Can Hunting Keep us Human?

Paula Young Lee poses the question in the High Country News. If this strikes you as a philosophical diatribe, you may be correct. But in an era where hunting is increasingly despised (read: misunderstood), the deeper meaning behind such ecosystem interaction at the human level of cognizance is indeed ponderous.

Hunting’s broader importance to human existence reconnects the severance between human life-history and the complex society we have developed. Humans operate under the disillusion that humans are superior to the natural ecosystem, having no association with the natural world or ecosystem function. But the hunter views things differently.

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⇑⇑ Above: the author with a cow elk, his first, taken on the Idaho winter range, December 2018. Hard earned and well respected. The tags for this special draw hunt have since been stripped from the public and given to private landowners as depredation tags. ⇑⇑

“It may seem like sophistry to argue that hunting protects wildlife, but the act of hunting encompasses far more than shooting a wild animal, and it neither starts nor ends with a death. The hunt itself is part of a much larger continuum.”

Diving deeper into the meaning of the hunt, Lee discusses the spiritual connection between hunter and prey, and that the hunter views wild game as a blessed gift. Lee reinforces her point of the larger continuum through an economics analogy related to the gift of wild game.

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⇑⇑ Above: A successful valley quail hunt with two hens falling to a pointing dog and swift gun work. This interaction with the canine and upland bird plays a crucial role in spiritual rejuvenation for the hunter, who, in turn, gives back to conservation. ⇑⇑

“In a gift economy, the act of giving compels the person who receives the gift to reciprocate. A gift can be refused, but that refusal has consequences. Hence, ethical hunters reciprocate by protecting the wilderness, giving of themselves to ensure that the forest stays the forest….”

Hunting maintains our connection with and works to conserve our place in the ecosystem, and the ecosystem itself. The preservation of human nature.

Grass Awns and Gun Dogs

Have you ever stopped to consider the impact upland bird hunting has on your gun dog? Birds hunters are well aware of the physical exertion on ourselves, whether its pounding the prairie for sharptails and pheasant, or pushing through draws of aspen for ruffies. But I often ponder how many hunters really understand the effort a gun dog puts into a hunt, or the stress they endure.

Upland bird hunting is a full-contact sport for a your dog. No, there are no physical altercations with other dogs (generally…), although one of our feathered quarry may be run down and tackled on occasion, but the conditions endured by a gun dog in the field are downright hazardous.

In the grouse coverts, thickets of woody shrubs and aspen, prickly hawthorn, and windfalls stand to challenge your dog’s stamina, but can also poke, pinch, scratch, and gouge. In the southwest quail country, cactus, mesquite, barbed wire, venomous critters, and a hot, dry climate stand to work your dog into the ground. The rolling prairie appears to be the most benign of the common western settings, but are you aware that your hunting companion covers three to seven times the ground you do in a day’s jaunt, not to mention porcupines, badgers, and even grizzly bears on the plains of the Rocky Mountain Front?

Gun dogs are prone to exposure to a variety of habitats in pursuit of upland game across a given season, but among the plethora of potentially harmful phenomena in the field, grass awns stand among the top contenders for most harmful. While there are a number of precautions and post-hunt measures one can take to ensure the well-being of your fur baby, grass awns can go undetected, wreaking havoc on you pup’s health.

Two common, menacing grassesfoxtail barley (left) and cheat grass (right).

Grass awns are responsible for a number of unexplained illnesses, and even deaths among gun dogs annually. But how can a grass seed be so injurious? In the western US, several grass species including cheat grass (Bromus tectorum), foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum), and cereal rye (Secale cereale), which are largely invasive grass species, form barbed tails on their seeds or awns. The awns attach to the dog’s fur, and the sharp point of the awn may work its way into the skin between toes, in ears, eyes, mouth, nose, arm-pits, etc., and the awn barbs continue to work the awn deeper into the tissue until it can enter the interior body cavity or muscle tissue.

The awn may carry bacteria as it enters the dog’s body, and/or it may carry bacteria that are normal inhabitants of one part of the body, usually the mouth, into other parts of the body where it is abnormal, establishing an infection, typically in the form of an abscess.

As we approach and enter upland bird seasons, late summer through fall, grasses dry out and the awns loosen, becoming prone to drop. The best advice? A careful tailgate inspection of your dog before leaving the field may allow removal and avert any illness. But, with awns that have been ingested, odds are that the damage is already done by the time you and your dog leave the field. Routinely check your dog for swellings, particularly at the lower rear sections of the rib-cage, a prime site for abscess development.

What to look for:

  • Hair: Matted hair that may eventually lead to sores against the skin if not removed.
  • Ear canal: The dog shakes the head, scratches or rubs the ears, holds head at a slightly tilted angle.
  • Between the eye/eyelid: The eyes of the dog get inflamed, sometimes including discharge or tears.
  • Nose: The dog sneezes, paws at the nose, and may experience nasal discharge
  • Gums, Tongue, Mouth: If swallowed, grass awns may stick to the back of the throat causing inflammation and swelling.
  • Lungs and Other Organs (inhalation or migration): The dog shows signs of serious sickness, coughing, short breath, and vomiting.
  • Rectum and Anal Glands: dog abnormally licking or scooting on the ground, trying to defecate often or for prolonged periods.

Zeta at the vetZeta at the vet, June 2019, to have cheat grass awns removed from both anal glands.

Learn to recognize hazardous plants, and be watchful where you are hunting, training, or just exercising your dog.  Typically, a simple tailgate inspection post-hunt or run to remove awns before they have the chance to penetrate the skin and begin to migrate will eliminate problem awns, but inspection may not always reveal hidden awns immediately.  A best practice is continued monitoring of your pup’s behavior after hunting through dangerous grasses. Being mindful of the vegetation in your hunting or training areas, coupled with thorough inspections will keep your four-legged partner pointing or flushing long into their upland career.

Seven Years a Bird Dog Dad

I moved to the southeast Washington State in 2011 shortly after finishing graduate school. It was the first time I had lived in pheasant country. That fall, I harvested my first two roosters thanks to an old yellow lab who was flushing for hunters that happened to pull into the same parking spot at the same time. The feeling of holding that first big, beautiful rooster, admiring his plumage and impressive tail will never betray memory, save for dementia in my older years.

My wife, Ali, was living in California at the time and trying to make her way to Washington. At the notion of hunting pheasant, she insisted on a bird dog pup and began poring over websites and magazine articles, researching different breeds and their characteristics.  She is a bit of a sucker for good looks, mild temperament, style, and grace (and somehow wound up with me), and these traits led her to setters. She finally landed on a Llewellin setter, about which I knew nothing. I was not really interested in a bird dog at the time, but her persistence and disregard for my input (a timeless tradition) resulted in an orange belton pup we call Lynnhill’s Finnigan, Finn for short.

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True to Stockholm’s Syndrome, we fell in love with this beautiful, tiny, spawn of Satan. She was the worst behaved puppy I have ever had the misfortune of raising. Bold in her infant months, anxious and terrified the rest of her first year. She refused to be house-broken or crate-train, and shredded everything including mattresses, wall trim, and any other furniture well into her thirteenth month. She screamed for dear life every time we left the house, literally the entire time we were gone, according to neighbors. She was flat not trainable. I didn’t even consider training her to hunt until she was about eighteen months old. The one thing she did well was walk on a leash, so I took her to a park outside of town most evenings and weekends where quail and pheasant were common to keep her excited about being afield.

Upon finally deciding to introduce basic commands, Finn was easily bored, like most pups, but contrary to my immediate assessment, she was sharp, and picked up the commands quite well. All hope was lost, however, when Ali arrived home from work one evening with a pair of white pigeons. I built a small enclosure in the barn on the farm we were renting, bought a pair of kick traps, and began hiding the birds in the grass and brush around the farm.

Walking Finn on a check-cord, we always began our approach downwind of the bird. Finn would cover the area impressively well, but would never honor the scent. She could smell the bird. That much was clear. Her head would snap into the scent cone, but she continued to sail aimlessly as if being forced toward the bird against her will. In vain, we tried nearly everything we could to get Finn to stop or search for the bird upon catching the scent.

Nevertheless, I hunted Finn at age two with great frustration, but I always tried to keep it fun for her. Around Finn’s second birthday, my wife broke down and bought a second Llewellin, Yuba, with the hopes that she would have a bit more hunting prowess. Yuba was quite a different pup. As a short, stocky tricolor, what Yuba lacked in grace and stature she more than compensated for in prey drive and intelligence. Within a couple months she was crate-trained and quite obedient. Most satisfying was her attention to the songbirds in the yard.

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We worked Yuba alongside Finn on the caged pigeons and hikes through bird habitat where she display immense interest and skill. Simultaneously, Finn began to settle down and mature a bit between her second and third season. It was clear that things were coming together, and I think Finn’s maturing helped Yuba learn so much quicker than Finn had as a pup.

When the pheasant season rolled around in 2016, Yuba was just over one year old and I was eager to hunt her. We began that season expecting nothing from either dog; however, we found ourselves smothered in birds opening day. Finn actually appeared to be hunting, but we didn’t count our roosters too early; not before we found her locked up solid and the first bird of the morning hit my vest. Miraculously, a second rooster fell to my Fox sixteen-gauge not ten minutes later. By the time the second rooster hit the ground, Yuba’s prey drive shone fiercely. The light bulb illuminated for Finn that day, and by the third day of the season she was methodically covering ground, honoring the scent cone, slowing down and using her nose, and pointing like a champion.

By the fifth day of the season, Yuba and Finn engaged in friendly competition of who could point the most birds and hold point the longest. Working both girls by myself most days, it was no news to lose track of them, find one on point, and spot the other locked up as I went in for the flush. With repeated exposure they instinctively began backing each other. I nearly fainted upon my first witness of this phenomenon.

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During the 2017 season, the girls hit the ground running with virtually no prior off-season yard work. Both pups worked famously and I won’t soon forget Yuba’s exuberant eyes as she stood hard and proud, pinning fast the largest wild rooster I have ever seen. He flushed nearly under Yuba’s face as I closed in. My startle at his size and beauty caused me to whiff both barrels on his steep ascent. We stood in awe, looking after the handsome rooster sailing across the grasslands. We could have limited out for the first time that morning, but ole dad was a disappointment with the scatter gun.

As a first time bird dog owner and a mediocre trainer at best, my pups and I have learned a lot from each other; the greatest lesson being patience and persistence. Looking back over the early seasons, I wouldn’t trade the frustrating hunts for anything as they make the reliability of the girls so much sweeter these days. Zeta (my youngest) is not progressing as Finn and Yuba did, but time is on our side. If have learned anything, it’s that a fine dog can be developed when the time is right, and the upcoming season will be her second. A lot can change in the blink of an eye, and I anticipate North Dakota will be the game changer. At some point in the not too distant future, I will reflect proudly on my trials with Zeta. And as dog dad, I cherish the early days.

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Product Review: Ranger and Worker Vests by Hurtta

With the upland season far enough past that my office legs have caught up with me, my time for reflection on the recent upland bird season has brought to bear a review of two dog vests by Hurtta.

For those not familiar with Hurtta, this Finnish company opened its doors in 2002 and is quite popular among European countries for their canine accessories. Founded by clothing professionals with a need to outfit their own dogs with functional performance gear in snow country, they reached out to dog owners around the globe for inspiration, designing a variety of coats, vests, harnesses, collars, and more to provide comfort and protection.

More than twenty years hence, Hurrta’s success encouraged the opening of a North American branch, Hurtta America (@Hurtta.America), to serve the US and Canada. To promote sales and awareness, Hurtta America reached out to folks through Instagram, offering free products in exchange for testing and marketing opportunity. As luck would have it, my wife Ali (@SixTailsSetters) was chosen to be a product tester.

We selected the Ranger (below left) and Worker (below right)vests in orange, testing their performance against a season of bird hunting from the September grouse coverts, to the icy December pheasant haunts of the Washington Palouse. Here is how they shook out.

Specs

Similarities

Right off the bat you will notice the style and beauty of these vests. They are just flat sharp on my Llewellin setters.

Both vests are made with a light-weight, stretchy, breathable, very quiet material with snug fit. Hurtta boasts their “Houndtex” weatherproofing layer that is treated with Clariant Sanitized® containing permethrin as the active substance protecting against insects such as mosquitos, horseflies, and ticks. (NOTE: permethrin is toxic to cats.) Both vests have high-visibility 3M® reflective material and zip down the back, and a button-like apparatus on the top left shoulder to attached an LED for night activities.

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Differences

The Worker is a longer vest with a Cordura® belly fabric that extends from the neck back. There are lines along the back of the belly flap indicating a trim-to-fit (I did not trim for our setters). The Worker neck line extends a bit higher than the Ranger. The Worker also has removable straps along the neck meant to secure a GPS collar.

The Ranger is more adjustable in size, meaning it has Velcro-like front shoulder straps that can be adjusted, where the Worker is a solid piece vest.

Fit and Comfort

“Tight-fitting” is Hurtta’s description of these vests, and they are not kidding. Based on Hurtta’s sizing chart, we ordered medium vests. The Ranger would not fit our larger 35-pound Llewellin, Finn, but Fit our smallest 28-pound Llewellin, Yuba, perfectly. It stretched exactly to the back of her rib cage and fit snug around her chest.

The snug fit was great for reducing the amount of grass and twig debris and weed seeds from getting into the vest. Both vests appeared to be comfortable, the soft fabric being gentle on their armpits.

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Heat and Cold

The thin material these vests are made of provides absolutely no warmth, nor did I expect it to. The upside is that these vests are exceptional for September – October when the temperature is still warm. At no time did the vest cause my girls get too warm hunting early-season grouse.

The downside is that these vests are not great for high-energy setters or pointing dogs with little body fat and thin coats once winter decides to dabble in your hunt. Yuba was wearing her Ranger when she went into hypoglycemic seizure on a wet, icy day afield. The cold temps contributed to the seizure. There were a number of other factors involved (see my earlier blog post An Ounce of Prevention) and an insulated vest alone would not have prevented the seizure, but certainly would have been a better choice over the Ranger.

Noise and Utility

One of my favorite features is how quiet the vest material is. With birds like pheasant that spook at the slightest disturbance, these vests are nearly silent through timber and grasslands. I firmly believe that this played a role in the number of successful points my girls had on pheasant over the 2018 season.

The reflective strips and orange color provide excellent visibility at all times. Seeing a small dog in the bunchgrass or riparian thickets can be more than tricky, particularly if you hunt without electronics. A small dog on point can be hard to spot, but much easier with a good, bright vest.

The zipper down the back of the vest is an excellent feature as well. Vests that clip on have straps that can loosen or get caught on brush, but the low profile and lack of bulky hardware made these vests great for thick cover. The stretch of the fabric is also forgiving where brush can grab bulky material.

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One minor, yet thoughtful feature is a button on the back near the start of the zipper. To put the vest on your pup, snap the button together and it holds the fabric in place as you zip it up. This is superb for squirmy pups.

Durability

Durability is lacking in comparison to some of the more rugged vests that use rip-stop type fabrics (e.g. Sylmar Bodyguard). Weed seeds like yellow starthistle spikes did not penetrate any more than other vests we have used, but the stitching is far too weak for a hunting dog vest.

Fabric around the neck and armpits is surged with a fine thread comparable to what may be used on a tee-shirt. The Ranger neck stitching was in tatters after about two hours in grouse cover. With that said, the fabric itself never frayed, stitching be damned. I hunted Yuba in that vest for two months afterward with no issues.

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Tattered neck stitching on the Ranger ⇑⇑.

Another plus is that the fabric held up to barbed wire much better than I expected. My setters believe there is always a bird on the other side of a fence, so we had many encounters this past season, but only twice did Finn hit a fence hard enough to tear the fabric on the Worker; the Ranger suffered not one tear.

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Barbed-wire tears on the Worker ⇑⇑.

Speaking of barbed wire, the LED attachment button could stand for heavier stitching as well, but again, it withstood a lot more abuse than I anticipated.

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LED attachment “button”  nearly ripped off ⇑⇑.

Hitchhikers

Weed seeds stuck readily to the fabric, but for the most part were easily brushed off. A small, black weed seed known as the stickseed did a number on the soft armpit and neck fabric edges and stitching. There are permanent stickseeds in this area of both vests. Otherwise, the fabric stood up to the roughness of the seeds quite well.

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Houndstongue and small, black stickseeds embedded in the armpit fabric on the Ranger ⇑⇑.

On the Ranger, grass debris and weed seeds get into the Velcro-like patches on the shoulders over time, causing the corners to peel up. They never came completely unhooked in the field, but cleaning these patches out can be troublesome.

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Houndstongue, stickseeds, and grass debris stuck in the Velcro-like shoulder straps on the Ranger ⇑⇑.

Overall Satisfaction

Overall, I was impressed with the vests. They were comfortable, cool in hot weather, relatively durable, visible, stylish, and low-profile in heavy cover. Weed seeds were a minor issue and the fabric held up to rough stuff like barbed wire as well as could be expected.

My one recommendation for Hurtta would be to use heavier thread to surge the fabric edges.

If I had to give these vests a numerical rating, I would go 4 out of 5 stars with the Worker being the better vest. My girls will be wearing their vests again next fall when the September grouse season opens, and I anticipate this will be the case for several years to come.

You can find Hurtta products at https://www.hurtta247.com/.  The Ranger and Worker vests are priced at $45 and $55, respectively. If style and comfort are important to you, you will be hard pressed to find another vest comparable to the Hurtta line. If durability is number one, you can find tougher vests, such as they Sylmar Bodyguard (about the same price), which we also use in the field and recommend.

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Yuba and her Ranger vest looking sharp and sporting a fair covering of houndstongue ⇑⇑.