of these guys are so versatile in their talents, it makes it really fun to hunt with them.”


(above) Photos by Lanewood Studio

“Getting birds out of the thick brush – that’s where he really shines. That’s where he’s doing what he was bred to do.”

– Brandon Wright

 


Brandon & Haven Wright 

with Boone, English Cocker Spaniel

Brandon wasn’t even in the market for a hunting dog when he met Boone’s father on a hunting trip. After watching the strong, small dog work hard all day and yield impressive results, Brandon knew he had to have one. “His owner told me that he had just sired a litter of pups, so I went home and talked to Haven about it. That next weekend we headed to the breeder to pick one out.”

They fell in love with Boone, and Brandon soon began watching the young pup hone his instincts. “Boone is a flushing dog, which isn’t always as popular as the pointers among hunters, but his instincts are sharp. He may see a bunch of blackbirds in a field, but he knows that’s not what we’re after and doesn’t even bother them.” The working spaniel is built like a “chunk of pure muscle,” which allows him to burrow through the thickest and thorniest underbrush. “In my group of friends, we go on at least one big hunting trip every year. Most of the other guys have pointers, so Boone makes a great addition to the group.”

The goal of the trip for all the men is to spend time together and let the dogs have fun. Brandon says that the dogs all work well together – the pointers get out front and find the birds (quail, pheasant, or other upland varieties), and then when the guys are ready, Boone will flush them out.

Besides being tough as nails in the field, Boone is a beloved and pampered pet. “I love how compact he is. He barely takes up any room on the couch,” Brandon laughs. “He’s just the best dog – he’s happy all the time. I’ve never seen a dog that actually smiles, but he does.”

Brandon will always remember Boone’s first hunt fondly. He had been training Boone with dummies that looked and smelled like quail. Boone was only about six months old, and Brandon planned to take him out for just a little while. “Within the first 15 minutes he was on his first bird. He flushed it, I shot it, and as it came down slowly, Boone caught it before it ever hit the ground. He was so happy!”


(above) Photos by Terry Henson

This might not be the best hunting breed in the world, but I’ll never stray away from a GSP after these two, because they have the best personalities.”

Kelly Felix

 


Kelly & Lindsey Felix   

with Kimber & Kenny, German Shorthaired Pointers

“They hunt fairly independently, but they’re great at honoring each other’s points,” Kelly says of his brother-sister hunting dog duo. After graduating from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Kelly wanted a German Shorthaired Pointer. He found Kimber, who is now six years old.

Kelly began casually working with Kimber at home, releasing live birds for her to chase down and become acclimated to the hunting process. After a few years, he decided to grow the family once more, and he got Kenny. “They have the same father, but a different mother, so they’re … half-siblings, I guess,” Kelly jokes.

Kelly, Kenny, and Kimber belong to the same group of hunting friends as Brandon Wright (previous page) and his dog, Boone. Just like Brandon, Kelly says he took a more relaxed approach to training his pups. “The main thing I want them to do is have fun and sharpen their natural instincts. We play fetch, and when they were young, I let them chase down some live birds. Overall, their instincts are spot on. They know exactly what they’re doing out there.”

Kelly and Brandon’s annual group hunting trip has produced some great memories. For Kelly and his two dogs, he says he loves to watch their natural discipline. “This past December on the last afternoon of the hunt, we came upon a covey of quail. We shot about six or seven, and the rest went over a hill. While we were finding the ones we had shot, Kimber chased the covey over the hill, tracked them down, and pointed them out. She had to have held her point for 15 to 20 minutes before we got to her, and she hadn’t budged. Seeing that kind of discipline builds a lot of trust in your dogs,” Kelly says.

The two aren’t without their own unique personalities either. “Kimber is a little more independent than Kenny. She’ll tap her toes at the door when she’s ready to go out, like she’s calling you over to open the door,” he laughs. Kenny, on the other hand, is so affectionate and gentle that Kelly’s wife, Lindsey, has been volunteering him as a therapy dog at UTC.


(above) Photos by Lanewood Studio

“She’s just the most consistent friend you can possibly have. She knows better than anybody what I need.”

– Fox Johnston

 


Fox Johnston 

with Christmas Eve Starr (Eve for short), Chocolate Labrador Retriever

“The last thing a hunter wants to do is waste a beautiful animal – which is what’s so great about hunting with a dog. Eve rarely gives up or stops working. Because of that determination, we’ve found many birds that I thought I’d lost,” Fox Johnston explains about his beloved 11-year-old chocolate lab.

Together the pair have spent countless hours working on Eve’s retrieving skills. “She’s really incredible, and so intelligent.”

One of Eve’s most impressive qualities is her devotion to the work and her instinct to retrieve. She was initially trained to be a duck dog, but her insatiable desire to retrieve prompted Fox to start taking her dove hunting. “The limit is higher on doves, so she gets more retrieves in the field,” Fox explains.

“Roddy Reynolds is the breeder where we found Eve. I feel like I owe him so much. He helped me with Eve’s training and encouraged me to be the one to train her. She is by far the best gift my family has ever given me and has added so much happiness to my life. She’s my constant companion,” Fox shares.

Even with ample practice and fluent hand signal obedience, Eve has had some unbelievable retrieves that could only have resulted from her determination to bring back anything Fox sends her after. “I’ve seen her jump up and snag a wounded dove out of the air; she sometimes shows up with a bird that I had completely given up on. But one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen her do was retrieve a wounded duck from a small opening in a frozen lake,” Fox explains. “It was so scary! She dove underwater to retrieve the duck and moments later (which seemed longer), she came right back up with it!”

“All she wants to do is please you. The work of the hunt is her absolute favorite activity. You can tell, when she finds a bird that we couldn’t find, she just loves it. When she passes, I’ll spread her ashes in her favorite place to hunt.”


(above) Photos by Lanewood Studio

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