Mutt mystique: what they lack in pedigree, they often make up for in brains.
When I was a kid, I moved between , two radically different dog worlds. In one were family members and hard- . core gun-dog purists--I shot my first gamebirds over well-bred English setters. In the other were farm kids whose families considered it a ridiculous waste of money to buy and feed dogs strictly for hunting.
My friends' dogs were nondescript working stiffs with foxy muzzles and pointy ears. They were taught little more than their names and to ignore poultry and livestock they weren't herding or guarding. What they knew about hunting they picked up by trial and error, but for kids they knew enough. In their own oddball fashions, these untutored mutts did it all, from treeing squirrels and rousting rabbits to flushing pheasants. And boys and dogs alike had a grand time.
Yes, I was lucky to live in two worlds, and I'd be hard-pressed to say which world and dogs--mutts or purebreds--I loved most. Even in the face of family gun dogs, early on I logged memorable experiences following whatever freewheeling canine conglomerates were available. I still have a soft spot for the irrepressible "brown dogs" of my youth.
These days, such dogs are called "mixed breeds," a term considered kinder and gentler than mutt or mongrel. I'm not talking about gun-dog crosses like pointer-setter or Labrador-springer spaniel; I mean honest-to-God mutts, those wonders of random breeding by generations of vagabonds, themselves risen from murky gene pools. But questionable backgrounds aside, once mutts grip the hunting basics, they can do a passable job of moving game.
Don't get me wrong; a genetic hodgepodge will rarely work birds with consistent competence and never with the flair of a real gun dog. That said, though few mutts have a minute's worth of training, many of them are quick studies that will pursue anything wearing fur or feathers. What they lack in pedigree and training, they make up for with brains.
As a case in point, one of the most productive pheasant dogs I've seen was a ranch mutt of indefinable lineage. I've hunted roosters behind fine gun dogs of all stripes, but for the ability to put birds into the air within gun range and the smarts to learn from each one worked, I've seldom met the likes of that dog.
At one time, I owned a stock-dog mix whose mission in life was to always be at my side. I knew this dog was brainy, but I didn't realize how brainy until she showed up out of nowhere as I worked my English setter along ditch banks bordering sugar-beet fields. She stayed by me intently watching the setter work and retrieve a rooster. On the next point, she moved in with me and flushed the bird.
Right or wrong, I said to the hell with rules and took her on several more hunts to let her watch my retriever work birds. Then I hunted her alone. By the end of the season, she could hold her own as a pheasant flusher. Simply by watching, she had picked up the rudiments of working these birds and added her own herding dog finesse to the job.
Now does this mean that we should trade in our pointers, flushers, and retrievers in favor of mutts? Of course not. In gun dogs, the drive for birds is hard-wired into their brains. Sure, you can teach an intelligent mutt to hunt, you might even shoot a fair amount of game over it. But why, if you have other options, would you spend time training a dog with little innate bird desire, probably an undiscriminating nose as well as a limited inclination to retrieve game in one piece? It might learn the basics quickly, but why put yourself through the effort of training a mutt that on its best day won't perform with the skill and style of a true gun dog?
It's better, I think, to appreciate mutts for what they are and for what they have added to our lives. They might be everyday dogs lacking credentials and specific sporting talents, but their verve and full-of-hell styles have earned mutts their place among us. In the words of one author, they "embody the evolutionary heritage of the True Dog ... that animal that evolved with us, that adapted to and exploited our society, and that did so on terms largely dictated by himself. Defiant of human fashion and whim ... they are really what dogs are all about."