The aging hippie exited his oval-shaped car with his silver ponytail drooping down the center of his tie-dyed shirt. He circled the car and picked up a neatly groomed miniature pinscher from the passenger seat. After five days of heavy rain, the dog park outside Washington, D.C., was a mess, but he'd dressed the mini-pinscher in a little rain jacket and dog booties. My springer, Freedom, who apparently isn't much of a fashion critic, sprinted to the gate to greet the newcomer. This is gonna be good, I thought.
Freedom put his stomach to the ground, held his rear-end high, wagged his tail--doggyspeak for "let's play!" The mini-pinscher tore off after him.
Freedom barreled straight for the deepest muck in the park and, before I could stop him, he looked like a dune buggy slamming through a mud bog. The mini-pinscher followed, thoroughly drenching itself in sludge. Freedom turned and the mini-pinscher jumped on him. The tandem of happy dogs rolled like logs through the mud and resumed their game of chase. The hippie was not pleased. He picked up his dog as if cradling a four-legged cow pie and hurried out of the park.
I pitied that little dog. Not just because its owner forced it to wear silly outfits, but also because the hippie had humanized his animal. Hardworking gundogs have it better. They're lean, know their place in the pack and get to indulge their centuries-old instincts. But that's all too often lost on city dog owners, including a woman who approached me one day as I walked Freedom.
"Excuse me," she said, tapping me on the shoulder, "but I couldn't help but notice that your dog is intact."
There's no question that spaying/neutering your pet can have health benefits, but many city folks take it a step further by siding with the anti-hunting Humane Society of the United States that spaying/neutering should be made mandatory. No group has fought this draconian requirement harder than gundog owners and the NRA (see "NRA Has a Dog in This Fight," September). The American Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club also oppose the measure.
"It's a no-brainer that if you aren't going to breed your dog, you should get it neutered," said Dr. Greg Campbell, a veterinarian at the Animal Care Center in Danville, Pa., "The question is, ‘Who has the right to decide whether a dog should be bred?' Undoubtedly, it should be left to the owner."
An irony is that, in my experience, some of the people who preach about the health benefits of mandatory spay/neuter own horrendously overweight dogs. Take the woman who'd confronted me on the street; her Lab mix was so fat I couldn't discern where its ribcage ended and its hindquarters began.
The health risks posed by allowing a dog to become overweight are, in my estimation, at least as great as keeping it intact. Purina just completed a 14-year study on caloric restriction that suggests overweight dogs age more quickly, develop age-related diseases at a higher rate and die an average of two years earlier. Unfortunately, raising a fat dog is the norm in the city. So many dogs are overweight that their owners seem oblivious as to what a healthy dog even looks like.
Improved physical fitness, however, is only one of the benefits gundogs reap from hunting. Another is mostly mental, as gundogs get to indulge their age-old hunting instincts. Humans and dogs have hunted in tandem for hundreds of years. Anthropologists believe man domesticated wolves between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago, using them to hunt an assortment of game. Today's specialized gundogs have so much instinct bred into them that it's practically mean to allow them to grow up in cities without access to game.
These non-hunters might actually understand that if only they had more opportunities to watch gundogs merrily at work. There's a reason early man used wolves for protection and hunting: Canis lupus has inherent instincts suited to these roles, instincts that man continues to hone. Unlike city pets, a gundog gets to enjoy its inner wolf.
There is definitely some middle ground here--all dog owners, regardless whether they hunt, enjoy a shared connection with their animals; in fact, a study published in the journal Advances in the Study of Behavior indicates this connection may be stronger than previously thought. It suggests dogs can accurately interpret the meaning of human pointing gestures to the same degree as 2-year-old toddlers and even better than non-human primates.
In a follow-up study by another group of researchers, gundog breeds proved to be among the most capable interpreters of the human communiqué. Researchers attribute the finding to the tight bond, close working relationship and visual contact gundogs have shared with humans for thousands of years. I interpret these traits as further confirmation that dogs and hunters belong together. Gundogs produce and recover game for hunters and in doing so derive a great deal of pleasure. Gundogs enrich our lives in and out of the field on countless levels, and this loyalty is rewarded by those of us who understand that a hunting dog ought to hunt.