Man’s Best Friend

(Above) Photo by Nathalie DuPré

 

“If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die, I want to go where they went.” –Will Rogers

For these Southern gentlemen, their dogs are much more than just hunting companions – they’re family. While their skills in the field are unrivaled, it’s their ability to provide a kinship unlike any other that truly sets them apart.

By Lucy Morris

Photos by Nathalie DuPré

Bob Bullard 

with Luke

 

 

“I spent four or five weeks trying to ignore him at first,” quips Bob Bullard about his beloved English Cocker Spaniel and hunting companion, Luke.

The thing is, Luke wasn’t originally supposed to be a hunting dog. “My wife saw him at a charity auction and fell in love, so she brought him home as a companion. He wouldn’t leave me alone, so I decided, ‘Okay, I guess I’ll pet ya. After that it was all downhill,” he laughs. “I think she’s still mad at him.”

Luke, whose breed is known for its quail hunting ability, began training with Bob before heading to training school outside of Thomasville, Georgia. “The trainer asked me if I would mind if he worked Luke alongside the labs to see if he would retrieve ducks, which was fine with me, even though his breed doesn’t typically take to water,” Bob shares. “Turns out, he loves it.”

When it’s time for a hunt, Luke gets down to business fast. “If I pick up a shotgun, he knows we’re going hunting, so he’s immediately at the door of the truck,” Bob says. “When we’re duck hunting, we’ll load up the equipment and get his little camo vest on, trudge out into the flooded timber, set up the decoys, and then he goes to his stand to wait for the first shot. When we’re quail hunting, if he picks up the scent of a covey, you can tell because of how fast his tail wags – then you better get ready!”

Luke’s excitement and enthusiasm reach far beyond the hunting world, though. “Something that strikes me still is when he comes with me to work,” says Bob. “My coworkers see him and are always like, ‘Hey Luke! How ya doing? … oh, hey, Bob.’ I’m used to it,” he laughs. “Everyone loves him.”

Not a traditional duck retrieving breed, Luke had to fight through adversity to gain respect. “We were hunting in Arkansas, and it was really cold, but the water hadn’t been frozen long. The bigger labs couldn’t go out and retrieve on top of the ice because they’d fall through,” explains Bob. “So we had little Luke out there, skating on top of the ice, and he made all the retrievals and saved the hunters a lot of hard walking,” Bob laughs. “That’s when people started having more respect for him as a retriever.”

 

“If I pick up a shotgun, he knows we’re going hunting, so he’s immediately at the door of the truck.”

Photos by Lanewood Studio

 

Clay Watson

with Finney

When it came time to choose a hunting dog, Clay Watson took a risk when he went with a Hungarian Vizsla, a breed he’d never worked with before. “I wanted a sporting dog because I’m a hunter and a fisherman. A good friend of mine just so happened to be breeding their female Vizsla, and she’s on the smaller side, which I liked.” The risk paid off. “My daughters helped pick Finney out, and she’s been a great addition to our family!”

At 16 months old, Finney has just headed off to training at Ronnie Smith Kennels outside of Oklahoma. “She’ll spend the first month being introduced to the game birds she’ll be hunting, and she’ll learn basic commands, how to point those birds, and not to flush them,” Clay explains. “They’ll also gun break her, teach her how to retrieve birds and bring them back to me, and train her to hunt with other dogs.”

The goal is for the duo to be able to hunt together starting this fall. “By then, she’ll be more disciplined and more mature, and she’ll have realized what she was born to do,” says Clay. “I’m anxious and excited to explore that with her and show her what she’s capable of. With bird dogs especially, making the leap from just shooting birds to working your dog so they can catch birds on their own is almost like a sport in itself. I’m looking forward to that part.”

But for Clay, Finney is more than just a hunting dog. “She’s both a companion and almost like a kid at the same time,” he says. “It’s great to have somebody there when you walk in the door that’s glad to see you. They’ve been waiting on you to get home ever since you left. Specifically, with Vizslas, they’re known as ‘Velcro dogs.’ They want to be right beside you, and the bond forms very quickly.”

To describe Finney in just a couple of words is tough. “She is so strong, both mentally and physically. Pound for pound, she’s the most athletic dog I’ve ever seen,” says Clay. “She’s also loving, caring, and passionate about being a Vizsla. She’s a good dog.”

 

“It’s great to have somebody there when you walk in the door that’s glad to see you. They’ve been waiting on you to get home ever since you left.”

Photos by Nathalie DuPré

 

Pat Holmes 

with Riley

“Roddy Reynolds called and said, ‘I’ve got one puppy left, and you’re gonna want her,’” says Pat Holmes as he recalls the first time he heard about his chocolate lab, Riley.

Roddy couldn’t have been righter. At just 7 weeks old, the Holmeses made it official, and Riley joined the family. “Riley’s an extremely versatile dog, and she’s great around my family,” says Pat. “She’s much more than just a hunting dog. I have a daughter with special needs, and Riley hardly ever leaves her side. When she’s not home, Riley will go sleep right by her door.”

Pat and Riley’s communication is clear and concise, and the strong bond they’ve formed is evident. “When
Riley wakes up, the only thing she wants to do is please me. Whether I’m smart enough to be able to communicate what I want her to do or not do is on me. If there’s any failure, which there rarely is, that’s on me,” explains Pat. “Roddy taught me a long time ago – it’s easier for you to communicate with them on their level, not have them communicate with you on your level. I don’t need Riley to do my taxes,” he laughs.

According to Pat, Riley’s ability to understand what’s going on is in her DNA. “When she sees the shotgun going into the truck, she knows exactly what’s happening. You can tell by the way she wags her tail. And she’ll hunt all day until she’s so exhausted you basically have to hand feed her at night,” he says. “That’s just her DNA, and there’s a lot to be said for that.”

Her favorite part of the hunt is retrieving. “We used to have a farm down in Stevenson, Alabama, and it had gotten bitterly cold, so there was ice on the water,” remembers Pat. “She was young – maybe a year or two – and there was a duck laying there on the ice. I’m like, ‘Give it a try, Riley!’ and she looks over her shoulder like, ‘You really want me to go get that?’ But she trusted me, and she went and got it.”

And that’s just one of the many stories Pat looks back on fondly. “There are a million good memories with Riley,” says Pat. “I’ve never had a bad day with that dog.”

 

“When Riley wakes up, the only thing she wants to do is please me. Whether I’m smart enough to be able to communicate what I want her to do or not do is on me.”

Photos by Emily Long

 

Frank Mitchell

with Willie Nelson

Frank Mitchell’s first hunting dog came about in an interesting way. “Willie was actually a wedding present for my wife,” he explains. “I got her a lab, and she got me a set of golf clubs.”

Having both grown up with labs and wanting to start a family themselves, the Mitchells knew they wanted a lab for a pet. They also wanted a dog that Frank could take hunting.
“I self-trained him,” Frank explains. “We started with basic obedience and then built upon that foundation with retrieving drills, whistle training, and those sorts of things.”

Frank and Willie prefer duck and goose hunting, and they typically stay fairly local for their hunts. “This area of the country is not necessarily overpopulated with ducks and geese, so there’s always a chance that you can go hunting and see absolutely nothing,” laughs Frank. “But Willie is always fun to be around, so it doesn’t even matter.”

The pair has developed such a loving bond, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for a little negging – even if it’s nonverbal. “He has a lot of facial expressions, and you can tell when he is talking crap about your shooting,” Frank jokes.

But Willie also knows when it’s time to get serious. “When I put on his collar and take him outside for a hunt, his demeanor completely changes. He’ll go from nosing me and being excited to being in the zone. We’ll start with some bumper throws to get him warmed up, then once I tell him to heel, he focuses really well,” says Frank. “… or at least if there’s action. If it’s slow, he’ll look at me like, ‘Why did you bring me out here?’ Sometimes he’ll just sigh and lay down. It’s really funny.”

Willie’s favorite part of the hunt is the initial walk up to the site. “He gets so excited. He’ll run 200 yards in front of me, run back and jump around, sprint out ahead of me again – he just gets really amped up about it.”

Whether this hunting duo is collecting ducks or watching the clouds go by, it’s time well spent. Frank laughs, “Willie may be kind of like a bull in a china shop, but we love him so much and can’t imagine our lives without him.”

 

“Willie may be kind of like a bull in a china shop, but we love him so much and can’t imagine our lives without him.”

Photos by Rich Smith

 

Ryan Marshall

with Maggie and Poppy

In the Marshall family, English Setters are a tradition. “We started raising and working Setters back in 2000 because they’re so well-rounded,” explains Ryan Marshall, who developed an interest in hunting from his father and grandfather. “They have great noses, but they’re also really visual and hunt close to you.”

Ryan’s two Setters, Maggie and Poppy, are a mother/daughter duo, ages 6 and 2, and they primarily hunt upland birds. “Their job is to track, locate, and point coveys for us,” he explains. “When we’re lucky enough to hit our targets, they’ll go retrieve the birds and bring them back to us.”

Since Maggie and Poppy come from a long bloodline of Marshall-owned Setters, they’ve picked up some personality quirks from their family members. “They both have this sweet little growling disposition – almost like they’re trying to talk to you. It comes from Bonnie, who was Maggie’s grandmother and Poppy’s great-grandmother. It reminds me of her, and it’s really sweet. I love it.”

According to Ryan, Maggie and Poppy make great hunting companions because it comes so naturally to them, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have to put in effort as well. “They’re eager to hunt and to do what they were born to do; they’re instinctual, and they like to please you,” he says. “But practice makes perfect, so I have to work them and build that bond. You’ve got to learn what to expect from one another, and the more you work together the better the bond.”

That bond is built upon an understood promise between owner and dog. “You have to promise you’ll hunt them, and you have to keep it up every year, otherwise you break your commitment to them,” Ryan explains. “Hunting brings them joy. They display a sense of satisfaction when I do my job and hit my target. There’s no doubt they celebrate.”

However, it’s about more than just the hunt. “Both these girls are incredibly passionate about the hunt. They’re beautiful and elegant in the field,” says Ryan. “But beyond that, they’re incredible pets. They’re just as sweet as they can be with our family. They’re our best friends, and they go with us everywhere.”

“Both these girls are incredibly passionate about the hunt. They’re beautiful and elegant in the field.”

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