Heart dog: sometimes a pup comes along and changes your life ... if you're lucky.
By midmorning, when the man hailed me, the air was more like summer lingering well past its time than the normal seasonal rush into chilly days. Temperatures too warm and humid, pesky biting flies, and still-thick leaf cover didn't look or feel like autumn. My springer and I had given up on woodcock and were leaning against a log in an open stand of pines trying to catch a cool breeze off the river. Apparently the man had the same idea.
He was lean as a gnawed bone and looked fit, as did his dog: she was a female English cocker, a roan with subdued liver on a white background and tan on her muzzle and eyebrows. Although small even for a cocker--20 pounds at most, soaking wet with a full stomach--she was nicely proportioned with more leg than most cockers her size; overall, a handsome dog with intelligent eyes and a happy spaniel tail.
After we introduced ourselves, the man sat and let out a relaxing sigh like he'd found a familiar seat on the log. The cocker pasted herself against his leg and stared up at him; her eyes were wide and shining with the same hazel hue as the man's. During the entire time the man and I were together, she either had part of her body touching his or watched him intently, sometimes both. Clearly, the little cocker and the man were a team. I mentioned how strong her attachment to him seemed to be, that her devotion was touching.
"She really is fine," he said. When he reached down to stroke her head she leaned into his hand. "Without doubt, she's the best dog of any breed I've ever owned. She's an excellent upland hunter and a first-class retriever of anything small enough for her to handle. That's why we were on the river," he added, "jump-shooting teal and wood ducks. Given the weather, there are still plenty around."
He explained that the cocker retrieved from the platform in the canoe's bow. She hit the water on command, returned with the bird, then he would lift dog and duck together back into the canoe. The system seemed to work; there was a pile of feathers by the man's seat.
When I mentioned his cocker's good looks, he thanked me and said, "Most people don't notice she's perfectly put together; all they see is her size. They think only that she can't hunt or retrieve big birds in big cover or big water. And it's true; a small dog comes with limitations. But she makes up for her size with great 'heart'--maybe too great--there's no quit in her. What I mean is that such courage and determination come with a responsibility to protect her from herself. All that said, I've never enjoyed hunting as I much as I have in the years this dog and I have been together."
We talked for a time about hunting dogs in general, but mostly about spaniels, before his voice softened and he asked, "Are you familiar with the term 'heart dog'?" I had heard it, I told him, though as far as I knew it was uncommon in the gun dog community.
"You're right," he said, "and that's unfortunate. I think we're afraid of sounding melodramatic or overly emotional about our dogs. Anyway, whether or not we talk about it, there are hunters--the lucky ones-who have or have had a once-in-a-lifetime dog, not simply in terms of companionship or bird skills but of a unique and powerful bond and a special level of understanding and communication. It's hard to explain, but from the start you and your heart dog just click. I wasn't convinced until this little cocker came along. Now I'm a believer; we captured each other's hearts in a way I hadn't experienced with another dog or expect to experience again."
The man and I chatted a few more minutes before he and his cocker headed off in their canoe. They weren't far from shore when the dog shifted on her platform and looked back at the man. I saw him smile as he spoke to his heart dog, then she turned to stare ahead down the river.